Celebrity Journalism

(The following interview with astrology columnist Rob Brezsny was conducted by a celebrity journalist who must remain anonymous due to contractual obligations to his TV network.)

Rob Brezsny speaks out on aggressive sensitivity, upwardly mobile socialist libertarianism and just about everything else.

UNNAMEABLE CELEBRITY JOURNALIST: An astrology column! What the--! Why, Rob, why?! You could have been a...a...REAL writer. What were you thinking when you decided to write an astrology column?!

ROB BREZSNY: I'm basically trying to get away with being a funky pagan tantric poet who reaches a lot of people. And that requires me to call myself an astrology columnist rather than a funky pagan tantric poet. Obviously, if most people picked up a newspaper and saw a column entitled "Funky Pagan Tantric Poetry," they'd quickly turn the page; I wouldn't have more than a cult-like New Age following, which would be bad for my dharma, my karma and my charisma. I could be wrong, but I feel my DNA is asking me to become a populist poet and a spiritual democrat.

Even to call myself a poet would be artistic suicide. Nobody reads poetry. Poetry has tragically come to be regarded in our culture as a stuffy irrelevancy practiced by humorless academics or cosmic space cases. But I think of poetry, real poetry, as a delicious drug and vitamin, a kind of subversive soul food for the imagination. It should be the most dangerous substance on earth.

So maybe it looks like I'm just using the vehicle of the astrology column to perpetrate my "crime" of being a poet. Nobody reads poetry, but millions of people read astrology columns. In a way this is true, because I'm a poet first and an astrologer second. But I am very definitely an astrologer, and my column's poetry is filtered through my astrological imagination. I love to tell stories about the planetary gods and goddesses fighting and fucking in our psyches. Here's what I told Aquarius a while back:

"I hope you don't mind if I drop the names of some famous planets I know. I think you should know them too. Venus, the planet of lust at first sight (and second sight too), is bursting into your House of Goose Bumps. Jupiter, the planet that usually blows your mind in the most comfortable way possible, is in your House of Sensible Relationships.

"That's not all. Now these two percolating planets are brewing up a cosmic conspiracy--with you as one of the main pleasure victims. Just wait till they start taking turns tickling your peace-love-and-understanding buttons."

It's just my luck that my astrological aspirations and poetic aspirations lead me to the same projects. I want to talk about the deep dark secrets of the soul to millions of searchers who don't necessarily call themselves searchers. I want to undermine fanatical belief systems by feeding people's starving imaginations with inventive language and surprising images. I want to be a kind of clown so that people will be relaxed and receptive as I slip them big rich doses of subversive infomania.

But why choose a despised and ridiculed medium like the astrology column to be the vehicle for my lofty aspirations? Lots of smart people wouldn't be caught dead near an astrology column. One answer is that I live by the alchemical edict that we should look for the most precious substance in the most devalued places. Another answer is that the astrology column as a genre has so little respect that no one cares if I twist and turn it into whatever kind of beautiful monstrosity I want.

I myself certainly had no respect for the genre before I started using it. The typical astrology column tells you in dead language how to become a more efficient greed-head and narcissist imbued with the faux morality of the marketplace.

My column, on the other hand, urges you to get happy by overthrowing reality. I've tried to turn it into a vehicle for socio-political rabble-rousing and an extended poetic discourse on erotically correct spirituality. In any given week I can make up fake commercials for products that don't exist but should exist. I can talk about a dream I've had in which Scorpios throw a pajama party for the Dalai Lama in Bosnia. Or I can offer wild speculations about how the latest plan by quantum phsyicists to launch celebrity garbage into inner space is related to my new theory about macho feminism, which is related to the rise of crystal-gazing, aura-reading capitalists in Poland, which is related to the experiences I think your sign is going to have in the week ahead.

UCJ: Given what you just said, it's hard to imagine how you have the gall to call what you do "Real" Astrology. Why not call it "Surreal" Astrology?

RB: When the column works best, it's because I've succeeded in impersonating the language of the unconscious and the dream--crushing together a seething mass of word play, images and perspectives into what might look like a big mess to the ego but which has an eerie, graceful logic when seen through the eyes of the soul. This technique is my anti-religion, my fanatical crusade against fanaticism. I call it the Way of the Holy Oxymoron or Funky Pagan Tantra or Macho Feminist Love Poop or Real Astrology. It gives me license to act like a character in a lucid dream--to try to see things from not just two sides but five different angles at the same time. Not only are yes and no both true simultaneously, so are many maybes in between. You could call it the poet's version of the Fourth Dimension, as opposed to the fourth dimension as imagined by Gurdjieff or the quantum physicists.

Demonic compassion is quite welcome here. Ironic sincerity. Aggressive sensitivity. Upwardly mobile socialist libertarianism. From this multiple perspective, I can both believe in and be skeptical of astrology at the same time. From this perspective, I can see very clearly the intricate interweaving of the personal and the political. From here, it seems obvious that there's a connection between the Republicans' jihad on welfare mothers and our most private moments in bed with our lovers. It seems obvious that your personal commitment to know the truth is being hurt by the fact that you know nothing about how the the Pentagon's black budget is being spent. And all these connections, I believe, can be suggestively investigated through the cyclical language of astrology.

I'm very aware that opposites need each other desperately. As soon as you start pretending that there's only one correct way, you constellate the other ways as shadows. These shadows become an area of darkness in your psyche that's akin to a kind of demonic possession. Unless you're willing to converse with your shadows, enter into relationship with them, they'll always find a way to sabotage and subvert you. Astrological thinking can help you see yourself as a community of archetypes, each of which may have its own agenda, and each of which needs to be integrated into the constantly mutating scheme of your destiny.

UCJ: So you're saying that in your practice of astrology, it's as important to be as attuned to the biorhythms of congressional subcommittees as it is to know the positions of the planets and stars.

RB: Let me put it this way. Whether I'm doing a personal chart for an individual or reading a collective chart through my column, it's crucial that I not set myself up as a fount of pristine wisdom. I do my best service when I'm in dialog with my audience or client, when they're participating in the creation of the message, when together we're coming up with better ways to ask questions about their problems. To pretend I'm an all-knowing expert tends to shut down their access, in some mysteriously telepathic way, to their own hidden sources of knowing.

I'm very wary of the roles of fortune-teller and psychic and astrologer--ever since a fortune-telling psychic astrologer told me I was going to die at age 23. I spent that whole year looking for omens of death in my dreams. During that last week before my 24th birthday, I barely went out of the house. In any case, I survived, and vowed that in my own role as "fortune-teller" I'd never plant seeds in people's psyches that made them feel they had no control over their destiny.

You might justifiably ask why, if I'm so wary of the fortune-telling psychic astrologer, have I become such a person? It's because I find it an interesting spiritual challenge to try to bring light into the darkest places, to redeem roles that I feel have been degraded. It's another example in my life of the alchemical suggestion to look for the treasure in the trash--or as I put it in one of my songs, "sing in the acid rain."

One of my favorite ways to describe the kind of "fortune-telling" I do is to say that I predict the present, not the future. In other words, I try to hone in on the unconscious patterns and invisible forces that are coming to bear on you now. My job is not to show off my psychic powers by, say, giving you the numbers you should play to win the lottery or revealing when your future soul mate is going to discover you in the checkout line. I want to help you read your own mind and uncover all the secrets it's hiding from you. I want to inspire you to figure out what part of your own long-term cycles you're in. I want to conspire with your soul to strip away your ego's ideas about what you're doing.

Though it's true that in one sense I exploit astrology to commit poetry, I must say in my defense that my poet's love of language is one of my greatest assets as an astrologer. I've studied the way language shapes thought, and I'm painfully aware that astrology as a system of symbolic thought has suffered from lazy, unimaginative language. I've come to see it as my job to bust apart the assumptions about what constitutes astrology writing and astrological thinking. I want this stuff to be fun, slippery, open-ended. Astrology is not a fixed set of strict formulas, for goddess's sake. It's a gaggle of evocative symbols that should stimulate your imagination. It should challenge you to make up your own myths. It should give you the glorious opportunity to use the names and stories of gods and goddesses in place of some abstract psychological jargon.

My astrology writing is a perfect vehicle for having serious fun with the imagination. People can approach the column with the skepticism it deserves, and that frees them to explore the possibility that messing around with energy-packed images and fun language can help them escape the mental frameworks that have become their prisons.

The column is a weird, shape-shifting form that constantly undermines expectations about itself--and this is an accurate reflection of what I understand to be astrological thinking. The column gives me--and the reader--license to imagine all sorts of wild ideas, some of which may be taken at face value as wise suggestions (not ultimate solutions), and some of which may be bullshit--but a fertile bullshit that stimulates readers' understandings of how powerful a force their imaginations can be in reshaping the very concrete conditions in their lives.

UCJ: No offense, but the phrase "astrological thinking" sounds to me like a classic oxymoron. Care to expand on what you mean by it?

RB: I see astrology as a kind of mythic thinking--what psychology would be if it were truly grounded in the language of the soul. It's a quest not necessarily for answers but for meaning; not for concise formulas but for rich stories.

As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has shown, the nature of myth is that it's constantly permutating. There's no final, objectively true story that's truer than all the other stories. Myth is inherently subject to play, experiment and improvisation. It cries out to be continually tinged and reinvented by those who use it. And yet it's also a constellation of images and stories that exists objectively, outside the control of any one person.

I consider astrology to be, in its highest use, a gnostic art. In saying this I'm influenced by Elaine Pagels' book, The Gnostic Gospels, in which she talks about the anarchistic but organic tradition of early gnostic Christianity. Each gnostic was regarded as a potential source of visionary revelation that could extend the boundaries of gnostic Christianity. This is analogous to the way I'd like to see astrology become a living mythic anti-tradition.

UCJ: Does anyone ever ask you "what were you smoking when you came up with THAT horoscope?"

RB: I can see how some people might even think the column is written on drugs, but I don't take drugs. My last drug experience was a half a joint of marijuana six years ago. Earlier in my life I took a few psychedelics. But what some people might call drug consciousness I just see as the way the world really is. Drugs may have helped tune me into it way back when, but now I stay tuned through meditation and dream work and Tarot- and alchemical-inspired perceptions.

I was listening to a Terence McKenna tape recently and he said, "And then you get to the point in the mushroom trip where the world really is a Groucho Marx movie." Except I don't think you need a mushroom trip to see that. My column isn't me being "wacky." It's just me describing and imitating the world as I see it.

UCJ: Whom do you consider to be your major influences?

RB: If I had to free-associate on my main influences, I'd say the Qabala, the Tarot according to Paul Foster Case, the French theater madman Antonin Artaud, Jung, alchemy, feminism, Robert Graves' The White Goddess, Terence McKenna and Tim Leary, the single welfare mothers I've known and loved, the musicians I've played with, the poet Rimbaud, the psychologist James Hillman, Noam Chomsky, the Church of the Subgenius, and Henry Miller.

UCJ: What is your vision of how society would be ordered? Would there be laws? Would there be anarchy? I know it's a huge question, but...

RB: Well, I'm not a politician so I don't have to be responsible for creating the institutions. I can be an irresponsible poet yelling crazy but useful stuff at the pragmatists who're actually doing the hard work of trying to make things work on a day-to-day basis. But one of the things I'd make mandatory in my perfect world would be dream work. Remembering and working--or should I say playing--with your dreams can be your first line of defense against your tendency to project your own flaws onto others. Anyone who begins sincerely to work with their dreams eventually sees the way they lie to themselves. They see the hidden patterns that control their behavior and that are at odds with their conscious values. Dreams are your very own personalized teacher-authority.

Another basic component of my utopia would be pure, medicinal, 180-proof feminism; feminism as applied to all levels of human interaction, from the personal to the political. I think the oppression of the feminine--not just in women but in men--has been the most tragic distortion in the history of our civilization. Many men think it's just a problem for women, that they've got to give something up in order for women to have it better. But in fact, it's as much in a man's selfish interest that the feminine be wild and free. On the very simplest level, for instance, a man's devaluing of the feminine means he has little access to many great powers in his own psyche.

UCJ: Have you worked with that in your column?

RB: I'm always slipping in my macho feminist comments --by which I mean I promote feminist principles with aggressive, vigorous insistence.

UCJ: What is the process of writing your column?

RB: Well, I never stop writing the column, really. I'm writing it right now. I've been collecting impressions from this interview and from the stuff I heard today on the car radio and what I saw and heard in the streets. I've taken a vow to be an amplifier for the voice of the collective. Of course I also like to filter that voice through a lot of cool special effects like reverb and dream talk. Or maybe the better metaphor is that I've taken a vow to be a funhouse mirror that tricks the collective into laughing at, and therefore breaking down, its own distortions. Help! Don't let me get trapped inside these metaphors.

I believe that the experiences and information I gather in any given week are "channeled" to me to stimulate intuitions that will allow me to tell stories to the collective about itself. The experiences might come on the so-called inner level through my dreams and meditations, or they might come on the so-called outer level through what people say to me and what I happen to read about. I try to be aware of the difference between my own personal stuff and the collective stuff, but often that's an artificial distinction.

That's one side of the process of writing the column. The other side is more formal and scientific, if it's possible to apply that last word to such an inexact art. I use a house system, wherein each sign is paired with one of the 12 houses according to the location of the sun. For instance, the last week of July and first three weeks of August are the solar month of Leo, and they constitute the fourth house period for Taurus. During the fourth house phase of anyone's cycle, a lot of childhood patterns typically come up for review. It's a propitious moment to meditate on how your original family relationships are still coloring your current relationships. It's a good time to purge your current domestic situation of bad old habits and recreate it in accordance with your highest conscious values.

In the chart I draw up, I also note what houses the moon and major aspects are affecting for each sign. That's the framework, but I don't like to be too tied to it. Anytime you get too attached to a system, you shut down your receptors and shut out information. My main job in working on the column is to make myself receptive.

UCJ: Could you talk more about the relationship between the individual and the collective and the individual's needs and responsibility to the collective?

RB: To respond to that, let me quote from the 13-step recovery program I founded, Telepathics Anonymous:

"Sooner or later, we'll all be well-rounded, highly-skilled, incredibly middle class socialists with lots of leisure time. Our essential political activity will be to seek disciplined self-exaltation through communion with and service to others. There'll be no contradiction between working as a collective group organism and expressing the unique genius of each individual in the group."

I've always tried to live in the vow that expressing my most outrageous individuality and being in humble service to the collective will lead me to the same goal. I think that's where we're all headed. I don't think it's some special potential in me. On a mundane level, it means that the spirit of capitalism and the spirit of socialism will ultimately fuse.

This drama was exemplified and heightened in 1991 by the opposition between Jupiter in Leo and Saturn in Aquarius. Jupiter in Leo was like what you'd get from the combination of Madonna and Tim Leary. Saturn in Aquarius was like Ralph Nader if Nader were elected President. Traditional astrology says the opposition of these aspects means conflict and frustration between individual self-expression and responsibility to the collective. I say that in heightening the contradictions to the max, Jupiter and Saturn were forcibly motivating millions of people, in the quiet inner sanctums of their intuition, to find ways to coordinate the two apparent polarities.

UCJ: Do you follow much world news? Do you make it a point of really knowing what's going on in the world for your column?

RB: Yes, but I think it's really hard to know what's going on in the world. I believe that though there's technically a free press in America, in reality the dominant news-sources constrict the flow of information to a very narrow band. If you search for what's really happening, you can find some of it. But most people never go beyond the loudest, flashiest, closest-at-hand news-sources. And 98 percent of that stuff is, in my view, lies.

UCJ: It's the current collective myth.

RB: Well, yes and no. The elite that controls the sources of information would like it to be the collective myth, and that elite is getting progressively smaller and smaller. Right now 26 corporations own all the major media in America, and the number's shrinking. Some speculate that by the year 2000 there'll be just four megacorporations that own all the information-sources in America.

I'm rooting for Terence McKenna's theory to come true and undo this stranglehold. He speculates that the collective unconscious, or oversoul as he calls it, is mysteriously working to undermine the number one commandment of the priesthood of science, which is, "Thou shalt have no other gods but Science." The oversoul creates phenomena like UFOs, for instance, which are making it increasingly difficult for the scientific paradigm to pass itself off as omniscient and infallible.

I'm hoping that the oversoul doesn't stop there--that it overthrows all the image-gestapos of the elitist entertainment and news industries, and the propaganda geniuses of the government.

UCJ: How can you separate the personal information from the collective information?

RB: You can't and shouldn't.

UCJ: What's your philosophy of humor?

RB: Don't trust any belief system in which humor doesn't figure prominently. In the Western occult traditions I've studied, the devil is afraid of laughter. The way to chase him away is with humor.

UCJ: Who would be some of the saints in your hall of humor?

RB: The bodhisattvas in the Humor Hall of Fame? Well, not necessarily comedians. I think Terence McKenna is a very funny person. Funny means seeing the shadows that are being studiously ignored, finding the shadows and exposing them with both cynicism and compassion.

UCJ: I want to ask about Jung and where that influence came along.

RB: Years ago, I fell in love with my female (and very feminist) Jungian dream teacher, and she fell in love with me. I got a very intimate education in Jungianism, and wrote some stirring Jungian love poetry.

Later, I discovered the dark side of Jung--his possible anti-Semitism and his unenlightened attitudes about women. But that was a disguised blessing too. Starting with Jung, I began to be able to objectively see and dislike the shadowy, undeveloped qualities in my heroes without dismissing the real beauty and power in their work.

Jung was of course a seminal figure in psychology, and yet he pursued what must have seemed to many a bizarre, prolonged study of alchemy. He single-handedly brought many old alchemical texts back into circulation. I'm extremely grateful for this. Of all the occult studies I've touched, alchemy has been the most suited for my temperament. It's both spiritual and soulful, both transcendent and deeply earthy. It provides mysterious poetic riddles that lead you to reassuringly chaotic heavens and it provides dream-like spiritual gems that guide you through uncanny underworlds.

UCJ: How would you explain what you consider alchemy to be in relationship to your work and your column?

RB: Either due to my own ignorance or to actual distortions in the translation of Eastern wisdom into Western culture, I came to believe when I first started my spiritual work that the body was a drag--that spiritual work is about escaping the body's claims so as to be able to manipulate the invisible worlds better.

But gradually I came to believe, in part because of my alchemical studies, that spiritual work is senseless unless it's fully earthed in the body and in the circumstances of actual day-to-day living. The body, it turns out, is not a drag at all, but the laboratory itself, the sacred experimental temple in which the spiritual work is best practiced and perfected.

My column is one of the alchemical tools my body and I have been given to experiment with. In the column, I can work to translate my lofty spiritual principles into an intimate poetic language that can be useful for real human beings who may or may not have a spiritual or poetic vocabulary. My alchemical challenge is to be true both to my highest vision of beauty and truth and to my goal of being in service to people.

The alchemical process, as I understand it, diverges from the path of the heroic ego, which Joseph Campbell too-thoroughly promoted. Alchemy has a tantric aspect in the sense that it encourages partner work. Campbell's hero is a lonely heterosexual male figure. My alchemical work, on the other hand, has thrived on my meditations on relationship. I love to work with the idea that we all have an anima or animus, an essential quality of self that's the gender opposite of our body's gender. This anima or animus is inevitably projected onto our real partners. At the core of my alchemical project is my work on the interplay among the projection, the real partner, and the source of the projection in myself.