Seven Paws Press, (April, 2004)
489 pages; paperback. RRP: $24.95 (US)
Reviewed by Kirk Little
How many astrologers does it take to interpret a horoscope? Twelve, according to Raphael Nasser, whose 2004 book, Under One Sky invites a dozen contemporary practitioners to perform blind readings on the horoscope of an interesting woman named Joyce. To keep things real, she gamely offered her biographical sketch, which the astrologers were not allowed to see in advance. OK, Nasser doesn't really seem to believe it takes twelve readings to understand one person. Rather, he is intrigued by the heterogeneous nature of modern astrology. The premise of his book is quite simple: to test the accuracy of twelve different "astrological traditions" used by the various practitioners. Never mind that some of the approaches on offer hardly represent unique traditions within the field; there is something intrinsically interesting about listening in as these astrologers practice their craft.
Blind readings are the bane of most astrologers, but to skeptical outsiders, they seemingly present the only real challenge to practitioners, who are not allowed to meet, much less know anything about the person, other than their date, time and place of birth. Nasser acknowledges his own initial skepticism about astrology which he opted to confront by having his own blind reading. The ninety minute reading he received left him "dumbfounded and confused about why astrology worked", however, during a subsequent attempt to learn how to read a horoscope, he discovered "there was no monolithic, authoritative doctrine subsumed under one rigorous framework." (p. 2) His critical Virgoan nature was dismayed to find "too many overly self-assured experts making extravagant claims about the nature of astrology". Whether that is what this book indeed reveals is what keeps the reader reading. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was "shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in here!", Nasser was shocked to discover "irrespective of the system they practice, astrologers tend to sweep thorny questions about the nature of astrology under a thick carpet of esoteric jargon, shrugs and blank stares." Welcome to the club. He could have left things there. Instead, he followed his Uranian muse and created this book.
Before the book gets to the readings, Nasser introduces us to the astrologers by asking them a series of questions and allowing them to ramble a bit. To anyone acquainted with the field, some of the practitioners are well known: Rob Hand, Demetra George, Kim Rogers-Gallagher, Ronnie Gale Dreyer and Steven Forrest; whilst others are simply seasoned professionals lacking wide name recognition. A few seem to be primarily writers-Ken Bowser of American Astrology magazine, or theoreticians, such as Robert Schmidt, of Project Hindsight fame. Whether by accident or design, Nasser ended up with six men and six women in a field dominated by women. Most appear to be white American baby boomers (there is one Scottish woman who ended up in California), who apparently entered the field either during the 1960's or in the decade following. Their collective biographies reveal the usual crooked, fated paths which brought them to astrology. They share broadly eclectic spiritual perspectives, some Eastern tinged; most embrace reincarnation and "karmic" approaches, regardless of their astrological "tradition". These demographic facts are not surprising for this profession, but do lend the book a certain monolithic quality, despite Nasser's intention of providing the full spectrum of modern practice. Millenials or really any astrologer/reader under forty may feel they have been invited to one of their parent's parties, where they are asked to be polite and not roll their eyes at some of the behavior of their elders. Anyway, all the contributors seem surprisingly normal; no one engages with super celestial beings or shadowy stellar forces. Several do speak with confidence about past lives and dispense New Age nostrums; most have the good sense to mask some of their odder notions, but fortunately, not all. This can make for some interesting reading.
The twelve "traditions" are, with one exception, forms of western astrology; Ronnie Dreyer practices Vedic astrology. Several of the "traditions" hardly merit that term, if we define tradition as a time honored practice handed down from generation to generation: Archetypal, Psychological, Modern Western, Evolutionary and Light Hearted traditions all use fairly standard modern western techniques based on planets, signs and aspects and houses. All except Dreyer and Ken Bowser, who presents Western Sidereal, use the Tropical Zodiac. Most use the modern ten planets and the nodes: even Rob Hand, who gives a didactic reading based on medieval techniques doesn't eject the trans-Saturnian planets. Of course, Gary Christen, a well known Uranian astrologer, uses the eight "invisible" Trans-Neptunian planets (or TNP's, as they are known to Uranian astrologers) along with the usual ten, plus the other points important to that school. Demetra George's Asteroid Centered approach mercifully adds only 57 asteroids (out of over seven thousand) into the mix, while Rob Schmidt rigorously disavows anything his Hellenistic forbears would not have recognized. Wendy Ashley's Mythological tradition uses some fixed stars and adds a few extra constellations on top of the Tropical Zodiac. All in all, someone moderately familiar with the language of astrology should be able to follow the astro-logic of these readings.
Since the premise of the book involves a comparison of readings for one person, it suggests some kind of clinical trial for each tradition, which tallies the hits and misses and then declares a winner. That is not what happens; Nasser is an agnostic referee who lets each tradition have its say. Thus, the reader finds themselves (at least this reader did) toggling between each reading and the biographical particulars supplied by Joyce. It is like the reader is engaging in some variant on the famous Vernon Clark trials, where astrologers were asked to match ten horoscopes with potted biographies of real people. For those curious about the results of that experiment, astrologers did better than chance by a statistically significant outcome.1 Here, the reader, unlike the participant One Sky astrologers, has ready access to Joyce's biography and thus can see how well each reading maps onto the "real story". There is some good news for our field: even someone moderately skeptical of astrology would have to admit that consistent themes do emerge from most of the readings. There is method to the madness. Even more, some of the things the astrologers have to say seem to be true for Joyce. For example, most of the astrologers picked up on her Mercurial nature: a bright, literate person who flitted from career to career and enjoyed success of sorts in several; classically, she also experienced difficulty finishing or staying with many of her endeavors, be they graduate school or relationships. Several practitioners indicated she was witty or had a talent for comedy, but nothing in her biography suggests this, though it may be true. We wish we could ask one of her friends. Similarly, other major themes are stressed by the majority of practitioners, though naturally, their interpretive emphases vary.
One must admire the sheer pluck of all the astrologers for their willingness to engage in this exercise in speculative interpretation. Lest one think their task was easy, the astrologically informed reader may wish to have a whack at interpreting the lady's horoscope, before reading the book. Now imagine writing up your results into a coherent five thousand word essay that actually attempts to say something meaningful. If you find that challenging, well, perhaps that is what separates the punters from the pros. Most of the participants demonstrated the capacity to paint some kind of consistent astrological portrait; a few showed a real flare for the task. Demetra George's reading was terrific: insightful and full of intuitive hunches which seem to be on the mark. Steven Forrest similarly displayed a grounded, deeply empathic style, which made his interpretations seem both plausible and true. Naturally a couple hemmed and hawed, vigorously hedged their bets or found refuge in some sophisticated excuse making. Wendy Ashley mostly talked about five "potential" myths, which Joyce may or may not have been living. Her cafeteria approach ensured that at least one myth might speak to the actual person. More reasonably, she said that in actual practice she depended upon feedback from the client in determining which myth to emphasize. And why not? The task set for all the practitioners is well nigh impossible to achieve. According to skeptics, if astrology is a science, its practitioners should be able to produce a complete portrait of a person: their appearance, preferences, interests, loves and hates, occupation, deepest desires, neurotic inadequacies…pretty much everything. And they should be able to predict the future exactly. Unfortunately, except for the last sentence, many astrologers agree with this picture. Therein lays the rub.
I found myself wondering, what if Joyce had been born in, say rural China or equatorial Africa? What if, instead of the lively, socially progressive Joyce-a virtual poster child for the type of person who commonly visits astrologers, the participants had been given the horoscope for someone born with severe brain damage or a life altering condition like severe autism? Stand alone horoscopes do not provide symbolic evidence of such conditions in my experience. Would those same interpretations have just looked foolish? This is the skeptic's challenge, of course, but it does raise important issues. An astrological reading is not a clinical trial, nor would the prospect of receiving twelve simultaneous readings be either helpful or desirable. Rather, the choice to visit an astrologer arises out of the unique needs of a particular person at a particular time and place. Clients are engaged because they are hoping to find answers to some important questions or to help them resolve some kind of internal dilemma or navigate a difficult phase in life. Without such a pressing need present, astrological readings tend to fall flat: they become empty character readings or meaningless excursions into minutiae. Since we are not told whether Joyce had such a need or desire, we are left to wonder what impact they had for her. Of course, the question remains: do the various astrological traditions matter?
My answer would be, not so much. That is not to say the different approaches didn't yield different insights or that the interpretive focus held by each practitioner wasn't somehow informed by their metaphysical assumptions about the nature of their work. That said, the boundaries between the approaches are porous: Hadley Fitzgerald, the Psychological astrologer had no trouble stating "the birth chart maps the evolutionary work the soul has chosen to do"(p. 35), while the Archetypal astrologer Evelyn Roberts talks about "energies…operating unconsciously" (p. 172) and employs specific psychological terms such as "ego intention" or phrases like "addictive tendencies." (p. 196) Oddly, Roberts made no mention of the Jungian Archetypes, or specific archetypal patterns, thus, making her reading largely indistinguishable to this reader from John Marchesella's Modern Western approach. As to what makes for Ms. Rogers-Gallagher's Light-hearted "tradition" other than that astrologer's predilection for curling up with a cat and a cup of tea while preparing for a reading, it would seem to amount to her annoying practice of referring to the planets by cutesy names like the "Department of Security, Safety and Comfort" (Moon) or "he's the Military General" (Saturn) (both p. 305). Such ploys diminish what was otherwise an interesting and sensible reading. The name of her tradition did make me wonder how she handled the darker energies of the horoscope. Alas! I looked in vain for a light hearted interpretation of Pluto; apparently even an astrologer of that persuasion can't banish death and taxes from the universe. Still, the most alarming comments came from the pen of Robert Schmidt, who ominously intoned "So the actual physical birth of Joyce made a kind of slight and remote impression on the cosmic mind." (p. 369) He did not reference the factors which led him to this conclusion, however, later we learn that he was forced to "conclude that Joyce's soul is not getting much advice from her higher soul to guide her actions." (p. 371) Apparently, Mr. Schmidt didn't receive much editorial advice about rendering such judgments about someone of whom he knows nothing. Before concluding this is why the Hellenistic tradition died out a couple millennia ago, we do need to remember that good techniques in the hands of insensitive people will always produce a travesty of helpful practice.
It would be both easy and depressing to catalogue what the astrologers got wrong. No one, for instance, correctly guessed how many children Joyce had or exactly what type of work she did. Yes, these possibilities were offered up in the scattergun speculative approach that blind readings frequently produce. Then too, with her Moon/Saturn conjunction, nearly everyone speculated that she must have suffered from depression at some point in her life. Nothing in her biography suggests that she did. Were they all wrong, or was Joyce too modest or embarrassed to admit such a thing? Again, we don't find out, but the symbolist in us wants to know, were they right? This tug between our desire to see astrology (or at least some astrologers) validated and our dread that our art/science will look foolish is at the heart of his book.
Mr. Nasser is obviously sincere in his desire to improve both the practice and the reputation of astrology. By providing a comparative compilation of some of our best contemporary astrologers, he has performed a valuable service to the astrological community. To that end, it is important to remember that only a tiny minority of modern practitioners embrace the notion that astrologers are able to plumb the complete mysteries of the human soul with nothing more than their client's birth data. Regardless, the allure of some form of stellar determinism, be it the "soft" determinism of Psychological, Evolutionary or Mythological astrology or the "harder" determinism of say Medieval, Vedic or Uranian traditions, exerts a powerful influence on the imagination of both the public and many practitioners. How does astrology work? This is a persistent but largely unacknowledged question for Mr. Nasser, indeed for all astrologers. It clearly was not his intention to produce a book like Geoffrey Dean's Recent Advances in Natal Astrology designed to reduce the self esteem of every practicing astrologer. He has a much more hopeful outlook. By assembling this book focused on astrological practice, Nasser has raised some significant questions about the nature of astrology. While I am sure he hoped to find some clear winners and losers, nothing of the sort emerges from comparing all the traditions found within the book's covers. The reader is left to choose their own winners and losers, like some reality TV show, based more on style than substance, since we have no more objective measures at hand. In my view, astrology is not a science and astrological readings have more in common with good literary reviews or perhaps poetry, than they do with some type of service evaluated by some kind of consumer board.
There is a deeper problem with the whole raison d'être of the book. Every good astrologer knows that all readings begin in the speculative mode. If we are prepared, at some point in all worthwhile astrological encounters, something transpires between the astrologer and their client, which moves the astrologer into the realm of realised interpretations. As the astrologer Geoffrey Cornelius has written, "The idea of symbolic realisation should be clearly distinguished from a rational inference involving symbols." In the latter, "so and so has Saturn conjunct the Moon, therefore I infer he will be a melancholic character." Whereas in the former, "we sense the Saturn-Moon 'as' the man's melancholy. Such recognition is a spontaneous phenomenon and it has an absolute and undeniable quality to it."2 In other words, the reading catches fire and both people are gripped by a process which draws them into a mysterious realm, where the real work takes place. This is the realm of the imaginal, where the horoscope's symbols speak; they have a valence---emotional, spiritual, and even physical-which has resonance for both the astrologer and the client. Both participants become implicated in the symbols and are moved by them.
The problem with the readings in Under One Sky, no matter how good they are (and many are quite good), is that they remain in the speculative mode. Without that divine spark or mutual desire to discover meaning, these readings never move into this significant realm. Instead, they remain in the realm of the speculative ponderings and imaginings; interesting, possibly true, but not truly moving. Laboratory astrology-the empirical testing of the astrologer and their techniques, as we have here---ensures that no magic can take place. These readings are not for Joyce; how could they be? She did not request or participate in them, which is why they did not burst into life the way astrology at its best can. They are for the skeptical reader, starting with Mr. Nasser, who hopes to discover the true magic of astrology. By thinking it resides our art's many techniques, he encourages an understanding of judicial astrology, which has led us down the dead end of scientific testing. This approach plays into the hands of our skeptical critics, ever ready to devise more tests, which reduce astrology to nothing more than an absurd practice based on outdated theories of the cosmos, whose techniques do not stand up to empirical testing.
Ten years after its initial publication, Under One Sky still has some interesting things to tell us about the state of contemporary astrology. Astrology's vitality is on full display in the multiplicity of approaches gathered together here: the same book could not have been produced in 1970 or even 1985. Ever wondered how Siderealists and Tropicalists compare? It's here. Can Uranian astrology ever appeal to your meat and potatoes ten planets types? Gary Christen sure makes a good case for it. Does medieval astrology have anything worthwhile to show us? Certainly you would be hard pressed to find a better tutor than Rob Hand; his guided tour is well worth reading. Do you want to hear from a thoughtful realist who doesn't share your affection for the Tropical Zodiac? Ken Bowser is your man. And who better than Ronnie Dreyer, to show us the unique insights of Vedic astrology? So relax, buy the book and enjoy. There is something for everyone…except perhaps those fussy types who want to eavesdrop on real astrological encounters. And them? They can call their astrologer.
Gorham, Maine September 2014; published online May, 2015
Notes and References :
For a discussion of Clark's experiments, see John Anthony West's The Case for Astrology, (Arkana, London, 1992) pp. 354-9. For a more extended discussion of the scientific testing of astrology, including Clark's work and attempts to replicate its findings, see Geoffrey Cornelius' The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination, (The Wessex Astrologer, Bournemouth, UK, 2003) chapters 3 &4. Clark is discussed on pp. 59-66. (Back to text)