BORDEAUX: Admittedly it was the silly season – the August doldrums – but nevertheless I was surprised a few years ago to see a leading French newsmagazine run a cover story labeled “Plunge into the Irrational.” The writer advised readers to stop trying to figure out the world. The occult can do it for you.
The French are not alone in this weakness for the irrational. Seeking answers from the beyond is a favorite pastime of the Germans and the Swiss. In Denmark, the International Society of Business Astrologers encourages the business community to consult the alignment of the planets as a supplement to research on financial markets and other initiatives.
EU Commission research indicates that 52 percent of Europeans believe astrology has a scientific basis compared to a more skeptical United States and Britain, at about 31 percent each.
This weakness for pseudoscience became one of the themes in a book I was writing recently on how France fits into the modern world. The more I probed, the more I could see the two layers of the European mind at work here – strict discipline inherited from the educational system set against a taste for the unexplainable. One study indicates 81 percent of the French believe science will never answer all the big questions.
Palmistry, the crystal ball and astrology have never been so popular. Just last week I received a flyer promising success, money and true love within 21 days – for free. A closer reading revealed this was the story of a satisfied customer of “Lise and Rose, the celebrated clairvoyant sisters.” It had nothing to do with me. But I could feel myself being drawn into the vortex.
Incidentally, to be labeled “irrational” in some countries is no insult. The Enlightenment may have come from here, but France in particular is a wonderfully complex society. The French seek solace in part because, according to cross-cultural studies, they are not very good at living with uncertainty.
The main French professional clairvoyance organization, INAD (Institut National des Arts Divinatoire) says some 100,000 men and women are practicing clairvoyants in France today. This is about four times the number of Roman Catholic priests. INAD estimates that about ‚¬3.2 billion are spent annually on their advice.
Visiting a seer might even be interesting, I thought, but then did I want to find out what some old lady in a star-studded housecoat and turban thinks about the inner me? She might convince me to change my life – which I happen to like quite a lot as is, actually.
I’d be in good company. French political leaders have taken the irrational plunge. The late President Franc,ois Mitterrand had regular consultations with his favorite seer and former President Jacques Chirac reportedly consulted his horoscope every morning. I doubt that the current president, tough-minded Nicolas Sarkozy, indulges.
Living here, though, it is hard to avoid the temptation to take a first-hand look at the professional ball-gazers. The popularity of the occult has mushroomed since the creation of telephone hotlines and consultation via the Internet, says Josiane (no last name), manager of 14 clairvoyants at France Voyance. Her clairvoyants do nearly all their consultation remotely.
I finally gave in. I recently rang up a clairvoyant to find out what I’m all about. “Catherine” sounded like a woman in her 60s and said she worked out of her home. No crystal ball was needed; her stack of cards would be enough to figure me out. “I have the gift,” she assured me.
What I got for my ‚¬45 was part common sense, part what seemed to be lyrics to a country music song, part pure poppycock, delivered in a breathy, cracked voice from afar. I asked her what I should do with my life.
“Untie the knot within you.”
“Never stop dreaming – be true to your desires.”
“Keep calm. Give yourself more liberty. Keep moving.”
She flipped another card.
“There is another woman. Resolve this conflict. She might be your daughter. The cards are not specific.”
I had the feeling she had used some of this material before.
At the end, she upped the voltage a bit. “You are bound up like a mummy. You are suffocating. You are out of harmony with your space. It is time to go back to America.”
Wait – I’m not doing that, I thought to myself. I spent two years fighting the bureaucracy to get settled here.
I asked her how she was going to fix me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I am telepathic.”
Michael Johnson is the author of “French Resistance: Individuals vs. the Company in French Corporate Life.”