My Stars

Graham Hough

  • The Magical Arts by Richard Cavendish
    Arkana, 375 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 1 85063 004 6
  • Astrology and the Third Reich: A Historical Study of Astrological Beliefs in Western Europe since 1700 and in Hitler’s Germany 1933-45 by Ellic Howe
    Aquarian, 253 pp, £5.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 85030 397 4
  • The Astrology of Fate by Liz Greene
    Allen and Unwin, 370 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 04 133012 9
  • Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
    Chicago, 361 pp, £21.25, June 1984, ISBN 0 226 61854 4
  • Fruits of the Moon Tree: The Medicine Wheel and Transpersonal Psychology by Alan Bleakley
    Gateway Books, 311 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 946551 08 1

Some little time ago the art of printing with movable types was developed, and this has meant in the end that everybody can know everything. There is no hidden knowledge. There is no longer any point in seeking out the venerable archimage behind the iron-studded door in some darkling alleyway of the old town. He has no secret doctrine; there are no more arcana; the ancient wisdom has all been reprinted. Prospero’s book has been brought up from the depths and published in paperback, and the fatal treatise that led Faust to his damnation is edited with an introduction and notes and suggestions for further reading. In the High Street bookshop the occult section is settled comfortably beside gardening and cookery; and the only person who has not noticed is the Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge, who recently gave six lectures on television about the decline of the supernatural. He spoke of ‘The Sea of Faith’, and found it to be at a very low ebb. Perhaps he should have looked a little farther. The water may be receding over the mudflats on his stretch of coast, but round the corner it is flooding strongly. The black tide that Freud was so afraid of in the early years of the century has been making a steady advance. When I was a boy no one knew the signs of the zodiac: now everyone does. Most people under forty seem to believe in reincarnation. In my own immediate family there are no less than five copies of the I Ching, and every village in England has its quota of resident yogins, astrologers and cabalists.

Guidebooks to these regions abound. Richard Cavendish in The Magical Arts makes an ambitious survey of the whole field – numerology, the Cabala, alchemy, astrology – and then, crossing the boundary between the dubiously permissible and the outright dangerous, goes on to ritual magic designed to raise spirits, and finally to commerce with the evil powers. It is soberly done and very well-informed, relying for the most part on sound secondary authorities. The theoretical bases of alchemy and astrology (for they have theoretical bases) are not generally understood, and they are expounded here with admirable lucidity. And since these beliefs have informed our culture for more than two thousand years, the elucidation is worth having. It is not till we get to witchcraft and the Black Mass that a certain ghoulish sensationalism makes its appearance, and then no more than is inherent in the material.

We can group all this under the head of magic. The word is vague, but it should mean at least two things: 1. that parts of the world are controlled by forces other than ordinary physical causation; and 2. that through occult knowledge and special procedures these forces can be influenced or even controlled by man. These beliefs were of course deeply affected by deficient knowledge of ordinary physical causation. The greater part of what we now think of as magic, ‘natural magic’ as it was called, was simply misguided natural science, ruled by logical but erroneous doctrines of sympathy and analogy. By pissing towards the sky you make it rain; by putting salve on a weapon you heal the wound; because a mandrake root looks like a human form it helps women to bear children. This vast swampy area should be viewed with understanding by the 20th century, for, though its boundaries have changed, it is today as extensive as ever. And, as ever, most of the activity is on the medical fringe – dianetics, radionics, black boxes, macrobiotics, homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology and the dietary fads that sweep through the newspapers every week. Apart from the real addicts, innumerable quite ordinary people feel on occasion that since science hasn’t done them much good they will try what a little magic can do – and wear a copper bracelet against rheumatism. The archetypal roots of these practices are sometimes evident. In general they are the reverse of the Hitlerian Strength through Joy: for the most part, they are decidedly anti-joy. Fibre is abrasive, so to consume quantities of food textured like old doormats is equivalent to wearing a hairshirt, and will bring corresponding benefits. Salt in alchemy is earthy, female, and symbolises the body: by eschewing it we free ourselves from carnal taint. The superiority of everything brown to everything white (bread, rice, sugar, more recently, I notice, pasta) seems to spring from some quite non-functional sympathy with the Third World. But few people have carried the physical side of natural magic to the point of doing themselves much harm. The psychic aspect is a different matter.

Different again are those large-scale magical systems that seem to include, however vaguely, a cosmology and a metaphysic. Alchemy and astrology are the prime examples. Cavendish is illuminating on both. Alchemy had a long run, from late Antiquity to the 18th century, but is now really extinct – unless we are to count Jung’s highly rarefied exploitation of one side of it as a genuine continuity. The peculiar feature of alchemy that Jung has seized on is its belief that what is true of metals is true of the human soul. As the metals can in alchemical theory be stripped of their impurities, reduced to primal matter, and reconstituted as pure gold, so can the soul of man. We can therefore read the fantastic and often unintelligible accounts of what purport to be chemical processes as allegories of psychic development. The defect in the argument, not noted by Jung, is that since it doesn’t work for metals we are given no reason to suppose that it will work any better for the soul.

Astrology is in a stronger position and has lasted longer because it has respectable if antiquated scientific connections. The observations that go to make up the horoscope are real observations, and the horoscope is a genuine map of one segment of the heavens at a given moment in time. Whether this configuration affects the destiny of those born at this moment is another question – a question, it might be thought, that can be easily dismissed. But in fact it has never been wholly dismissed: it has remained a vexed question through all the centuries, including our own. It is probably the link with astronomy, most prestigious of all the empirical sciences, that has kept astrology alive to this day. For it is alive to this day. There are about two thousand newspapers and magazines in the United States that carry astrological columns, and 20 magazines devoted entirely to astrological matters. The proportions are not much different in Europe. Jung’s assertion that the heyday of astrology was not some time in the Middle Ages but is now in the 20th century finds confirmation from Ellic Howe. His book, virtually a reprint of his earlier Urania’s Children, offers a remarkable sidelight, since he came to astrology not from fringe science or occultism but from psychological warfare. He describes the intense astrological revival in Germany after 1918 and shows that it became sufficiently powerful in the Nazi period to be seen as a useful weapon both by some of Hitler’s satraps and by Allied practitioners of disinformation.

Astrology and the Third Reich is not a well-planned book. It tries to get too much in, as Howe himself confesses. But as a consequence it includes a great deal of miscellaneous information otherwise not easily encountered. He shows how various are the uses to which astrology has been put – psychological, theosophical or whatever. In Germany especially it tended always to rise from its beginnings in humble fortune-telling and aspire to the condition of a science. The science to which it attached itself was the typically German one of characterology, which already had an independent repute and status. Kretschmer’s Physique and Character and Jung’s Psychological Types both appeared in 1921. And Jung, as he himself has told us, used to study the horoscopes of his patients as an aid to diagnosis. This marks a movement of astrology away from the dubious claims of prediction towards another kind of understanding. Liz Greene’s book The Astrology of Fate expounds an English version of the same process. Liz Greene, it appears, is both an astrologer and an analytical psychologist of a distinctly Jungian cast. The resultant discussion of her art is curious, sometimes absorbing, but also confusing and unpersuasive. This is partly because it is not clear what we are being persuaded of, and partly because, for all the precisely detailed astrological minutiae, the element of demonstration is singularly lacking.

The first part of the book is concerned with Fate. Fate seems to mean the element of blind chance, usually calamitous, as it impinges on human life: Hardy’s ‘crass casualty’, war ruin, disease, death; Moira or Heimarmene in its most sombre aspects. Greene sees it symbolised astrologically by Pluto, the most recently discovered of the planets. It seems strange that this most ancient of the gods should have appeared on the astrological scene only in 1931. What follows is essentially a poetic-astrological meditation on Pluto and how we are to take his intrusions into our lives. There are bright patches of considerable insight and wisdom, but there are much longer stretches of impenetrable cloud. And we never get what should be the foundation of the whole enterprise – any clear indication that the appearance of Pluto in the horoscope has ever coincided in any definable way with the changes and chances of the lives discussed. As a psychologist, Greene is concerned with the archetypal images that the child projects upon its parents. These may or may not correspond to the ‘real’ character of the parents, but they are in a very real sense the child’s fate. Greene then proceeds to assume that this fate is represented in the features of the child’s birth horoscope – but never gives any clear indication of this happening. Her astrological commentary is so intricate and at the same time so vague that the reader is overwhelmed by the sense that anything can mean anything. This book arouses in an acute form the reflection that comes with all astrological writing – that apart from the improbability of the basic premise, the process of translation from the symbolic system of the horoscope into normally intelligible statements is so infinitely elastic, the symbols so recklessly plural in their meaning, that nothing of the slightest authority can be said.

But this leaves a large question unanswered. Why is it that astrology makes such a strong appeal, as it evidently does, to many not imbecile minds? For the same reason, I suspect, that Jung is fascinated by alchemy – it provides a language, rich, varied, suggestive, in which psychic vicissitudes can be represented and discussed. Just because it is so far removed from the discourse of science or ordinary affairs, it makes opportunities, opens up vistas that otherwise would have remained hidden. The empirical claims become unimportant. Liz Greene casually asserts that in centuries gone by astrology had actual predictive power: it foretold accidents and sudden deaths. Now for some reason it has lost this power: it can deal only with the inner world. But this doesn’t seem to worry her or need any explanation. Similarly Jung, in talking of Eckhardt, transforms the language of scholastic theology to a pure psychologism, so that it no longer has any of the substantial reference that it had in the original. But he does not seem to notice. For the quest he was engaged on perhaps it does not matter.

What are the qualities required of a language that shall articulate these obscure needs – needs that many moderns evidently feel and that 19th-century survivals like the Dean of Emmanuel are determined not to satisfy? By language we mean, not a lexicon, but a whole symbolic system. In the first place it must be a complicated system, because the world is a mystery, which plain men deeply desire to recognise, and intellectuals to explore. A language which does not give room for intricacy and depth will not satisfy. Before long, simple faiths develop complicated theologies; it clearly corresponds to some deep human desire that they shall do so. And these rationalisations must be internally consistent, at least over considerable areas. The instinct for argument, for enforceable demonstration, needs satisfaction, however fantastic the premises. Rabbinical, scholastic, catechistical, theosophical complexities have always been important to the structure of belief. This does not mean that the system as a whole, or its relation to empirical reality, must be rational. Indeed it had better not be. It was never an obstacle to the spread of Pauline Christianity that it was a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Most faiths of any enduring vitality contain some dazzling contradiction, some unbridgeable gap, or some energising discrepancy between their assertions and the facts of common experience. It is important that they shall do so. It is not their aim that the believer shall understand his fate, but that he shall be empowered to deal with it. They have chosen to outface the irrationalities of the world with their own irrationalities – sometimes sublime, sometimes merely irrational, but at all events more powerful than the infertile lucidities of the village atheist or the polytechnic explainer.

Astrology is something less than a religious system, to whatever uses it is put, but it has generally stood in some relation of rivalry to established religion. The influence of the stars is something other than God’s providence, and alien to it. The very names of the planets remind Christianity of a pagan past. And today astrology is only one of the various revivals of magic, theosophies, Westernised versions of Oriental beliefs that are growing in strength as institutional Christianity declines. Are these just the disintegrating fragments of an exploded world-view, the magical world of our ancestors that only a few incurable recidivists are trying to piece together? If so, the recidivists have had some skilled help. One of the great changes of outlook since the end of the last century is the altered position of myth, its promotion from a decorative fancy to a serious mode of thought. The anthropologists from Frazer to Lévi-Strauss; psychologists, including, let it be remembered, Freud quite as decisively as Jung; Cassirer, the philosopher of symbolic form; Eliade, the historian of religion – they have all taken their place in this enormous expedition. It has led them to the top of a very slippery slope. Even on the intellectual uplands the foothold is not firm. It has been objected to both Jung and Eliade (not to mention Freud and Lévi-Strauss) that their use of evidence is too uncritical to justify the speculative conclusions drawn from it. On the lower levels the ground becomes extremely swampy and the mists extremely thick. The idea has grown up of a vast repository of myth, unsorted, undifferentiated, a primeval jumble-sale from which prophets in search of mana, artists in search of inspiration, neurotics in search of healing and pilgrims in search of enlightenment can pick at will. It is forgotten that those who have come back with anything worth having from these forays have always had something to guide them other than myth itself.

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty is prepared to face these dangers, and for part of her way she has a sturdy guide. Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities is a difficult book to describe. It is in part a work of learning – very rich and generous learning at that. It is a collection of Indian myths and stories, ranging from the Vedas to modern folk-tales. The tales, condensed and translated in an admirably lively fashion, are all about dreams, illusions, shared dreams, dreams within dreams, situations where an illusory world spills over into the real world. They are interspersed with exegesis on several different levels. Some of it is quite unproblematic, straightforward scholarship. The section on the meaning of illusion, for example, elucidates the concept of the Sanskrit maya, and corrects in a few crisp pages a mistake to which I think most of us are prone. It points out that the extreme world-denying creed that would strip phenomenal experience of all reality is not the typical Indian view, not even the typical Indian philosophical view. It is the doctrine of one school only, and there are others that accord full reality to the empirical world. Such passages as these are real additions to our understanding. But there are others from which my understanding at least emerges in a more clouded condition than before.

Professor O’Flaherty’s strength is in her vast and special knowledge of the Indian texts and their background. Where her ambitions fly higher, to a quasi-philosophical discourse of her own, she is less well-equipped. She divides the Western intellectual tradition into two branches, unhelpfully labelled ‘soft’ and ‘hard’; and these two blunt instruments are required to do work for which they are quite unfitted. Plato comes out as a softy and Hume a hard man – which does not suggest any deep familiarity with either of those authors. It is implied that the tales give some new insight into the relation between illusion and reality: but this claim is not made good. At times it seems that Ms O’Flaherty is not really trying. ‘Mine is not a tightly structured argument,’ she rightly says, and she goes on to speak of her ‘freewheeling form’ and the exasperation it will cause. This peek-a-boo style recurs to often, and makes one think what a fine book this would be with less soda-water in the mix.

Fruits of the Moon Tree is conceived in a different spirit. It is a proselytising work and announces a gospel – a gospel so oceanic that the reader is left grasping at any recognisable spar he can find. The subtitle ‘The Medicine Wheel and Transpersonal Psychology’ is helpful only in part. Transpersonal Psychology is probably some relation of Archetypal Psychology, a neo-Jungian school of considerable potential chiefly associated with the writings of James Hillman. We are never told what a Medicine Wheel is, but it seems to function as the principal symbol in the doctrine of a sage called (fasten your seatbelts) Hyemeyohsts Storm, who has rediscovered paleolithic metaphysics. But Alan Bleakley’s hospitality is boundless: it includes voices from prehistoric sites, the whole of Greek, Norse and Celtic mythology, Pythagoras, the Druids, Taoism, the Tarot, the doctrines of Freud, Jung and the neo-Jungians, Reich and his orgone accumulators, Robert Graves in his White Goddess phase, and, underlying everything, a gynaecological psychology which attaches great importance to the menstrual cycle. When faced with such a dazzling embarrassment of riches it is often useful to inspect the boo-hurrah distribution of the system in question. In this case the boo words are ‘male’, ‘rational’, ‘conscious’, ‘thinking’, ‘waking’, ‘extravert’, ‘Aristotle’, ‘Olympian’, ‘Apollo’. The hurrah words are ‘female’, ‘animal’, ‘unconscious’, ‘feeling’, ‘dream’, introvert’, ‘Plato’, ‘chthonic’, ‘Dionysus’. As often, Plato finds himself in strange company; and, of the Jungian faculties, sensation gets in on both sides – boo as against dreaming and hurrah as against thinking. A general direction begins to appear. Life is to be one long dive into the hidden depths, and anything we find there will be ben trovato.

The ocean in which we are to plunge is the Jungian collective unconscious. This concept has been the cause of more misunderstandings, in adherents and opponents alike, than anything else in Jung’s thought. The commonest misdirection is to forget that the unconscious really is unconscious. It is a complex of predispositions, located in some deeply buried psycho-physical region far below the level of awareness. Jung calls these predispositions the archetypes, and insists that directly and in themselves they are unknowable. They manifest themselves in myth, legend and dream. But these are cultural artefacts; they have been worked on, sometimes by individual genius, more often by collective creativity, and they exist in a multitude of different forms, as there are a multitude of different cultures that have produced them. When Jung says that modern man has become alienated from the deeper levels of his being and that his life in consequence has come to lack meaning, it is the lack of this active genius, this collective productive power, that he speaks of. The collective unconscious is a fountain of activity, not a cosmic supermarket from which we can stock up with ready-packaged myths. We can agree that it is a task for analytical psychology to put man again in touch with deeper strata of his being. But this cannot mean, as Bleakley seems to suppose, that we are to swallow a vast farrago of miscellaneous fantasies, drawn at random from any and every culture, at any and every level of development. In illo tempore, at the time when, as we are told, man was more closely in touch with the unconscious sources of his life, he did not and could not gorge himself on huge miscellaneous banquets of this kind. He had only the resources of his own culture, he used images drawn from his own experience, that spoke to his own condition. He was spared the absurdities of Californian Hindus, Cockney Red Indians and Wimbledon Druids. If ever the lost connections are to be made it will require deeper and more directed explorations than these. Books like The Moon Tree are the skindeep products of a culture that exists only in print. They testify to a hunger, the hunger that Jung has described, but if they offer a few partial satisfactions it is at the cost of a great deal of flatulence, giddiness and nausea.