FILM / What goes around, comes around

The end is nigh, says Nostradamus in a new biopic. Don't believe a word of it, says Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail, St Paul told the Corinthians. In this, he showed a remarkable lack of foresight, at least as far as the prophecies of Michel de Nostredame are concerned. After 400 years, they show no sign of failing, but spring up again and again, as hearty as ever - most recently in a film, Nostradamus, a Euro-production in which the 16th-century physician and seer turns out to have foretold not only the rise of Hitler and the assassination of JFK, but impending hol ocaustand mankind's eventual emigration to the stars. Not only that, he was dynamite in the sack, too. Other prophets have performed similar predictive feats, but they generally fall down on the end of the world.

The end of the world crops up fairly regularly these days: our own Mother Shipton (born 1488) placed it in 1991; a South Korean doomsday cult was left drumming its fingers on 28 October 1992; the Ukrainian Maria Devi Khristos and her Great White Brotherhood faced similar embarrassment on 14 November 1993. Nostradamus has avoided this fate, not because he gets things right, but because he never says anything demonstrably wrong.

His Centuries, first published in1555, are a series of hundreds of quatrains written in an ungrammatical mixture of Latin, Greek, Provencal, French and Italian, so that gleaning the most basic sense from them is hard enough. You then have to take into account that he wrote in a private code of puns and anagrams. A reference to Le Pont need have nothing to do with a bridge, but refers to the Pope, or Pontifex (caution is needed here, though: sometimes Le Pont refers to Pontefract in Yorkshire; sometimes it actually does mean a bridge). When Nostradamus talks of Le Noir, he really means the king - Noir is an anagram of Roi, plus an extra letter (let's not be pedantic about this). Sometimes an anagram and a pun are mixed: James Lav er, who wrote on Nostradamus in the 1940s, identifies the nonsense word Treilhos as an anagram of Tholries, which is a pun, he claims, on Tuileries - hence, we can immediately see the application of this quatrain to the French Revolution.

This very obscurity is at the root of his fame: you can take Nostradamus to mean almost anything you want him to. Even so, it turns out that little sense has been made of him; while every one of his hundreds of quatrains is supposed to be teeming with insights, commentators always cite the same few predictions as proof of his powers: the death of the French king Henry II, the French Revolution, the careers of Napoleon and Hitler (named by Nostradamus as "Hister"), and one or two others; you can f ind them in books from Laver right up to John Hogue's Nostradamus and the Millennium or Hewitt and Lorie's Nostradamus: the End of the Millennium, both published in 1991. The only difference is that more recent books have included more recent events - th e assassination of JFK is a recurring theme. The fact that such events are mentioned in recent commentaries but not in older ones points to the main hitch with Nostradamus' work: you can't use it to predict anything. It's only in hindsight that you can g uesswhat he was talking about.

Hewitt and Lorie's book provides a poignant illustration of this: using their own method (in which ingenious anagrams make it possible to produce an infinite number of prophecies from any one quatrain), they show that Nostradamus didn't just predict the papal assassination attempt of 1981, he knew the name of the would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. As far as recent history goes, they are flawless. But when they move into the future they quickly fall down: applying their anagrammatic method once more from the vantage point of 1991, they predict the coronation of Prince Charles and his lovely wife Diana on 2 May 1992.

The fact is, Nostradamus can only be made to seem to say so much because he says nothing at all. This is the only way you can ever win in the prophesying game; which is why good writers don't go in for it: when Orwell or Huxley seem to be predicting the future, they are really looking at the present. Art can be obscure and ambiguous; but the ambiguities of art allow you to multiply meanings, they don't negate meaning altogether. The reasons why Nostradamus is never going to be a good subject for a film are connected with this: his credibility as a seer relies on your seeing him in the abstract. Once you start injecting human details into his story, the nonsensical nature of his predictions is unavoidable. Frankly, the people who made the film should have seen it coming.