The stars down to earth
The mythologist cuts himself off from all the myth-consumers and this is no small matter. . . . To decipher the Tour de France or the `good French wine’ is to cut oneself off from those who are entertained or warmed up by them. The mythologist is condemned to live in a theoretical sociality; for him, to be in society is, at best, to be truthful. . . . His connection with the world is of the order of sarcasm.
-Roland Barthes, Mythologies
If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?
-Joan Osborne, “One of Us” (italics mine)
Alright, so now that I’m back home and at my leisure to post, I can write a few words about astrology. Man, I’ve been itching to write about this one for a while now. This isn’t going to be my only post today, if everything goes according to plan…I want to play catch-up with the past week or so, and write a few words in preparation for Burning Man.
But let’s start with the zodiac, shall we?
When I was teaching on the East Coast I found myself in a long, overheated conversation about dating and astrology. I’ll skip the dating conversation, which was essentially a series of painful confessions dressed up as sassy philosophy, and go right to the astrological part, which lasted about half an hour.
Now, if you know me, then you know that I was born in November, and you know my standard response when the stars come up. Here’s what I say:
RANDOM PERSON: You’re a Scorpio. Whoah.
ME: Yes. It’s totally the best sign to be, because you get to be super-dark, fascinating, and dangerously intense. I mean, who doesn’t want to be the bittersweet chocolate?
A perfectly usable example of this kind of awesome Darth Vader Scorpio rhetoric is the following link, sent to me by a friend after an amusing conversation about all this:
But that’s just party chat. The truth is that we’d all be a lot better off if we got rid of the zodiac, astrology, tarot, and so forth, right away.
Astrology and tarot look like knowledge, insofar as they involve complicated systems that have to be compared with each other, and which order, and extrapolate from, pieces of data (your birthday). However, there is no basis for any of the results that astrological processes produce, aside from various arbitrary traditions, and interpersonal intuitions. We actually accept that there is no basis for this; it turns out that groundlessness is part of astrology’s appeal. It doesn’t matter if every book, newspaper horoscope, and so on says something slightly different, because the point is to feel the thrill of a discovered truth without any of the responsibilities which real truth might entail.
This in turn feeds a general interest in consequence-free simulations of truth, of which the worst are spiritual bon bons like Coelho’s The Alchemist. These books are so shameful because they produce a feeling in the reader equivalent to the recognition of a destiny, but are so light on content that the reader is not actually confronted with the facts of her own life; at most, the reader is encouraged to adopt a sentimental and superstitious and idiotically blithe style.
Hence it’s not surprising that the most popular “spiritual” books should take the form either of novels and fables (The Celestine Prophecy, The 5 People You Meet In Heaven) or of collections of aphorisms. Whatever real force these narratives possess is scattered in the first instance by their fictional distance from real life, in the second by a fragmentary form. Of course, neither fragmentation nor fiction necessarily insulate the reader, or else Nietzsche and Dickens would be equally ineffectual. But that is the tradition of reader response here.
It would be bad enough if the only problem with astrology was its place in the pantheon of false and hokey spiritual self-help. But wait! There’s more!
Astrology is possibly the most gendered discourse in contemporary America. It is female. Women are the primary audience for the astrological industry, and within social groups there is invariably someone who has read one or more astrology handbooks, and can give “readings.”
Now, one of the things that I love best about culture is that you can share it. I listen to the Arcade Fire, I know a few things about the Arcade Fire (for example, I’ve seen them in concert), and I can heartily recommend them to other people. If they obtain a copy, we can then talk about the band, and they can in turn recommend a different band to me.
Astrology does not work this way. It’s a piece of culture, all right, but one which can only be used by women or sketchy guys trying to be “deep.” As a result it completely reinforces all existing stereotypes about women possessing exclusive access to mysteries and intuitions that compensate them for their lack of rationality.
The dynamics which accompany this resurrection of the feminine mystique are quite often unjustifiable exceptions to our normal thinking about life. For example, my college girlfriend had a female friend (we’ll call her Y) who was increasingly isolated, and who believed that she was communing daily on the astral plane with her unrequited love, a man decades older than herself. She was suffering from delusions and hidden forms of depression that required sympathy, support, and treatment. However, when Y performed a reading for her friend, she became the dominant person in the interaction. Candles and incense, arcane charts — instead of sympathy and support, here was the delusion writ large as prophecy.
That’s an extreme example, but for me it’s a reminder that people who dabble in the occult are still people, relating to each other in various ordinary ways, such that we have to assume that the real truth of astrology is the effects it creates between people. My experience has been that these effects generally involve pretended belief, heightened insecurity about oneself, gender myths, and finally sexuality.
It really isn’t an accident that the astrology conversation happened at the same time as the dating conversation. Astrology, like the personality tests on OK Cupid and eHarmony.com, exists at the pressure point where desire confronts modern problems of transient contact with other people, and a more or less complete absence of self-knowledge. Rather than looking up at the stars, I would rather admit that the map has to be re-drawn every time.