The Allure of Palmistry
At dinner last week, one of my house tutors read my palm. Paul Ma-chemistry tutor, volleyball player and seer extraordinaire--recently took a course at MIT on the "science" of palmistry; his reading was therefore perhaps more authentic (if the word applies at all) than that of a woman outside Faneuil Hall last summer, who told me that I would be married and pregnant by the end of my 18th year. And he was perhaps little less authentic than the New Delhi mendicant who five year ago divulged that I would earn royal honors for my humanitarian work in the Third World.
I have a strong propensity to believe in any flattering prophecy, even if the prophecy contradicts the more rational side of my mind. On the other hand, the Indian mystic wasn't a total con. This turbaned guru-of-sorts also told me that my only health problems would involve my digestive tract; three weeks later I was hospitalized for paratyphoid fever, also known as intestinal salmonella. So we'll suspend our skepticism for him, even though he tried to hawk his cure for AIDS to my physician mother so she could market it in the United States.
On the other hand, Paul's revelations didn't reveal anything probability couldn't: I'll have two children, one smart; my career will be intellectual-ish; and my libido is on an accelerating upswing. Nothing I couldn't have told you. But Paul's foresight wasn't entirely banal. He told me how to spot Murderer's Thumb--broad at the knuckle, narrow at the top. A statistically significant proportion of death row inmates have it. He also tried to justify his art by citing its genetic basis: apparently 60 percent of babies born with a simial line (when the intellect and love lines are one) will develop Down's Syndrome, and doctors always examine newborns' palms for it. Paul said there are 150 articles and journal reports on Cabot Library's science articles directory about palmistry.
If I took Paul's prophecies with more than a barrel of salt, it's only because my skepticism actually stems from a strong desire to believe. No one ever forced his or her palmistry on me--in each instance, my palms literally itched to be read. I'd even paid the Faneuil Hall woman five dollars for her prophesy--in advance, of course. This desire to believe merits some examination, especially because it is so pervasive among Harvard students. Paul said he has read the palms of more than 100 Dunsterites in the past six weeks.
Part of the fascination with fortune-telling stems from the self-centeredness deeply rooted in the Harvard psyche. We love to contemplate, if not believe in, the idea that the courses of our piddly lives are mapped in some metaphysical atlas. Besides, it's axiomatic that Harvard students love to be analyzed. We love to be the focus of any kind of attention. We're vain and probably undernoticed.
Moreover, palm reading--and listening to others' fortunes--is a form of gossip justified by mystic tradition and courses at MIT. Paul's predictions were based as much on what he wanted to know about you as what your palm actually indicated ("I see some inconsistencies in your Venus Mound...did you have some tumultuous romance problems a few months ago? Tell me about them...").
But despite its apparent frivolity, the penchant we "intellectuals" have for palmistry is symptomatic of a looming gap within. It is intellectualism and science which have drilled the hole we seek to fill with fortune-telling. The fact that MIT, renowned capital of science and reason, offers a course in palmistry, proves it. MIT needs some brand of irrationality to counter and assuage its otherwise hyper-ultra-rational pursuits. (Harvard, on the other hand, fulfills its quotient with the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies). True, literature and folk and myth concentrators swarm around Paul; but he is even more accosted by computer science and physics concentrators, begging for a grain of his prescience. The modern world sneers at the concept of fatalism and propounds and increases individual agency, but we still want to be told our futures. We still want to believe in destiny.
Now, more than in any other epoch, individuals determine their own futures. This very fact of near-equal, overabundant opportunity is paralyzing. This effect is heightened at Harvard, which (excepting such anomalies as finals clubs) approaches the ideal of a meritocracy. What will I do? What should I do? What can I do? We have a pathological need for reassurance that is caused by an endless array of opportunities.
The need to know the future is thus a direct consequence of modernity. The future is in our hands, not on our hands, and this fact is more than a little daunting.
Pooja Bhatia is a Dunster House resident who wonders what the future will bring.