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When bad portents doom good people

The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles, By Michael Wood, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 271 pp., $23

Pick up this book even if you don't think you have an interest in oracles. You will, by the time you've finished.

As a piece of advice, followed by a prediction, the previous paragraph is a lot more straightforward than anything ever uttered by a true oracle. I've told you quite clearly what I think you should do, and what the result is likely to be if you do it. Oracles, in contrast, have traditionally dealt in ambiguity. They hint, they suggest, they speak in riddles that make sense only in hindsight. Michael Wood, who teaches at Princeton and has written books on Vladimir Nabokov and Luis Buuel, believes that ''oracles are precise mirrors of our needs, marking all the places where our available knowledge doesn't seem to be enough."

Part cultural history, part literary analysis, and part philosophical discourse, ''The Road to Delphi" is an elegant guided tour through the intricacies of oracular pronouncement. In any given myth, ancient or modern, when an oracle speaks, the important question is always one of interpretation: What does the oracle mean? Wood is concerned with an even larger area of interpretation: What does it mean that we have oracles?

Perhaps the most famous oracle story is that of Oedipus, which has been retold many times, with many different slants. In every version, the oracle plays a pivotal role. Oedipus meets and murders his father, Laius, on the road leading to the oracle at Delphi, which both men have wished to consult -- so the oracle not only foretells the tragic events, it in some sense causes them. Without the decision to visit the oracle, both of them might have stayed safely at home. But could they have stayed home? Wouldn't the same events have overtaken them somehow by a different route, because, as Wood suggests, ''The oracle is always right. The question is not whether it is right, but how"?

In a subtle exploration of the myth's many recastings, Wood focuses on crucial differences: what the oracle tells Oedipus in each version, how he chooses to interpret the pronouncement, and how he decides to act as a result.

In Sophocles' play, Laius is on his way to Delphi, and Oedipus is heading away from the oracle, having just heard the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Thinking to spare his foster parents -- the only parents he knows -- he decides not to return to Corinth, where they live. In his wanderings, he comes to a crossroads, fights with an old man, and kills him, not realizing that the man is his father. In his attempt to evade the prophecy, he has stumbled into fulfilling it.

The concept of a crossroads is key. ''The crossroads is the place where the murder happened, and also where it might not have happened. That is what the crossroads is: an intersection of contingency and necessity, the site of the irrevocable deed that wasn't irrevocable until it occurred."

For Sigmund Freud, who universalized the Oedipus myth, the story takes place in a realm of what Wood calls ''unbearable verbal quibbles," where the ironic ambiguities reflect ''the free associations . . . of a mind that both knows and doesn't know what it is really thinking: that stumbles into terrible truths as if they were puns." Freudian awareness is embedded in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1967 film ''Oedipus Rex," which cuts back and forth from the Oedipus story to a modern father looking at his baby son in the cradle. ''The child himself is all the oracle the father needs. He is not told, like ancient Laius, that his son will kill him, as if this were an exceptional danger and required exceptional measures. He already knows what the relations of sons and fathers are like."

On Wood goes, looking at Stravinsky, ''The Golden Legend," sybils, Michelangelo, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cassandra, Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa, Milton, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Thomas Mann, ''1984," ''The Matrix," and ''Minority Report." The effect is of riding on the back of some fantastic undulating sea creature: There is a lot of unexpected movement, but the writing is so agile and graceful that you never fall off.

The birth of Christ was widely seen as signifying the death of oracles, which the church considered pagan and literally devilish in origin. Here Wood widens his definition of oracles to include modern examples in medicine, astrology, and, with witty aptness, economics. ''Francois Mitterrand had an astrologer when he was president of France, Nancy Reagan had one when she was in the White House, but the most important of current oracles in the West is surely the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve Bank."

Ultimately, our need for oracles reflects our dislike of uncertainty. We cannot tolerate the idea that things just happen, that major events hinge on random circumstances. We want to believe that outcomes are predetermined, that the story of our lives is already written, even if we will never be allowed to sit down and read it. We wish for divine portents that might help us to shape -- or evade -- our destinies, if only we are shrewd and wise enough to interpret the messages correctly. And that is a huge ''if only." Obscurity in an oracle is not the same thing as coyness. Nor is it a rebuke from the gods for asking presumptuous questions. In Wood's eyes, it's an acknowledgment of the complex truth that the future is only certain once it has already happened.

Joan Wickersham is the author of ''The Paper Anniversary." She lives in Cambridge.

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