Isobel Wohl, “Saturn Return,” 2015
Read for Art Licks Weekend 2015
In conjunction with the exhibition ‘… and the soft ground in the garden was also a constellation…’
A scar is a star; a scar is a planet; a scar is a satellite. A scar is a satellite of me on me. A scar is when and where I have left myself behind, and with it I carry my leaving me with me. I find my scars at the edge of my universe. Scars mark the skin inside the edge of all the universes I find. If my scars are at the edge of the universe I am either very big or very small.
I once heard déjà vu explained in terms of the way circuits work in the brain, almost like electrics. When the signal doesn’t make the complete loop you confuse the end with the beginning, like the accident you’d have if you could cut across the center of a racetrack, halfway through one lap double back to the starting point and stop sidelong, angled across the lanes. When the other cars came around you’d cause a pile-up, parts flying and windshields in chaos and splinters, someone’s arm gone somewhere and spokes through a lung. Unless, of course, you could stop the other cars, halt the entire operation. This is your only move once the circuit is split in two. If you don’t make it time breaks apart, self breaks apart, then collision. On racetracks SAFER barriers (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) prevent cars from leaving the racing surface if the driver loses control. In the event of a crash they absorb energy to minimise damage. Crumple zones in the cars help to control deformation.
When I met the energy healer I did not experience déjà vu, and so I was astonished that she could tell me so much about myself. If I had felt we had met before, I would have understood. There would have been no surprise there. But there was nothing familiar about her, and still she saw things about me—habits, likes, drinks, patterns, locations—without any attempt on my part to show them to her, as if she knew them before I arrived for the first time. She approached me with the care and prescience required to untangle a length of string that has gone back on itself several times. Nothing was severed, and plys were never unplied. Her guesses about how my knots were made, about what crossed what, were always uncannily accurate.
When you go to the apartment she pours you a glass of iced tea. You sit across from her in the pale green armchair and tell her how you’ve been. It’s the questions she asks in response that give you the impression she’s perceiving things on another plane. You can’t sleep—is there clutter in your hallway? Yes. She is fond of telling you that we’re born with only two fears—loud noises and falling—and that we learn all the other ones. She says it every time as if it’s the first time.
During one visit she says, “You’re about to go into your first Saturn return. It happens around 28 or 29 or 30. Have you ever considered consulting an astrologer?”
When you are done talking, you lay down on a cot against the wall. She’s sitting next to you in a chair. She doesn’t touch you. Because your eyes are closed, you can’t see what she’s doing, but you feel it: tingles and pulses in all your extremities, slight strange aches.
A few months later, I am on the Internet trying to find my natal chart. The idea of talking to an astrologer keeps coming back into my mind, and each time I dismiss it, either because I am skeptical about astrology or because I am nervous that the truths I discover will be intolerable. So before I decide whether or not to get a reading, I think, I’ll take a look at my chart myself; I’ll try to predict the prediction. This way I’ll know if I want to believe it.
ChaosAstrology.com asks for the date, time and place of my birth. I give it May 12, 1986 and New York, New York, but I can’t remember the exact time of birth. I’m certain it’s either 8 AM or 4 PM. Or 8:20 AM, maybe.
I rifle through drawers. I have the certificate somewhere. Underwear drawer, maybe, or with the towels? I pull things apart. One drawer is my clutter drawer. In it I find old tickets: for a plane, for the movies. Junky plastic rings someone brought to one of my birthdays once; she brought an actual gift but it’s those rings I’ve kept ever since, still in their little white mesh bag. Candy-coloured and hard, innocent and inedible, they peek out at me. But they’re not my birth certificate. Where is it?
Against some piece of dark polyester I spy a manila envelope. That’s where it will be. I grab the envelope, dislodging slips. I see my name on a rough white piece of paper with a blue border and a seal at the top. I find the time at the right, about a third of the way down the page: 7:41 AM.
I return to ChaosAstrology.com and type:
And press the button.
My birth chart appears. A circle, blue and red lines across it in an arrangement that means nothing to me, and some shapes I vaguely recognise around the edge. The introduction reads like this:
The Luminaries: Sun and Moon.
The state of the solar system at the time of your birth points to self-similar (fractal) qualities within you. But of all the planets, the “lights”—the Sun and Moon—are thought to indicate the main polarity of your being. In psychology, this has been articulated as the complementarity between the conscious and unconscious contents of the mind. The Sun and Moon act as positive and negative poles—an intentional, directing element (Sun) and a suggestible, receptive one (Moon). In a beneficial relationship, the emotional conditioning of the moon is given a purposive and positive expression by the astrological Sun. This has been called ‘intentional living’. Wherever we allow our consciousness (attention) to rest, that we vitalize.
The Astrological Sun.
There is only one center to our solar system, and there is only one center to your psyche.
I reread this sentence.
There is only one center to our solar system, and there is only one center to your psyche.
This part I already know about anyway. It will be Sun in Taurus. Old hat. When I was fourteen on the beach I got hold of some French magazine. France meant all things sophisticated. Flipping through I found a feature story: extended horoscopes with phallic objects for each sign, which even at the time I thought was very strange. For Taurus it was a knife. The picture on the glossy page is clear in my head: a large, silver knife, a sharp one. I shut the magazine, gave it to the girl who got banana (Virgo, maybe, or Gemini, I forget).
If there’s only one centre to our solar system, and only one centre to your psyche, what happens if you call the centre the action of cutting—not cut through the centre, but centre on cutting itself?
Wherever we allow our consciousness (attention) to rest, that we vitalize.
The Sun is creativity, original flair, celebration and glory – the quality of output we tend to expect from heros and celebrities. But we are each capable of giving out more than we do – and I don’t mean money. The Sun is about having a purpose large enough to animate the whole of your life and going about it with a tone of appreciation and joie de vivre. Your Sun shows how and where you can shine. Light your fire!
Yes. I am reading this to figure out how. ChaosAstrology, you’re not helping me. I intend intentional living. Intentional living is my intention.
Sun in Taurus: Stamina able to draw bounty earth and foundation firm. You listen take cue reflect then build upon already happening: endure preserve. Sensory awareness in tune bounty material security preserve field. Seek quality, enjoy and bond. Bond, bound, binding, house, lone, lone wolf, wolf, wolf in the fold, wolf attack, bull gores wolf. At the centre of the world a snake is eating its own tail.
Sun Trine Mars: Efficiency of action. A natural ability towards dramatic performance. I’m not sure. Sun Sesquiquadrate Neptune lives with no boundaries between the self and the environment. Dreams and visions are reality.
Conditioned: the habitual, instinctive, unconscious; that’s what the moon is, says ChaosAstrology. “Our interface with the environment.” And then this:
But too often the tendency is for the Moon to reflect back the frayed impressions of old hurts and vendettas, thereby wasting precious energy on painful and unproductive distractions of the past. Clearly what is needed is a more aspiring attitude; one in which we are continually banging our cup and demanding that our needs be satisfied! What is your special hunger? What kind of stimulation do you need in order to feel good about yourself? True gratification can be had only by feeding your Moon. The Feast of the Present is spread out around you!
I’m arranging the flowers and polishing the silver and popping an apple in the pig’s mouth. Toothpaste makes excellent silver polish. But I’m afraid everything’s rotten, that the display on the plates is soft at the centre, decomposed under untouched skin. I’m waiting for beetles, spiders, maggots, purple and a sick shade of green, all of these late to the party but certain to arrive. Dust on Venetian blinds and in the crevices of lampshades.
ChaosAstrology advises sensitive, emotional Moon in Cancer as follows: “Stay open and receptive to the environment, for this will serve to help you develop the finely-tuned intuitive ‘knowing’ this Moon sign is noted for.”
Moon Trine Pluto: “Feelings are deep and profound. The theme of re-birth is often prevalent in the life.” So, I think:
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
This has been called intentional living. Wherever we allow our consciousness (attention) to rest, that we vitalize.
The beginning, the beginning. I want to go back to the beginning. Intentionally I vitalize the beginning; I bring the beginning back from the dead.
Last year a friend sent me, in a Facebook message, a sentence by the writer Gerhard Richter. My memory gives this phrasing: “A scar is a reference to a thing that no longer exists.” Or maybe it was something: “A scar is a reference to something that no longer exists.” I can understand how this makes sense but I think at the same time it’s not true: the referents of scars still exist, just somewhere else, as something else. A scar is a star; a scar is a planet; a scar is a satellite; a scar is a shape I vaguely recognise. A scar is a satellite of me on me. A scar is a tool time uses to make me fractal and self-similar. A scar is when and where I have left myself behind, and with it I carry my leaving me with me. I find my scars at the edge of my universe. Scars mark the skin inside the edge of all the universes I find. If my scars are at the edge of the universe I am either very big or very small.
I decide I don’t need to read in order; I’m going to let things revolve, evolve, revolve….
I scroll down the page to find the houses. I know what some of the planets stand for: Mercury is communication, the messenger, and so on. I know nothing about houses in astrology other than that they are much like constellations: the backdrop against which the bodies move. Black paper on the ceiling of the universe, cut into sheets, with no overlap: perfectly side by side. It’s as if you had two wheels: the planets and your houses. You start at the spot where they sync up.
On the cusp of the first house: Gemini. The moon is in this house. The first house dictates how you present yourself to the world. Second: Cancer. Three: Leo, then Leo again in the fourth. Vital and exuberant. Fifth: Libra, with Pluto. Sixth: Scorpio, Saturn, Uranus. I still can’t find the sun. Seventh: Sagittarius, Neptune. Eight: Capricorn, Mars, the occult and metaphysical subjects. Nine for speculation and Aquarius. Ten (midheaven) Aquarius again, Jupiter. Aries for 11 with Mercury and my humanitarian values.
At the end:
The twelfth house is where consciousness dawns—the house of the rising Sun. This is an indeterminate state—the chaos before the new impulse—where all is yet unfilled potentialities. Traditionally this is the house of ‘sacrifice’, and is often connected with prisons, betrayal and self-undoing.
Sun in the 12th House
You are a private person who requires periods of seclusion and tends to withdrawal from others to recover from the pressures of life. As a rule, you prefer to work behind-the-scenes and can feel uncomfortable under the glare of the spotlight.
The sun in the house of seclusion. Backwards on oneself, undo oneself, cancel out oneself. Now I can sit in my house at the end of the street, in a cul-de-sac maybe: my black house, with its black wallpaper, and stay inside, and take baths and naps. I can put up heavy velvet curtains with tasselled rope trim that’s starting to fall apart. Let people think everything’s gathering dust. I have license now, if I am myself eclipsed.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? My shadow can tell me, or I am my shadow. Both. As I shut the window I remember my Shakespeare: Lear, later, on the moors, in the wind and hail, tears, thunder, lightning and cracked cheeks. When Lear goes out onto the moor in the storm and shouts, “Blow winds, crack your cheeks!” I think of the winds blowing with such force that their own cheeks split open, but also I know the winds are buffeting Lear’s cheeks, Lear’s cheeks are being cracked, so according to Lear his cheeks and the wind’s cheeks are the same, he shares cheeks with the winds, and breaking is breaking from inside or outside: always the same, just flesh, a face, opened up, or opening.
Once I let myself look, it doesn’t take me long to find the website of the astrologer that the energy healer recommended to me: somewhat old-school, dark blue background, thin, angular lettering in white.
I have a quick look around. Each month she does a video horoscope for each sun sign: what to expect. I click on a few of them and watch the first thirty seconds or so. They start with a big “hello,” as in, “Hello, Taurus!”
A reading is only a few clicks away.
Half an hour later I have an email. Thank you for your purchase. May I please have the date, time, and location of your birth, as well as your Skype username. I write a reply.
Instead of sending the email, I get up. I go into my bedroom. I know where to look now, and the manila folder and I are together, in each other’s hands again, or rather, its skin on my hands, its hands on my skin, a body in a body. Hello, friend. The certificate of my birth is in the manila file folder. The time of my birth is on the certificate. It is 7:41 PM. PM in black ink, or rather, AM has a box next to it, and PM has a box next to it, and the box with an X through it, clear as day, is the box next to the letters PM. X marks the spot. It is clear as day. It is black ink. I swear to myself it was different the first time I looked.
I delete A, write P, press send.
A few minutes later a reply comes through with a suggested time. I write back: Sounds great, let’s speak then.
There is a week between the email exchange and the appointment. During this week, I debate looking at the PM chart, the correct one. Pro: I want to know. Con: I am going to talk to an actual astrologer anyway. And ChaosAstrology is a little strange. If I read the chart, I might fix on some assumptions that don’t help, all caused by an unfortunate turn of phrase. I decide not to look. And yet my hands are on the metal of my laptop. After I open it I try to rub little smudges off the screen, scrape off specks of dirt, and when I look into the light of the display with my fingertips on the keys I type ChaosAstrology.com, and now I am entering data: 12 May 1986, New York, NY, 7:41 PM. As my finger moves on the touchpad I watch the arrow find its way to the button labeled “Enter.” Tap.
When the chart comes up, I see that the planets and their aspects remain as they were before, but the houses have changed. It’s as if the arrangement of my bodies had been picked up by some great hand, rotated, and dropped again onto the same dark cloth. Now Scorpio, not Gemini, is on the first house cusp, the rising sign. Gemini has been moved to the eighth house, where my Moon, still in Cancer, tells me I find it difficult to feel emotionally calm.
We do the reading late in the day on a Wednesday. Afterwards I can remember feeling that the astrologer was right but I can’t remember the particulars of what she said. I think it is because I am so shocked by her accuracy that the details of her accurate assertions fade away. A few days later I receive the recording of the Skype session as an .MP3 file. I play it one afternoon while folding clothes and putting them in drawers.
At the beginning of the recording, she explains the meaning of my unaspected Saturn, which she finds to be highly significant. She says that planetary aspects are like holding hands; they indicate which planets are friends. In my first house, Saturn sits completely alone: he forms no astrologically significant angles with anything whatsoever, so isn’t opposite anything, conjunct anything, trine anything, square anything, anything anything. She says it’s as if Saturn has come to the party and no one is saying hello. He reaches out his hand and no one takes it. So he stands awkwardly somewhere in front of the bandstand, shoes deafeningly squeaky on the gym floor, no date and no friends at prom.
This year Saturn returns to his position in my natal chart after 29 years in his orbit. Apparently this is an opportunity to put in place a structure that will build my confidence. When I ask the astrologer what she means by this, she suggests an improvisational theatre class or a trip to Toastmasters. I am noncommittal.
At one point she says, “I know you want to be anonymous, I know.”
I tell her I’m reading a book about personal development. She says, “Fine, but you are somebody who needs to actually do.”
Later in a notebook I make this note:
SENSITIVITY AND SECTIONED TIME
(Time like a centipede. I think when I reread myself. If each section moves together, if they have feet. Unless it freezes. Fossilises. Then you’re just stuck. Then time is sectioned like an unfriendly house: locked doors from room to room. Centipede time would be okay: swaying, with nerve communication throughout the system. When time takes a step forward it curves to the right or the left; its two hundred hips adjust their alignment. Centipede time is much better than house time, I think, if I can pick.)
Another time, curled up on the sofa, same notebook in hand, I play scales with Saturn, up and down. I try to get it to go somewhere. I tell myself to think of it as a game.
Say at Torino your round nipple.
New rats under turf and sunny
Angels to you right now, I can’t talk to you right now, I’ve got nowhere to go.
This one is a devolution. I think my mistake is letting U be “you”: Y O U. “You” attaches me to things.
So a thrush under red noon,
Noon raw ugly to a shred.
At III I take a break.
If Saturn eats his children, I suddenly realise, isn’t it good if he’s not sure what to do? Isn’t it good if Saturn lacks confidence? Maybe he’s supposed to be alone. If he isn’t he tears open child chests. I am not sure I should aid and abet.
IV is an attempt to make a move.
And try upset rancid need
Net rose utter trap and step alibi.
Tramp up ridded night
Narrow right under trap
Augur sight, soft anchor.
Shift, again: S A starts the same Saturn situation, sticky ant trap, unlucky rule network. I can’t leave the game. The game is a bubble, a box, a hole. Once you start you can’t stop. And if it’s telling me something I don’t understand. This has been a waste of time. Sometimes I think everything is a waste of time, I think to myself, but again that’s some-times that I think it. Some-times: not other times. Some times are spent wasting other times. Time eats away at itself. Again, a box, a circle, the snake, something turned in on itself.
The only way to turn it back out is to get out of the house, I decide one sunny Sunday afternoon. In the Enlightenment Galleries of the British Museum, I am attracted to a glass case devoted to “Magic, Mystery and Rites,” as stated on a cream-coloured placard. The case holds an arrangement of discs decorated with stars and pentagrams, a small crystal ball, and in the back a flat, black, polished stone in which I can see superimposed on each other my face and the stripes on my shirt, reflections in the glass of the exhibition case reflected a second time in the black stone. A few scratches in the stone cross the stripes in my shirt and the bridge of my nose. There are too many of me in one object, and I’m not sure I’m supposed to be there at all. To break the discomfort of this effect I look down at the label cards below. There are two of them. One says that the group of objects in front of me is associated with the astrologer and mathematician Dr. John Dee (1527-1608/9). The second card identifies the objects: “The black obsidian mirror, originally a Mexican Aztec cult object, was used for conjuring up spirits. Its fitted case has a label in the hand of Horace Walpole, the famous 18th-century author and collector who once owned it.” I look left from the stone to find the case. Walpole’s cursive identifies the object as “the black stone into which Dr. Dee used to call his spirits.” I think the museum’s label and Walpole’s are different: that there’s something different about a stone and a mirror, mirroring and calling in. Dr. Dee’s spirits could be Dr. Dee himself, entering the stone to look back at the body he’s left, or the spirits of others, whom Dr. Dee, still in his own body, called into the stone. In the second case I’m not sure the object is a mirror.
If it’s not a mirror then he might still be in it. I’m looking at my face and my striped shirt reflected in the scratched spirit of Dr. John Dee. I have to leave; I have to go back to the house.
On Sunday evening Dr. Dee sits in the armchair in his attic. On his dark wood table is an assemblage of objects. There are five or six of them. A sleek cat circles one table leg. From time to time it sits back, knees raised, hips sinking, squat, then again up to pace. Its eyes scan the ground for the odd mouse. When the cat finds one Dr. Dee watches it swipe and bat, claws out, nearly tearing the thing apart, pick it up, throw it down, pull it nearly piece from piece, before, finally, a bite to the neck severs the spinal cord, mouse head lolling to one side, and everything must go black. Dr. Dee waits to see if and how the cat will eat the mouse. Some days, when the cat has already had enough to eat, it doesn’t even bother. Today Dr. Dee suspects it will. It may eat its prey whole, as it sometimes does, after a few tentative bites which Dr. Dee interprets variously as a way to gauge the size of the mouse and to determine if it can pass through the oesophagus in one piece, or perhaps a way to compact the animal slightly by letting some blood and lymph out and squashing its little skull, or nothing but the pleasure of fur on the tongue. Other times the cat eats the mouse slowly, piece by piece, in some unknown order. When it is done it pads away, near-silent, and Dr. Dee comes over to pick up what’s left: every time fur, bones, a tail, and one small green sac, the undesirable stomach.