I don’t tell fortunes, but the study of fortune-telling methods has been a hobby of mine for a long time, so when I saw Lon Milo DuQuette’s Book of Ordinary Oracles on sale for a couple of dollars at a secondhand bookstore, I figured why not.
Mr. DuQuette is, apparently, something of a big shot among people who think magic is spelt with a k. Wikipedia says that he’s the U.S. Deputy Grand Master of Ordo Templi Orientis, an Archbishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, and a faculty member at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies; according to the blurb on the back of the book, “He has studied the occult for over 30 years, and is in great demand as a lecturer.”
So, whatever the merits or lack thereof of his field of study, he ought to know it inside out, right?
As the title suggests — and the subtitle: Use pocket change, popsicle sticks, a TV remote, THIS BOOK, and more to predict the future and answer your questions — Mr. DuQuette’s book is primarily about whimsical non-traditional divination techniques using things you probably have around the house. However, he does also deal briefly with more time-honored methods, like tarot cards and the I Ching.
I first began to suspect his expertise when I got to the tarot section and was treated to a rather garbled history of the cards. The author implies that the 22 trumps (sic) were used by themselves in a popular Italian game, Tarocchi, and that this game was later combined with “a Turkish card game called Mamluk” to create the tarot deck. He uses all the right words here, but misunderstands the connections in a way that reminds me of the student history paper (qv) that says “The Ides of March killed [Caesar] because they thought he was going to be made king.” But at least he gets the basic idea right — that tarot was created in 15th-century Europe and incorporated older playing cards used by the Mamluks — instead of saying the cards came from ancient Egypt or something, which is what a lot of tarot writers do. The bar for accuracy is pretty low when it comes to the history of tarot cards, and it’s not like you need to know anything about their history to read them effectively anyway.
The I Ching, though, is another story. Here Mr. DuQuette absolutely disqualifies himself as a competent commentator by showing complete ignorance of the fundamentals: the eight trigrams. Here’s a table of the trigrams from Mr. DuQuette’s book, with my annotations:
That’s right, he identified only one of the eight trigrams correctly. I’m still trying to figure out how he did that. I mean, either you know the trigrams or you don’t. If you know them, you get them right — or at least get most of them right — and if you don’t, you look them up and copy them down. You might make a mistake in copying, but you’d at least expect it to be a systematic mistake — copying the translations in reverse order, or transposing everything one space to the right, or something like that. But there’s nothing like that here. I have tried in vain to find any connection whatsoever between Mr. DuQuette’s mapping and the correct one. Was he reading the trigrams upside down? Did he read yin for yang and yang for yin? Did he list the trigrams in one of their established orders and the captions in another (for example, the Earlier Heaven and Later Heaven arrangements)? No, no, and no. This is a truly random pairing of trigrams with translations.
Is it possible that he thought he knew the trigrams without looking them up but made a few mistakes? I don’t think so. Mistakes are easy to make — I don’t think I could identify all eight trigrams from memory with perfect accuracy — but some mistakes are simply impossible for anyone with any knowledge at all. All-yang is Heaven, and all-yin is Earth; how hard can that possibly be to remember? At least he got Heaven right.
But complete and utter ignorance isn’t an adequate explanation, either. The trigrams themselves are listed in their standard order, for one thing. I couldn’t do that from memory, and I’m sure it couldn’t be done by someone who thinks the 坤 trigram represents a lake. And each of the eight translations is the correct translation for some trigram, so he at least knows that the trigrams are a set including Heaven, Earth, Fire, Water, and so on. Someone with no knowledge of the trigrams at all could never have produced this chart — but neither could someone with any knowledge of the trigrams at all! A paradox.
I’m beginning to think that the only possible explanation is that Mr. DuQuette did this on purpose, presumably just because he could, and because it’s fun to shit with one’s readers. I suppose a more charitable explanation would be that Mr. DuQuette is so utterly sincere that he consulted one of his “ordinary oracles” (flipping a coin, for instance) to determine which trigram was which, and was confident that the answers he received would be correct.
The kicker is that Mr. DuQuette ends his book with “The I Ching of Mi-Lo: A Highly Personal, Mildly Vulgar, and Not-at-All Scholarly Rendering of the Classic Text.” That’s right, this clown who doesn’t know one trigram from another, and doubtless doesn’t read a word of Chinese either, has taken it upon himself to translate the I Ching! Even with the “not-at-all scholarly” disclaimer, this is taking chutzpah to new heights. It would be like having Tom Sawyer (who thought the first two disciples called were David and Goliath) translate the New Testament.
What’s sadder than wasting 30 years of your life becoming an expert on the occult? Wasting 30 years of your life not becoming an expert on the occult.
Still, I suppose there’s something to be learned from Mr. DuQuette. The secret to being a successful fortune-teller is absolute and unshakable self-confidence, even to the point of chutzpah — an implicit trust in your own intuitions, and rules be damned. The Tzaddi-is-not-the-Star attitude. I used to lurk at a forum for tarot-readers, and they were always advising one another to “burn the little white book” that comes with the cards and explains what they mean. Mr. DuQuette is certainly a shining example of that ethos.