9I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.

John of Patmos turns, and through the forked cleft of the cave, receives the voice that he then conveys to Prochorus, who listens.

Prophecy – in our sense – is a tone of voice.

So writes E.M. Forster in an essay on the novel, ‘our’ sense, and therefore not the sense of any other mode or genre that contains it.

And who shall bind the Infinite with an eternal band
To compass it with swaddling bands? and who shall cherish it
With milk and honey?
I see it smile, and I roll inward, and my voice is past.

Knowing that, in William Blake’s Europe a Prophecy (1794), the infinite is inward bound. What the infant who is infinite really gives is absolute exteriority. Writing as I am, in the mode of the prophet, knowing it will be read differently in the course of human time. Voice conveyed: past, and past becoming future-exterior.


Prophecy is writing with an edgy voice in it. We sense a voice as equally distant from the words as our own mind that addresses us earnestly with a message the voice knows we are not going to like. The voice anticipates resistance.

Thus wrote Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain of poetic prophecy and the prophetic voice: strange, estranged, off-centre, which anticipates resistance. It was this quality of prophetic voice that caught the attention of Dada. Nostradamus caught the ears and eyes, in 1916, of Marcel Janco, who, as Stéphane Gerson recounts, came across 

the Prophecies on the shelves of a Zurich bookstore. Janco, a founder of the Dada movement, was so enthused that he purchased the book and promptly read selections during one of the group’s soirées at the Cabaret Voltaire. His fellow poets and artists, he later related, were astounded be this suggestive, mystic, abstract verse. ‘The sounds, the associations, the alliteration – it was these that made it a true new poetry.’

For Dada, abstraction, in the body of the quatrain, made it new. Even if, for utopic Marxist Ernst Bloch, music was the highest prophetic form, he did not tell us why prophecy has remained, at core, a poetic form par excellence. Richard Sieburth’s 2012 translation of the centuries of Michel Nostradamus brings us closer than ever before to the sound of prophetic poetry, that Janco heard, as in quatrain 8.100:

Through excess of tears so easily wrung
From high to low, from low to high above,
Lives lost in the gullible play of faith :
To die of thirst from surfeit of mistake.

Erika Cheetham, Medieval scholar and interpreter of Nostradamus, who heard Napoleon in ‘PAU, NAY, LORON’ (8.1), would deem the above prophecy meaningless: ‘A nonsensical quatrain to present-day readers’ (1973). The element of surprise is tempered by crypticity on the one hand and generality on the other. In the Almanac of 1566 that generality of tone comes forth stridently:

Between people discord, brutal enmity,
War, death of great Princes, several parts:
Universal plague, stronger in the West,
Times good and full, but very dry and exhausted.

How Nostradamus would capture the whole political horizon, speak the whole sense of a future geopolitics, war and change inclusive, is a wholly different task to identifying events and key persons. Literary ambiguity is resolved in the prophetic mode: ambiguity simply a by-product of the future’s unknowability. What the prophet might obscure or withhold, we assume, is either the result of some sort of self- protection, or a dash of uncertainty. In this sense the relation with interpretation is botched. In a manner it is written solely to be interpreted, not read. What may be revealed in prophecy is never anything more than fulfilled or unfulfilled plots for events and characters.

In this way the politics of prophecy is remarkably present-centred: it is the news cycle. It is everything that must happen now in order to get to the next thing; a sequence of events unfolding before us, even if the event cycle is reduced not to the calamitous Event, but micro-events, an otherwise forgettable chain or series. It is then tempting to imagine that the prophet also legislates, has a hand in the turning of history itself. Poetry between legislation and prophecy, that was the choice Shelley gave us in A Defence of Poetry (1821).

In the Romantic age of prophecy, we turn also to Blake and Barbauld. Therein is the question of the prophet as poet, who writes poetry, even if not bound by it. We shall have to listen to prophetic language, tone and voice, as much as meaning-extraction, cryptic sense; a poetics of prophecy, but the extent of such poetics remains unknown until we determine more about it as genre or in mode.
Suffice to say that prophecy is neither explained by the historicist alone, who situates prophecy in its time, nor the divinatory hermeneut, who, through either hemerology (calendars) or numerology (Tarot), will read the totality of History, of historical personages, of character and event, into days and weeks.


Elaine Pagels, writing about the Revelations of John of Patmos, notes that prophets like John (and for that matter Daniel, Ezekiel) had to hide in imagery and metaphor many of the messages that readers would have identified as corresponding to persons or events. The emperor Nero, not speculatively but historically, appears in the Revelations under the strain of governance, as do the cultural spectres, nay shadows, of Babylon and Rome. Prophets since John have likewise withheld direct reference while admonishing authority through imagery, metaphor and the like. John of Patmos had not nearly as much to go on with as we now do regarding apocalypse, yet still the prophet of doom, and even prophets who arm themselves with the principle of hope, will continue to pose a threat to present governance. There is, in this, a suspicion that the prophet has a hand in the future. In Greek, and Roman divination, an omen could be accepted or refused by the one who received it. An omen required a contract. Nostradamus, too, as we know from the latter’s Epistle to Henry II, held agreement in Officialdom.


Prophet: historian of the future. Much of the future known, as much unknown; the prophet first maps all known sources, empirical method, divining then the unknown through a certain proxy object, observing things and reactions in the material world, in the place of evidence, using such processes as a sort of exteriorisation; i.e., the observation of a flame (Nostradamus), or a drop of oil in water (the Sumerians), Indigenous and African divination, like the Algerian women’s poetic form Būqālah, involving the use of a ceramic pitcher (the būqālah), Augury, the ancient Roman Haruspex (examining the entrails of sacrificial animals). All this seems at some remove from the illustrated page, whereupon we go to Blake, the spiral gyres of Yeats, the 7th Century Tui Bei Tu of Li Chen-Feng, or more recently the extraordinary clairvoyant texts of Hannah Weiner, contemporary seer.

The prophet is not removed from the political, but the political in the prophetic is obscured, rejected by the fluxes of Now, as is true also for the historian. On this, the utopian Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch offers the following passage:

Because however the Is, the Now, or – the actualisation is already so difficult to see experientially or inspect scientifically: that is why a prophet is without honor in his own land, that is why every age appears corrupt to itself, mere civilisation, that is also why the historian is so painfully subject to the course of history’s becoming the present again, the decrescendo into ‘currency’ within the system of history, without his political judgment necessarily learning anything from his historical judgment.

Revolutionary political thought has known prophecy largely through Bloch, who derives his thinking in part from Paracelsus and Thomas Müntzer. In Bloch, we find the principle of hope in conflict with the spirit, or consciousness, of doom, which defines a properly prophetic attitude to political time.

What thus lies midway between memory and prophecy – we ourselves, the midpoint moving, floating through the ages, at which we find ourselves in every lived moment – is a shadow, the hidden seed, the flowing, partial correlation of consciousness to itself as experiential reality, a sheer, blind, self-absorbed, indirect being-affected, a dark island where nonetheless not only the entire impetus of the movement of the world, but, after movement stops, arrests itself, in other words after its conciliation, the true condition of being, the true reality and logicity of the world seems to be hidden.

From the dark island, or desert, of any such present, the prophet comes. The emergence is public, national: prophetic subjectivity is linked to the announcement, if not acceptance, of prophetic ability, just as it is linked to those political elements the prophet fails to hide.


Then Babel’s towers and terraced gardens rise
And pointed obelisks invade the skies

Begin a discourse on the practice of hermeneutics, divinatory or otherwise. Anna Lætitia Barbauld, in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem (1812) presages NYC in ‘terraced gardens’ and ‘pointed obelisks,’ as a prophet must. In the most astute criticism, we have not sought any other explanation than that of ‘visionary poetics’ or, as has been used in criticism of Milton, ‘the visionary mode.’ We may well keep it this way. The practice of turning hermeneutics into divination itself, though it may resemble literary criticism in linguistic pedantry (for Nostradamus, interpreters from Chas A. Ward to Henry C. Roberts to Cheetham engage such pedantry) is a position that has lost its critical sense, having become parasitic off the practice of divination. Georges Dumézil, Nostradamus’s best interpreter, would retain, in his pensée extériorisée, (exteriorised thinking) a certain critical exterior, to uncover the brilliance of the Nostradamian farce, via M. Espopondie.

The issue of reflection, which is a philosophical mode, would bother the critic who partakes of it less than if we were to return to Talmudical hermeneutics, and the question of revelation. Does the critic reveal the text to us, its meaning or more, its spirit, or simply reflect upon it? Lauri Riding Jackson, in a discussion of poetic intelligence, which LRJ opposes to concrete intelligence, notes that when the ‘relative’ vanity of concrete intelligence is made apparent:

poetry becomes a superfluous office and is either peremptorily dismissed or allowed to continue as a graceful tribute to the triumph of the concrete intelligence. However, the dignity historically conferred by society on poetry for its prophetic usefulness makes it impossible for poetry to accept this humiliation. (To use Shelley’s distinction, society was using prophecy in the gross sense of the word, in which poetry was an attribute of prophecy, while poetry applied to this public charge the most favourable interpretation possible, in which prophecy was an attribute of poetry).


It is as much concrete intelligence as poetic intelligence that urges us to turn, now, to a sole act of prophecy.

Method: I peer through a bowl half-filled with water, underneath it a single block of melting ice.

There appears within a solitary figure: Saboteur.

If it is the case that rulers over the ages have feared the prophets, they will fear most of all the Saboteur.

To think with tools, and to think with action: that is the Saboteur’s instruction. The Saboteur acts, simply and purely acts.

The Saboteur flaunts symbols that stand for action, not production. The symbol for Earth First! an environmental group that emerged in the late 1970s, is a hammer crossed with wrench, and sometimes a skull (the symbol for the German anti-coal movement Ende Gelände is a hammer and pick, the mining symbol upturned, the advanced productive forces reversed). Such symbology undermines, as much as any other, the old hammer and sickle, hammer and compass . . .

The water swills at block’s cloudy edge.

In the hands of the Thinker, the wrench is to become philosophical equipment, illustrated in a certain sabotagist handbook:

The Saboteur is not a revolutionary. The figure of the Saboteur comes to interrupt the course of political history because the Saboteur does not allow history to take its course. The Saboteur refuses to accept the course of history, and yet is becoming part of it.

The Liberationist vanguard that will emerge alongside the Saboteur adheres to a kind of Mazdakian-Marcuseanism, all the while admitting the most fearsome ecotagists and masters of ecodefense, transforming itself into a Green Industrial Bureaucracy committed to regeneration, whereupon a new possibility emerges, that of the liberationist-saboteur: the Liboteur. This will be a move away from Wisdom, from reflection to revelation, a wholly prophetic drift.

The Saboteur reflects, the Liboteur bureaucratises Green Industry. Enmity and struggle between Saboteur and Liboteur.
The block melts through.


No longer are we in an age of poetic history, of Testimony. Something odd has prohibited it. Rather we are on the cusp of a new prophetic age, in which poetry treats the future with the seriousness it has for the present, and of history, as per Nostradamus, and prophecy’s Romantic age. The truth the prophet speaks, now, is truth in disguise. The prophet who has sought clarity in our time will neither seek apocalypse over utopia, nor utopia over apocalypse, neither succumb entirely to the spirit of doom, nor to the principle of hope.

The prophet knows exactly what they mean by the exteriorisation of thought, and the praise, but not love, of Wisdom.

Three wings:
one soars in the height,
one exudes from the earth,
one soars everywhere.
Praise to you, as befits you, Wisdom.

In the form of a quintain, Hildegard von Bingen, prophet, sings as Miriam dances, in a song from Symphonia.

No false prophets: only prophecies. Again:

Praise to you, as befits you, Wisdom.

AJ Carruthers

aj Carruthers is a literary critic and experimental poet, author of Stave Sightings: Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, a group of studies on Langston Hughes, BpNichol, Joan Retallack and others, two volumes of a lifelong poem AXIS Book 1: Areal and AXIS Book 2, and a sound work Consonata. He has just completed Languages of Invention, a study of Australian avant-garde poetry and the uses of literary history, and writing has commenced on his next project The Critical Exterior, a study of criticism’s “three exteriors” – theory, history, prophecy – and literary exteriority. He is a lecturer at SUIBE.

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