How Not to Write a Pop Astrology Column



The Czech author Milan Kundera once wrote a pseudonymous astrology column. Black-listed after the Russians invaded his country in 1968, he’d been reduced to casting horoscopes to survive. So, while questioning its use as a predictive tool, Kundera writes with firsthand insight of astrology as metaphor of life. Astrology chose him, it would seem; rather than the reverse, as with me – yet I too once wrote a column from financial need. I also had numerous articles published, based on independent research. Students and fellow professionals read them, but lay readers would have been out of their depth; so, unlike my short-lived weekly column, the articles didn’t attract business. I wrote them from sheer passion for my discipline.

Since I shed the skin of astrologer and began to reinvent myself (as what, exactly, remains to be seen; it’s an ongoing experiment), I’ve had to switch from objective thinking – essential for counselling, teaching and research – to the subjectivity needed to inhabit fictional characters. Awarded a residential writer’s mentorship in 2002, for a realist novel with a fairytale theme (does that sound paradoxical?), I hoped my bid to broaden my audience might soon bear fruit. The setting for this meeting with a literary midwife – I had a room of my own, set apart from the other mentees, in a garden – seemed, in its enchanting solitude, auspicious. My midwife came straight to the point: my narrative comprised two voices; one that wove a spell by showing, and one that kept breaking the spell by telling. These disparate voices didn’t gel; I got the midwife’s drift. But rather than trusting me to create two separate documents by cut + paste, she insisted that I cut up my ms with scissors. As calmly as possible, given my gut-level resistance, I assured her that we could skip the symbolic ritual. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I dared not defy this rare champion of my work – even if she’d begun to look like a fairytale witch who exacts some great sacrifice.

Most nights that week, over dinner and wine, we writers discussed our private lives. The topic of astrology was popular. As Kundera observed when the Marxist–Leninist editor-in-chief of the magazine that employed him clandestinely sought a personal reading, the most unlikely people often lean toward ‘the occult’. My mentor, an acclaimed journalist and novelist, was no exception. It emerged that the objective voice – a vestige of the job I’d abandoned – was the part of my project that had grabbed her. Rather than excise it, she said, I must expand on it.

Maybe I shouldn’t have cast her horoscope just because she asked; but I was postponing the onerous task of unpacking a mothballed persona. And, in her enthusiasm for my oracular streak, she offered to set me up with a well-paid weekly column – not twelve bite-sized chunks of pseudo-prediction but 600 words geared for general interest. All I had to do was write a few samples for her approval. I wrote six, simplifying more than I had for new students; tried to inject cyclic themes like midlife crisis with humour.

My midwife pronounced the pieces unusable: each contained at least three or four ideas instead of the one or two fit for skimming on a Sunday over croissants in bed or a bowel movement. Yet, if they had to be more superficial (à la the column), I’d lose interest. (See below for example #2 of what I got so wrong.)

Seeing is Believing?

Astrology has enjoyed a revival in recent years, and not its first. The discipline, an art as well as a science, has been around since ancient times. Big deal, you may say, so has war. It’s funny how war also happens to be an art as well as a science, yet that fact hasn’t undermined its legitimacy. Still, despite its detractors, astrology has long been used to predict wars (with varying degrees of success), or warlike atmospheres.

Take the planets Saturn and Pluto. Their alignment in the heavens, in adverse aspect, has been shown to coincide with large-scale conflict—even before Pluto was discovered. Take their 1914 conjunction, after the outbreak of WWI. And they were aligned in a ‘hard’ 90º angle when WWII began. Of course, if a world war erupted every time they made an aspect, our solar system might be missing its third, blue planet by now. But is it any surprise that during 2001, Saturn opposed Pluto?

I’ll set the scene and maybe you’ll recognise it. Saturn stands for (among other things) structure, systems, control, fear, denial and mortality. Think of it in the sign of the Twins, Gemini—symbolised by twin vertical bars, linked at the top and bottom by horizontal lines. Gemini, at worst, can be two-faced, air-headed (it’s an air sign), and a verbose spreader of rumours. Does any nation spring freely to mind?

On the other hand, Pluto, when it gets bad press, is implicated in destruction, coercion, secrecy, ruthlessness, extremes and immortality. Envision it in Sagittarius—symbolised by an archer’s arrow crossed by a bow. Sagittarius, flip side of Gemini, tends to be single-minded, hot-headed (it’s a fire sign), and a faithful believer. Like the arrow. Loosed from a bow, it strikes its target if the archer’s aim is spot-on. The arrow can’t think for itself. Its role is simply to fly straight.

Gemini’s twins are thinkers, but they have a short attention span. As soon as they hear news they pass it on. Truth isn’t a priority. Freedom of speech is. And so, you can’t believe everything you read. Seeing is believing—but eyewitness reports rarely amount to more than fragments of the puzzle.

Meanwhile, the mission of Sagittarius, the archer, is to walk the talk, to set examples that honour the highest truth. But we all know truth is relative.

What we know about events in New York on 11 September 2001 is mostly attributable to the Gemini-style media. What we don’t know, points to a lack of Sagittarian vision. For, while Gemini thrives on detail, courting information overload, Sagittarius scans the big picture in search of meaning.

As for those two opposing planetary forces, Pluto always has the upper hand, even if its action is underhanded. But no planet ever belongs to any race or individual. If nations or individuals disown the part of themselves that, like Pluto, manipulates, they have to hang it on some external threat; and if they tend to over-identify with Saturn’s traits of authority, dignity and paternalism, they can treat others with disrespect.

If the astrological symbolism of the WTC disaster is so obvious in the aftermath, you might well ask why no-one predicted it. I can’t say for sure that someone didn’t. But, in a culture that thinks it’s opposed to blind faith, whoever would have believed them?

*

Though elements of the above might stretch suspension of disbelief from arduously straining or idly chewing sceptics (while the level of analysis is glib enough to make me cringe), this bitty piece does make metaphoric use of zodiacal imagery. And astrology’s symbolic richness surely accounts to some degree for its appeal to writers like Milan Kundera and Jeanette Winterson (as can be seen in, for instance, her 1997 novel, Gut Symmetries).

What became of my schizoid coming-of-age novel (after well-meant intervention created a monster)? In consultation with another, more qualified mentor, I edited all traces of the intrusive voice from my ms, which now lies dormant in a bottom drawer, awaiting the coming not of some prince but of a new cycle of inspiration.

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