Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fortune Telling

Good evening, citizens. I might as well admit up front that what I'm writing about tonight is something about which I haven't thought much.

Fortune telling.
Tarot Cards
I'm reading two books simultaneously: Little, Big by John Crowley and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Both books (neither of which I am halfway through yet) feature prominently fortune-telling devices, oracles - tarot cards and the I Ching hexagrams, respectively.

So, of course, since I'm a remarkably self-centered person, I began thinking about such devices in relation to my own life. Questions: Do I have similar objects I consult? Do I actually believe they work? Why/not? How are they useful?

Answers: I do have on my shelf The Book of Runes, by Ralph Blum, which I consult every now and then when I'm feeling directionless. I also flip randomly to pages in Meditations. However, neither of these are properly fortune-telling devices. I use them both as ways to gain insight into what I'm feeling at the moment - not so much because I believe there's some larger force guiding my hand, but because I trust my subconscious to pick out what it needs the most from what I feed it.

Once upon a time, when I was in elementary school, I would have believed. I would have sincerely thought that something was leading me to choose one rune over another, that some force in the universe was trying to tell me something. That events, preordained, could be revealed to me in the arrangement of cards or of bones, in shapes and signs and portents.

No longer. As I became a more and more sullen rebellious teenager, the idea of Fate became ever more repugnant. The universe is not deterministic. Newton's mechanics are beautiful; yet the craziness of quantum mechanics and uncertainty are yet more beautiful, and what is more, more accurate. As much as I enjoy Little, Big for its language, the implication that there is a Tale that will unfold whether we want it to or not makes me irrationally angry. Likewise Greek tragedy - what, you mean I really have no choice at all in the matter? The Fates said so and so it must be? Hell no! I object!

I have no patience with the ineffable. Perhaps this is a failing of mine. Yet I can see no rational argument for why the Spiritus Mundi would choose to manifest itself in an arbitrary arrangement of sticks in the sand (or animal guts, if that's more your thing).

Yet I still find myself drawn to fortune telling methods. Not so far as to try them out myself. No: my sense of intellectual integrity prevents me. But I do feel that they might, in a roundabout way, have some merit, if only in demonstrating the remarkable capacity of the human brain to find patterns out of chance. The cards are not trying to tell anyone anything - people are telling themselves things they know and have not accepted consciously.

More mundanely, I am drawn to the physical implements of fortune telling. Because the writer's tools are pretty nondescript - paper, pens and pencils, computer - activities which require specialized equipment that can be carried around compactly are inherently interesting to me. Artisans and their tools, artists with their sketchbooks and preferred brands of pencil, trumpet players with their assorted mutes - and "fortune tellers" with their packs of cards. Even though the cards don't "work", they still count as the tools of the trade. Most probably I am envious because few things in my life marry beauty and functionality.

Another way in which fortune telling is interesting/useful (= worth thinking about): use in stories. (I'm pretty sure I do this all the time - connect something to me me me, then to writing because then it might help someone else.) Do characters consult oracles or portents? Which characters? Why? Do they work? Do they really mean something? What form do the portents take and what does that say about the culture?

I should clarify something in general: I don't believe in this kind of magic anymore. But I consider it a worthwhile thought experiment to suspend disbelief on yourself and make worlds in which such magic is real, is valid, works.

It's late and I have to get to bed, so I'll summarize even though I feel as though I've only touched on the meanest facets of the topic. Thus: Fate is fake but fortune telling tools are shiny and your subconscious might find it easier to speak through them. Also they might work in created worlds - after all, it's your story. Tell it how you like.


Music for tonight:

The Seal Lullaby - Eric Whitacre

Sleep well.

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