Was it always to be thus, or might I have chosen otherwise?
At one point in “The Quest,” his modernist version of a quest romance told in 20 brief sections, the poet W.H. Auden derides occult fascinations as “an architecture for the odd.” Astrology, tarot, et cetera. Earlier, he writes of the future, “We pile our all against it when afraid/And beat upon its panels when we die.”
The particular sonnet, which in some editions is titled “The Tower,” but in Auden’s official Collected Poems is simply called number “IX,” concludes with a warning from magicians caught in their own tower:
Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.
Contemporary pop astrology is one of those towers, as Auden might call it. The zodiac is a carving up of the night sky according to real geometry, with each of the twelve signs occupying a perfect 30°, which lends it a mathematical credibility and grounds it in things we might consider “real.” Astrology is not real. Once upon a time, the zodiac was a coordinate system that grounded observers in a spot on the earth (“If this star is in the sky at this angle I must be in Iowa”) at a particular time at night (“If this particular star is in the sky at this angle it must be autumn; further, it must be 1:00 a.m. Now, how the heck did I wind up in Des Moines? Did I really just use a semi-colon in my inner thoughts?”) and so it was very useful. The sky was every traveler’s GPS. It still is, if we want it to be. The zodiac was one way of reading it.
The belief that there is a connection between things happening on Earth and things happening in the night sky at the same time is such a seductive one that it has transcended human eras, societies, religions, and politics. Dictators and democrats alike have believed in auspicious and inauspicious times to begin initiatives or end policies. (Or lives.)
Some believe the moon affects day-to-day life on Earth (besides the tides). The fact that there are people who believe the moon affects day-to-day life on Earth (besides the tides) is the moon’s only effect on the Earth. “It’s strong enough to affect the tides, so it must affect the flow of fluid inside me,” goes the thinking. It the moon were to have that kind of personal effect on each of us, we would never have learned to walk. Part of the day we would be on our right sides and part on our left. And not by choice.
It is understandable that we humans would think of ourselves so non-humbly, that we would see ourselves not only as the conclusion to nature’s long eternal statement, but that we would view ourselves as, well, not merely a conclusion, a period mark, but as THE conclusion, an exclamation point. We are the one who knocks. We aren’t much, but we’re all we think about. In the universal scheme of things, however, humanity’s history may not even show up as a comma in eternity’s sentences.
And that is just fine. Nature or the Big You Know Who Upstairs granted us a wonderful gift, life, for no reason at all, which is the definition of grace.
The zodiac is as attractive as it is, even for those who recognize astrology as a human attempt to think like a god, because it contains and describes just about every human flaw and foible and positive attribute and success in such a compact container that it makes almost every human type seem predicted and even predictable.
It appeals to writers for those same reasons, writers who were Jungian long before Jung was around. People born on November 18 (my birth date; it was a Monday, at dinnertime, 41.7000° N latitude) may carry with them certain tendencies and characteristics, or they may not, and the beautiful thing about astrology is that both of those statements—we may be similar and we may not be—are equally true. There is no need, or way, to add to such a comprehensive package.
The first rule of horoscopes is to remember that your horoscope is not written for you. It does not address you specifically. Horoscopes are written for “people like you,” which is to say that you should read them like a person like you, but a you who reads horoscopes, understands them, and trusts them. This is difficult for a someone like me to even attempt.
Any complaint about a daily horoscope’s failure to discuss or predict your lunch, daily expenses, or death are the complaints of a person with a cold about their cold to a phone salesman.
As mentioned, people like you are those who were born around dinner eastern standard time on November 18 at 41.7000° N latitude. I am one of those people like that: we are called Scorpios, and like many a Scorpio, I am passionate and I am faithful and I fall in love daily and I am mistrustful and perpetually isolated in my own unemotional head roiling with matters of the heart. Like many Scorpios, I am devoted to my friends and I am as cruel as a bureaucrat denied a raise just before taking your call. Like many Scorpios, I am kind and rude, instinctual and devoted to logic, whip-smart and dumb as a box of frayed string; I am both and neither in so many ways and all of none of them at all most of the sometimes always. Perhaps you can and can not relate, if you are and/or are not a Scorpio.
Here is the Scorpio horoscope published for the month of October 2014 in a truly great local magazine (that is not sarcasm; the Chronogram really is a great Hudson Valley magazine and I even wrote one article for it in the 1990s); nothing in it came to pass, or it all did: (ahem)
You may be wondering when things are going to change; you may start to think you’re going backwards rather than making progress. You may seem to lose sight of an important goal, or some crucial idea that you’ve been developing. Fear not. The astrology of the next few weeks is certainly mysterious and will leave plenty of people guessing. Yet as those weeks unfold, you will discover that something is brewing under the surface, and that something is likely to manifest on the day that the Sun ingresses your sign, which is October 23. Now, this leaves a question of what to do if you find yourself in a zero-gravity space, or feeling like you’re unable to think clearly. Your chart says that you will get maximum value from getting lost in your work. Proceed with what you are doing, with full devotion, authentic passion and a healthy dose of curiosity. Imagine that you have no need to think about what’s coming next, nor any desire to do so. Keep yourself focused on the task at hand, which over the next two weeks is likely to get more interesting and take on a value of its own, that is, to be interesting for its own sake. You could call this art or science in its most essential and sincere form, which is the setup for an inevitable breakthrough
The paragraph ends with no punctuation, neither a period nor an exclamation point. The other 11 monthly zodiacal missives for October 2014’s impending October-ness (these were published on October 1st) all conclude with concluding punctuation. Minor typo? Absolutely; every publication (even this one) has typos. They are a fact of life, like dust on a computer screen or sunlight. But might this absence mean something? What if I “act as if” and read it—the typo and the entire horoscope—as if it means something?
An “inevitable breakthrough”? That sounds exciting. But can a breakthrough be a breakthrough if it is inevitable? Don’t I have to be a participant for an event to be a breakthrough, and if it is inevitable aren’t I not a participant but a bystander?
It still sounds exciting and I waited for October 23 last year, when it all happened not at all. Which part did and did not transpire? The sun was ingressing my sign. Last October 23, unknown to me, I wrote a throw-back Thursday piece that day, which covered the past (an old photo), the present (an award this blog had won), and the future (I concluded with a sentence about wanting to learn to meditate, which was unrelated to anything else I had written). Um, wow.
The horoscopianizer was right: The sun was ingressing all over my place that day, but this may have been only because I don’t have any curtains and my room faces the sunrise.
In skies far from here, our sun might be a part of a constellation dictating zodiacal decisions on some other planet, in alien eyes wondering up at a night sky very different from and yet very similar to ours. We do not know, of course; pondering alien psychology is a speculative exercise as fun and empty as considering how many angels can hang out on the head of a pin.
Sonnet number XIV of Auden’s cycle “The Quest” breaks with the previous chapters and their preoccupation with classical sonnet structures—Petrarchan, Shakespearian—and is written in a couplet form. It asks a question that is difficult for both skeptics and believers alike to answer: “[H]ow reliable can any truth be that is got/By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?” In some editions the poem is titled “The Way.” It reads,
Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,
Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.
Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,
And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,
The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,
Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.
And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not? — W.H. Auden, XIV, “The Quest“
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This combines two pieces from last year.
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