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Searching for life’s signposts

We don't believe in horoscopes - so why do we read them?

Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Topics Politics

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I have a secret horoscope ritual. I read it weekly. I anticipate its predictions and advice with relish, even need. Sometimes I stay up late to catch it, hot off the digital press. Even more daring (to admit), I care about what it says. I don’t believe, though. So what is care without belief?

I know I’m not alone in caring, or in subterfuge. Astrologer Sydney Omarr, who died recently, and whose internationally syndicated column appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times for 32 years, sold over 50 million copies of his horoscope books. According to Taming The Beast.Net, which publishes free internet statistics, ‘horoscope’ is one of the most popular search terms in Google (above ebay, below porn). It’s between the virtual street vendors and street walkers, and it also has an intermediate degree of public stigma.

Sometimes the reticent, the sceptical, will confess to noticing their horoscopes – but like Aladdin’s cave, only for the right request. According to Astrology.com, in a 1996 Gallup Poll, only 25 per cent questioned said that they believed that the position of the planets and stars affect people’s lives. But a poll of English students taken a few years later found that everyone questioned knew their star sign, 70 per cent read their horoscopes regularly, and 85 per cent thought they matched the description of their astrological birth sign.

If few people believe, many subscribe. ‘People take it very seriously’, the astrologist Antoinette Trusel told me in an interview. For the past 20 years Trusel has written a weekly horoscope column for the San Francisco Chronicle under the pseudonym, Minerva. ‘Last year I received lots of emails from disgruntled Virgos’, she said. ‘They said their year wasn’t going as well as I’d anticipated.’ Three years ago, when Trusel moved to a small town in the California gold country with her new husband, one of the first people they met was carrying a tattered newspaper clipping of one of Minerva’s columns of several years before. ‘She’d carried it as a talisman’, said Trusel.

But there’s a darker side to horoscope predictions and assertions. They’re nostalgic for another, darker era, pre-enlightenment, pre-science, the era of the womb-like Earth centric theory, when everything spun and shone around us. Astrology gives credence to the unquantifiable. This means it’s open to interpretation and manipulation, malleable as a Rorschach ink blot. If hunches are sufficient, the whole scientific apparatus might as well be dismantled. Horoscopes might fill part of the gap that religion once did, but they inspire little belief. This means that people now look to what they don’t believe to help delineate their life.

Horoscopes aren’t really about prognostication. This explains why many people who read them don’t really believe their veracity – but still they keep on reading. A close second to knowing the future is hearing that the future is important and varied. When I asked Trusel whether she ever goes back and checks her predictions, she said no. ‘I usually forget about them after I’ve written them’, she said. Except for the woman who carried around the clipping, Trusel’s predictions usually have a short shelf-life. ‘I hope no one’s basing their life on it!’ said Trusel. ‘I hope they’re entertained, it gives them something to think about, gives them a smile.’

More than a power to predict the future, horoscopes thrive on the hint that there is something greater out there to derive an understanding from – for many people God might occupy this place, if they believed in God. This is the idea that life has an organising principle, that each individual matters, down to the very details.

The sense of importance it bestows is why the fortune-telling industry sometimes preys on the unlucky. Like a dilapidated beachfront town or a lottery ticket, it stirs excitement, and then disappoints. People seek answers from the pseudo-sciences in troubled times. When the real doesn’t satisfy, they look for alternatives. Nazila Fathi examined this trend in an article entitled ‘Bad economy leads Iranians to seek fortune in supernatural’, in the New York Times (1). According to Fathi: ‘Bookstores are filled with books on Chinese and Indian Astrology and different forms of articles about how to find a soul mate.’ According to one local account, this type of book multiplied in bookstores by approximately five times.

Making predictions, even if they are vague, irrelevant predictions, implies the power to make them, a handle on the master-plan. California astrologist Rob Brezsny, who writes creative, thought-provoking horoscopes, says his weekly mission is to ‘spew out 12 oracular riffs and shape them into terse word-bombs’. But rather than predict the future, he gives peripheral vision to the present. In a recent Cancer horoscope, Brezsny quotes the novelist EL Doctorow, who said: ‘Creativity is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Brezsny compares life to this night drive – but writes that this week Cancer will have greater vision: ‘It will be as if the whole world is suddenly illuminated…; as if you’re both driving your car and also watching the journey from up above.’

Horoscopes are sought for just this sense of illumination and perspective. ‘It takes you a little outside of yourself’, said Trusel. ‘It takes a little onus off some things.’ Part of this modern onus comes from confusion about what is and what isn’t controllable. In the time-strapped West, at least, sense of infinite possibility often goes along with a sense of impotence. So it’s crucial to know when to act and when not to act. To optimise the quality of life, it seems, one must know where, exactly, are the interstices of control.

People use stories to help organise perceptions of the world. In an introduction to her collection of essays The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live…. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices.’

But we need more substantial narratives than horoscopes, narratives we believe in, to live by.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs is an American writer who lives in London, and has worked as a spiked intern.

(1) New York Times, 20 February 2005

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Topics Politics

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