Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Structural View of Certain Oracles

On even the balmiest of days we are all aware that the specters of mortality, disease, want, violence, and a myriad of other causes of suffering hover nearby. Each of us has experienced the fragility of life and fortune. Tomorrow always poses a threat, vague or vivid according to circumstances. In an attempt to gain some measure of control over a fundamentally unmanageable environment, people have sought patterns in the phenomena around them. While this habit clearly leads toward the recognition of cause and effect and thus in the direction of science, magic and superstition arise from the same source. [1] One of the principal concerns of intellectuals over thousands of years of human history has been the prediction of the future, whether their findings are couched in the hypotheses of experimenters or the resounding rhetoric of Isaiah.

The oracle in Solomon’s temple is described in detail in the book of Kings while little, unfortunately, is said of its uses. In the ancient world kings regularly consulted oracles for advice on war and statecraft, but many who consulted experts on the future were individuals with more personal priorities. For instance, among the queries that have survived inscribed on lead strips from Dodona, Greece’s oldest oracle, is one from Nikokrateia asking to which of the gods she should sacrifice in order to be better and stronger and cease from her illness. Another implies what may have been a heated issue several thousand years ago: “Lysanias asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether the child which Annula is carrying is not by him.” [2] How suggestive it is that this proposition is stated negatively!

In antiquity the desire for prophetic knowledge resulted in the formulation of a great many oracular technologies. Some methods, like that which seems to have been practiced at Delphi for over a millennium, were spontaneous, relying wholly on the inspiration of a human intermediary who is thought to directly convey divine knowledge. Similarly, in most shamanistic procedures the prophet simply conveys to listeners what the deity has said. Clearly, from a modern point of view, the efficacy of these oracles depends on the prudence and wisdom of the one delivering the divine message, both in shrewdly analyzing the question posed and in maintaining the kind of ambiguity or obscurity that has, for instance, allowed excited enthusiasts to trumpet Nostradamus’ accuracy with different readings for every generation. Often such prognosticators (and indeed their contemporary incarnations, the reader/advisors that can be found in every American city) have been compared to psychiatrists and other counselors only some of whom hold degrees. Today we hear even of “life coaches.”

A great many systems of divination involve the priest’s interpretation of specified signs. These vary enormously; among the well-known methods are the observation of cracks in heated shell or bone (practiced in ancient China), of birds (such as much Roman augury), or of tea leaves (called tasseography). These allow for almost unlimited latitude in decoding and thus, like the direct methods above (and such related beliefs such as explaining the meaning of dreams) reflect more than anything else the acumen of the practitioner. Parallels might be made with such varied agents as brokers who rely on the mysteries of “technical analysis.”

People have also sought to discern the future by selecting one of an inventory of options meant to be encyclopedic. [3] Rather like an Aristotelean essay, such lists of possibilities analyze in the etymological sense, breaking down a topic into constituent parts to produce an anatomy as Burton did for melancholy and Frye for literature. Thus Freud divided the mind into id, ego, and superego and Marx saw proletarians, bourgeoisie, and aristocrats. The scala naturae assumed by Aristotle and elaborated by neo-Platonists similarly aims toward a comprehensive classification of phenomena into a framework sufficient to include all the data. Familiar examples of such symbolic systems that persist in contemporary times include astrology and Tarot. The signs of the zodiac define a comprehensive set of personality types. Just as everyone must have a birth day, everyone must fall into the categories associated with that day (or hour or minute, for the lovers of precision). Were it not used for fortune-telling astrology might claim to be a scientific treatise, resembling the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual setting forth the possibilities among which to locate each individual person.

The deck of playing cards which spread from Persia to India on the one hand and to Egypt and Europe on the other, clearly breaks down society by status, [4] but its symbolic application might apply to countless other possibilities and the ordinary deck was early used for divination. Tarot cards, which first appeared in 15th century Italy, with picture cards called trionfi (triumphs, as they served as trump cards) were used for hundreds of years to play trick-taking games before they, like ordinary playing cards, came to be used to predict the future. Yet they ultimately came to be regarded as an inclusive system for representing the innumerable and shifting shape of individual fortune.

The very ambitious analyses of such oracular systems seek to describe the world of possibilities potential in any given moment. The delineation of the entire array has a value apart from any oracular value. In reading fiction one may come upon this or that chance turn of fortune – but these systems aim to present them all at once as they would appear to the sublime eye. They seek to embrace every possibility after the manner of the multiverses imagined by science and science fiction alike. It is though one were to see from above the entire complex of plot in Ts'ui Pên’s novel (in Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths”). [5]

The most elaborate systems of this sort of which I am aware are the Chinese I Ching and the West African Ifa which exhibit structural similarities though one existed in written form millennia ago and the other remained in oral transmission until quite recently. [6] Each features 256 options, in the former derived from the eight lines in each of the sixty-four hexagrams and in the latter generated by combinations of the 16 basic Odù. The use of either system involves the selection through a random method of a particular verse as relevant to the question posed to the oracle. The Chinese had used the cracks in heated tortoise shells in ancient times, and more recently the patterns resulting from tossed yarrow stalks. Among users of the Bollingen Wilhelm translation, coin tosses were substituted. Similarly, among the Yoruba and other users of the Ifa the priest or babalawo might use the opele or divination chain, or counters (palm nuts, kola nuts, or cowries) on a divination tray or opon ifá. This aspect of the ceremony is trivial.

The creator of the I Ching is said to be the culture hero Fu Xi while the Ifa is attributed to Orunmila who governs knowledge in general as well as divination. Their inventories of possibility are taken by believers to be exhaustive. To Jung the I Ching represented a technology based on synchronicity. Confucius, often thought to be the anti-mystic, in spite of his fondness for music and poetry, said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would devote them to the I Ching. Claims no less grand are also made for the verses of the Ifa. A well-known contemporary enthusiast declares of Ifa that the odùs “represent EVERY SINGLE energy, situation, combination of situations that have, are or will ever be,” while some modern professors of computer science assert the validity of Ifa’s predictions and add that the oracle is a sort of computer system. [7]

In the characteristic way or art, including the art which is called religion, the attitude implied by these oracles is profoundly ambivalent, a passionate assertion undercut by deep doubt. Whether the claims of their partisans are valid and whether any system can in fact predict the future, the I Ching and the Ifa remain as ambitious attempts to classify all experiences in existence from the human point of view and to in a way redeem, with the mandala-like symmetry of the possibilities arrayed in the imagination’s mental theater, the often distressing turns of every life. Such a symbolic pattern allows the adept to rehearse again and again the defeats and the victories even unto the final denouement. Little wonder that a sensitive and intelligent practitioner might gain a sense of mastery from repeated familiarity with such a document either written or oral, and that such a person might occupy a legitimate place in the professions of her or his day.

Yet the oracles can also evoke pathos, their desperate and unattainable goal of anticipating reality (not to speak of the controlling it through magic) always beyond the grasp of anyone for all the salesmanship and charlatanry of the centuries. They speak the naked voice of desire, the fundamental drive to make all right through possession of one thing or another, as though we could ever find oneself masters of the wild horses of our lives. And, in the lyric beauty of their images, they eloquently testify as well to the satisfaction of play in the manipulation of symbols, the dazzle of a few rapid dance moves, of some liquid sounds (whether verbal or tonal) succeeding to touch the heart, or a tale too striking to be forgotten. Whatever their other virtues or failings, the I Ching and the Ifa resemble, as art does, the human heart, though more composed, more serene, and markedly more wise than the diviners’ agitated customers and a good many of the diviners themselves, and very likely me as well if not the reader. Not every believer in art is a fundamentalist, and all the most reputable seers have sought meaning not in the letter but in the spirit. The predictions retailed on the street in Lagos and Hong Kong may not be debased currency, but merely the form of wisdom most useful to some. The most competent prophets I have no doubt are wise indeed and provide a useful service to their customers today as their predecessors have surely done since mammoths roamed the Alps.

1. Joseph Needham in the monumental Science and Civilisation in China details the East Asian association of divination and scientific inquiry. Indeed, until quite recent times, scientists of substantial achievement often practiced such “parasciences” as alchemy, divination, and astrology. Newton, for instance, pursued alchemical experimentation and predicted the future. John Maynard Keynes commented that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” (“Newton, the Man”)

2. G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 4: Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997, p. 135.

3. A practice like bibliomancy, in which one randomly selects a passage in scripture or another book is similar but not intentionally inclusive in scope and thus unconsidered here.

4. To Claude François "Pére" Menestrier, the hearts are the church, the spades (or pikes) aristocracy, the diamonds (paving tiles) merchants, and the clubs peasants. (See his Bibliotheque curieuse et instructive de divers ouvrages anciens & modernes.) To Jessie Weston, however, in Ritual and Romance (Chapter 6) they are mystic symbols which are simultaneously sexual.

5. Many of Borges’ stories include such limitless texts (surely the most extravagant fancy of a librarian) in one form or another. The most directly literary are perhaps “The Library of Babel” and “The Book of Sand.”

6. Probably the best edition is Wande Abimbola’s Ifa: An Exposition of the Ifa Literary Corpus (London: Oxford, 1976). There are now a good many version by Africans as well as one by Maulana Karenga, the inventor of Kwanzaa, who produced a partial version under the title Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings.

7. See http://www.academia.edu/5315636/A_Comparative_Study_of_Ifa_Divination_and_Computer_Science “Computer Science takes it origin from ifa divination.”

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