A Review of: Madame Clairvoyant’s Guide to the Stars, by Claire Comstock-Gay - Believer Magazine

A Review of: Madame Clairvoyant’s Guide to the Stars, by Claire Comstock-Gay

Format: Hardcover; Size: 5.5 x 8.25; Price: $26.99; Publisher: Harper Collins; Number of Reviewer’s Personal Heroes Featured in This Book: 9; Number of Times This Book Made Reviewer Uncharacteristically Want To Be a Virgo: 5; Number of Times This Book Made  Reviewer Feel Bad About Being a Scorpio: 0; Representative Passage: “[…] astrology’s job isn’t to categorize us or to shove us into one of twelve pigeonholes and keep us there for life. The purpose of the twelve zodiac categories isn’t to contain us or to absolve us of the need to grow and change as people. Rather, it’s to help us delve into our weirdest, best, most thorny contradictions—not in order to flatten them out but to give us a language for the wild abundance of our real, confusing selves.” 

Central Question: What, if anything, can astrology do for revolutionaries? 

At a house reading about a year ago, everyone was having a good time. I know this because I don’t remember if it was warm or cold, just that the light was yellow, beaming through the house, and that the laughter was louder than usual; not too shy or shrill, everything dusky with minor alcohol.

I was in a cluster of people talking about astrology, as is wont to happen in parties featuring poets, especially on the West Coast. It was cute. We all argued—I maintained that I wasn’t a “real” Scorpio because I have a Sagittarius moon and a Leo rising, everyone howled in disbelief. One of the people in the conversation was older—a well-respected but self-serious communist. Amidst the laughter, he furrowed his brow and let out a loud and impassioned indictment: wasn’t an astrology really a deterministic neo-plantonic structure that kept hierarchies and people where they already were? Doesn’t astrology in fact, stand in the way of any real change? There was a pregnant pause. Then—“God, you are such an Aries,” someone shrieked, pointedly flipping their bangs.

I’m not certain about the history of astrology: how it entered my social discourse, nor am I particularly well-versed in longstanding debates about its successes and failures. But I bring this story up because there’s something in it that reveals to me what’s fascinating about astrology’s specific place in our current cultural conversation. Growing up, horoscopes seemed, for lack of a better word, cheesy, you know, in a hippy kind of way. Like tarot, or palm reading, it was relegated to a realm of mystic counterfeiting that my religious upbringing had taught me to distrust. And yet, it was ubiquitous; it was shallow and fun. I read the Scorpio weekly forecasts sometimes in Cosmo. With friends, I conducted giggly deep dives into the frighteningly baroque 70s classic Linda Goodman’s Love Signs—a predictive tomb that plays heavily into gender stereotypes and analyzes every permutation of relationship between any two signs. How would I fare with a Gemini man, would I “misuse my energy against these Twin Souls,” as Ms. Goodman warned? Would my “cup really runneth over” if I dared to date a Leo? It seemed more like a frivolous game.

It was only later, in conversation with an older feminist friend, Allison, that I began to understand astrology as something that might be considered part of a witchy legacy of autonomy and self-knowledge. Years later, it’s still a little surprising to me that astrology has become a mode of social pleasure, even a partial belief system in the progressive, anti-oppressive circles I run in, especially when criticisms like those of That Marxist Man at That Party still apply. After all, so many who have believed in astrology have believed so absolutely. I think often of Nancy Reagan’s codependent relationship with her personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, one she developed after her husband’s assassination attempt in an effort to quell her overwhelming fear of the uncertain future. Quigley’s astrological predictions are now widely suspected to have held so much sway over Mrs. Regan that they influenced state policy.

Not to humor That Marxist Man, but aren’t all categorical belief systems, astrology included, kind of counterrevolutionary and… wrong? And isn’t it weird that so many of us—writers, artists, activists, those against the status quo—love to structure our relations within its templates?

It’s in the answer to this exact question (perhaps unintentionally), that Claire Comstock-Gay’s brilliant Madame Clairvoyant’s Guide to the Stars: Astrology, Our Icons and Our Selves lives—a book that is compulsively readable, both a balm and an inspiration.

Over the phone, Claire and I spoke about how there are no knowledge or belief systems that are inherently good or bad—after all, there are Catholic prison abolitionists and racist Zen practitioners—instead, it’s more useful to be able to see how “everything can be used in any way.” Rather than providing a deterministic cipher for our experiences, a portent way to smooth over the anxieties and paranoias in our lives, Guide to the Stars takes a step back from the self and reconfigures how we might think of astrology in general—in other words, as relational, observational and expansive—a shared experience of energies moving in the world we inhabit together. Claire writes, “My aim is not simply to explain the energies of the twelve signs—not to provide a reference book or study guide—but to offer ways of… noticing, ways of imagining… Astrology is an analytical language, but it’s an imaginative, emotional language, too. It’s a tool for seeing and loving the world, other people, and ourselves. This guide is a way of seeing.”

Traditional astrological writing has always been a mixed bag in terms of genre. From Susan Miller’s stern warnings not to get your hair cut when Venus is in retrograde, to the popular memes on Instagram that bounce between hilarious accuracy and sun sign stereotyping, astrology can tend toward the rigid or predictive, and yet its language and style can range wildly too; from that of self-help book to romance novel, journalistic reporting to even poetry. Some astrologers assume an infuriatingly omnipotent, all-knowing posture. But Guide to the Stars is unique in its incorporation of anecdotes drawn from Claire’s own life as well as cultural criticism—both forms that are more intensely personal and less common when divining the stars.

Notably, Claire is also a fiction writer, and although she maintains that the two kinds of writing occupy different sectors of her brain, it’s clear to me that insightful storytelling has contributed to her skill as a compelling astrologer.  Evidence of her perspective as a literary writer is all over the book, with sharp attention paid to allegory, close reading and lyric description—including an especially evocative account of Celine Dion’s (an Aries) rendition of My Heart Will Go On at the 1998 Academy Awards. In the twelve essays the book is comprised of, she painstakingly treats each astrological sign almost as literary object—shading with subtle metaphor, developing complex character, revealing history and intention, providing supporting evidence with myths both urban and Greek. Claire sees sun signs not as “arbitrary lists of personality traits [but]… cohesive assemblages, tightly linked networks of symbols and images and contradictions and balances.”

In perfect tandem with these more conceptual/theoretical moments are descriptions of Claire’s personal experiences too—her joy, anger, and especially confusion serving as reminders that even for someone well-versed in the astrological arts, life is imperfect, uncertain, can feel all too human. Claire feels the embarrassment of reading her teenage poetry; we learn through her about how Cancers show us what “a life guided by feeling might look… how feeling might continue to guide us through our loneliness.” Claire yells her youthful anger at a Le Tigre show, even if slightly misguided about its radical potential; we learn with her about Scorpios and how they might ‘take control of that anger and use it to tell the truth.” It is through this intimate honesty—sometimes ugly, sometimes naïve—that Claire’s own lived experience becomes a lens for the reader that begets an elegant, understated wisdom.

Because of this tendency to scrutinize the personal, astrology has often been, as Claire says, “criticized as a force of intense narcissism.” Indeed, as That Marxist Man might have us believe, any culture of looking inward too deeply  at the self may prevent us from looking beyond, at the trash fire world, in which so many others are suffering; in which coalitions and communities are difficult to build, and will have to be built in order to combat what is coming. And yet, it is also true that “looking at oneself is not narcissism necessarily.”

In her book Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, Jennifer Doyle describes how critics have limits—“can miss the pleasure others take, ignore the irritation that others feel… have limits that look pretty uncritical from most angles and… rarely know these limits until we encounter them.” For Doyle, it is experiences of hitting the wall, of difficulty with an object, that her most generative experiences of art; her aptest critical writing comes. Similarly, in its use of cultural criticism, Guide to the Stars encourages us to look not only at ourselves, but to look closely at how we encounter others. In writing about beloved cultural artifacts and icons (writers, musicians, movie stars) in relation to their sun signs—objects we share in our broader consciousness and already constantly opine about—Claire reminds us that we too are critics, that we have limits in relation to others, and we can examine our limits productively. With her, we reckon with our narrow perceptions about Gwenyth Paltrow (a Libra), our shared assumptions about Britney Spears (a Sagittarius). I read about one of my most admired film directors, Sandi Tan’s ability to both be an asshole, and doggedly complete her documentary, indeed to put her assholery squarely in the film, and so remain so Leo—proud and accountable, both.

In Guide to the Stars, our celebrities and icons are transformed into tools of self-knowledge. But perhaps, there is something else, too, in Claire’s critical and literary adeptness, that is provocatively suggested—that if we learned to read others a little better, a little deeper, if we gave the people around us the same kind of effort and analysis that we do literary texts that are meant to evoke “empathy”—we could learn how pleasurable it is to be curious about, to better understand, indeed, to better tolerate the flaws of those actually living in the world.

Astrology is not in and of itself a revolution, nor will it ever take the place of direct action. But the foundations of both are collaboration and collectivity. Anyone who’s sat in an organizing meeting will know that sometimes, in a roomful of humans, each one with specific and conflicting ideologies; communication styles and personalities, this can feel fucking impossible. What I take from Guide to the Stars is that, far from narcissism, engaging with astrology can be equal parts getting to know yourself through others, and others through yourself. And what it is proposing is that in order to do the larger work of organizing, we also have to work interpersonally and locally. We should not undervalue working on ourselves—crucial work from which we can build a foundation of mutual understanding, wherein we exercise patience with, yet do not dismiss, our differences; find a truly functional collectivity. Claire writes—astrology can be “the work of learning (if we can manage it), to love each other better than we ever did before.” What could be more revolutionary than that?

David Wojnarowicz is a Virgo. In the chapter in Guide to the Stars on Virgos, Claire describes him, and others under his sign as individuals whose defining quality is to seek order—not a characteristic that seems particularly apt or intuitive to an outsider artist, a hustler, and an AIDs activist. But, as she points out, when the order in the world as it exists is not order, but lawfulness, and when that lawfulness does nothing but maintain an oppressive status quo—perhaps that is no order at all. And it is Virgo’s special talent that they are able and willing to look beyond the false order, to insist on their desire that the world be rightfully organized, and truly just—“the order Virgo wants most is somewhere far in the distance, and it’s loving, it’s bright, it holds room for everyone, and if Virgo has to travel through some chaos to get there, they’ll do it.”

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to want to see the value of astrology in our universal moment of conflict and turmoil. But in final moments of our conversation, Claire suggests that astrology’s current popularity might, in fact, stem from this clarifying moment of hopelessness—out of “a [collective] desire to be subject to different courses than the ones we currently are. There are so many awful powers pressing on us, and perhaps we desire for those things to be the sun and the moon, rather than like the DNC and Wells Fargo—and [she] sees a lot of potential in that space.” the potential to channel those different forces together, to imagine a world of relations other than the dark, manmade ones we know.

In the transcripts of David Wojnarowicz’s journalistic tapes, collected recently in a book entitled Weight of the Earth, there’s an incident that stands out to its editor, David Velasco. David Wojnarowicz is with his lover Bill, who is upset because of the atomic bomb. Velasco writes, “David holds Bill. He puts his hands on the base of his skull and rubs slowly around his ears, behind his ears, down his forehead, over the bridge of his nose, under his eyes. No words for it. Just this way of being calm under the bomb for a little while. Hardly anyone knows yet that another bomb is coming, maybe already lit inside them, that will wipe out David and many of his friends and lovers. I hate them so much for dying. Nothing pre-invented about David and Bill’s holding pattern, it seems. “it was just a gesture I was capable of making and I made it,” he said aloud, to himself, to no one in particular.”

I love this story because against the terrifying backdrop of the world David and Bill inhabit, the Virgo order that David begins to work towards is not grand at all. Rather, it’s small. It’s the simple motion of comfort—stroking his palms over the face of his lover, pressing his fingers into the back of his head. And it is this exact smallness for which Claire’s Guide to the Stars advocates. The smallness of presence and connection. Of “it was just a gesture I was capable of making and I made it.” The smallness of learning how to truly know, and be with one another. Maybe, it’s in this smallness that it could all begin.          

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