What Can Psychics Tell Us about the Present?

A friend wondered aloud why psychics always seemed to be women. It’s not a question I had ever considered, but it made sense once I paused to think about all the psychics I had ever seen in pop culture. They were all women. The archetype for me is the gypsy fortuneteller in “The Wolf Man,” condemning poor Lon Chaney, Jr. to a lifetime curse of moonbeams and a mouthful of bloody canines.

It’s not that men who predict the future don’t appear in mythology, folklore, and modern popular culture. It’s that they predict a different kind of future than psychics. Women psychics are called upon to foretell intensely personal, private dramas: future loves, distant health crises, far off financial success or ruin.

Somehow it has happened that men in the popular imagination who see the future are prophets, who speak of widespread tumult affecting everyone: war, famine, disease. Unlike a female psychic, whose foresight is restricted to the intimate inner lives of her patrons, the male prophet operates in the public sphere, telling the entire nation or world where it is bound.

The anonymous gypsy soothsayer versus the revered Nostradamus, the Delphi Oracle versus the Book of Revelation’s Paul, Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network versus Edgar Cayce. It’s the same pattern every time.

The Psychic/Prophet dichotomy is essentially a reworking of the socially delimited options traditionally available to women and men in European and American culture. Women are confined to the private realm (the family and household), while men dominate in the public realm (national governance and defense). These narrowly defined roles apply not only to the actual constructive maintenance of the social fabric, but also to the virtual work that psychics and prophets perform.

Something else to consider: judging from my limited experience, psychics often foresee a karmic world in which balance is restored, a redemptive future where a window opens for every door that closes. A job loss leads to an exciting, fulfilling career path. A heartbreak gives way to a true love. Life-threatening illness paves the path toward enlightenment. Prophets, however, warn us with zero-sum propositions, with clear losers and winners, stark differences between right and wrong, where equilibrium is not the outcome but a sense of justice is.

Now here’s a crude essentialist thought: is this difference in vision between a world restored to its communal spirit and a world riven in two the difference between the way women are taught and expected to interact with the world (by nurturing it) and the way men are taught and expected to interact with the world (by dividing it)?

Torrents and Explosions We Now Take for Granted

Looking for something the wonderful German critic Walter Benjamin says in Illuminations about the cheapening of experience in a mass mediated world, I came across this haunting reflection that describes the world as my great-grandparents must have seen it, in the years after the horrific brutality of the Great War:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Remembering Shock and Awe et al.

I was going through a desk drawer yesterday and I found a wrinkled piece of scrap paper, which goes back to the spring of 2003. It was the early days of the Iraq War, and I had jotted down some phrases which I was hearing over and over again on the radio and tv. Looking at the list now, I think, what an innocent, nostalgic time it was.

The list seems almost quaint now. Who can forget the wonderful poetry of “shock and awe”? — Well, apparently almost everyone. It seems like a hollowed out slogan from some bygone era, like “I like Ike” or “Remember the Maine.”

    secure undisclosed location
    Coalition of the willing
    shock and awe
    target of opportunity
    credible threat
    protective custody
    increased chatter

Oh, those were the days.

Jets! Bombs! War! A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum!

We went to the National Air and Space Museum today, thinking it’d be a lark for our 16-month old son, who loves planes and anything else that makes a lot of noise and moves through the sky.

I’d forgotten, though, exactly what the Air and Space Museum memorializes: jets, bombs, and war.

Truly, the history of flight is the history of war in the 20th century.

Political aggression and state-sanctioned bloodshed were the twin engines that powered the technological advances which made dying, death, and destruction, all wrought by aircraft, both quicker and cheaper, and ultimately, easier in the modern age. Obliteration from on high, cities reduced to blips on radar.

Even space, the final frontier, is now essentially a battlezone, a militarized nebula of satellites and payloads. This, at least, is what we learned at the museum.

Next week, no kidding, we’re seeking an antidote to all this flag-waving glorification of war, something not so exuberant and triumphant. Something a little more, uh, aware of the follies of greed and rapacity.

Maybe some Bosch at the National Gallery of Art?