by Tiziano Terzani, Three Rivers Press, NY.
Learning astrology is not just about astrologers learning technique from others, but learning about the context of their art and craft, both historically and geographically. What does it mean to go to an astrologer in different cultures (like, who is your audience?) and how do other practitioners from totally different traditions and upbringings treat the same needs and demands from those who come to them? Why, indeed, does anyone consult you and what are their expectations, fears, and experiences?
Here’s an example. What if you went to a well-known, reputable astrologer and were told that the chances of your dying in a plane crash were extremely high for the next year? Would you laugh in the face of it like you might in the face of a physician who told you you’d die if you didn’t quit smoking, and this very year? What would rule your feelings and actions – fear, reason, probability, actual daily choices? That’s the kind of situation any client faces when any astrologer makes any judgment, and the astrologer shares responsibility as well.
And that’s exactly what happened to Der Spiegel magazine’s Southeast Asian correspondent Tiziano Terzani a few years ago when he by chance visited a local, well-respected astrologer and was told an airplane crash was in the cards in the next year. His response to it changed his whole life (perhaps saved it, as the journalist-filled helicopter he would have been on did indeed crash later that year), as he chose to stay on the ground for a year and pay the price for not flying along with the rest. In the process, while engaged on the land and at sea in endless journeys and fascinating local color he would have flown over otherwise, he made a point of consulting every astrologer and other fortuneteller he could find along the way and then committing the experience to print.
The result is a delightfully entertaining and colorful reading experience for any travel reader, but particularly enlightening for anyone who has been in astrology or any other aspect of ancillary fortunetelling businesses. After all, as a seeker, what an authority tells you produces an endless stream of inner questioning and outer probability-gathering that can take over your whole life. And, as Terzani found out, that authority can range in both believability and accuracy (not at all necessarily the same), depending upon the approach, technique, and philosophy of the practitioner. The same goes for the strategy of the advisee and how the advice is considered and applied. It’s a real can of worms, insightfully explored and adventurously applied by the author to the experience at hand.
The entire travel epic is laid against the sometimes footweary background of a tumultuous, changing Southeast Asia where traditional wisdom and lore is being daily supplanted by money and power, rank consumerism and social and ecological destruction. Some of what the author saw and experienced is already extinct, only a few years later, which makes one mourn. But other inner aspects seem to be totally tenacious, from greater philosophical approaches to tiny details. Western astrologers will be perhaps condescendingly amused by the inclination of clients (and their encouraging advisors) to take certain parts of forecasting over-specifically. If one is told to expect death (tomb) from hanging (execution), perhaps hanging a few lamps in your ancestors’ tombs would put fate off the track and satisfy the prophecy. Ancient Classical Western tales are full of such transpositions, though we may now mock it at our peril. It’s still commonplace over there, and there are plentiful palm-nut crops being grown in Burma that never would have been planted but for just such advice, as only last year’s news reveals.
In the end, the issues are existential in the extreme, and any astrologer should be prepared to answer every one this Western journalist on foot in Asia has asked. What are the real possibilities at any moment, and how much input does the individual have in addressing them? Fate and free will are not abstract issues here, but daily choices on the ground that have to be answered in multiple languages with sometimes potentially lethal results (as with this his astrologer-described near-death experience with the Khmer Rouge). Life and death are only an instant apart, and your perception of them is no more than a dream in the tropical heat until that dream suddenly comes true, as predicted. Got to read this one…
P.S. Not accidentally, I’m sure, this book was given to me by a wise and introspective astrological client born not far from these climes, and I am grateful for the window I might have otherwise missed entirely…