Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an “intellectual”—find out how he feels about astrology.

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

But what did Heinlein really mean by that? Frankly, it might not be what you think. Yesterday, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember ever noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Alexandra Vesant, or Allie, the astrologer who has become a member of the Martian religious movement founded by Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether delivered through the voice of an authorial surrogate or not, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its very “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein must have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which all just demonstrates, as if we needed a reminder, that astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

This is true enough. But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like the one above, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” And like it or not, this can lead to an interesting insight, as long as you’re willing to look for it. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (On a similar level, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d just pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means don’t matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us into new directions of thought about the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I think Heinlein would agree.

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