Thursday, September 09, 2010

8: Ordeal

Douglas Adams' notion that the process of using astrology may be valuable, even if astrology itself is bunkum, is an attractive one.

He puts the theory into the mouth of a dippy astrologer in one of his least funny books, but he makes much the same point in his own voice in "Is there an artificial god?" one of the essays he wrote after he died. In the latter piece he argued that Feng Shui, although based around notions about the flow of "chi" and invisible dragons, may nevertheless be a good way of answering the question "How do we make buildings which are pleasant to live in?" He thinks that energy and dragons may be tools of thought which enable us to get our heads round difficult, multi-dimensional ideas. He wonders if "God" may fall into the same category: not true, exactly, but a valid tool of thought for some people at some times. (It is not recorded if he remained on speaking terms with Richard Dawkins after giving this lecture.)

Mr Phillip Pullman, similarly, suggests that Adam and Eve may be analogous to imaginary numbers like the square root of minus one. No such number can possibly exist, but using that non-existent number can enable you to solve complex geometrical problems with practical applications in engineering.

If you ask a skeptic what Astrology is, he'll probably say that it's a means of predicting the future, but that it doesn't work. Or else he'll say that it's a theory which ties people's personality to the date and time of their birth, but that it certainly doesn't work. He may even say that it's a complex religious system in which the whole of the universe can be mapped onto a human individual ("as above, so below") but that it quite definitely doesn't work.

But this simply isn't true.

We've all got friends who use Astrology, and this isn't what they believe. Five minute of observation would have told us that Astrology was, in practice, a social ritual. Young people play Astrology because "What Star Sign are you?" is a good way of starting a conversation with a stranger at a party: by the time you've observed whether the stranger is a typical or atypical Libran (or, if you are advanced student, whether that pesky line up between Mars and Neptune has caused any health scares for Sagittarians this week) there's a very good chance that you've found something more worthwhile to talk about. Older people play Astrology because reading out newspaper horoscopes is an amusing way to pass the time during your ten minute coffee break. It's funny when they are spectacularly wrong, and it's a good conversation starter when they are coincidentally right. ("It says that people born under the sign of the Crab are going to go on a long journey – and come to think of it, Chippenham is a fair distance away." "You didn't tell me you were going to Chippenham...")

I'm not saying that the people who play Astrology think Astrology definitely doesn't work. They don't think that it definitely does work; but the game would be no fun if they didn't think that it might work. But hardly any of them believe in predestination, astronomical determinism, macrocosm and microcosm.

I'm assuming here that Astrology has no intrinsic value. In fact, I am literally agnostic, in the sense of having no knowledge, on this point. It might be that the personality types represented by the 12 signs cleverly represent 12 kinds of people – that they are "archetypes". It might be that picking a set of personality traits more or less at random and then comparing yourself with them encourages you to notice things about yourself or your friends which you would not otherwise have spotted. ("This random character generation system says that people who share my birthday are likely to be physical cowards – and come to think of it, I really didn't want to go on the roller-coaster at the theme park last weekend.") It might be that the system contains real insights about whether people who are "strongly rooted and often think of the past, holding onto momentos and thinking about childhood" [*] are likely to get on with those who are "rather stoic, enjoy power respect and authority, but are willing to toe the line for as long as it takes to achieve their goals". It might even be that people born in July really are are more likely to be nostalgic for childhood than those born in December, say because the latter never got to go for picnics on their birthdays.

The only thing I'm almost certain of is that the position of the planets on your birthday doesn't have a deterministic influence on the rest of your life.

A few thousand pages ago, I mocked my brief under-graduate flirtation with Sigmund Freud. And I do indeed cringe when I think of essays in which I said things like "Othello's handkerchief now vanishes from the play, since when The Whore has the Phallus there can be no Phallus." And I understand that the whole psychoanalysis thing is rather undermined because, like Astrology, it Doesn't Work. On the other hand, I think that our Anglo-Saxon reticence about bottoms and lavatories makes it slightly too easy to disregard Freud simply because he keeps using the word "penis" (or, indeed, "widdler"). If people notice Sigmund sitting on my shelf, they are apt to titter "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" as if that closes the matter. I don't think it does. I think sex probably is quite important for many people, and I think that guys do spend quite a lot of time thinking about their cocks.

More importantly, I think that the process of looking for Freudian symbols in the works of Shakespeare caused me to notice things in the plays which I might not otherwise have spotted. I think reading and "having belief feelings" about Freud broke me out of the bad A Level habit of treating texts as repositories of raw material for "character studies". My A Level teacher wanted me to treat Othello and Iago as if they were realistic human beings, which they plainly aren't. Sigmund encouraged me to look at the play as a collection of patterns, symbols, structures -- a thing which someone constructed. It is true that Othello's handkerchief passes through the hands of all the female characters in the play. It is true that he goes from regarding Desdemona as perfect in every way to being physically disgusted with her at the exact moment when she loses the magic handkerchief. This does feel a little like a little boy who starts out thinking that all women are wonderful and perfect and just like Mum, and then starts to think that all women are disgusting and stinky and sluts; Freud does think that this happens at the exact moment when he (the little boy) spots that ladies don't have willies, or indeed widdlers. Ergo, Othello's Mummy's hanky is a phallic symbol.

Did Shakespeare have this in mind when he wrote Othello? No. Did it lead me on to notice some interesting things about the structure of the play? Very probably. Would I have started thinking about patterns and structures in plays if I hadn't embarked on the Quest for the Holy Phallus? Probably not. Might I have noticed other, equally interesting, things if I had been trying to work out if Iago was a Capricorn or a Sagittarius? Or the point in the play when he returns from the underworld with the "boon" or "elixir"? Do Freudian analysts gain valid insights into their patients problems while trying to spot the Phallic Symbol in last nights dream? What would Alan Moore have to say about any of this?

You don't need to be a Freudian to think that swords, guns, spears, lances – and probably swagger sticks and canes and truncheons and motorcars and space rockets and rottweilers (to say nothing of lightsabers and wands and sonic screwdrivers) – are "male" symbols; partly because they are willy-shaped, but mostly because they are symbols of strength and you can hit things with then, and because, all things being equal, men are stronger than women and more interested in careers which involve hitting things with sticks. But it seems a big jump from that to saying that if you read enough stories in which male characters have big hitty-sticks, you can start to infer a picture language in which "hitty sticks" have a meaning which was obscure to the people who originally told the story and the people who originally listened to the story, but which we Freudians, Frazerians and Campbellians have miraculously decoded.

[*] A characteristic of Cancers, apparently, but one that obviously doesn't fit me very well at all.


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Pete Ashton said...

I've been wondering where this is going and while I still don't quite know I have to pipe up and say I really REALLY liked this part.

Much appreciated.

Now, please, do continue...

Andrew Hickey said...

Yeah, this is the best of these so far...

NickPheas said...

OK, so you've read Freud, I haven't. But Freud writing about the male organ as a widdler? Really?

Not meaning to be a smart arse here, but if Freud used the term then is it not possible that it means something real in German and not something kind of twee as we read it, or, as seems more likely, it's a perverse bit of translation.

NickPheas said...

As far as Feng Shui goes: It's always struck me that the rationale behind Feng Shui, dragon lines and all that, is obviously mystical bollocks. And yet, if what you want is graceful minimalistic design, it plainly works.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, Siggy uses the twee word in the context of the Little Hans case history: a small boy who is scared to leave the house because he is scared of horses because they have such large widdlers. I assume the English translators are translating a German nursery word.

Andrew Rilstone said...

...I believe that Freud himself, in talking to his patients, went out of his way to only use neutral, medical sounding words.

Andrew Rilstone said...

After literally seconds of painstaking research, I have discovered that the original German word was "Wiwimacher".