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Astrology, a Place in Chaos by Bernadette Brady

Book Review

Astrology, a Place in Chaos
by Bernadette Brady

ISBN: 1902405218, Paperback, 178 pages.
Published by The Wessex Astrologer, 2006.
Price: £15.50/$28.00 + p&p.

Reviewed by Garry Phillipson

Consider the plight of your reviewer, embarking on a review of a book by Bernadette Brady. It's a book by Bernadette Brady for heaven's sake; you already know it's going to be great. You don't need me to tell you to buy it. Just get yourself down to your favourite bookstore, buy copies for yourself and all your friends, and stop bothering me.

That is, of course, the bottom line. This is recommended reading for anyone with a serious interest in astrology. End of review.

But for all that, let me strive to fulfil my reviewer's dharma by saying something more. So far as I know this is the first book to attempt to integrate chaos and complexity theories, and astrology. This has long been an interest of Bernadette's (see her interview from 1998 on this site). (Another source for discussion of the chaos-astrology relationship, with which regular Skyscript readers may already be familiar, is Michelle Jacobs' 'Chaos Astrology' website - 'Best of the Web' from December 2003.)

Brady begins the book by contrasting two models of creation, that of 'Cosmic Creation' where there is nothing until God creates order, and 'Chaos Creation' where order emerges from the void, or chaos. She describes how astrology is rooted in cultures, such as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, which took the latter model, and makes the case that astrology was always going to struggle in a society, such as the modern west, which is based on the former - and which therefore implicitly assumes that all real things are susceptible to a rational, linear explanation.

She then provides a short account of the origins of Chaos theory in the modern world, looking at key figures such as Poincaré and Lorenz. It was Lorenz, in his work on how weather systems develop, who formulated what is probably the best-known image of chaos - that of a butterfly's wing-flap in Brazil leading to a tornado in Texas. The point being that "the smallest change in a complex interrelated system at the beginning of a process gives rise to disproportional differences at the end". [1] This unpredictable quality necessitates a distinction between purely mechanical, 'linear dynamic systems' and chaotic, or 'non-linear dynamic' systems. [2] In a striking image, Brady points out that objects existing in a relationship-rich environment - such as a group of people in a room - will function in a non-mechanical, and in this precise sense 'chaotic' manner, until they all are dead - at which point the atoms of their bodies will behave as a linear dynamic system, moving (or not) in an entirely mechanical, and therefore predictable, way. [3]

Thus far (the concerned reader might think to themselves), chaos theory could pry astrology free from the cold, dead hands of scientism, but only at the price of rendering it unuseable. If a nominally tiny influence - say the transit of Ceres' heliocentric nodes over my 5th harmonic Juno - can set up a chain reaction that would be more powerful than a Saturn return, then whither astrology?

The way beyond such problems, and towards a recognisable order in astrology, can be found - Brady suggests - in two principles which she illustrates with reference to Mandelbrot's work on fractals: Scale Invariance, and Self-Similarity. These mean, respectively, that "a shape within an emerging pattern will reoccur at different magnitudes"; and "each time it reoccurs, it is similar to but a little bit different from its previous expression". [4] These principles obtain in the narrow margin between stasis and utter randomness which is the domain of Complexity Theory - a branch of Chaos Theory. After describing the way in which fractals embody these principles, Brady writes:

Living groups which by definition are also involved in rich feedback loops also act like a fractal and spontaneously create patterns which reproduce over time through scale invariance and self-similarity. These patterns can be seen in history as the rise and fall of civilisations, the repeating patterns of dictators, wars, discovery and renaissances. You can also see these patterns closer to home in your own family history and you will undoubtedly see these patterns in your own life. [5]

You will get an idea of the direction things are headed here - there are patterns in life, which apply at different scales. Which surely seems as if it should connect to astrology. Next we get to one of the main planks of Brady's thesis:

…if the findings of chaos theory have significance for the way human life unfolds, we can argue that the unfolding pattern of a human's life is indeed sensitive to its initial conditions. Thus by analogy, astrology's preoccupation with the initial conditions at the moment of birth of an individual is arguably a justifiable position, since one cannot have some of the principles of chaos without all of them... It is possible to consider the horoscope as a justifiable, albeit simple, map of the initial conditions of the emerging new life… [6]

We therefore have something that is not a hundred miles away from the concept, found in astrologers from Ptolemy and Rudhyar, of 'seed moments'. [7] Though this idea is not in itself entirely uncontroversial let us leave such controversy to one side in favour of another question: in the context of chaos theory, how could it be explained that the particular set of celestial bodies and relationships which most of us work with, can be an adequate epitome of the 'initial conditions' of a new life? Brady indicates the mechanism she has in mind a little later in the book:

Over time as a pattern grows and spreads through a culture, it would eventually acquire what is known in complexity as "lock-in": the condition that occurs when a particular expression of an idea, object or pattern has become so dominant in the culture that it becomes resistant to change, and acquires homeostatic qualities. Thus, for example, Venus around 3,500 B.C.E., may well have begun to absorb symbols and meanings… Thus the astrological meanings of the planets are co-created by culture's engagement with the self-organising and naturally emergent astrological patterns. [8]

A lot rests on what she says here, and this is an area of her argument that I think could do with being dwelt on and worked through in greater depth. If the things that make up our horoscopes have acquired their meaning through a long process of interaction with human thought, that might explain how the horoscope factors we currently use are sufficient, out of all the possible points we might use. But this model brings plenty of other questions and issues trailing in its wake, for instance:
- does this amount to saying that astrology is a structure which exists in the collective unconscious? Brady quotes (on p.77) a Jungian who equates 'strange attractors' (axial patterns in chaos theory) with archetypes, so this seems as if it could fit; but this really would need to be fleshed out.

- A potential downside to this model of how the planets came to have their meanings is that under it, when people first started attributing properties to Venus et al, the planets would at that point have signified little or nothing; so at the outset astrology would have been more or less meaningless and mistaken, only acquiring significance because people continued to believe in it regardless. So, far from being more in tune with natural wisdom than modern people, the ancients who created astrology would have been barking up the wrong tree (with the proviso that sufficient barking would eventually turn it into the right tree). This is probably not a version of astrology's birth that many astrologers would be happy with - not that this in itself invalidates it.

- Again, under this view of things, would it not be the case that sceptical attitudes towards Venus et al would tend to expunge the meanings that astrological minds infuse them with?
I could go on. This seems, to me, to be a crucial plank in Brady's argument, and as it stands it begs a host of questions. My understanding is that Bernadette's research into chaos as a model for astrology is going to continue for some time to come, and I would like to think that questions such as these will be given consideration as her work continues. Though I should add that, personally, I am not convinced that we will ever have a satisfactory explanation for why the horoscope as we have it will often give the essence of a horary dilemma, or of a time in someone's life, and so on. At the end of the day we may not be able to do much more than say that 'it's just the way things are' - and whether we ascribe it to Scale Invariance or Divine Providence may not amount to a whole hill of beans. As indeed Brady remarks:

Jungian psychologist James Hillman… suggests that our soul is like an external entity that knows our fate or destiny and leads us to that place. One may call it the personal daemon or the dharma of the person's life, or simply the will of God, or the gods. Chaos theory, however, would either call it the seed equation of a fractal or the strange attractor within a complex living system… [9]

So chaos theory is not a replacement for other ways of thinking, so much as an alternative which will strike some people as the best way for them to characterise life's essential mysteries, and which may throw particular light on certain issues. As Brady says,

Chaos has not discovered new concepts but rather, through mathematics, is providing a language for the experience of life. Chaos is giving a language to the place outside the walled garden. [10]

The 'walled garden' is a term Brady coins early on for the world as it is understood by "causal linear logic", [11] and the world outside those walls is a world of omens, superstitions and ritual - indeed, a world of chaos.

Much of the book is concerned with "giving a language" to astrology, providing a scientifically-credible paradigm for what astrologers do. This is an indisputably important endeavour. But there is also something of great practical value for the practising astrologer here. It is summarised when Brady writes:

… if we make small, repetitive changes in our daily routine at a time when the pattern of a life has reached a bifurcation, [e.g. a major transit] then it may be possible to coax a new emergent pattern into life and stimulate it to form a cascading change to the whole pattern. [12]

The point here, as I take it, is that our lives tend to get locked into repetitive patterns but that, at least at certain crucial junctures, it is possible for us to play a creative and participatory role in changing the direction of our lives. This involves changing one's routine - perhaps in such a small thing as stirring one's tea in the opposite direction from normal. [13] Such a change is seen as the tiny event, the 'flap of a butterfly's wings', that has the potential - if it is cultivated and nurtured properly - to lead on to huge consequences, such as a significant change in one's life situation.

Brady draws a parallel here with the use of mantras in Jyotish. This, I believe, is important stuff, and is something which western astrology is very much in need of. How many of us, if we see (say) a Saturn transit coming up, tend to assume that the best policy is to keep our heads down until it passes? What Brady is talking about here is a more proactive, indeed participatory, approach to astrology where we engage and work with the symbolism of a time rather than just closing our eyes and thinking of England. And surely this is an issue of the first importance for astrologers to take on board.

Of course, the idea that we can benefit by doing things to jolt ourselves out of routine ways of thinking and acting is not new. I think of the Oblique Strategies card set devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt - oracle cards originally devised to disrupt habitual ways of doing things in music recording studios, the most famous of which reads 'Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention'. Or Gurdjieff's teachings, for instance:

In order to observe himself a man must try to walk not in his habitual way, he must sit in unaccustomed attitudes, he must stand when he is accustomed to sit, he must sit when he is accustomed to stand, and he must make with his left hand the movements he is accustomed to make with his right hand and vice versa. [14]

Or, indeed, just the commonsense advice that is given to people suffering from depression:

Change your normal routine by taking a break for a favorite activity or something new - even if you don't feel like it… [15]

As I say, I am convinced that - if understood and used in the right way - this is a really powerful and effective tool for change, and something which should ideally be incorporated into the approach of every western astrologer. Here, again, there is much to be discussed. For instance, Brady tends to characterise the work of the astrologer as being to map and represent the times when interventions are most likely to take hold and produce effects. But what if a chart reading can in itself be an intervention, a butterfly's wing-flap that sets in train major changes in a person's life?

This book raises so many questions. This is, I think, both its strength and its weakness:
- It is a weakness insofar as the argument is rather thinly stretched in places, and some sections of the book are stronger than others. It would be good to see some of the ideas being explored more fully, and to include more discussion of parallels between chaos thinking and other traditions. For instance it would be good to see some discussion of Hermetic philosophy, for there is surely a great deal of similarity between some of its main principles and chaos theory's principles of Scale Invariance and Self-Similarity. (Oh yes, and a PS to the grumbles: the book's editing/proofing leaves something to be desired.)

- It is a strength in that the major ideas behind the book are profound, fertile, and vast. In the end, this is by far the most important thing. The positive far outweighs the negative, and there is much to admire and celebrate in this book. As I have tried to indicate in the latter part of this review, I believe it is as important for its practical implications for astrological practice, as it is for its discussion of a new paradigm for astrology.


Garry Phillipson
November, 2006

Notes & References:

  1] p.57 - NB that 'disproportional' appears as 'proportional' due to an editing error in the first print-run of the book.
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  2] p.58-9.
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  3] p.60.
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  4] p.64.
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  5] p.65.
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  6] p.89.
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  7] For a critique see Geoffrey Cornelius (2003), The Moment of Astrology (2nd ed), Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer, passim. Specific refs to Ptolemy and Rudhyar on 'seed moments' are at p.84-5 and p.94-5 respectively.
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  8] p.104.
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  9] p.119.
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  10] p.81.
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  11] p.21.
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  12] p.154.
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  13] p.154.
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  14] PD Ouspensky (1980), In Search of the Miraculous, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p.112

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