In an April marked by angry eclipses portending unexpected change, the ancient, long-debunked practice of astrology and its preeminent ambassador might be weirdly suited for the 21st century.
Every Tuesday and Thursday from noon until 7 p.m., Bart Lidofsky pins a small plastic name tag to his shirt (“Bart Lidofsky, Astrologer”) and receives customers at the Quest Bookshop on East 53rd Street in New York City. After I wander up to him and introduce myself — I am there to have my natal chart read — he leads me to a little table in the back of the store and pulls a gauzy green curtain closed behind us. “For privacy,” he says.
Quest specializes in spiritual, esoteric, and New Age literature, but also sells crystals, runes, incense, divination equipment, mala beads, essential oils, candles, pendulums, gemstones, and “altar supplies.” It smells like church in here. You can picture the clientele — people who are comfortable pontificating about auras, people who know how to hang wind chimes. Lidofsky has been performing astrological readings for 20 years, and his bio contains a long string of bona fides: He’s a member of the American Federation for Astrological Networking and the National Center for Geocosmic Research, and frequently delivers lectures for the New York Theosophical Society. Or, as he calls it, “the Lodge.”
After we sit down, Lidofsky asks for the precise date, time, and location of my birth, and spends the next 45 minutes determining, in his words, “how things fit together.”
Before I leave, Lidofsky — who wears a robust white goatee and small wire-frame glasses — hands me his business card. It is pale blue, and features a photograph of Saturn alongside all the pertinent contact information. “Feeling lost in a difficult world?” it wonders in extra-large type. “Help is available.”
Until recently, I thought of astrology, when I thought of it at all, as frivolous and nearly embarrassing — a pseudoscience unworthy of consideration by serious people. I’m sure I felt at least partially implicated via my age and gender: A short screed in an 1852 edition of the New York Timescalled astrology’s audience “women and girls who are compelled to struggle as a living,” and declared the practice more odious than “the dozen other species of street swindles for which our city is famous.” In the late 1980s, when a former chief of staff published a provocative memoir claiming Nancy Reagan relied on a San Francisco astrologer to, as Time magazine put it, “determine the timing of the President’s every public move,” Ronald Reagan had to publicly insist that “at no time did astrology determine policy.” It was a major humiliation. Even the celebrity astrologer Steven Forrest has acknowledged his field’s dubious image. “I am often embarrassed to say what I do… Astrology has a terrible public relations problem,” he wrote in an essay for Astrology News Service.
But then there was this sense — suddenly, on the street — that astrology had credence. A 2013 New York magazine story claimed that “plenty of New Yorkers wouldn’t buy an apartment or accept a new job without an astral okay.” An occult bookstore opened on a dusty corner of Bushwick and was rhapsodically covered by the Times (its name, Catland, referenced a song by the British experimental band Current 93; its location in Brooklyn indicated a certain kind of culturally conscious clientele). People were talking frankly about their aspects. They knew which planets are in retrograde; they were jittery about eclipses. And it turns out what I’ve been observing anecdotally in New York — among my undergraduate writing students at New York University, in the press, between the otherwise high-functioning attendees of Brooklyn dinner parties — is supportable, at least in part, by statistics. According to a report from the National Science Foundation published earlier this year, “In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was ‘not at all scientific,’ whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.” While this sort of acceptance isn’t unprecedented, it’s still a curious spike. Astrology is gaining believers, and has been for a while.
In some ways, these numbers jibe with some broader cultural shifts: Whereas an astrological dabbler may have previously glanced at his horoscope in the newspaper while swirling cream into his coffee, there is now a vast and endless expanse of websites featuring complex, customized forecasts, some further broken down into insane and arbitrary-seeming categories (on Astrology.com, for example, you can consult a “Daily Flirt,” “Daily Home and Garden,” “Daily Dog,” or “Daily Lesbian” horoscope, among other variations). There is more access to astrology, just as there is more access to everything: A person can shop around, compare their fortunes, wait to find what they need.
When I speak to a former student, now 22, about the increase — it seems likely it’s at least in part attributable to her and her peers — she describes astrology’s mysteriousness as its most alluring attribute. She reads her horoscope every month, faithfully. Its inherent fallibility, she says, is precisely what makes it fun. For her, astrology is about feeling the strange thrill of indulging something (vaguely) supernatural, but it’s also about getting what she is really after, what we are all really after now: actionable, interactive information. These days, there aren’t many problems Google can’t solve. Except the problem of what happens next.
While folks her age are hardly the first group to feel the draw of the unknown, it also makes sense that a generation that came of age with the whole of human knowledge in its pockets might find the ambiguity of astrology a little welcome sometimes. For people born with the web, information has always been instantly accessible, so astrology’s abstruseness — and, ironically, its promises of clarity regarding the only real unknowable: the future — becomes appealing. This generation’s predicament, as I understand it, has always felt Dickensian: “We have everything before us, we have nothing before us.”
But then I’m reminded, again, that inaccuracy, or, at least, a belief in the fluidity of truth, is at the heart of the present-day zeitgeist: Our news is often hasty and unverified, our photos are filtered and retouched, our songs are pitch-corrected, our unscripted television programs are storyboarded into oblivion, and most everyone shrugs it all off. Astrology might not offer the most accurate or verifiable information, but at least it offers information — arguably the only currency that makes sense in 2014.
In that way, astrology seems perfectly positioned to become the defining dogma of our time.
The earliest extant astrological text is a series of 70 clay tablets known collectively as Enuma Anu Enlil. The originals haven’t been recovered, but copies were found in the library of King Assurbanipal, a seventh-century B.C. Assyrian leader who reigned at Nineveh, in what’s presently northwestern Iraq. (Some of the tablets are now held by the British Museum in London.) The Enuma Anu Enlil contains various omens and interpretations of celestial phenomena, and accurately notes things like the rising and setting of Venus. According to the historian Benson Bobrick, the Assyrians at Nineveh had distinguished planets from fixed stars and figured out how to follow their courses, allowing them to predict eclipses; they also established the lunar month at 29 1/2 days.
By 700 B.C., the Chaldeans — tribes of Semitic migrants who settled in a marshy, southeastern corner of Mesopotamia — had discerned that the planets traveled on a set, narrow path called the ecliptic, and that constellations moved 30 degrees every two hours. In his book The Fated Sky, Bobrick explains how “the twelve [observed] constellations were eventually mapped and formed into a Zodiac round (about the sixth-century B.C.), and the signs in turn (as distinct from the constellations) were established as twelve 30 degree arcs over the course of the next 200 years.” As early as 410 B.C., astrologers had begun making natal charts, noting the exact alignment of the heavens at the moment of a baby’s birth.
Bobrick eventually suggests that astrology is, in fact, “the origin of science itself,” the practice from which “astronomy, calculation of time, mathematics, medicine, botany, mineralogy, and (by way of alchemy) modern chemistry” were eventually derived. “The idea at the heart of astrology is that the pattern of a person’s life — or character, or nature — corresponds to the planetary pattern at the moment of his birth,” Bobrick writes. “Such an idea is as old as the world is old — that all things bear the imprint of the moment they are born.”
It’s at least hard to untangle the development of astrology from the rise of astronomy, and for a long time, the two fields were essentially synonymous; the divide between the supernatural and the natural wasn’t always quite so entrenched. As Bobrick writes, the “occult and mystical yearnings” of Copernicus, Brahe, and Galileo helped to “inspire their scientific work,” and astronomy and astrology remained close bedfellows until almost the end of the 17th century.
Nick Popper, a historian and author who has studied the intersection of science and mysticism, explains the relationship this way: “In Europe before the Enlightenment, for example, most individuals recognized a distinction between the two. Astronomy was the knowledge of the map of the stars and their movements, while astrology was the interpretation of their effects. But knowledge of the movements of the stars was primarily useful for its service to astrology. On its own, astronomy was most valuable as a timepiece.”
For early modern Europeans, astrology was undeniable and ubiquitous, a guiding force in various essential fields, including medicine. “Every noble court worth its salt had an astrologer on consultation,” Popper tells me. “Typically a physician skilled in taking astrological readings. Many brought in numerous people to help interpret significant events. These figures were [frequently] charged with determining propitious dates, anticipating future transformations, and using horoscopes to assess the character of all sorts of figures. This predictive capacity was not deemed a ‘low’ knowledge, as now, but seen as an utterly vital political expertise.”
Johannes Kepler, one of the forefathers of modern astronomy (he determined the laws of planetary motion, which allowed Newton to determine his law of universal gravitation; Kant later called Kepler “the most acute thinker ever born”), wrote in 1603 that “philosophy, and therefore genuine astrology is a testimony of God’s works, and is therefore holy. It is by no means a frivolous thing.” Three years later, in 1606, he declared: “Somehow the images of celestial things are stamped upon the interior of the human being, by some hidden method of absorption … The character of the sky flowed into us at birth.”
“There are so many misconceptions about astrology, it boggles me.” Susan Miller, arguably the most broadly influential astrologer practicing in America right now, is sitting across from me at a white-tablecloth restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side wearing a dark blue sheath dress, black tights, black knee-high boots, and Hitchcock-red lips. “The biggest is that it’s for women. I have 45% male readers. People just assume that it’s all women. It’s not.”
She is petite and precisely assembled, but not in a grim, bloodless, Park Avenue way. There is something openhearted about her, a vulnerability that borders on guilelessness. I find her instantly kind. We will sit here together for over four hours.
Miller founded a website called Astrology Zone on Dec. 14, 1995; the site presently attracts 6.5 million unique readers and 20 million page views each month. She released a new version of her smartphone app (“Susan Miller’s AstrologyZone Daily Horoscope FREE!”) late last year; her old app was downloaded 3 million times. Miller is hip to the way astrology functions online, having embraced the web from the very start of her career. She is active across most social media platforms, and fluent in the quick rhythm of virtual interaction, often acting as a kind of kooky, round-the-clock therapist. Offline, she employs 30 people in one way or another, has written nine books, and is aggressively feted by the fashion industry, a community in which she functions as an omniscient, beloved oracle.
Miller was born in New York, still lives in the city, and doesn’t have a whiff of bohemian mysticism about her. Instead, she presents as intelligent and detail-oriented, with none of the candles-and-crystals whimsy endemic to New Age bookstores. (A minor concession: Her iPhone, which beckons her often, is set to the “Sci-Fi” ringtone.) She appears legitimately compelled to help people, and offers an extravagant amount of free services to her followers. Of course, “free services” can be a potentially devious vehicle for other, less altruistic pursuits — and Miller does sell her books and calendars on her website, and frequently pushes a premier version of her app featuring longer horoscopes — but it is very, very easy to read and follow Astrology Zone without ever making an explicit financial investment in it. (Miller insists she makes “pennies” from the non-pop-up advertisements on the site.) I believe her when she says she considers her readers friends.
It had started to feel like a colossal waste of energy, fretting over whether or not astrology is “real” — whether or not there are accurate indications of our collective or individual futures contained in the cosmos, whether or not those indications can be massaged into utility by trained interpreters — because the fact is, even beyond our present disinterest in objective truth, reasonable people believe in all sorts of unreasonable things. True love, the afterlife, karma, a soul. Even high-level cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, hinges in part on tenuous scientific presumptions. When I considered astrology objectively — the notion that celestial movements might affect activity on Earth, and that people born around the same time of year share might certain characteristics based, in part, on a comparable environmental experience in utero — it didn’t seem nearly as dumb as, say, waving one’s hands around a crystal ball. Or calling someone your soulmate.
Still, astrology is often (rightly) equated with charlatanism: hucksters peddling snake oil, burglarizing the naïve. As with any unregulated business, there are practitioners who aren’t properly trained, who haven’t done the work and don’t know the math; they will snatch your $5 and spit back some vague platitude about the stars. It makes sense, then, that astrology is so routinely conflated with fortune-telling, mysticism. “People think it’s predestination. It has nothing to do with predestination,” Miller says, forking the salmon on her chopped salad. She is careful, always, to emphasize free will in her readings — when properly employed, astrology doesn’t dictate or predict our choices, it merely allows us to make better, more informed ones. As the astrologer Evangeline Adams wrote in 1929, “The horoscope does not pronounce sentence … it gives warning.” It’s the same idea — in theory, at least — as a body undergoing genetic testing to unmask certain proclivities or susceptibilities: to find out what it’s capable of, to preemptively protect the places where it is softest, most at risk.
Miller has written extensively about the debilitating, unnamable ailment she suffered as a child (“I had sudden, inexplicable attacks that felt like thick syrup was falling into my knee,” she wrote in her 2001 book, Planets and Possibilities), and over lunch, she tells me she was bedridden for weeks-long stretches, and endured bouts of extraordinary, life-halting pain. She describes the problem as a birth defect, but her doctors were mystified by her condition, and routinely accused her of total hysteria. Around her 14th birthday, Miller’s parents finally found a physician willing to further investigate her case, and she spent 11 months in the hospital that year, undergoing and recovering from various vascular operations.
“The other doctors were like, ‘You’re very clever, aren’t you? You don’t want to go to school, and you’ve hoodwinked all of us,’” she recalls. “And you know, my mother and father were on my side. But they were the only ones. I could feel how a prisoner would feel when unjustly accused. It was the most horrible thing. To be in so much pain and to be screamed at!”
To date, Miller has received more than 40 blood transfusions. Although she no longer endures attacks, if she were injured again in her left leg — in a way that suddenly exposed her veins — she could easily bleed to death. As of 2001, there were only 47 other documented cases of her particular affliction on record.
The pain kept her out of high school, but Miller studied from bed, passed the New York State Regents exams, and graduated at 16. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in New York University, where she studied business. The whole arc is remarkable: a narrative of redemption. I can’t tell whether I find it incongruous or inevitable that a kid who was constantly told her pain was not real grew up to adopt a profession that gets ridiculed, nearly incessantly, for being its own kind of con. It speaks to Miller’s self-possession that she is charitable, always, to her skeptics.
“No astrologer believes in astrology before she starts studying it,” she says. “What I have a problem with are people who pontificate against astrology who’ve never studied it, never looked at a book, had no contact with it. And they criticize it without opening the lid and looking inside.” She pauses. “But I’m not an evangelist.”
Miller is famously available to her readers, particularly on Twitter. The medium suits her: Her dispatches are sympathetic, personable, chatty. Aggressively educated young women, especially, share them in a half-winking, half-sincere way, indulging in astrology’s prescribed femininity and wielding it in a manner that feels almost confrontational. It reminds me, sometimes, of the way women talk to each other about nail polish: as if it were a political act to not be embarrassed by it.
Miller, for her part, spends loads of time answering questions from her more than 177,000 followers, like, “I need to have oral surgery. when should I schedule? Aries w/Virgo rising.” (“Every Aries I know is having oral surgery,” Miller wrote back. “My daughter had it too. Go ahead and have it — think of it as repair work. Good time!”).
Advice like this would be troubling if Miller was not always exceedingly mindful of her influence (she says she would never tell someone not to have surgery or not to get married on a specific day), and it is, in fact, troubling regardless; her readers take her work seriously. She is pestered with inane questions like some sort of human Magic 8 Ball. If there is any delay in the appearance of an Astrology Zone forecast — they are posted, en masse, on the first of the month — people get agitated. The tweets accumulate, and range in timbre from bummed to slightly desperate: “Waking up the first day of the month to find that Susan won’t post for another 24 hours is the worst,” “It won’t officially be spring until Susan Miller posts her March horoscopes,” “This wait on @astrologyzone is killing me,” “Why is @astrologyzone always late? Every other astrology website posts on time but the best.”
Eventually, the forecasts always appear. Miller stays up very late — until 2 or 3 in the morning, most nights — and wakes up at 7 to exercise, screen several news broadcasts (she likes to compare them, to see how certain stories are prioritized), run errands, and, eventually, around 11 a.m., start writing. She generates at least 40,000 words every month for Astrology Zone, and produces detailed horoscopes for Elle, Neiman Marcus, and a slew of international publications, including Vogue Japan.
Anyone who’s ever interviewed Miller has observed that she’s a circuitous, digressive storyteller, and her monthly forecasts are far longer — they’re essays, really — than a typical newspaper or magazine horoscope, which usually contains just a sentence or two of fuzzy wisdom. Miller can be specific in her advice (“I suggest you do not accept a job now, not unless the offer emanates from a VIP from your past. In that case, you would be simply continuing your relationship, not starting a new relationship, and you therefore would be on safer ground during a Mercury retrograde phase,” she cautioned in February), and she calls her work “practical astrology,” which differs, she said, from “psychological astrology.” She wants to be service-oriented. She wants to give people information they can use.
“I can tell right away if you had a harsh father or a critical mother,” she says. “I might mention it. But I’m not going to delve into your childhood and growing up. I think that’s the work of a psychiatrist.” Instead, Miller finds out how certain astrological phenomena have affected a client in the past, and then, when those events are about to repeat, asks them to recall the state of their life at that prior moment. “When I do a chart the first time, there is so much information there. I have to watch your proclivities.”
Miller pulls out her MacBook and opens a program called Io Sprite. She plugs in my birth information, and a pie chart appears on the screen. It contains several concentric circles; the outermost circle is divided into 12 sections, one for each sign of the zodiac. Individual slices contain glyphs representing the sun, the moon, planets, nodes, trines. It is a snapshot of the sky at the moment of my deliverance, and it is the lynchpin of Western astrology.
Besides the placement of celestial bodies, astrologers also consider what they call “aspects” — the relative angles between planets — and use the natal chart to determine an ascendant or rising sign (the sign and degree that was ascending on the eastern horizon at the time of birth; astrologers think this signifies a person’s “awakening consciousness”). The planet closest to one’s ascendant is that person’s rising planet, and is believed to indicate how we approach or deal with other people. Every astrologer will interpret a natal chart slightly differently. Miller compares this to how various broadcasters report the same news, but emphasize or deemphasize certain narratives. She tells me it is important to find an astrologer that I like and trust.
“You have Uranus rising the same way I do,” Miller says, staring closely at my chart. “Your thought patterns are different from everybody else’s. You think they’re the same because you’re living inside of your body, but they’re different. That influences your personality. People will remember you. And at some point in your life you will form a path for people. You will expose something or teach them something that they didn’t know about.” I’m not sure how or if I’m supposed to respond, so I chew on the end of my pen and look up at her like a puppy dog. I want her to tell me everything. Maybe I don’t believe in astrology, or at least not entirely, but I’m also not immune to the lure of whispered prophecies.
Obviously, the personality attributes commonly associated with most signs (and repeated by astrologers) are positive, and if they’re not immediately complimentary, they’re at least forgivable (“secretive,” “stubborn”). In astrology, no one is “strangely shaped” or “sort of dense.” I am a Capricorn, like Joan of Arc and LeBron James, which means, according to Miller, that I’m rational, reliable, resilient, calm, competitive, trustworthy, determined, cautious, disciplined, and quite persevering. “Your underlings see you as a tower of strength,” she wrote of Capricorns in Planets and Possibilities. “And indeed you are.” Meanwhile, I have Scorpio rising at 19 degrees, which means I have “awesome sexual powers” and a set of “bedroom eyes” that, I’m told, will get me “just about anything I want.” Like many people, I find my astrological profile to be spot-on.
The most noteworthy scientific repudiation of astrology was conducted in the early 1980s by a UC-Berkeley physicist named Shawn Carlson. He tasked 28 astrologers with pairing more than 100 natal charts to psychological profiles generated by the California Personality Inventory, a 480-question true-false test that determines personality type. The idea was to figure out if a trained astrologer could accurately match a natal chart to a personality profile. “Astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance,” Carlson concluded in Nature in 1985. “We are now in a position to argue a surprisingly strong case against natal astrology as practiced by reputable astrologers.”
It is a surprisingly strong case, in that I’m legitimately surprised that the astrologers fared so poorly, and then further surprised by my own surprise. I wonder, for a moment, if astrology has become so omnipresent and accepted in America — nearly everyone, after all, knows their sign, and has since childhood — that we’re all unconsciously performing our attributes now. That we have assumed them. This seems bonkers.
I recall Wittgenstein: “We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”
These days, it’s not terribly easy to find a reputable scientist willing to go on the record about astrology. The practice is so heavily disregarded that folks don’t even want to expend the energy required to debunk it. The American Museum of Natural History tells me they do “not have anyone to talk about this.”
I eventually get in touch with Eugene Tracy, a chancellor professor of physics at the College of William and Mary, who studies plasma theory and nonlinear dynamics, and who recently co-authored a new book (Ray Tracing and Beyond: Phase Space Methods in Plasma Wave Theory) for the Cambridge University Press. Plasma theory — that’s heavy. It posits that plasmas and ionized gases play far more central roles in the physics of the universe than previously theorized. It’s also what’s known as a “non-standard cosmology,” meaning it essentially contradicts the Big Bang, and hypothesizes a universe with no beginning or end. I get a little bug-eyed just thinking about it.
Tracy, who has taught high-level graduate courses in physics and undergraduate seminars in things like “Time in Science and Science Fiction,” acknowledges that science and mysticism now sit in total opposition. “The separation between what we would now call science and religion, philosophy and art, is a very modern development,” Tracy says. “The [early] motivation for studying things in the sky was the belief that either these things were gods, or they were the places where the gods lived,” he says.
Tracy and I talk for a while about Kepler, the last great astronomer who maintained faith in astrology; I am interested in how Kepler juggled his confidences. “He believed that astrology wasn’t working, that it demonstrably wasn’t very predictive. But he believed that it was because they were doing it wrong, not because the field itself was misguided,” Tracy says. “He had that scientific attitude: I need good data to build my models on. But his motivation was mystical.”
I finally tell Tracy that what I really want is a succinct debunking of the entire enterprise: I want to know, definitively, that it can’t work, that it doesn’t make sense. He is gentle in his reply. “Newton’s theory of gravity says that everything in the universe gravitates toward everything else. So that means there is a force exerted upon you by the other planets, by the sun, and so forth,” he says. “Now if you ask, ‘Well, the person who is sitting next to me in the room also exerts gravitational influence on me. How close do they have to be to exert the same gravitational influence as Jupiter?’ I’d say depending on where the doctor stood in the room next to you when you were born, [he] exerted the same gravitational influence [as Jupiter]. So gravity isn’t gonna get you astrology. The argument is that there’s something else going on. And that’s where you get outside the realm of science.”
In the beginning — my beginning, your beginning — gravity was everywhere, and the planets were just planets.
When I ask him why he thought people continued to believe in astrology — to cling to a myth — he likens it to our ongoing interest in science fiction of all stripes. “We don’t want to think of the planets as being empty, that there aren’t stories out there. Just like here,” he answers. “We want to fill the world with stories.”
I have plans to meet my friend Michael in the West Village on a particularly frigid Friday night. Over email, I convince him we should go see an astrologer or clairvoyant of some sort — you know, just dip into one of those tapestried storefronts on Bleecker Street, slip some cash to a woman in a low-cut top. I anticipate resistance, so I tell him we can get a drink first. We meet at a quasi-dive called The Four-Faced Liar, and have 300 beers. I want to see for myself whether astrology — even when practiced in the most pedestrian, mercenary way — can distinguish itself from all your basic soothsaying rackets.
Sufficiently over-served, Michael and I stumble around the neighborhood. (It doesn’t even seem that cold out anymore!) (It is 11 degrees.) Walk-in astrologers in major cities tend to keep bar hours — they are often open until midnight or 1 a.m., at least in New York — and I suspect a decent chunk of their business is derived from rambunctious tavern patrons on the move and in search of one last thrill.
Street psychics obviously command a different clientele than high-end private astrologers (comprehensive natal readings tend to cost between $150 and $200, whereas most people can only stomach shelling out 10 or 20 bucks on a late-night whim), but the questions are often the same; all of our questions are always the same. Speaking on the telephone one afternoon, Miller tells me that people come to her for many kinds of personal advice: love, sex, marriage, friendship, health concerns, career counseling. “This is the most educated generation in history, and they’re reading me because they can’t get a job,” she says. “But they don’t read me just for solving problems. They read me to get a perspective on their life. That’s another misconception,” she sighs. “There is nothing but misconceptions.”
The promise of “perspective” is an interesting way to think about the basic appeal of astrology. It allows us to step back — way back — and get a broad-view portrait of our lives, to have someone say: “This is who you are.” A person could spend her entire life trying to figure that out (which is to say nothing of the subsequent quest — in the unlikely event of a successful self-definition — to have that identity validated). I wonder if part of astrology’s attractiveness doesn’t have to do with its rote assignment of signifiers. All the clues to how a person should be: rational, reliable, resilient, calm, competitive, trustworthy, determined, cautious, disciplined. It feels like a road map, in a way.
Of course, what people really want to know is the future. It’s supremely annoying, not knowing what’s going to happen to you.
Michael and I procure dollar slices on Sixth Avenue and wander over to Houston Street. We find a storefront with a neon PSYCHIC sign. The establishment is called Predictions, and is operated by a tiny Egyptian woman named Nicole, who immediately beckons us inside. Her card says “Horoscopes,” and I inquire about an astrological reading. She is dismissive of the idea. “They read your sign,” she says. “I tell your future.”
The best part of my 10-minute session with Nicole is when she asks Michael to leave, commands me to squeeze a clear quartz crystal in my left hand, and then announces, in succession, that my sex chakras are blocked, that someone bothered my mother while she was pregnant with me, that things other people find difficult I find easy, that I am destined to be with someone whose name begins with “J,” and that I am slightly psychic myself.
Back on the street, I find Michael deep in conversation with two young, dark-haired women who are both contemplating a consultation with Nicole. They say they are going to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket first, and that if they win, they’ll go in to see her. They do not win. I tell Michael how I am supposed to be with Jeorge Clooney.
We turn onto MacDougal and walk past a building with the zodiac painted on the window. The door is locked, but eventually an old woman — toothless, and wearing a pink bathrobe — appears and unlocks it. Despite the iconography decorating her building, she also denies us an astrological reading. “It’s too complicated,” she sighs. “You have to know what you’re doing.” Instead, she reads Michael’s tarot cards while I sit on a chair with a ripped cushion. The television remains on the entire time. “I don’t look at the past,” she says while he shuffles the cards. “That’s for you to deal with.” She proceeds to tell Michael a few things about his future — two to three kids! — but I’m not listening because I’m thinking really hard about nachos. Before we leave, he asks her if she has any ideas for a cool nickname. We discussed this question ahead of time, back at the bar. “Something with a T,” she says. “And an L.” He decides on “Talon” after a brief dalliance with “Toil.” The next morning, I text him the word “TOILET” repeatedly.
If there is a way to ascertain usable info about the future, I am not sure this is it.
The question of why astrology has endured — why, of all the outlier theosophies and esoteric theories, astrology is the one that’s remained in the public consciousness for thousands of years, the one with a presence in nearly every daily newspaper in America, the one that’s flourishing online — might just be attributable to the endless romance of the night sky. Find a field out in the country, wait until dark, look up: It is a fast and easy way to find yourself cowed. There is something seductive about the stars, about their beauty and their strangeness, about what they imply regarding the smallness of our existence here on Earth. In his book The Fourth Dimension, the mathematician Rudy Rucker wrote: “What entity, short of God, could be nobler or worthier of [our] attention than the cosmos itself?”
Eugene Tracy suggests something similar during our conversation. “I think for most of human history, the sky has been very important to people,” he says. “And now we live our lives without it. We’re surrounded by artificial light.”
Astrology is, in the end, a kind of mass apophenia: the seeing of patterns or connections in random data. Although it resembles a pantheism and sometimes gets slotted as such, astrology has never struck me as a useful stand-in for organized religion — it doesn’t proffer absolution or any promise of an afterlife, nor is it a practicable ethos — and many astrologers (including Susan Miller, who is a devout Catholic) nurture active spiritual lives that have nothing to do with the zodiac. Astrology, unlike religion, is a deeply personalized, nearly solipsistic practice.
When I ask Dr. Janet Bernstein, a psychiatrist who’s worked in all kinds of contexts (privately, in prisons, in hospitals, in New York, in Alaska), if she has a sense of why so many different types of people turn to astrology, she points out that it often only takes one win — one “right” horoscope — to convert a skeptic. “Humans seem to like certainty and predictability in many, but not all, situations,” she says. “Astrology is just one of many systems that promises some certainty and predictability. Medical research is another. Stock market analysis is yet another. What often happens when one prediction in a system is born out is that the entire system [is] accepted.”
Back at the Quest Bookshop, when I ask Lidofsky if his belief in astrology requires at least a temporary suspension of cynicism — a “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”-type of open-mindedness toward wildly unquantifiable truths — he only shrugs. “I don’t see any logical reason why it works,” he replies. “It just does. Aspirin was the most prescribed drug in the world, and no one knew how it worked until the ‘70s.”
Ultimately, I understand astrology’s utility as a (faulty) predictive tool, even if most astrologers prefer that it not be used that way. I also understand its attractiveness as something to believe in: Here is an ancient art — rooted in the cosmos, the default home for everything divine and miraculous — that promises not only clarity regarding the future, but also a summation of the past. Humans have always been drawn to succinct markers of identity, to anything that tells us who we are.
There is also the assurance of change in astrology: The planets keep moving. The chart always shifts. The forecast refreshes on the first of the month.
One particular story has stuck with me: In July 1609, Galileo discovered that Dutch eyeglass makers had developed a simple telescope, and weeks later, he’d designed and forged his own (improved) version, which allowed him to define the Milky Way as a galaxy of clustered stars, to see that Jupiter had four large orbiting moons, and to reaffirm Copernicus’ heliocentric understanding of the universe. Still, several prominent philosophers, including Cesare Cremonini and Giulio Libri, refused to look through the telescope. Maybe they just didn’t want to see what he saw — didn’t want to challenge one worldview with another. In 1610, in a letter to Kepler, Galileo opined what he called “the extraordinary stupidity of the multitude,” but it’s impossible to say precisely what kept the philosophers away.
I like to think they chose to uphold a private sense of heaven. One that told them exactly what they needed to know.