“Experts say it’s a whole lot different this time.” —Globe and Mail, January 2009
These days as prospects grow dim, men of high seriousness rise into the headlines, experts anointed as soothsayers, comforters, bearers of bad news. In ancient days the oracle at Delphi responded to the question of what the future would bring with auguries suffused in barley smoke; today the question is put by pundits, columnists, editorialists, panelists, talk-show hosts and talking heads—the commentariat, proficient in the jargon of upswings, downswings, deepenings, contractions, corrections, hurts and pains, remedy and fraud; and a torrent of participles: plunging, collapsing, sinking, squeezing, etc. Oracles by tradition resist the questions put to them by responding with conundrums, brainteasers, non sequiturs, blatherings and bullshit. A bankruptcy consultant on the CBC Radio drive-home show pauses before making himself clear. “The future,” he says (ignorant or unafraid of the pathetic fallacy), “is not all that optimistic.” Another expert observes that “forecasting is difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” In the Globe and Mail, a real-estate mogul invokes the spectre of evolution: “What we are looking at is Darwinism,” he says. “And that is hard to predict right now.” A reporter restates the case for his lay readers: “The single factor that characterizes the current situation,” he writes, “is a lack of insight into what happens next.”
Who can be faulted for wanting to know what the future holds? We take our prognosticators, our hypothecators, wherever we find them, whether in headlines (EXPERTS SAY DISMAL NUMBERS MEAN GROWTH AHEAD) or sound bites (“As bad as things are, they can still get worse”). “Clearly,” another expert on CBC Radio put it brightly at 9:15 one morning in the middle of February, “clearly, there’s a lot of crystal-balling going on.”
A lot of crystal-balling going on. When I heard these words I remembered a man running for the number 10 bus thirty-five years ago as my brother and I, who were on the bus, watched him through the rear window. “That guy should stop running,” said my brother. “This bus is not happening for him.” The running man kept coming along as the bus doors closed and then the bus lurched out from the curb; as he stumbled to a halt on the sidewalk and flung his arms into the air, we could feel the future turning away from him, at least the future that contained the number 10 bus with my brother and me in it. The bus continued to move away and the man receded into the distance, a figure of despair suffering precisely from what the reporter in the Globe and Mail identified only (or finally) last February as a lack of insight into what happens next.
The plight of the running man cast a shadow (or perhaps a light) on an experiment that my brother and I were carrying out under the guidance of an astrologer named Ray, a mild-mannered clerk who worked the late shift, checking the math on tax returns in the office where I was part-time manager. Ray had developed a method of calculating horoscopes with a precision that was bringing him ever nearer to his ultimate goal, which was, as he put it in words unusually strong for him, “to tell you when you’re going take your next piss.” On the afternoon of the running man, my brother and I were on our way to the racetrack on the number 10 bus with betting horoscopes that Ray had prepared for us the night before. We had concluded after several trials that Ray’s calculations (which always came close to, and often succeeded in, predicting winning horses) increased in accuracy when the first race set off at its scheduled time of 6:00 p.m. If it failed to start precisely at six, we would have to make adjustments on the spot with the horoscope charts spread out on our knees (while around us punters scrutinized the Racing Form); the moon and sun, being nearer than the stars, were the vital agents of influence at these moments. As the evening progressed and the starting times of individual races drifted away from plan, the margin of error grew. This was our introduction to the classical problem of “initial conditions” that haunts scientists who try to deduce the future of the universe from a specific moment in time.
One of my duties as part-time office manager was to extinguish fires in the Xerox copier stationed in the bay window at the front of the office. In that distant time before computers, the Xerox, a large, lumbering, expensive machine, was the icon of leading-edge technology. My boss had installed the Xerox next to the key-cutting machine in the window, where it would draw the attention of passersby, and, as he said to me confidentially, attract new business by acting as a loss leader: the sign in the window read: WHILE U WAIT!—XEROX COPIES 10¢—KEYS CUT 50¢; and a sandwich board on the sidewalk promised Tax Returns: $5+UP. The concept of the loss leader lay at the core of the business, which was financed, to my great delight, by a Woodward’s Department Store charge card and a fleet of old cars that my boss sold back and forth between companies, each time with new bank loans (the ’52 Studebaker assigned to me had no reverse gear and no handbrake, but it was worth more than five thousand dollars on the books).
The Xerox tended to overheat when more than a few sheets of paper were run through it, and the resulting fires, signalled by tongues of flame spitting from seams in the side panel, made a strong impression on the clientele and on anyone looking in the window. My job was (calmly) to pop the panel, haul out the burning sheet and drop it in the wastebasket. While performing this duty I met the well-known poet Earle Birney, who had brought in a sheaf of poems for copying; I was the only person who recognized him, and it was I who, to his great relief, put out the subsequent fire and appeared to have saved part of his oeuvre. I had met Ray the astrologer when a similar fire broke out as he was making copies of a blank horoscope chart (the cost of which, he assured me, would go onto his “personal account”); as soon as I understood the purpose of the charts I wanted to know more. Later in the season our shifts overlapped and I began spending time with Ray after midnight in order to talk about horoscopy, and I soon learned that he had been inducted into an order of Rosicrucians (to whom he had applied when he was a teenager, in response to a notice in Popular Science) by a robed figure who appeared in the night at the foot of his bed. Further visitations from more robed figures resulted in astral journeys and the acquisition of several magical techniques, including a way of showing people their past lives in a mirror—a skill that became a party trick until, as Ray told me, he renounced party tricks after an unpleasant experience with a friend whose past lives had been, as he put it, “unfortunate.” We sat in the brightly lit office until well past midnight on many occasions: our reflections could be seen in the big bay windows, which had been transformed into mirrors by the darkness beyond; and often as he told stories of the occult life I was unable to look up at what might be reflected there.
Ray’s system of divining his own future had led him to conclude that he would never profit greatly from his astrology, but that he was entitled to small rewards such as the bingo jackpots that he picked up at least once a week after careful triangulation of his chart: sums of fifty dollars, a hundred, and once I recall a jackpot of a thousand, which he took by staying on until the eleventh game after winning a small pot in the tenth (ten and eleven had been dominant in his horoscope for that night).
My brother and I arranged to make the experiment with the horse races using calculations that Ray would prepare the night before. We made several excursions to the track but often misread planetary angles as the evening unfolded, so that horse number 3 would come in when we expected horse number 2, and so on. All of our failures were attributable to an unsteady hold on initial conditions. Everything depended on the timing of the first race—even a five-minute difference would affect the angular relations of subsequent moments. We soon began to experience the world at large in this way, as a kind of clockwork mechanism ticking away inside the events of the mundane sphere. We were frequently stymied by initial conditions in our attempts to get to the track on time (an empty gas tank or a full parking lot, to name just two), and then the whole evening would go out of whack and we began to suspect that our own horoscopes might have to be calculated in synch with the racetrack chart if we were to succeed in winning consistently. The experience of the man running for the bus seemed to consolidate this rather wearying sense of a clockwork universe: we were learning to see or feel that well before he started running for the bus, it was already “too late” for the running man; in fact it had been too late for him since before he was born, since before the universe started. By virtue of the same lack of insight into what happens next that we had perceived vaguely to be his fatal flaw, he was spared the knowledge that everything that is going to happen is going to happen. Such was the mystery behind future-seeing that my brother and I faced as we strove to predict the outcome of a horse race.
I continued meeting with Ray for most of the summer. I wished to grasp his understanding of the nature of reality: he was patient with me, and he freely if slowly recounted his nightly travels with his astral guides and his initiations into higher levels of arcane understanding. He described his learning as a series of elevations—a procession through and toward ever higher levels, but never high enough to know (or at least to tell me) how many more levels there might be in the process. As I pressed him on this question, he began describing the universe as a kind of construction: a tower or skyscraper to be ascended, floor by floor. Was the tower a metaphor or was it just a tower, I wanted to know, and eventually he said that he thought it was just a tower: the levels were real, and from each level more levels could be seen.
In the end the figure of the tower was all that Ray could offer me, and when I realized that my aesthetic, if not my philosophy, required more, I soon let my attention slip away from the clockwork turning of the zodiac and the spiralling towers of astral lives, and my brother and I fell again into the slapdash willy-nilly existence of the man running for the bus, the plain world so easily obscured by the garbled utterances of experts. In the world of income tax, as I discovered in my job as assistant manager, the future is protected for the few—investors in oil companies, for example, are compensated in advance for the eventual disappearance of the oil that is already making them rich, through the ludicrous provision of the depletion allowance.
Years later, after my boss had saved his business from bankruptcy in a few breathtaking showdowns with men in suits, and I had moved into other enterprises, I received a postcard from Earle Birney, with whom I had had no further exchange after the fire in the Xerox. He had fallen from a tree somewhere in Ontario and broken an arm or a leg; the message on the card contained a short, triumphant poem written in celebration of his fall.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt reminds us in The Human Condition that just as we are given the faculty of forgiveness as the sole means of undoing deeds of the past “which hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation,” so also are we given the ability to make promises (and to keep them) as our only means of creating, in the ocean of uncertainty that lies just beyond the next moment, those “islands of security” without which there would be nothing durable in our relations with each other.