Read it on Salon
Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“If something is not beautiful, it is probably not true.”
— John Keats
War! Famine! Pestilence! Earthquakes! Crime! Scandal! The ubiquity of headlines like these suggests that nihilism is the pet philosophy of the storytellers known as “journalists.” But they’re not the only fabulists to thrive on dread and despair. A majority of the prophets down through the ages have been allergic to the possibility that the future might hold anything besides endlessly messy complications.
The 16th century’s creepy horror-meister Nostradamus wasn’t the first, but he has been one of the most enduring. “In the year 1999 and seven months,” he bellowed back in 1555, “a king of terror will come from the sky.” Nope. Didn’t happen. Nor have all but a handful of his myriad predictions, and even those require a would-be interpreter to make extravagant use of the art of free association.
Ghoulish modern soothsayers have refined and expanded the “scare the crap out of ‘em” tradition. By my count, 322 notorious New Age mystics over the past 30 years have foreseen cataclysmic “Earth changes” that will flush away the left coast and create beachfront property in Nebraska. A multitude of their colleagues agree that most of humanity will be wiped out any minute now, but they see the death blow coming via other means. Lethal solar flares, nuclear war and fresh plagues are old standbys, though newcomers worm their way onto the list periodically, including my personal favorite: an evil artificial intelligence that achieves sentience on the Internet.
As entertaining as modern prognosticators’ curses can be, however, their track record is as abysmal as Nostradamus’. The fact that Nebraska is still without a seacoast should be enough evidence to send many of them into disgraced hiding.
In the past year alone, we’ve survived three specifically dated doomsday forecasts. The first hatched in response to a striking cross-shaped array of planets in August 1999. Expect a cosmic Crucifixion, astrologers mused darkly. When nothing unsettling happened other than the usual late-summer exodus of Manhattan’s stockbrokers and psychotherapists to Long Island, perplexed prognosticators theorized that the Crucifixion must have occurred “on the inner planes.”
Next up was Y2K, the mother of all fortune-telling flops. This spring, we lived through a rare pileup of heavenly bodies in Taurus, which hordes of psychics warned would bring not only the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles, with resulting earthquakes, tidal waves and 250-mph winds, but also the collapse of the stock market.
Amazingly, the ineptitude of the frightful omen slingers has not diminished their appeal. Their newsletters and Web sites proliferate. The runaway popularity of Art Bell’s syndicated radio show, rooted in its edge-of-the-seat invocations of imminent global disasters, has spawned numerous imitators. Tally up the New Age devotees of spooky woo-woo and the Christian fundamentalist worshippers of divine uh-oh and you’ve got a cast of millions.
Cultured, rational folks like you and me chuckle. How can so many people believe in so much nonsense? And yet as the tears of ridicule splash down from my cheeks onto today’s New York Times, a heretical theory bubbles up into view. Maybe the boogeyman prophets captivate so many imaginations because there are far more influential minds constantly at work nurturing the conditions necessary for apocalyptic thinking to bloom.
In our culture, cynicism has come to be regarded as a sign of intellectual vigor. It’s smart to expect and look for the worst in everything. Optimism is thought to be the province of sentimental fools with no talent for critical thinking. Entropy and disintegration are inherently more interesting subjects to explore than redemption and renewal, availing greater opportunities to show off one’s acumen.
And soothsayers are really just bit players in the spreading of these memes. The most potent disseminators are the storytellers known as journalists. They constitute the engine of the mythmaking machinery. “The universe is not made of molecules,” said poet Muriel Rukyser. “It is made of stories.” Subtly and relentlessly, the journalists weave our universe from narratives of turbulence, loss, decay and corruption. John Keats said that if something was not beautiful, it was probably not true, but our chief storytellers suggest the opposite: If something is not ugly, it is probably not true.
The Nostradamus wannabes are easy to dismiss. Their spectacularly idiotic fantasies are laughable. But journalists churn out measured, believable doses of doom and gloom. No single mini-Armageddon is too much to swallow, but the sum total of their agitated drone adds up in the long run to a far more powerful prophetic vision than the silly New Age and fundamentalist seers: mediapocalypse.
Your horoscope for this week
ARIES (March 21-April 19): You’re a mutant! I swear to God. Up till now you may have been able to hide the truth from everyone, even yourself, but it can no longer be suppressed. A quality that sets you apart from normal human beings — a curious power that has been mostly dormant — is now ripening at a rapid rate. And no, it’s not a cartoony supernatural skill akin to those demonstrated by the X-Men. It involves a wrinkle that only you, of all the people in the world, can create. Might be time to dream up a new mutant name for yourself.
TAURUS (April 20-May 20): I was never the class clown. I am not a troubled but devilishly handsome wastrel living on a trust fund. I’ve never beaten up anyone, have steadfastly not aspired to write like Raymond Carver and have never played strip Scrabble with a celebrity junkie on a leaky waterbed in a Key West penthouse. There are so many things I am not and will never be, and I’m glad I know about them. It helps me stay focused on exactly who I am. What about you, Taurus? This is a perfect astrological moment for you to fantasize about all the paths you will never take. Put it in writing and lock it in a safe-deposit box until September 2005.
GEMINI (May 21-June 20): You’re savvy enough to avoid getting salt rubbed in your wounds, Gemini. I’m not worried that you’ll allow some sadist to stride right up to you and torture your fresh gash. But did you know that sugar is as painful as salt when sprinkled on an owie? You should be vigilant for the well-meaning meddlers and sweet-talking manipulators who might benefit from your suffering. Meditate on the fact that the German word “Gift” means “poison.”
CANCER (June 21-July 22): You don’t grow your own food or sew your own clothes, and you didn’t build your own house or car. You probably don’t know where your water comes from or where your wastes go. The last time you doffed your clothes for a whole day was when you were 2 months old, and you don’t even know the names of your great-grandparents, let alone what they were like. I’d say, then, Cancer, that it’s high time for you to find some sources to return to. Need some suggestions? Float naked in a lake or sea. Sleep all night under the oldest tree you can find, lulling yourself into dreamland with your oldest memories. Imagine what your parents were thinking in the hour when you were conceived.
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Most cultures besides ours have marked the transition from childhood to adolescence with rites of passage. In ancient Greece, for instance, youngsters had to surrender their toys on altars to the gods, signifying their readiness to leave kid stuff behind. I’d like to borrow but warp this old custom for your use, Leo. You will soon receive an invitation to leap into a second childhood, you see, and I heartily encourage you to accept it. To sanctify your gleeful agreement, I propose that you pick out an object that symbolizes the most odious aspects of your adulthood, then burn it on an altar as you pray to the gods of fun and games.
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): “That is always best which gives me to myself.” This epigram is obviously the work of a solipsistic New Age guru like Deepak Chopra or James Redfield, right? Nope. Guess again. “The sublime is excited in me by the great doctrine, Obey thyself,” our mystery author goes on to say. Ayn Rand? The Libertarian Party’s platform? Sorry, wrong again. Here’s one more clue, from the same passage. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart.” Give up, Virgo? It’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century poet and essayist. His words are especially apropos as you enter a phase when it’s crucial to learn more about the arts of unselfish greed and divinely sanctioned egotism.
LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): Now and then there arise what I call Freestyle Days — windows of breezy opportunity when cosmic compulsions are at a minimum. This is one of those tingly times for you Libras. During the coming week, annoying pains in the ass will be on sabbatical, leaving behind a big bright emptiness for you to work in. Your slate will be clean, baby. The tabula will be rasa. Quick, before the reactionary stiffs and crabby naysayers return, spin out a slew of new plotlines that will be impossible to stop.
SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): For years the U.S. State Department had an official epithet for countries it regarded as incorrigible pariahs, like North Korea, Iran and Libya: rogue nations. In the horoscope business, there’s a rough equivalent. Multitudes of astrologers typically treat Scorpio like the zodiac’s rogue sign. I’ve worked tirelessly to correct this abuse. Now, inspired by the State Department’s recent decision to retire the use of “rogue nation,” I’m calling on stargazers everywhere to STOP THE IDIOTIC DEMONIZATION OF SCORPIOS! It’s a perfect moment to do so. The planets are conspiring to rehabilitate and even elevate your reputation. Hereafter let it be known that you are not obsessed, vengeful and manipulative! You are passionate, just and purposeful!
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): The cosmos will conspire to boost your clout and prestige in the coming weeks. To help you get the most out of its efforts, I’ve created the following affirmations for you. Please repeat them 10 times a day.
CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin was one of history’s leading scientists. Yet his work might not have jelled without the help of 19th century researcher Charles Lyell, whose “Principles of Geology” was crucial in refuting the widely held belief that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. Years after devouring Lyell’s opus, Darwin said, “I really think my books come half out of Lyell’s brain. I see through his eyes.” Have you ever had the privilege of encountering a soul shaker like that, Capricorn? Are you humble and receptive enough to let yourself be touched so deeply? I foresee the arrival of an influence that could become not half, but maybe 10 percent, of your brain.
AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): My request is unusual, but I assure you it’s in compliance with current astrological trends. What I’d like you to do is to make some money. Literally. Gather paper, scissors and pens, and create three pieces of currency in denominations of $20, $100 and $1,000. But instead of the usual pictures of heads of state and decorative features that appear on standard legal tender, I want you to draw images and symbols of your muses. Maybe they’re attractive people you lust for from afar. Maybe they’re spiritual beings or dream characters or inspiring celebrities or beloved animals. If you don’t have muses, get some. Once you’re finished designing your Muse Money, pay yourself with it. Then sit back and wait for the bolts of inspiration to begin.
PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): “The chicken’s claws will tear/A Rembrandt drawing if you put it down,” says Robert Bly in his poem “The Yellow Dot.” His point? The chicken is not an evil art hater. Keep this idea close at hand this week, Pisces. It’ll prevent you from howling at the people who inadvertently mess with your beautiful plans. Hell, it may even stop you from making it possible for them to mess with your beautiful plans in the first place. Don’t throw any Rembrandt drawings on the floor, OK?
Homework: Describe the sweet treatment you wish other people would provide you with even though you never give it to yourself. www.freewillastrology.com.
Copyright 2000 Rob Brezsny
Rob Brezsny's weekly astrology column appears on Salon as well as on his own Web site and in print publications worldwide. Brezsny's novel, "The Televisionary Oracle," was released earlier this year. He lives near San Francisco. More Rob Brezsny.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)