Leaning on the Stars to Make Sense of the World [New York Times]

 
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By ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE, NOV. 24, 2017

When Saturn moves to Capricorn from Sagittarius in December — an occurrence that happens only once every 29 years — Eric Francis Coppolino, a writer for The Daily News, will need to explain to readers what that shift means for their lives and how the larger world might be affected.

“It’s like a carefully timed fortune cookie,” he said of the horoscope column he would write, “only a little longer. When it’s meaningful, when it answers something that you’re wondering, it can light up your mind.”

Astrology has long had its believers and its cynics, but for a craft so often criticized for being nonscientific and, in some cases, fraudulent, horoscopes still cover the pages and websites of publications in New York and across the globe.

The New York Times is not one of them. But The Daily NewsThe New York Post and Vice have dedicated astrology writers or daily horoscopes, as do The Los Angeles TimesThe Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer, to name just a few.

So why, in an age of information overload and in a news-saturated city like New York, are written horoscopes still so popular?

One appeal is that they offer some order in an otherwise chaotic city and volatile world, said Galit Atlas, a clinical assistant professor in New York University’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.

“What makes us feel safe in the world is order, boundaries and sequence, and those three things are things that astrology can give us,” Ms. Atlas said. “Especially in a time when the world doesn’t feel safe, we tend to search for an order that makes sense.”

“That’s not a negative thing,” she added. “The more secure we feel in the world, the more we’re able to be productive — to live fully, to love and to work.”

Astrology is believed to have first appeared in ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago. But as a written art in newspapers and magazines, the practice is comparatively new — about a century old. (The first horoscope column in a major newspaper graced the pages of The Sunday Express in London in 1930.)

There is no formal schooling to be an interpreter of the stars. But there are well-known newspaper horoscope columnists, like the English astrologer Patric Walker, who have mentored New York writers. Mr. Walker, who died in 1995 and was widely considered the most eloquent wordsmith in the history of horoscope writing, trained Sally Brompton, his successor and the current astrologer for The Post. His work also inspired Mr. Coppolino to shift from shoe-leather reporting to covering the planets in his online magazine Planet Waves and later at The Daily News.

“I had no interest in astrology; I couldn’t see the use of it and it didn’t seem practical,” Mr. Coppolino said. “But when I started reading Patric Walker in The New York Post, I suddenly found myself with a guy who wrote like Steinbeck.”

He added: “By day I was covering toxic tort litigation, and at night I would hang out in my girlfriend’s room in Woodstock and pore through the ephemeris and the New York Post horoscope with a red pencil and tarot deck, and I hacked the Patric Walker horoscope, like Julian Assange.”

For 23 years, Mr. Coppolino, who grew up in Marine Park, Brooklyn, and went to John Dewey High School, has been writing what he describes as “news astrology,” or reporting on current events through the lens of planets, houses and signs. The first major story he covered using astrology was the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

More recently, he has used astrology to help him interpret news of three hurricanesHarvey WeinsteinNorth Korea, the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Coppolino studied the time and place of the New York truck attack (an “event chart”) to examine questions about the driver, Sayfullo Saipov, and how the tragedy happened. The chart, “like an objective map to the situation,” pointed to “sexual agony, loneliness and a sense of being homesick,” as part of Mr. Saipov’s motivation, Mr. Coppolino wrote in Planet Waves. And when looking at the time and place of Mr. Saipov’s birth (a “natal chart”), Mr. Coppolino saw “a person under extreme inner pressure, but also with the ability to be innovative.”

“I really try to avoid rationalization,” Mr. Coppolino said. “We’re not here to blame the planets, but rather, to take some guidance and use this technique for an expanded perspective.”

He added: “Most people are shellshocked right now. They’re in pain. The world is devastating. People are exhausted. And a purpose of the horoscope at that point becomes a spiritual touchstone.” (Mr. Coppolino views his audience as the everyday New Yorker, “human beings on the D train” or “people on their way to work.”)

But not everyone sees horoscopes as providing comfort or legitimate answers to life’s questions. John Marchesella, president of the New York City chapter of the National Council for Geocosmic Research, a nonprofit group that promotes astrological education for professional astrologers, dismissed horoscope writing as amateur, comparing it to “junk food,” or “a crumb” of astrology.

“To call it even a slice is giving it too much credence,” he said. “The sun sign column is only a sliver of what astrology can provide to people.”

But Rebecca Gordon, the astrology columnist for Harper’s Bazaar and founder of My Path Astrology School in New York 12 years ago, disagrees. She described horoscope columns as a way to promote astrology.

“That’s how most people find out that astrology exists,” she said, which is why “it’s so important that we give quality literature, quality interpretation, quality astronomy and astrology.”

Ms. Gordon explained how astrology writing is moving away from “your grandmother’s monthly horoscope” to something more modern that can serve a savvier readership.

Saturn’s move from a fire sign to an earth sign next month, for example, will usher in a sobering period, according to Ms. Gordon. Mr. Marchesella said the shift would represent “significant changes in governmental administration.” Mr. Coppolino said “we are entering the biggest point in reckoning in American history since the Civil War.”

“Between different astrologers, describing a chart is like poets describing a tree,” Mr. Coppolino said. “You’re going to get 20 different poems.”

“But the conversion from that to that,” he added, waving a finger from his astrology table to a draft of his next horoscope column, “that’s where the mystery is. That’s where the art is.”

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