March 4, 2013
Nostradamus is universally known for his predictions—but what do we know about the man, his enigmatic prophecies, and their lure across the centuries? How and why did the name and the quatrains become an enduring facet of the modern West — despite the facts that no state or organized religion, no intellectual or political school ever made them their own? Ultimately, what does Nostradamus’s posterity teach us about the hold of predictions, forces that are deemed irrational, responses to collective catastrophes, and the workings of the media from the Renaissance to the present?
Stéphane Gerson, an associate professor of French and French Studies at NYU, sets out to address these and other questions in Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom.
His book explores the life and afterlife of Michel de Nostredame, a 16th-century doctor and astrologer whose prophecies have been interpreted over subsequent decades, adopted by successive media, and eventually transformed into the Gospel of Doom for any era—especially during crises of authority such as the Great Fire of London in 1666 or the 9/11 attacks. His book pays equal attention to Nostredame the Renaissance humanist, the power of his words, and the droves of people who have gravitated toward these prophecies in his own century and after his death (in 1566).
Through extensive archival research in France, England, and the U.S., Gerson shows how, far from remaining immobile and speaking to narrow segments of the population, the Nostradamus phenomenon has kept refashioning itself and speaking to all kinds of men and women. Drawing from older traditions while capturing new aspirations and anxieties and media technologies, it has continued taking on new shapes throughout the centuries, circulating between the margins (of what is acceptable, respectable, legitimate,) and the center.
This fluidity has made Nostradamus — the words, the name, and eventually the brand — ubiquitous and yet fleeting, indomitable and yet unstable, alluring and yet intolerable in a self-consciously modern world. A phenomenon that combines the lure of impersonal forces and the aura of transcendent geniuses can provide protection and participation in one’s fate, individual projection and collective destiny, proximity to the sorrow of our world and distance as well.
Gerson is a cultural historian of modern France and the co-editor of a new edition of Nostradamus's Prophecies for Penguin Classics. He has won several awards, including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies.