This week we watched for the first time in 400 years the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. On Monday (21), the astronomic event was all that social media talked about, though the reason wasn’t only its historic rarity, but the fact that the solstice also supposedly greeted a new Age of Aquarius. But, as Alexey Dodsworth already explained in this article, we haven’t entered in any new age, less so in the age of Aquarius.
More than explaining why this misunderstood happened, what I want to address here is the euphoria caused by a supposed astrologic event. Classic musicals such as “Hair” and the symbolic meaning of the Age of Aquarius for hippies have been important references for the collective imagination of the 20th century. That’s because the Age of Aquarius supposedly announces a time of technological innovation, rebellion, humanitarianism, idealism, freedom, and democracy. But what’s the meaning of this nowadays and why so many people paid attention to that?
In “History of the Future” (2016), the French historian Georges Minois offers a retrospective of the importance of people such as fortune tellers, oracles, astrologists, tarot readers and all the practitioners of “macies” (chiromancy, pyromancy, necromancy etc) in the formation of Western culture, from Mesopotamy to the end of the 20th century.
We travel back to old temples, where oracles, such as those in Delphos, were visited and paid to forecast the future, especially in the case of wars and political arbitrage. From Ancient Greece to the Napoleonic Wars, Minois shows that there was always the figure of a fortune teller as someone who was capable to orient and organize the reasoning of great leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte himself, but also writers such as Robespierre and the journalist Marat — after all, as Minois states, “foreseeing an event is already a means to favor its fulfillment due to the psychological impact that is created in the process.” If the fortune is optmistic, then the consultant will be more confident, but if it’s negative, then it will reflect on their decisions and preventive actions.
The historian mentions how occult sciences, mysticism and, especially, astrology was always around in the history of the West, even during the times of Church sovereignty or the unravelling of Enlightenment. If, during certain times, this kind of service was mostly credited and searched by peasants, in other moments, fortune tellers and astrologists were rather celebrities and the main attraction in the parties held by the elite. Minois says that even when these practices were forbidden and professionals could even go to jail, they still worked underhand. That was also a moment of celebration of the occultism and distant cultures, such as it was the idea of an esoteric Egypt that, as we now know, was a stereotype created by Greeks and other Europeans and had nothing to do with the actual habits of the Egyptians.
In any case, all esoteric knowledge was less inclined to be scientific than to actually create attractive narratives that would be read through the Tarot cards or in the coffee grounds. As argued by Minois, many times people weren’t even interested in knowing their fortune, but rather find some comfort before psychoanalysis and psychology ever existed. Such behavior confirms that these people were actually “physicians of the soul, and their consultants, the sick. In a way, pretending to foresee the future is actually healing.” What the Church once did through confessions is now a duty to these oracles. In his words,
“Like a father, the astrologist is a confidant to whom we tell our secrets and, in exchange, they reveal our personal future. There are profound similarities between the psychoanalyst and the astrologist, and the fortune tellers of the 19th century had already realized their duty of acting like psychologists and cheering friends who were tasked with interpretation. The consultant of the astrologists and fortune tellers were people that were sick, anguished, wacky, people who were seeking for support and safety, for attention from the others. Astrologists knew that very well, as one realizes after reading their stereotyped predictions: massaging the ego is much more important than predicting the future.”
With the beginning of the French Revolution and the “era of the masses,” it was even more urgent to have a narrative that moved millions of people with new ideals such as a nation, a homeland, freedom, democracy, and the mobility that came after this moment of change. Although it may sound contradictory, Minois argues that the ascension of Liberalism during that time actually brought a complementary element of individualism to the people, because that was a moment when life was no longer stratified by the monarchy and heredity. In fact, it was a time characterized by a stronger flexibility that needed to be tunned by specialists — fortune tellers or astrologists, for instance. Any similarities with our present time filled with coaches, fortune tellers, astrologists and healers are no coincidence.
When these grandiose narratives brought inspiration to the people, they didn’t only suggest visions of the future, but the creation of utopias that ultimately could be turned into idologies — or aren’t ideologies themselves propositive utopias that try to convince people that is possible to change the world? By the end of the 19th century, several libertarian and anarchist communities were created around the world, even in Brazil. But what has been observed since the end of the 20th century is that utopias are only good when they are only dreams. When concretized, utopias turn into what Minois calls “counterutopias” or, more popularly, dystopias.
This becomes clear in the work of science fiction authors who abandoned optimist extrapolations such as Jules Verne’s to find a more reflective path such as H.G. Well’s. That led us to the blatant pessimism of novels such as “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “1984” by George Orwell.
If utopias are characterized by times when happiness, stability and plenitude are achieved, it means that this system has already achieved its balance and won’t be facing any conflicts or even evolutions, because it would have reached its “ideal form” yet.
But, as phrased by Eduardo Galeano, “utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.” In other words, utopia was never supposed to be the destination, only an inspiration.
What “Brave New World” and “We” show us is what happens when utopia is achieved: there is no poverty, no sadness, violence or criminality. The price of that? Genetic edition for designation of castes, end of privacy, ritualized sexuality for reproductive ends strictly, individuals as parts of a bigger mass. In the case of “1984”, however, Minois argues that plenitude is achieved not after everyone is happy, but rather by keeping people in a constant state of neuroticism, fear, discomfort and anguish reinforced by the idea of a war that never ends, by the simplification of the language as a means to limit reasoning, by the manipulation of history as a means to control the present and the future, by the extinction of libido as a means to control emotions, among other strategies.
It becomes clear that, in these great novels, the authors are reflecting on how technological innovations could rather be the ultimate means to achieve technocratic utopias or, in fact, how our pursuit for pleasure and freedom are rather the very reason why we are never happy. In “We”, Zamyatin writes:
“You know, that old legend that the paradise is us, it is absolutely real. They asked the two inhabitants of the paradise to choose: happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness, no other solution. The idiots chose freedom and, naturally, they ended up sighing for chains during centuries. We just discovered a means to recover happiness to the world.”
In the presentation of “Brave New World”, Nikolai Berdiaev also wrote that “utopias are much more achievable than it was believed. Today, we are confronted by a new question, which became urgent: how can we avoid the ultimate achievement of utopias? Utopias are achievable. Life walks towards utopias.” Would that justify the reason why we are living in a moment saturated by dystopias and pessimism? Minois says that he does not “judges” the 20th century humor because, after all, it has been one hundred years marked by two world wars, genocides, Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the URSS, economic crisis such as the one in 1929, among other incidents. So, would it be fair to ask us, in 2020, during a global pandemic (to say the least), to be optimistic?
Maybe the issue is less related to our feelings than it is related to our attempt to structure our thoughts. This was something that not only astrologists, but also economists and philosophers tried to do by creating models that would ultimately explain history. Curiously, in 1982 and 1988, we watched another conjunction, but that time it was between Saturn, Jupiter and Pluto in the constellation of Capricorn, but this same event also made people go after all kinds of esoteric explanation. One of the manifestations in this sense was the development of the New Age movement. For Minois, this is an example of an Americanized astrological milenarism that aims to announce “the imminent advent of a renewed world where each person will recognize the presence of God inside themselves, as fragments of a cosmic consciousness of the universal spirit. The Christianism, which coincides with the Age of Pisces, comes to an end. All religions will be united and it will start as the sign of Aquarius brings a paradisiac age of 2.160 years which will allow men to concentrate in all their positive aspirations.”
Are we experiencing a revival of this feeling during this week? If so, how much does this reveal about our desperation, our faithfulness and, ultimately, our inability to be patient and wait for things to change, preferably for better? For Minois, “there is something pathetic in this optimism that is forced, ambiguous, and that recites like litany the list of all evil to the mankind, as if this would exorcize them.” According to the historian, the New Age movement is thus the child of a marriage between hippies and a pacifist science fiction that “dreams with some kind of spiritual freedom, until now painfully captive by material impositions. In fact, it is more about a dream than a prediction.” Likewise, these predictions and visions of the future have less to do with what is coming next, they are rather a reflection of our feelings about the present and the learnings we achieved from the past.
Since then, futurology of the broader field of futures studies have been structured in publications such as Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” and in organizations such as the World Futures Studies Federation. This is all an attempt to stress the fact that these foresight professionals have nothing to do with fortune tellers or astrologists, because they don’t even argue they work with predictions but rather reflections, sociologic studies of the present and of the past in order to think about the future. These forecasted scenarios are much more conservative and even a little obvious, according to Minois, because they don’t want to fall prey of prophetism, as well as they are more inspired by economic projections and sociologic studies rather than an heavenly annunciation or the channeling of outwordly voices.
However, we are still attracted by these grandiose visions of new ages and astrologic events. If we take Minois’ retrospective as a reference, we are less inclined to find out what is actually going to happen in the future than we are to be supported by charismatic individuals who will say what we want to hear, even when it’s something negative — it is about prevention, not damnation. For the historian, as time goes by, our reality grows more complex and “impossible” for a human mind to make sense of, so this is why we end up using artificial intelligence in some tasks and projections. But, similarly to the issue of fake news, are we really more inclined to calculate a projection of how fast the universe is expanding or are we already satisfied by just believing that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius will bring good news?