Pseudo-science and Rational Woo

First the disclaimer: I don’t believe in astrology.

However, I recently took a trip down memory lane that has to do with astrology. It started when I was reading an old thread at the Chron fora on which an astrologer was posting in ways that people on the thread seemed to find useful—more about working with symbols and archetypes than with predictions, sort of like reading Tarot cards in terms of what the symbols mean for the person getting the reading rather than as they’re generally interpreted. On a whim, I plugged my birth date and place into one of the sites that will give you a full horoscope, what house all your planets are in, the whole nine yards.

The results surprised me, because they were not what I have believed for the past more than forty years.

See, back when I was in junior high, I was quite “into” astrology. I don’t remember if I believed it, or what sparked my interest. Possibly there was a fad for it among my friends; perhaps one friend was annoying about interpreting everything in terms of sun sign, and I decided to find out more as a defense. I mean, obviously not everyone born under Virgo is going to get run over by an egg truck today. What I do remember is that I got books from the library, and read up on both the principles and the techniques, and then, to the best of my ability, calculated my horoscope with all the planets and houses. This was long before the internet, significantly before the computing power now available meant that inputting date, time, and place could instantly spew out all the details. It was also before my math skills were as developed as they later became.

So there I was, at the age of twelve, struggling with the tables and conversion factors in one of the books I’d checked out, and determining that my rising sign was Leo. I liked this result very well, not least because of my fondness for felines. I’m sure that doing all the work was useful in various ways. That is, on the social front, it no doubt allowed me to participate with authority in junior-high conversations (though I don’t remember this part—I try to forget as much as possible about junior high school). Certainly this was child-led education, in that I found something that interested me, went to the library, did the reading, did the math (to the best of my ability), and wrote up my results in a way that pleased me. If I neglected my school homework to do it, well, tant pis; I always have been one to do more of what interests me than what I have been assigned.

The results of my recent whim show that my rising sign is not Leo, nor is my moon where I believed it to be. So much for my long-ago efforts. Looking at what I’m “supposed” to be like according to my new horoscope, I scoff. Definitely a pseudo-science. But! What are the effects of believing, even for a short time, even only half-consciously, that you have certain characteristics? What effect on my adolescent psychology did it have, to believe (or at least, put about to my credulous friends) that I was self-aware, ambitious, faithful, authoritative, energetic, creative? Those are good things to believe about yourself, wherever you get the ideas. It’s hard, at twelve, to have established much of a personality or track record (or so it seemed to me, at the time: friends who knew me at 8 think I’m pretty much the same person now as then!). I spent a lot of time feeling like I was just not-quite at a lot of things I wanted to be better at, so it was helpful to have a horoscope assuring me that I was going to make it, eventually.

So now I wish I had disregarded all the tables and details of my actual birth and just cast for myself the best possible horoscope, the perfect forecast of the person I most hoped to become, and believed in that until I had a track record to believe in. This is what I call Rational Woo: “Sometimes in order to get where your rational self wants to be, you need a little woo-woo. Of course you know the odds against you: will your novel even find a publisher, let alone become a best-seller that will let you move to New Mexico and write full-time? Ha ha. Will your academic book really change the face of the discipline? Uh-huh. Will your dissertation even get you a job? Um . . . .

But an unwritten novel is guaranteed not to be published; the unwritten academic tome doesn’t stand a chance of changing anything; the unfinished dissertation will most certainly not get you the job that requires dissertation in hand. You can’t ensure your own success, that is true. But you can most certainly ensure failure. So you have to at least meet the bar of finishing whatever it is.

And so it’s time for the woo-woo that will let you shut off the voices and the doubts and get on with it. . . . It’s your fantasy life: let it be rich, productive, and comforting. Whatever keeps you doing the work, moving the project forward every day, taking baby steps if that’s what you’re able to do.” So I said seven years ago.

Right now, I want a horoscope that tells me I am a hard worker who sometimes needs significant down-time to let thinking happen in the background; that I can come roaring back from this slow period to knock out a lot of good work quickly; that my trip to visit family is going to go smoothly and be a refreshing change; that the next two months of this summer are going to be excellent for me in many ways, so long as I just keep truckin’.

What a fool believes? Whatever. If I say I have Leo rising, then I have a nice protective lion leaning over my shoulder to help me out, okay? Cat is my co-pilot! I can wake up from a nap and instantly nab a mouse! Cats never doubt themselves. They are perfect just the way they are. So I’m sticking with Leo as my horoscope-totem-whatever.

Do you re-read your own blog?

While I’m re-reading other people’s old blogs, I wound up back at my own, thanks to feMOMhist who linked to the spring 2012 writing group. Wow, I sounded so together so much of the time, and I was actually so.damned.tired. most of the time. Writing was definitely incremental that semester. Must keep this in mind when planning for next year. Well. I will definitely not organize any more conferences. That was the most painful thing. But I really liked those inspirational quotes. Apparently other people did too. Nice to get inspired and feel I did some good in the world, that year!

Thursday, 10 May

“Just as a complicated mathematical formula is a system of brackets within brackets set out in space, so Burden’s mental life of attention and concentration is chopped up into a series of interruptions extended in time.  Day after day after day appears to him in retrospect as a series of frustrated attempts to pick up the broken thread of what was to have been the main business of the day before.  All the time spent on that main business has been spent in getting back to the starting line, no progress whatever has been made and he seems to himself to have wasted the entire day.  Like Alice Through the Looking Glass, he is out of breath with running at full speed in order to keep up with himself remaining in the same place.”

Owen Barfield, This Ever Diverse Pair (London: Gollancz, 1950; rpt. Barfield Press 2010), 37.

Tuesday, 8 May

“Over and over again I have started writing about something really interesting or useful—classical stuff, matters of public interest, the Lord knows what—only to be pulled up with a jerk.  Just as I am getting absorbed in it, up comes Burden.  ‘Hi!’ he says.  ‘I want you!  You must stop that!’  I stop  with a wrench and an abiding grudge against him.  And when five or six weeks later there is a chance to start again, I shrink from re-absorption—remembering the wrench.  You can’t really write with any force about anything on which you are never allowed to fix your attention.”

Owen Barfield, This Ever Diverse Pair (London: Gollancz, 1950; rpt. Barfield Press 2010), 4.

All good things must come to an end

So here we are on the last Friday of our spring 2012 writing group (week 13, if you’re counting).  There will be a 15-week summer group at amstr’s site, starting 14 May.

This has been the last teaching week of my semester.  I feel simultaneously that the term went very quickly and took a long time doing it.  I’m feeling snowed under with grading, conference paper, other projects, and bits of Life Admin, and every time I sit down I remember something else I should be doing.

And yet this is what happens at the end: the loose ends somehow do get wrapped up.  Grades get assigned, papers get presented, the flurry of tasks swirls madly for awhile and then settles down.  Let’s think about where we’ve been, before moving on.

What have you achieved in the last thirteen weeks?  What helped you get writing done?  What obstacles did you acknowledge, name, and cope with?  Whether you exceeded, met, or fell short of the goals you set in February, you’ve made some progress.  Recognize and celebrate that forward progress; think about how to capitalize on what you have gained from this spring’s efforts.

Thanks for being here.

25 July 1994

“We decided to pay our manuscripts a visit [in the British Library].  Harold’s were in the familiar, and efficient, green-box files.  Mine were in a smart woman’s shopping bags: Jean Juir, Ferragamo, The White House, Christian Dior, stuffed with tacky and tatty proofs and papers.  I couldn’t resist it: I took out my phial of Miss Dior perfume from my purse and sprayed my manuscripts.  Harold looks up from his inspection of his early works, which he has quite forgotten about: ‘That is the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen in a  library.  I shall never forget it.’  I’m hoping the perfume will steal upon the sense of some researcher in a thousand years’ time.”

Antonia Fraser.  Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter.  New York: Doubleday, 2012.  219.

1985 editorial comment

“I really couldn’t enjoy Los Angeles, despite meeting the famous as above, until I started to work on my new book on Warrior Queens in the library of UCLA.  I simply wasn’t used to a life of doing nothing in a hotel and it produced melancholy . . . .  It was a city, we found, where people worked hard on films and went to bed early; it didn’t suit our way of life of roistering and relaxing after the theater.”

Antonia Fraser.  Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter.  New York: Doubleday, 2012.  182.

Sounds good to me: a city where people go to bed early and are about early in the morning.  I could live with that.

26 May [1978]

“[John Fowles] and I discuss fans’ letters which ask for advice.  His is, briefly: ‘Those who need to ask how to be a writer will never make it.’  Mine, to married women wanting to be ‘a writer like you’: ‘You need to be a very, very selfish person.’  No doubt households, hitherto peaceful, are being widely disrupted where the wife has taken my advice.”

Antonia Fraser.  Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter.  New York: Doubleday, 2012.  116.

3 June [1978]

“We interviewed Vidia Naipaul . . . . Vidia reveals that he writes fiction and non-fiction quite differently—typewriter v. hand-writing.  I love hearing details of writers’ craft, as cannibals eat the brains of clever men to get cleverer.”

Antonia Fraser.  Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter.  New York: Doubleday, 2012.  105.

30 July [1975]

In the face of vicious reports from gossip columnists, Antonia Fraser “Forced myself to write my weekly review for the Evening Standard (I had been chief non-fiction reviewer for several years).  I sat in Diana’s garden in my long flowered cotton ‘writing-dress’ and a red hat against the intense heat.”

Antonia Fraser.  Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter.  New York: Doubleday, 2012.  30.