Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Psychic Gambit

In case any of my four readers needs a conversation piece for a society novel, it strikes me that telling the story of a visit to a psychic might be the perfect device. Since the teller of the tale doesn't necessarily believe anything the psychic said, it becomes license to assert completely deniable opinions about other people or express benchmarks, desires, expectations that would usually be considered unacceptably coercive. If the audience thinks that psychics are canny old frauds, they might be even more curious than the believers to hear about the visit, allowing the teller of the tale to monopolize even further the conversation's direction.

Yes, this happened to me recently.

Literary antecedents of interest: Hilary Mantel's recent Beyond Black features as a main character a genuine psychic--who's not above a bit of petty chicanery if it's what the punters want. In the nineteenth-century novel category, Charlotte Brontë uses a double-reverse fake-out version of the fortune-teller-at-the-dinner-party device in Jane Eyre. And then, of course, there's the Scottish play.

What am I missing in the literary tradition?


Blogger Ben Wolfson:

It's "ë" you're wanting.

2/25/2007 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Mm. I'll go in and edit that.

2/25/2007 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Vance Maverick:

Two examples come to mind from my personal canon.

In Cléo de 5 à 7, the opening credits roll over a tarot-card reading. If I remember right, the predictions are borne out in what follows. But the effect (in retrospect) is to underscore how badly Cleo needs someone to talk to.

And in A Dance to the Music of Time, one of the many recurring characters is Mrs. Erdleigh, a medium. To be honest, I don't remember much about the reliability of her predictions. But they remind one that character and fate do function nearly astrologically in the book, even as their oracular style makes an amusing contrast to the dry irony of Powell's narrator.

Finally, I'm told that the poet Robert Duncan used to tell fortunes, and that he could unnerve by his insight as well as his willingness to give unvarnished bad news. When someone protested once, he said "Well, you asked."

2/26/2007 06:20:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Hmm! I don't know either of those! I should check them out.

It doesn't come as a tremendous surprise that a poet should be an unnerving fortune-teller. I used to dabble in tarot-card readings when I was a kid, and telling a good fortune relied on the ability to put together little signs about the person and a corresponding inability to be embarrassed. (That's why I stopped reading fortunes--and writing poetry.)

2/26/2007 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom Scudder:

In POSSESSION, there's a kind of central bit of character & central-mystery exposition that's helped out by a visit to a spiritualist. Don't want to say more in case you haven't read it.

2/28/2007 06:45:00 AM  
Anonymous matt w:

Marian Keyes's best novel, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, opens with a visit to a fortuneteller who makes the titular prediction. I won't tell you what becomes of it.

Also, two mysteries, Josephine Tey's A Shilling for Candles and Sarah Caudwell's The Sybil in Her Grave, feature fortunetellers.

2/28/2007 09:37:00 AM  
Anonymous ac:

Not a novel, but there's a discussion in Before Sunrise about just what you're talking about—using a fortune teller's prediction to your own ends, or as a kind of prism for your own beliefs.

2/28/2007 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:


I don't remember the psychic in Possession; it's been over ten years since I've read that book. Perhaps time for a reread! I think I've also read both of Matt W's recommended mysteries. Man, I have a crap memory, don't I? Good thing my memories are now digitally archived and fully searchable.

AC, thanks--that sounds very interesting. I've had such an irrational resistance to seeing that movie, and this latest tribute to its writing might be the tipping point.

2/28/2007 02:35:00 PM  
Anonymous eb:

I feel almost embarrassed to mention The Matrix at this point.

2/28/2007 11:11:00 PM  
Anonymous matt w:


2/28/2007 11:16:00 PM  
Anonymous eb:

It was to remember information for the next time he logged on.

2/28/2007 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

That would be appropriate!

3/01/2007 11:23:00 AM  

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