Monday, 30 March 2009


Russian women are Essex girls with cheekbones and palatal consonants. Riga, from where I have just returned, was absolutely packed with them, all long legs, orange permatans and lustrous hair extensions. It takes, as St Dolly of Parton quipped, a lot of money to look this cheap.

All this I discovered when my friend Dan and I wandered into what we had taken to be a bar but, judging from the line of jaded Slavic dollybirds in the 'disco' area, the shifty manner of the manageress, and the police visit, might well have been a brothel. It was also rammed with British ladzabroad at their most utterly charmless. 'Latvian?' slurred some stubbly man-trull at me, totally wrecked at 7pm. 'No, English, I live in Cambridge', I replied. 'Well, you look fucking Latvian', he said, as though offended that mere manifest fact had got in the way of his expertise in the comparative international physiognomy stakes. While Dan was at the bar, another pair of lads asked me if I had any pills. I thought, Christ, boys, do I not look a bit of an unlikely source for that kind of thing!? Reader, I was at the time clutching a copy of the New Collected Poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Riga was bleak in a rather excitingly post-Soviet way, with its concrete towerblocks, black trees and brown, snow-parched grass. We nipped over in one of the aerial veal-crates that pass for planes with Ryanair ('I'm afraid there is actually a surcharge of £40 each for the actual process of slaughtering...') and found that it was about 3 degrees centigrade, with hard-packed frozen snow on the ground and not a sign of spring. It was bizarre leaving Britain in warm sun and full equinoctial array to arrive somewhere where there was not a flower, not a shoot, not a bud to be seen anywhere. It was like going back in time three months and thirty years at the same time. As we crossed the bridge into town on our first night, I stared down at the Daugava - which is huge - and watched polygonal slabs of ice cracking and snapping as they drifted down, looking for all the world like strange, pale flatfish moving slowly below the water's surface. It was very cold.

There were a number of pretty churches and cathedrals in the Old Town, and some delightful pseudo-Parisian boulevards filled with cafés and amber shops. Art Nouveau was obviously big in Riga: a lot of fine townhouses, usually now doing service as embassies, were decked out in stucco swags and organic curlicues. Art Nouveau is, as it happens, very much not to my taste. The floral, simpering Mucha-esque brand is saccharine, and as Dr Johnson said of pastoral, 'easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.' It's alright for the front door of a café and not much else. The loftier style, on the other hand, is incredibly sinister: those rows of open-mouthed classical faces (singing or screaming?), turbaned and swathed, have a heavy, Moreauvian, encrusted feel. Can one actually criticise a building for solipsism? Perhaps not. But I like to look at buildings - I don't like them to look back.

On our second night we walked a long way into a rather desolate area of town to find a Georgian/Armenian restaurant, called Restaurāns Aragats. This really was the oddest meal out I've ever had. The main dining area appeared to be someone's front room, tables separated by wooden fencing of the kind you see in suburban British gardens. These were wound about with dark-leaved artificial ivy. Clinking mini-chandeliers cast a weird light over the walls, which were the colour of an aqua bathroom suite. Our hostess, a doughty, uncrossable Armenian matron with a maroon bob and Sophia Loren-style tinted spectacles, spoke to us in a mixture of Russian and English, lifting baskets of fresh bread to our noses and spreading said bread with a homemade spice butter, which was an unmentionable brown but which tasted delicious. The main course was grilled lamb ('straight from village, fresh, young') which came with a garnish made at the table: roasted pepper, aubergine and tomato were mashed up with dill, basil, mint and spring onion, all chopped up by our hostess with kitchen scissors as she talked to us. She was a firm, rather melancholy presence. 'But then earthquake - then I leave Georgia', as she told us. We rounded off the meal with an extraordinary dessert consisting of walnuts enclosed in a brownish, lumpy tube of grape juice aspic (if that makes sense), which tasted of nothing at all, not even of walnuts or grapes.

We ended up that night in a club called 'Purvs', which means 'The Swamp'. It had the most unbelievable decor I've ever seen: lurid green and silver coagulations on everything, painted in glitter with kitsch plastic starfish. The toilets looked rather like the grotto to the Madonna in the town's Catholic cathedral. There was a tiny girl there in black and red stripes with long dark hair, dancing energetically: she looked so like Lourdes Ciccone-Leon that I leaned over to Dan and said, 'That's Madonna's real height'. Incidentally, on that subject, it is terrifying how like the younger Madonna Lourdes now looks: she may take her colouring from her Cuban father, but in every other respect parthenogenesis seems to have taken place:

And again, while I'm in full flow, here's a random Image Association for you: Lourdes and Madonna, then Leonardo's sinisterly sfumato 'The Virgin and St Anne'. Madonna is in full Elizabeth Bathory mode:

Back in Riga's clubland, Dan copped off so I wandered back to our hotel, tottering over the Daugava and staggering in through the revolving door at around 5am. On my way back through the freezing streets, I passed by the magnificent neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral. As it was the wee hours, I couldn't pop in to light a quick taper to, say, St Steven Protomartyr, but we had in fact been in earlier that day. This was one of the highlights of the break for me, in fact; the cathedral is quite wonderfully frescoed in the proper Byzantine style, without too much of the awful soft-focus sentimentalism that infected Russian icon-painting during the 19th century:

* * *

Riga was, in all, an invigoratingly bleak destination. I'm not sure I'd go again, and if I did it would be in the summer, when I imagine there would be long days and flowers instead of frozen slush and chilblains. It was certainly interesting to see a place where everything, from architecture to the food to people's looks, was such an intriguing mixture of Slav and mitteleuropäische Lumpenproletariat, as Dan put it.

On landing at Stansted yesterday, one of the ladzabroad was arrested for being drunk and abusive, at 11am. Home sweet home.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Maenad and Amazon

I am partial to cyclic theories of reality, as in Hinduism or astrology and the ever-turning Wheel of Fortune.

The three became my coterie, the only group I have ever flourished in. Their contributions to the creation of the campy, semimythic diva and deranged gender-neutral entity "Camille Paglia" are immeasurable.

- Camille Paglia, speaking in the second quotation of friends Bruce Benderson, Stephen Jarrat and Stephen Feld.

I know I'm doing a lot of astrology at the moment on this blog, so I'd like to say thanks to patient readers for whom the art may be irrational bunkum. All this star-bothering is partly a distraction from finishing my book, but it's also been a passion since my early teens, one of the most immensely involving things that I've ever got to grips with.

I occasionally think of the birthchart as being each person's hidden poem, the individual's secret 'Song of Myself', imbued like a literary work with metaphor and mystery and crux. A horoscope is a like a four-dimensional text, and astrology an applied poetics. In this light, the technical skills to decode the depths of a chart might be considered quasi-philological, but the art of interpretation is something more akin to literary criticism, with the same qualities of measured attentiveness, self-awareness, and articulacy required in the interpreter.

Unlike a poem, a chart is not 'fixed': it continues to flow and develop throughout a person's life, as the immensely intricate, musical patterns of planetary transits and progressions interweave. 'Music' is an excellent - and of course ancient - metaphor for the cycles of the cosmos. The shifting patterns of a chart are very like polyphony, the flicker and chime of the faster-moving inner planets playing out over the deeper cantus firmus of the sluggish outer ones. Of course, we know about more planets than the ancients did - not only Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, but also the quirky planetoid Chiron and a whole host of minor asteroids and transplutonian bodies. Amateur astrologers often overemphasise these, thus fatally cluttering up their charts and compromising the clarity of their interpretations. (Personally, I always use Chiron but check the larger asteroids very rarely.) The experience of reading a astrological chart with understanding is rather like listening to the 40 exquisitely plaited parts of Spem in Alium, or perhaps more like listening to the Ring Cycle, in which the recurring leitmotifs appear and disappear within a vast dramatic structure of immense archetypal depth and complexity.

But here's another chart.

Camille Anna Paglia, born Endicott, NY, 2nd April, 1947, 6.57pm.

(I've written about Paglia here: fond as I am of her, her column has gone a bit batty of late.)

One of the cruel things about astrology is that it emphasises the innate and unfair differences between human beings. The individual is not born a tabula rasa; there is such as thing as inbuilt character, a mysterious and precious seed held within a complex mesh of nature and nurture. According to astrology, we all come into the world with a certain disposition and array of archetypes already at work in us, our allotted μοῖρα. Every so often one does a horoscope and thinks, 'Poor sod, that's a tough chart', or, conversely, 'Lucky bugger.' But whilst the chart may be fixed, the degree of consciousness which the individual brings to bear on it is not. People can make great things of a very difficult chart, and people with ostensibly 'lovely' charts can well and truly balls them up. Astrology is extremely complex and all the planets have modes of being destructive as well as creative. The beginning astrologer who associates Neptune, say, with only 'spirituality', 'transcendence', and 'universal compassion' will learn a nasty lesson when they look at the very Neptune-dominated chart of, for example, Josef Mengele. What people make of their chart, which is to say, of their innate character, is up to them and belongs to some mysterious dimension beyond astrology. This is something to bear in mind when looking at Paglia's chart; a devotee of astrology herself, she obviously knows her own chart well and it's fascinating to see which bits of it she has put forward as her public persona, and which she has held back.

Hers is a chart balanced between water and fire. Water is the element characterised by imaginative sympathy, the tidal pulls of intense emotion; fire on the other hand represents intuitive vision, the capacity to grasp the whole, to enthuse and to quest in the world of the imagination. This basic weighting of the chart is reflected in Paglia's choices as a scholar and critic. The opening lines of Sexual Personae, Paglia's unwieldy, eccentric masterpiece, capture the unitive vision of fire~water: 'Sexual Personae seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture--something that has inspired little belief since the period before World War I.' (SP, p. xiii). She presents us with a vast, visionary schema, within which she is to some extent impatient of detail. (It has been cogently pointed out by Monica Potkay that Paglia's supposed neo-Untergang des Abendlandes blithely misses out almost the whole of the Middle Ages.) The fire~water bias of the chart is neatly symbolised up by the grand trine between Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which has two legs in water signs and one in fire. This is a woman who believes she can instantly take the measure of the Zeitgeist using her innate and intuitive subjectivity, anterior to and swifter than rational thought processes--a strategy which is sometimes brilliantly acute and sometimes rather tiresome. (See Paglia on Sarah Palin, for example.)

On the other hand, we must not forget her Libra rising, which suggests an exquisitely refined aesthetic sense and strong views about civilised behaviour. Paglia's anti-Rousseauist view is that it is civilisation, not supposedly-benevolent nature, which allows human flourishing, and that socialisation places vital checks on humanity's innate violence and barbarism. This is a profoundly libran insight. Humanity in a state of nature, to Paglia, is inevitably going to be more Lord of the Flies than Gauguin's Edenic Tahiti. (I was reminded of Paglia's Libra ascendant when I read an interview in which she was asked what her favourite smell was, and surprisingly replied fresh linen drying on the washing line.) Devoted to elegance and beauty, Libra is also, incidentally, a rather androgynous sign, because it denotes a certain inner balance between masculine and feminine qualities. This chimes neatly with Paglia's original 1974 Yale PhD dissertation, on 'The Androgyne in Literature and Art', which became the core of Sexual Personae, and with her tomboyish youthful cross-dressing.

Paglia also has one major placement in earth, a robustly physical virgoan Moon; she is fond of reminding people that away from the limelight she is 'earnestly clerical' Agnes Gooch, not the dramatically fiery Auntie Mame. One suspects that her Virgo Moon adds much-needed eye for fine linguistic detail (Virgo is ruled by Mercury) and an aptitude for practical labour to the point of workoholism. (Despite the occasional glamorous photoshoots of the 90s, Paglia rather sweetly describes herself as 'small and worn.') I suspect a voracious regimen of writing, reading and classroom teaching makes Paglia feel comfortable and at home, and her Virgo Moon symbolises, amongst many other things, her formidable skills at explication de texte.

Going back to the fire~water bias, it's not at all unusual for charts to exhibit this kind of paradox and tension: if used with insight, such clashing currents within the personality can be immensely creative. Paglia's horoscope is lit up by the opposition between her 6th house Aries Sun opposing Neptune in Libra, strong in the 12th, its own house. Aries Sun is a ferociously energetic, physically brave placement, and one totally devoid of self-doubt. An inspiring leader, Aries Sun people can often foster a wonderfully warm sense of enthusiasm, but tend on occasion to trample unwittingly on the sensitivities of others. In the 6th, it underlines Paglia's work ethic, suggesting that she feels most herself when channelling all that passion and enthusiasm into the daily routine. But her Neptune in the 12th is absolutely opposed to this kind of productive, hands-on toil. Rather, it is a visionary placement, deeply in touch with the mysterious and formless realms of the imagination, of the transpersonal, of sacrifice, self-immolation and illusion. As the ambivalent, oceanic continuum of pleasure/pain, Neptune resists being anchored in form and imprisoned in flesh. In the 12th, it is an atavistic conduit for the collective visions of the past. (Paglia never ceases to talk about her Italian heritage, from which she seems to draw great imaginative strength.)

When there is a profound split of this kind in the chart, especially as here in an opposition between the Sun or Moon and an outer planet, the two parties have to reach a liveable compromise. The personal, individual ego has to be brought into a relationship with something which is impersonal, vastly larger that it, and uncontainable. This is very hard to pull off: Sun opposition Neptune is the kind of aspect one might find in the chart of a chronic drug addict, or, more positively, in that of someone with a profound religious vocation, a monk or nun. The way Paglia seems to have managed this is fascinating: by becoming a passionate devotee (Sun in Aries) of the Arts (Neptune), she has channelled these turbulent energies into her work. In a nice example of the kind of jaw-dropping neatness of metaphor to which astrology is prone, Paglia's Sun~Neptune opposition exactly encodes the central thesis of Sexual Personae.

Building on Nietzsche, Paglia sees western culture from the time of Egypt as a battleground between the hieratic, eye-obsessed, hard-edged, rational, male forces of the 'Apollonian', and the squidgy, chaotic, female, chthonian, order-resisting maelstrom of the 'Dionysian'. Her deepest ambition, she writes, is 'to fuse Frazer with Freud.' Her entire thought is predicated on unity emerging from the push-pull of conflict and fusion. Her Apollo is not just that aggressive, egocentric Aries Sun, but also her Saturn in fire (Leo): an autocratic and implacable placement, it reminds one of the famous statue of Apollo on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, extending his arm to quell disorder and chaos--an image Paglia reproduces in Sexual Personae:

Her Dionysus (Plutarch's hugra phusis, 'watery nature') is that oceanic Neptune in the 12th, though, as we shall see, Pluto is important too. 'Dionysus was identified with liquids - blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature's chthonian fluidity', as Paglia writes.

It's worth noting that the link between Neptune and Dionysus is an astrological commonplace. It's often remarked by astrologers that the names of the 'new' planets are synchronistic, in other words the names fit the planet in a very mysterious way; but said names are not in fact quite right, from an astrological point of view. Uranus would have been better called Prometheus; Pluto should have been named after some dark feminine deity of fate, such as Moira, Ananke or Nemesis; and Neptune would have been better called after paradoxical, polymorphous, ecstatic, terrifying Dionysus.

From the cyclic interfusion and resistance of Apollonian and Dionysian forces, according to Paglia, culture is born. Neptune in the 12th, conjunct her Libra ascendant, is a symbol of Paglia's respect for religion and mysticism (though she herself is an atheist) and her mythic mindset, at home in the swirl of archetypes. But crucially, thanks to the link to the Sun, she is able to get it down, to bear tidings back from this phantasmagoric realm, rather than merely getting lost in its trackless wastes. It's interesting to think about her theory of criticism in this connection; she describes it as 'an evocation of the shades', aiming to give a complete, emotionally-affective description of the art-object 'on its pedestal of ritual display'. She scorns anatomising critical tactics which resist sublimity, and do violence to the organic unity of both the artwork and the cultural matrix from which it emerged. For Paglia, art both issues from and is a defence against the uncanny and unconscious, the cultic realm of Neptune.

Paglia's identification of the Dionysian with nature and the archetypal feminine is important, if seriously problematic. She's fond of emphasising 'feminine' nature's churning destructiveness, its nightmarish swampiness and impersonal instinctualism. The vagina dentata, the vampire and the femme fatale are personae which appear again and again in her work. With shades of Beardsley and Swinburne (and with tongue, perhaps, slightly in cheek) she writes:

Woman's body is a labyrinth in which man is lost. It is a walled garden, the medieval hortus conclusus, in which nature works its daemonic sorcery. Woman is the primeval fabricator, the real First Mover. She turns a gob of refuse into a spreading web of sentient being, floating on the snaky umbilical by which she leashes every man. (Sexual Personae, p. 12.)

This kind of imagery reminds us that not only Neptune but Pluto too is needling her Sun, and that Pluto has a remarkably concentrating effect on Neptune's escapist evasions. Chthonian nature is both Neptunian and Plutonian for Paglia--feminine, liquid, but also the ambivalent womb-tomb, the Magna Mater as ravening maw. (Her view of the dangerous duality of the archetypal feminine can be read here in her essay in the Classics journal Arion on Erich Neumann's seminal Jungian study The Great Mother.) She's an incredibly Sun~Pluto individual, and indeed the trine between the two planets suggests that this very difficult energy--dark, intense, and taboo--is actually quite consciously accessible to Paglia. It certainly shows in her fearless implacability and determined pugnaciousness: she was sacked from her first academic job for getting involved in a fistfight. She's also prone on occasion to an unattractive plutonian triumphalism (Pluto is after all loosely conjunct Saturn in Leo), being of the opinion that she single-handedly took on the 'Stalinist' feminist mainstream of the 1990s and won. ('I mean, these women are losers. They're gonna lose to me. My victory over them will come decade by decade, okay? Their punishment for maligning me now is to see the triumph of my work. Ha!' - Vamps and Tramps, p. 249.) In true plutonian style, Paglia sees herself--with some reason--as a daring truth-teller about the barbaric undertow of human nature and sexuality which less honest and driven people would prefer to leave buried. In interviews she has told an amusing story of her teenage self accidentally pouring too much lime into a primitive latrine at summer camp, causing a explosion: 'It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture, into pornography and crime and psychopathology...and I would drop the bomb into it.' This dark undercurrent is also inseparable from art, and she quotes Neitzsche with approbation: 'Almost everything we call 'higher culture' is based on the spiritualisation of cruelty.' (SP, p. 29.)*

Whatever one thinks of this, it's easy to see Sun~Pluto in Paglia's refusal to support illusions about the benevolence of human nature, and in her casting of her personal conflicts as a volcanic life-and-death struggle to dominate or be dominated by authority. Here she is on the cover of Vamps and Tramps, androgynous in plutonian black, looking like a goth sharp-shooter about to reach for her pistols:

Prone to cast herself in archetypal guises, her two favourites--the Maenad and the Amazon--encapsulate her Sun~Neptune and Sun~Pluto respectively. And indeed a lovely line of hers sums up the comic egomania of her Aries Sun, the mythopoeic harking-back of her 12th house Neptune, and the feral intensity of her Sun~Pluto: 'The first line of my autobiography would read: My people were nursed by the she-wolf.' (Vamps and Tramps, p. 199.)

Seeing Paglia's chart in terms of her Sun~Neptune opposition (with Plutonian shades) reminds me of a saying of F. Scott Fitzgerald: 'The sign of a first class whether it can hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously - and still function.' Paglia's ability to mediate this creative tension is a good example of a way in which difficult outer planet aspects can be integrated constructively into the personality, though it also tellingly illustrates the outer planets' tendency to turbocharge or inflate. One also rather suspects that Paglia's fanatical pursuit of her Apollonian/Dionysian model of culture in Sexual Personae is, in part, the result of her writing her own psychic structures large upon history. With an imaginative world as lurid as this, I'm not surprised that she rejects forms of literary criticism and historiography which incline to a bourgeois, Protestant plainspokeness. She is certainly adept at trying on Neptune's shifting masks, for instance in the quotation at the top of the page, with its note of dissociative self-dramatisation--'the campy, semimythic diva...known as "Camille Paglia"'. She refers to Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame as '...a study of multiple impersonations, the theatrical principle of western selfhood.' Western selfhood as it appears if you happen to have the Sun in strong aspect to Neptune, perhaps.

* * *

It's easy enough to look at a chart and link it up to aspects of the persona and writings of a public figure. But can the chart give us a more nuanced picture of their psyche? At this point we go off into speculation, but worthwhile speculation I think. Of particular interest is an account of Paglia by the sociologist and philosopher Gillian Rose, in her beautiful memoir of her own dying, Love's Work. Paglia, who is as generous with praise as she is liberal with criticism, has consistently described Rose's work as being 'at the highest intellectual level', and one intuits that she greatly respected her exact comtemporary's intensely humane learning. Rose mentions Paglia whilst describing their mutual friend James Fessenden, who taught with Paglia at Bennington College, Vermont. She wrote:

Camille was also an outstanding teacher and fraternised with her adoring students...Over the years, Jim and Camille appeared like a perennially happy and unhappy married couple. Emotionally dependent on each other, they would bicker and fight and compete in cunning vindictiveness; yet this was combined with genuine concern for each other. What they shared was a hyperactive erotic fantasy--one not necessarily reflected in their actual relationships--and an insatiable investment in the style of the aesthete. Intellectually, they diverged radically. Camille is a literary wordsmith, as voracious in her writing as in her reading. She is convinced of her originality and dismissed Jim's urgings that she read Lacan, to temper the archetypal patterns of Sexual Personae...If Camille served as the alazon, the Impostor, who boasts of more than she knows, the Jim played the role of the eiron, the Ironical Jester, who feigns ignorance and who knows much more than he reveals. Camille was impervious to the subtleties of Jim's compassion for her and her work. On many occasions, these two Old Comedians lapsed into irritable depression as a result of the pig-headedness of their trouble and strife--as each construed the other. -- (Gillian Rose, Love's Work, pp. 106-7)

This is quite revealing, especially in that it accents a natural emotional neediness in Paglia's makeup which she ruthlessly suppresses in her work. There's a lot of Pisces in Paglia's chart--Mars, Mercury, and the chart-ruler Venus are all in the sign. Tender, emotional sympathetic, and slightly flakey, this is, I suspect, the aspect of Paglia's being which those closest to her see. With all these Pisces planets in the 5th house, my sense is of an imaginatively prankish and playful side to Paglia's personality, and a penchant for exhilarating, rapturous enthusiasms which come and go but which completely transport her while they last. It also makes me wonder whether there isn't a vulnerable, slightly forlorn quality to her--a submissive Little Girl Lost under the fearsome armour. Drawing on some hints Paglia has dropped in interviews about her sexual preferences, the old phrase 'butch in the streets, femme in the sheets' comes to mind. Certainly her Mars in Pisces is a restless placement in the context of the rest of the chart. Trining Jupiter, it suggests to me that for all her monstrous, fiery, plutonian monomania, Paglia is actually fired by the ideal of devoted service to others and to knowledge itself (Jupiter) as much as to her own ego. It's an almost monastic aspect, 'Jesuitical' in the best sense of the word, echoing Rose's description of Paglia as an outstanding teacher.

Indeed as such Paglia is a notorious motormouth, famed for lecturing at unnervingly high speed: this isn't something I'd normally associate with Mercury in Pisces--although that placement might be read as being highly articulate (Mercury) about feelings (Pisces)--but Paglia's Mercury is supercharged by its conjunction to Mars and the tense, electric square to Uranus in the 9th--the house, amongst other things, of academia, of learning infused with a vision of deeper meaning. But wherever Uranus is placed in the chart there tends to be the impulse to rebellion, a sense of a different plan or perspective, a radical urge to break with or shake up the status quo; Paglia's broadsides against contemporary academic culture certainly fit the bill here. She is (as she has put it) 'contemptuous towards any educational authority that lacks a global perspective', and her prescription for the reform of the Humanities, with comparative religion placed at the heart of the syllabus, are a perfect expression of her 9th house Uranus. The planet also squares her virgoan Moon in the 11th, suggesting an urgent and instinctive sense of social mission. It's also true however that a square between Mercury and Uranus can be a sign of rigid thinking and doctrinaire self-righteousness. (I'm thinking espcially of Paglia loopy scepticism about global warming here.) As Liz Greene says, typically insightfully, '...[G]iven sufficient containment and commonsense, Mercury~Uranus can be marvellously inventive and open-minded, although often determinedly undisturbed by the burden of self-questioning.' (The Art of Stealing Fire: Uranus in the Horoscope, p. 138.) One recalls Rose's comment on Paglia's refusal to heed her friend's urgings about reading Lacan.

To conclude, I was intrigued by a comment of Harold Bloom's on Paglia. Bloom was director of her PhD and clearly something of a mentor to her; he remarked recently that he felt that deep down she is a sadder and more pessimistic person than her stupendously energetic and zestful public persona suggests. The squares from Saturn and Pluto to her Chiron in the 1st house are a very dark set of aspects indeed, suggesting a sense of fundamental woundedness about her way of being-in-the-world. One wonders how painful, actually, were her travails as an ambiguously-gendered and aggressive girl of wavering sexual orientation in the conformist 50s, and again as a scholar who couldn't get her magnum opus published until she was 40. Very, I suspect, and if there is a core of bitterness and rage in her, she seems to have made the best of it with commendable good grace, all things considered. Perhaps her insufferable crowing about her own rightness is a compensation for a much more painful and humiliating sense of having always stuck out, of having always been awkwardly-angled against the world from an isolated childhood onwards.

Paglia herself has asserted repreatedly that her view of life is ultimately a comic and life-celebrating one: 'We must accept our pain, change what we can, and laugh at the rest.' (SP, p. 39). Her Jupiter is trine Saturn, an aspect which might be neatly summed up as 'resigned laughter.' But when she says, elsewhere, '[t]o me, comedy is a symptom of a balanced perspective on life, and people who are going around, like gloomy gusses, in that Sontag style of intellectual, these people are suffering from something coming from their childhood, it has nothing to do with the proper intellectual response to life...', I find that I don't quite believe what she's saying. And with her 1st house Chiron, and all that Saturn/Pluto, I doubt that deep down she does either.

* * *

*I knew instinctively from reading that quotation that Nietzsche must also have had a Sun~Pluto aspect, and looked up his chart. He did - Sun in Libra opposition Pluto in Aries.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Angela Carter

Angela Carter, born 7/5/1940, Eastbourne, UK

It would have pleased Angela Carter's mythopoeic imagination that she came into the world under a perfect new moon: both the sun and the moon are on 16 Taurus.* Such imagination was a quality not unique to her; as she wrote: 'My mother learned that she was carrying me at about the same time the Second World War was declared; with the family talent for magic realism, she once told me she had been to the doctor's on the very day.'

It's a curious thing in a chart when the sun and moon are conjunct. 'Forward to the past!' might be the motto, as the individual's sense of rootedness and embodied memory will ineluctably blend with their sense of who they are, their personal essence. Carter, famed for her sinister, erotic neo-fairy tales, may well have felt that the ancestral folk-memory really was somehow somatised and incarnated in her own triumphantly earthy being.

Her chart is an odd shape. There's a huge stellium (or planet cluster) in Taurus - Mercury, Saturn, Sun, Moon and Uranus all huddling together, with Jupiter just over in Aries - and then we find Neptune and Pluto swung out to one side. Accordingly, this is an extremely 'earthy' chart: the other elements are all relatively weak. This intense concentration on earth evokes the baroque celebration of the mundane in Carter's writing, her heady ability to work mud and blood into her otherwise very mannered and super-sophisticated prose. If one reads the eerie opening of her short-story 'Erl-King', with its haunting evocation of an English wood in late autumn, one can see Carter-the-daemonic-nature-writer shimmering behind the opalescent hauteur of the style:

The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles. There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approach of winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezes it tight. Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Introspective weather, a sickroom hush.

The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up. There is no way through the wood any more, this wood has reverted to its original privacy. Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again for there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety; grass grew over the track years ago and now the rabbits and the foxes make their own runs in the subtle labyrinth and nobody comes. The trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods and hunt round hopelessly for the way out. Tumbling crows play tig in the branches of the elms they clotted with their nests, now and then raucously cawing. A little stream with soft margins of marsh runs through the wood but it has grown sullen with the time of the year; the silent, blackish water thickens, now, to ice. All will fall still, all lapse.

Prose as purple as rotting elderberries, that. One senses that Carter's taurean Mercury liked to hoard words like trinkets, cherishing dialect words and obsolete terms for the tackle and trim of various trades. (She once wrote a story entirely in incomprehensible Victorian street-slang, for the fun of it.) There's almost a hunger to possess - a Taurus keyword - language, rubbing words as though they were pieces of smooth bottle-glass on the tideline, grubby and history-filled. One gets a sense of what it was in the Victorian underworld that so drew Carter: muckiness and industry, practical ambition, death everywhere and sex omnipresent but taboo. Her earthiness is everywhere in her writing, and Marina Warner got her exactly right when she likened Carter to purple loosestife, an 'unruly wild flower, a native to England, which self-seeds and flourishes in damp ground.' (Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture, p. 52). Further, that taurean sensuality and love of beauty is not just present in evocations of sex and nature: Carter could write most wonderfully about food as well, producing several pieces of exquisitely evocative journalism on the effect of Elizabeth David's cookery writing on the post-war British palate and imagination. She also continued to write for Vogue surprisingly late into her literary career.

Her Sun~Moon conjunction has interesting implications for gender. Normally the Moon encodes something of an individual's 'mother-image', just as the Sun will tend to reflect, on one level, an individual's sense of their own father. For Carter, they are fused, functioning entirely as one. I suspect that this is germane to Carter's feminism, her fearless and profound interest in what makes men and women different. Male and female were not instinctively polarised to her, as they are to most people who have the Sun and Moon in different signs. Hence perhaps her forensic analysis of the mythic masculine and feminine, of the sexes' round of predation, seduction, union and separation. This analysis could be mordantly unsentimental: 'Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives woman emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.'

The Sun~Moon conjunction is also joined by Uranus, suggesting Carter's electric imagination and the fact that her fictions are always heading towards the surprise, the unexpected transformation, the kill or the thrill - though she was a genius of pacing, she is never a writer of drawing-room longeurs.

All three planets are trine Neptune and sextile Chiron. This marks a selfhood that is unavoidably keyed-in to the collective vision, to the archetypal, to that which is more than individual. These energies, especially that of Uranus, can be chillingly dissociative. In other words, if people identify with them - and it is hard not to when they are in close aspect to the Sun and Moon - they can inflate and swamp the personal individuality. People (as Clare Martin has wisely said) can 'start to believe that [they] are omniscient (Uranus), omnipresent (Neptune) or omnipotent (Pluto).' But they also put us in touch with humanity as a collective - as one species, connected by Jung's Collective Unconscious. These archetypal, impersonal influences can be immensely hard to integrate, and it's no wonder they occur very frequently in the charts of creative artists. In Carter's chart, this is not a kindly set of aspects, despite Neptune's reputation for 'universal compassion': they point rather to an imagination with a tendency to a kind of impersonal universalism - it's interesting that she made the fairy tale, that most archetypal of genres, her own. I wonder if she tended to see herself as 'great creating nature': human sympathy was not her strongest suit, certainly in her fictions with their unexpected and merciless dénouements. As she said: 'Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people' - a Uranian sentiment if ever there was one.

But heavy emphases in one sign tend to constellate their opposite: all this Taurus causes Scorpio to be dragged around like a shadow. Taurus~Scorpio is the fundamental polarity of sex and death. In Carter's chart, Pluto (ruler of Scorpio) is squaring Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, suggesting an intensely plutonic cast of mind - a mind adept with wounding words, the urge to lance the boil, to navigate the hidden shadow-side of life and explore the perverse places where sex and death and power fall together. Carter was deeply interested in the darker side of sexuality, and her fiction abounds in disquietingly sado-masochistic explorations of beauty-as-control and sex-as-murder. (One of her most famous works is in fact entitled The Sadeian Woman.) Warner writes: '...she had an uneasy relationship to mainstream feminism in its Seventies shape: far too curious about perversity, masochism, collusion in women, far too enthralled by make-up and fashions and spectacle and performance for those days'. (Signs and Wonders, p. 50)

By way of an illustration, take this passage from 'The Lady in the House of Love':

Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.

Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit.' Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?' She draws her long, sharp fingernail across the bars of the cage in which her pet lark sings, striking a plangent twang like that of the plucked heartstrings of a woman of metal. Her hair falls down like tears.

That's the authentically plutonic, rather Jacobean fondess for fusing bedchamber and charnel-house. Also deeply plutonic is Carter's fondness for fatal structure in her fiction, for the inevitability and recurring motifs of fairy tales. She was a writer whose subterranean, seething but controlled Saturn~Pluto square (an aspect traditionally associated with personal cruelty) could see beauty in formal horror. I find interesting that in a piece of criticism she derided H. P. Lovecraft for his horror writing, for two reasons. First, for his naivety; she saw that Lovecraft thought of evil as visible horror, and no one with a strong Pluto could fall for that one. Secondly, she wrinkled her nose at his sheer gloopiness, his childishly putrid slimes. She was a hard-edged writer; in contrast to Lovecraft, her kind of horror is the lurid glamour of the knife in the hand of the insane surgeon, always with the frisson of style - not deliquescence and gunk.

I find the influence of Japan on her imagination very revealing here - Carter fled to Tokyo after the collapse of her first marriage, and several stories in the collection Fireworks are set there. The formal violence of Sepukku, for example, is wonderfully Carterian. Living in Japan apparently enabled her to focus her observation, to dissociate from England and see it from outside; this practice of writerly self-estrangement is also encoded in her incredibly strong outer-planet aspects.

Indeed, and to conclude, I think it's Neptune which is probably the key-planet in this chart, as is very common in creative people. Neptune is visionary experience, the transcendent, the fecundity of the imagination, fantasy, the depths of the unconscious, mother-as-maw, womb and tomb together, dissolution, sacrifice and rebirth, the oceanic and pre-verbal: it is the archetypal symbol of 'the hidden room, the room that exists in dreams', as Warner described Carter's writings. Carter herself was well-aware of this, once scorning conventional pedagogy as 'toilet training for the id'. She was intimately familiar with the hidden dimension whence her writing issued, and that it represented condensing roiling archetypal material and polishing it, until it was very hard, darkly lustrous, and very sharp.

* * *

*I don't have Carter's birthtime, so the chart is set for noon. As a result, the moon may have been two or three degrees either side of 16 Taurus when she was born. One wonders too what her rising sign was - I'm inclined to suspect Libra, given her aestheticism and love of glamour, which would place the Taurus stellium in the 8th house, that of sex and death, and would site that vital Neptune powerfully in the 12th house, the house of the mysterious, the unconscious, the family past. This would imply a birthtime of c. 4.30pm. Indeed of the three watery houses - the 4th, the 8th, and the 12th - it occurs to me that planets in the 4th represent those aspects of the family psyche that are spoken of freely by family members, those in the 8th represent aspects that are unspoken but tactitly understood, and those in the 12th represent those that are unspeakable, hushed by veils of taboo and shame. So a family tendency to fly hysterically off the handle - alarming to outsiders but seen as rather amusing within the family - would be a 4th house matter. The fact that Great Aunt Mildred had an affair in the 70s and left Uncle Tony for a few months to live with a bricklayer, but eventually returned - that's an 8th house matter. But a situation of incest or child-abuse back in the family tree would be a 12th house thing.

Friday, 13 March 2009


Watchmen: was an absolute load of old tripe that was. It was so faithful to the graphic novel (which I enjoyed) that seeing the film was like listening to a piece written for the harp played on a grand organ.

There were also huge lapses in credibility, especially with regard to the frequent, unpleasant violence. One the one hand, there was a directorial delight in graphically realistic, slo-mo flesh-mangling: hands get sawn off, bones are smashed and splintered, people get burned to death with boiling fat or detonated like splatter-bombs by the god-like Dr Manhattan. On the other hand, this is a movie in which a slightly-built woman with a fabulous, straightened barnet and a yellow latex camel-toe is supposedly able to fight off a dozen thugs whilst wearing five-inch stilettos. Now, to me, you can't have Buffy-violence and Saw-violence together in one movie without compromising the audience's suspension of disbelief. I thought it was altogether nasty, and eventually ennui-inducing.

Great soundtrack, though.

* * *

On a different note - literally - I think this Yma Sumac song is the weirdest thing I've ever heard, kind of like 'Kate Bush's barking green-skinned Inca grandma goes all shamanic':

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Horace and Merton

I was up at 4am yesterday, and thus had the insomniac's privilege of watching the black sky flush to deep midnight blue, lapis lazuli, dawn grey, and pink. I read some Horace, relishing in particular the exquisite poignancy of Odes 4.1, in which the middle-aged poet (or his wistful persona) begs Venus to hold off and assuage an agonising crush. The last three stanzas are quite wonderful, and sadly untranslatable, so what follows is only a crude attempt.

me nec femina nec puer
iam nec spes animi credula mutui
nec certare iuvat mero
nec vincire novis tempora floribus.

I've no use for a woman
or a boy; no use for self-deluding hopes
of love returned, for drinking contests,
or for garlanding my brow with spring flowers.

sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur
manat rara meas lacrima per genas?
cur facunda parum decoro
inter verba cadit lingua silentio?

But why, Lingurinus, why then
do tears from time to time linger
on my cheeks? Why does my easy tongue
fall mid-sentence into sheepish silence?

nocturnis ego somniis
iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
te per gramina Martii
campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

In dreams one moment I hold you tight,
then chase you - become a bird - over the grass of the Campus
Martius, pursuing you, who take no pity on me,
through a swirl of rushing waters.

The effect of the last stanza is exquisite: it's genuinely oneiric in its unexplained transitions and irresolvable paradoxes. Ligurinus is held - but then not held; a boy who is also a winged creature, who is pursued on foot through an oddly specific familiar place, which then sudden jumpcuts into a different element entirely, clarity giving way to a bewildering, swirling confusion. I don't know about you, but my dreams often have just these sorts of shifts and fractures: the specificity of the Campus Martius is especially good, because in dreams one often seems to find onself in an eerily vacant but familiar public space.

The last stanza also echoes Aeneid 6.700-3, in which Aeneas in the underworld tries three times to embrace his father's shade:

ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

Three times he tried to put his arms around his father's neck;
three times the ghost eluded his hands' futile clasp,
like a breath of wind, just like fluttering sleep.

The last phrase is normally translated so that volucri is an adjective modifying somno, 'winged sleep' - reminiscent of the bat-like nightmares roosting under the shadowy elm outside the gates of Hades at 6.282ff - but I suspect it could also mean 'a bird in sleep', or even 'a bird in a dream'. (Better judges of latinity than I will have to weigh in, here.) I like construing the line this way because it seems to strike the authentically Vergillian note of gauziness, of elusive, vital things viewed at two removes. Earlier in Book 6 of the poem, Aeneas catches sight of Dido's ghost, wandering through Hades. The way Vergil describes the scene is heart-stopping:

         ...adgnovitque per umbras
obscuram, qualem primo qui surgere mense
aut videt, aut vidisse putat per nubila lunam...

...and Aeneas recognised her through the dim shadows,
the way a man see sees, or thinks he has seen,
the moon rising up through mist at the month's beginning.

Not just the moon, but the thinnest crescent; not clearly sighted, but veiled in cloud; and then Vergil adds a non-physical indeterminacy, that characteristic extra layer of cognitive ambiguity. Homer in contrast likes clear sightlines - darkness in Homer is like the blue tint used in night-scenes in old westerns, filmed in daylight but with a blue filter over the camera so that everything looks unnaturally moonlit. But Vergil likes shadows and mists, ungraspable, poignant opacities. Hence I think the idea of a dream-bird is more Vergillian than 'winged sleep'. And the alliterating pattern of l's, v's, m's and sibilants in the line is so very beautiful. Tennyson could write a line like

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees

and one can see instantly why he has been called our most 'Vergillian' poet. (Milton for scale and pathos, Tennyson for surface music, I'd say.)

Anyway, going back to Horace, the conjunction of somnium, 'dream' (as opposed to Vergil's somnus, 'sleep') and volucris cannot help but bring this episode of the Aeneid to mind, especially as the context is so reminiscent: in both passages, someone is trying to hold onto the elusive, ungraspable image of someone yearned for. A poet of elusive textures and delicate transitions, Horace could do all this in nineteen words.

* * *

After I'd prepared my 10am supervision (on Horace, as it happens) I made a coffee and sat on my desk looking out over the trees, wrapped in my old grey shawl, dangling my legs out of the window. Dawn was breaking, and the sky in the east was ribbed with slats of yellow light. I had William Harmless' beautiful Mystics with me, and began to read the chapter on Thomas Merton, feeling unusually still and calm. It occured to me that one of the funny things about academia, even in the Humanities - even in English departments - is that actual love of literature is not as universal as you'd think. The stress of publishing and preparing teaching and searching for original, incisive things to say, the strain of judgement - in both senses of the word 'strain' - means that it's easy to lose sight of that inner stillness which it is necessary to bring to a poem. I certainly lose it often: indeed, it's frequently the case that the more moved I am by a poem, the less I want to analyse it out loud to students, to break its precious shell of reverberating silence.

Thinking along these lines, I read that Merton was often on night-duty in his monastery, wandering the corridors looking for fires, which were a serious hazard in the dry heat of a Kentucky summer. He describes his thoughts on these long nights of utter solitude:

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet on a ladder underneath the moon, and take me out among the stars?

(The Sign of Jonas, pp. 359-60).

A good way to begin the day.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Morgan Llwyd

I'm working on the 17th century Puritan, mystic, bilingual poet and proto-nonconformist Morgan Llwyd at the moment. He has a quite startling way with words. Take this passage:

Dost thou not see how the Bats and the Blindguides set forth Heaven as a place they know not themselves, where above or about the orbe of this world it is, nor who, nor what, is there? They may sooner make shoes for the whirlwind, and provide a bed-chamber in some outward house for the winds of the heavens, than find a locality for the mind and soul of the departed.

Echoes of Job. I also loved this stanza:

Saile on a brittle sea of glasse
Singe in a furne of fire
In flame wee leap for joy & find
a cave a singing quire.
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