The Siren's Call: Inner journeys and mental travelers
Plumbing the depths with Nostradamus, Ilchi Lee, Dana Wilde
An engraving of Michel de Nostredame, known as Nostradamus. (Apic / Getty Images / September 26, 2012)
If you consider yourself one of these travelers, you're in good company. Think of the Buddha, Blake himself or Jean-Dominique Bauby ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") — mental travelers all.
Seated on an uncomfortable chair in the upper room of his home in Salon-de-Provence, seeing shapes from the far-off future, the 16th century Frenchman was a mental traveler par excellence.
This might be the year of the Mayan apocalypse, but Richard Sieburth instead gives us a splendid new translation of "Nostradamus: The Prophecies" (Penguin Classics: $28), containing all the predictions that shook European society of the time. One of the more fascinating, famous ones is:
The young lion shall overcome the old
On the field of battle in single duel:
He'll put out his eyes in his cage of gold,
Winner taking all, then a death most cruel.
That particular quatrain — Nostradamus recorded his visions in four-line segments — was published in 1555. Then, in 1559, King Henry II of France was killed in a joust by a lance that punctured his helmet.
This, along with the fact that he was the older of the two combatants, made the prophecy impressive — seemingly undeniable proof of Nostradamus' prophetic gifts. The reputation of this apothocary and healer, who stared the Black Death in the face, soared to the kind of heights accorded now to bestselling author Dan Brown.
But why are the quatrains so difficult to understand? The "young lion" example seems pretty accessible (whether it's true or not), but others less so. Why so much opacity? Why not set it down straight?
"The prophet seems to have relished obscurity," suggests Stephane Gerson in an introduction to this translation. Mystics are always a bit hard to understand, Gerson explains, "and perhaps he understood the value of dissimulation — and the dangers of exposure — while coming of age in tumultuous times."
Bluntness, in other words, may get you killed.
So maybe Nostradamus was just hedging his bets? Gerson's explanation is far more charitable than others. One 1882 critic likened the prophecies to clouds since they are "so multiform and nebulous that each may…find in them what he seeks." Others thought Nostradamus really did commune with spirits to record his predictions; some said he combined careful astrological calculations with a good dose of autohypnosis.
And then there's the anti-Nostradamian who said the seer was just an old wino, scribbling "just before he passed out dead drunk." Edgar Leoni quotes this attack in his own invaluable edition of the prophecies.
Whatever the reasons for the vagueness — self-preservation, self-promotion or a little too much of the fruit of the vine — the prophecies have endured. Plenty of people today even think Nostradamus peered deeply enough to see the JFK assassination, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the end of the world (the mood of "Century 10" — he organized his prophecies into 100-quatrain segments, or "centuries" — feels extremely apocalyptic). Or take this particular prophecy admired by students of World War II:
Beasts wild with hunger shall swim the rivers:
Most of the host shall move against Ister:
He'll have the great one dragged in an iron cage,
When the child the German Rhine surveys.
What's exceptional about this edition by Sieburth, an NYU professor whose other translations include works by Gerard de Nerval and Henri Michaux, is that it acknowledges the many outlandish claims made for the prophecies ("Ister" was originally printed as "Hifter," which made some think of Adolf Hitler) while playing to the middle of the field ("Ister," Sieburth notes, is just the Latin for the Danube).
Any student of prophecy should own Sieburth's version: His translation not only shines clarity on Nostradamus' murky riddles. He also supplies a measure of subtle insight into why we should appreciate them today: Nostradamus' world, like ours, was full of uncertainty and danger; his strange utterances produced a measure of control, and even if it's all illusory, that's still better than nothing.
Unlike Nostradamus, Ilchi Lee requires some actual traveling before his mental travels begin. His destination? Sedona, Arizona.
In "The Call of Sedona: Journey of the Heart" (Scribner: 228 pp., $16.99 paper), this spiritual educator describes his own inner development and how it's been nurtured by one place in particular, the rocky, red surrounding landscape of that town.
After moving to the U.S. from Korea in 1993, Lee successfully founded several centers committed to teaching the mind-body principles of Dahn Yoga. On a car trip west from New Jersey, he had a powerful experience.
"As I crossed the country, there was one thing I was looking for: a new land where I could put down my roots and thrive," he explains. "The moment I saw Sedona, I felt a strong intuition that this would be that very place."
He experienced a special energy there — Sedona is a popular pilgrimage spot for spiritual seekers of all stripes. And the early chapters of the book describe his effort to create a spiritual retreat there even as he worried about the financial stability of his family back in Korea.
He also describes the experience of 21 days of spiritual cleansing atop Moak Mountain in Korea and how that rigorous, exhausting period of meditation helped him understand the revelation he would bring to visitors in Sedona — that all things in the universe are one. Siddhartha Gautama had Deer Park, Lee had Moak.
The other revelation he experienced was a desire to share this message with the world, which he began in Korea and continued in Sedona, where his message thrived thanks to a supportive community of retirees, tourists and New Agers.
You don't have to go anywhere, even to Arizona, to get started with meditation. But Lee does say that there are invisible power points in our bodies — called chakras by the Hindus — that are magnified by the energy fields of Sedona. Any defense shields that we normally use to protect ourselves from the world get pushed aside: "The beautiful and magnificent landscape of Sedona and its wide-open, unrestrained energy clears away that shield.... When this shield is dropped, the true meditation tour that goes to the inner self begins."
The second half of the book functions as a travelogue of sorts, highlighting some of those spots where Lee says the energy fields are the greatest. Some readers, I know, may smirk at these ideas, but Lee is so plaintive and sincere in his writing that you can't help but want to listen.
Dana Wilde's "Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography" (Booklocker.com: 313 pp., $20.95 paper) doesn't seem to be about inner, mental travels: It's about all the wonders in the night sky that can be seen from one's backyard (provided there are no obnoxious streetlights nearby). But as soon as he points his Newtonian telescope to the heavens, he undergoes a spiritual experience that seems common to most astronomers, amateur and professional:
"The night sky begins, in just a little while, to feel like a tremendous dream world of untold powers — explosive, burning, enormous — and of glories and potentials, and for some people at least, a sense of intelligence."
Wilde writes the "Amateur Naturalist" column for the Bangor Daily News, and his chronicle of his experiences as a student of the stars is a pleasing, well-told tale that attests to all the treasures one can see by staying in one place.
"On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings" by Chris Arthur (University of Iowa: $21.95 paper) is like Wilde's book: It isn't a book of spirituality per se, but it contains much spirituality within it.
As Arthur meditates on the works of Seamus Heaney and George Eliot or the ancient nests of falcons, we travel with him into ideas that sometimes echo what he concludes elsewhere in the book — that's not a mistake but an intentional part of the book's design.
As he explains in a lovely, brief prologue, the writing of his essays is like the practice of enso, the Zen Buddhist art of drawing of circles. This process, he says, like so many other forms of meditation, draws us deeper into ourselves. There's a comfort in taking a repetitive, familiar path — even a circle — that frees the mind in other ways. (I might use this argument next time my family wonders why I watch the same movies over and over!)
The next time, then, that you find yourself caught in a dull exercise, muttering "I'm going round in circles," try to remember: That's not always a bad thing.
We all have travels to make, mental and otherwise, and that includes the writer of this column. This writer is moving on. There's always a good chance that the call of the siren will be heard again one day. You can never tell what might happen — unless you're sitting on an iron seat in a Provencal home. You never know.
Over the last several years, it has been a pleasure sharing with you.