Saturday, 11 April 2009

June Phelps

This is the chart of the elderly lady I have elsewhere called 'Bethan June Phelps' when describing the tangled history of our friendship. Birth-data has been withheld for confidentiality. You may want to follow the link above to get a sense of my view, at least, of her nature and the events that passed between us, before going on to see how this is reflected in the archetypal underpinnings of her horoscope. Her view of the matter, no doubt, would be somewhat different. Please note that I have permission to discuss the chart in public.

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The chart is very earthy: five planets are in earth signs, plus the ascendant and midheaven. Only one planet, the Moon, is in fire. A lot of planets, however, are in cardinal signs. According to the most basic of astrological theory, then, this is someone who is intensely driven towards concrete achievement, towards having an impact on the physical world around them, but whose capacity for vision, imaginative play and excitement, for 'seeing the bigger picture' is not all that accessible to consciousness. Earth at its worst can be remorselessly unimaginative, self-entrenching and depressive, so it's interesting to look at the way that someone with a chart so oriented towards concrete achievement in the world has seemed to stall for decades in a kind of melancholy stasis. To give a concrete example, in the ten years that I knew 'June', she only spent a single night away from her home.

The chart also has two large aspect-formations: a grand cross between Mercury, Uranus, Pluto and Mars (the red square with the diagonals put in), and a grand trine between Mars, Venus and Chiron in air (the blue triangle). Grand crosses are difficult, though often very productive: the four planets concerned are all forced to 'talk' to one another whether they like it or not, and the energy grates and nags and is awkward. They need work to integrate healthily and productively, and this tends not to come easily. In contrast, with grand trines, it is easier for the three planets to come to an understanding, even if their intrinsic natures are not very compatible.

The Moon conjunct Pluto (out of sign) in the 4th is one of the fundamental base-notes of June's chart. The Moon denotes what makes us feel comfortable, and 'at home', as well as our sense of the past and our immediate familial roots. With the Moon in Leo, we sense that June was by nature a dramatic child with a strong need to be the focus of parental attention. But with Pluto conjunct the Moon in the 4th, I suspect 'home' was felt to be rather a dangerous place--shark-infested waters, as it were, a domestic atmosphere glowering with suppressed tension and thick with family secrets. The 4th is the house, amongst other things, of the father (or the archetypal father-image projected onto the actual father), and Pluto is acting here as a major father-significator. This is a useful instance of the way that one cannot be sure in advance of the level on which an astrological symbol will operate: Pluto in the 4th could suggest a father who was cruel and abusive, or just a secretive individual who spent all his spare time in a shed at the end of the garden. In June's case, her father was a coalminer--Pluto rules the subterranean, darkness, dangerous professions, and the generation of power. (For all that I bang on about astrology as an archetypal 'poetics of the human', it is often strikingly literal in just this way.) The key to Pluto in the 4th here, I think, is the sense in June's childhood that father isn't safe: a pit-prop could collapse at any time, or there could be a gas leak 200 feet below ground-level. There was a very real threat of death and disaster hanging over her childhood. June was fond of reminding me of fascinating mining superstitions, such as the custom that one never argues with a man who is about to go down the mine, which were still observed in her family.

The presence of the Moon loosely conjunct Pluto also suggests a lot about June's mother. By regressed motion, the moon would have been conjunct with natal Pluto at conception: this suggests that pregnancy was experienced by June's mother as in some way cataclysmically disastrous, a dramatic and disturbing event. (June was an only child.) There are a number of scenarios which could be possible here: the most obvious is that the pregnancy was medically fraught, and that there were serious fears for the health of mother and baby; perhaps it came after a series of miscarriages. More luridly, it could even indicate that conception was the result of a sexual assault. Less disturbingly and more probably, June's mother might have felt horror and depression at the thought of having to take a enforced break from her career as a schoolteacher and its associated freedoms. I have no idea: June and I never discussed it. Again, the chart gives the archetypal background, not a 'fated' or literalised transcription of events. At any rate, this Pluto aspect suggests that pregnancy was no 'happy event' for June's mother, but a viscerally disturbing disruption of her life.

Further to this--and as an example of the way that family life chez Phelps seems to have been charged with plutonian secrets--June was raised until she was in her teens to think that her mother's younger sister (whom I will call 'Joanne') was her own elder sister. There was an age-difference of less than a decade between them, and at least 15 years' age-gap between her mother and Joanne. This strikes me as suspect, to say the least. Of course, June's mother's mother might have had another daughter unusually late and then died, leaving a her own grown-up daughter to look after her much younger orphaned sister. It's not inconceivable. But on the other hand, one wonders if 'Aunt Joanne' was not, in fact, June's mother's biological daughter from a teenage premarital liaison, happy or no. June's mother had, it seems, adored Joanne with a sunny and uncritical devotion, which would make more sense if the latter were in fact her daughter rather than her younger sister. If so, it is unclear how June's father felt about all this: the swirl of events is certainly murky and charged. (The pattern continued, incidentally: June's first cousin, Hilary, was apparently convinced that she herself was in fact Joanne's biological daughter. That's rather a lot of ambiguous parentage for one family.) June often said that her mother has always been distinctly cool towards her, signified astrologically by June's Moon square Uranus and Mercury in the 10th opposition Pluto, suggesting her mother's inability to get close, verbal cruelty and a certain festering resentment, even jealousy of her daughter. Or we should say, rather, that June perceived her mother's behaviour in those terms: the Pluto and Uranus in question are June's, not her mother's. The little Moon~Pluto child may possess an unnerving, dark intensity which might well unsettle, even frighten, the more conventional, 'nice' parent.

Despite the link to Pluto, the Moon is warm in Leo, which is fond of big gestures and is made comfortable by self-dramatisation. June had considerable talent in this direction, especially for vocal mimicry, campy self-mockery and coming the comic grande dame. If she found something for which she had been looking in her tumbledown, filthy house, she would invariably exclaim in a surreal outburst, '"Aha!!", she cried in Spanish, as she waved her wooden leg!'. She once came up with the plan of wheeling a friend's new baby up the road in his pram to the village shop, where she would explain to the puzzled masses that she 'had just come back from seeing those nice doctors in Rome.'

The dramatic monologue was June's preferred conversational mode, and as I have noted elsewhere, she was a remarkably gifted storyteller. For example, I first met her when I was in my early teens, when she would explain, with solemn outrage, that she lived in poverty. And indeed, she was pretty short of funds, existing on the basic state pension of £95 a week: not a sum I'd care to live on myself. Her house--her parents' house, in fact, and her childhood home--was quite amazingly dirty, with every wall the colour of toffee and a greasy film of nicotine on all the surfaces. The upstairs front bedroom had a collapsed ceiling, a keyboard, half a dozen ancient hat-boxes, two sewing machines, three wardrobes, several card-tables, a suitcase full of lurid kaftans, baskets of wool, a typewriter, plastic bags stuffed with papers, a collection of pictures of cats, and bowls of disarticulated doll-parts. June would decry the obscenity of it all, bitterly regretting the fact that she was still paying off her former partner's credit card debt, a few pounds a week, and would be doing so for the rest of her life. In a distinctly Pluto~Moon in Leo story (tragedy, malign fate, and explosions), she told me that she never inherited her partner's wealth because he had not signed the new version of his Will when he was unexpectedly blown up in a tank in Beirut. This gives you, reader, a good sense of the way that the internal logic of June's stories could give one pause. Outstanding debt, as I understand it, is not personally transferable, but payable out of the deceased's estate; however, the cards might have been in both their names, I suppose. But the incident of the unsigned Will is just too melodramatic to be true--it has an equally ludicrous sequel, according to which June's late partner's sister came round to their shared flat after her brother's death, and before June's eyes snatched all her expensive clothes out of the wardrobe as hers by right.

June would tell these stories with great weary sighs at life's cruelty toward her, and at the penury in which she lived: all the while she would be chaining cigarette after cigarette. She smoked at least a pack of 24 Royals a day, and at £5.54 a pack, her material poverty might have had more to do with her spending half her pension on rough ciggies than it did with ancient debt and operatic misfortune. June's autobiographical tales were always rather Terry Pratchett-meets-The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, if you'll forgive that bizarre juxtaposition.

The general love of drama is accentuated by her Sun~Jupiter conjunction in Capricorn. Jupiter is not terribly at home with Capricorn's characteristic cynicism and gloom, but with the Sun this placement might suggest a drive to succeed and build lasting structures in life which can embody the best of one's values. ('If you build it, they will come', as June was fond of quoting from Field of Dreams.) The conjunction is in the 9th house so Jupiter is thus 'at home', and thus we can be sure that June's dreams were expansive and had to be meaningful. Jupiter~Sun is a placement which looks above all for meaning, for philosophical sweep. A teacher's aspect, Jupiter~Sun can signify the sage or the professor, or indeed the counsellor, a role which June regarded as particularly her own, in a somewhat exaggerated fashion.

Sticking with Sun~Jupiter, Mariana over at Gatochy's Blog has a marvellous description of what she calls 'Lady Catherine Syndrome', and Jean suffered badly with this maddening need to emphasise her own wisdom and expertise in every possible field--'[t]he implication being', as Mariana says of Austen's Lady Catherine de Burgh, 'that, next time, as indeed in all times, it was wiser to see her before taking any step, in any direction.' June claimed a formidable back-catalogue of careers and skill-sets: she had been a Cordon Bleu cook, a jeweller, a men's tailor, a drug and alcohol counsellor, a dancer, a pilot, a director, a chairwoman of the WI (complete with Leo Moon speech in the Albert Hall, an incident, ahem, 'borrowed' from Calendar Girls) and, last but not least, a white witch. She had also worked for a time as a legal secretary in a firm of solicitors, and in a classic example of Jupiter~Sun's tendency to inflation, not helped by Moon~Pluto in Leo's intense need to self-dramatise, she let me believe for years that she had in fact been a lawyer. (She would talk about having 'defended people in court' and 'her clients', and so on.) In reality, she had been a member of the firm's typing pool.

June created an elaborate and increasingly densely-woven fantasy world around herself, and it's very informative to look at the astrological signatures of this. Astrology certainly can't diagnose mental illness, and no astrologer worth their salt would ever presume to do so. But it can give us an insight into the archetypal background and the individual's resultant intrapsychic stresses, those places where two or more primal needs clash and raise painfully contradictory demands.

Most fundamentally, June's Sun, Jupiter and Mercury in Capricorn represent a need to achieve, to build something. Capricornian self-respect depends on creating something solid and the status gained thereby. All the earth signs require something tangible, but Capricorn needs to do as well as to be. it knows that 'nothing can come of nothing', to quote Lear. But for whatever reason, in June that need was somehow never met: despite her high intelligence and obvious giftedness, conventional tokens of personal achievement--marriage, children, property--consistently eluded her. Why?

Astrologically, three factors are at work here, I think: the Saturn~Chiron~Neptune T-square, the heavily-aspected Uranus in the 12th, and the fact that there is only one planet in fire.

To start with the last of these, it's a commonplace of both astrology and Jung's Analytical Psychology that the conscious and unconscious sides of the psyche are self-compensating. ('Sides' is the wrong word--the Unconscious is vast and the conscious mind's 'circle of candlelight' quite small in comparison.) If one function or element is weak in the chart, then it's not the case that the person somehow just 'doesn't have' that element: rather it will function unconsciously, often with enormous strength and at a rather primitive, unsophisticated level. So June's fire, that is, her capacity for enthusiastic imagination, for creative vision, for risk-taking, was unconsciously tremendously powerful, to a degree of which she herself was probably completely unaware, seeing herself as the responsible, down-to-earth ol' dame who was 'as old as God'. (She was saying that in her early sixties, and indeed looked much older than she was: at 58 she looked 75.) She had no conventional imaginative creativity at all. Her writing, for example, was hidebound by a style which I used to think of as 'decorated rural gothic'--she would write 'one's paternal parent' when she meant 'my father'. She was also fond of those painting-by-numbers pictures, whereby you get a line-drawing with its subsections labelled with a number to tell you which colour of paint to use. This was a woman who clearly believed she had no originality as a creative artist: and yet all that fiery imagination was running loose from the ego's control behind the scenes, building fantastic, vivid imaginative structures, whole cathedrals of confabulation.

So, again in a psychological commonplace, that which we do not make conscious returns to us as fate. Important principles of life which are left to languish in the Unconscious meet us in outer life through projection, often with a nasty smack, or, as here, will rise up in an autonomous way and flood the conscious mind. Like Walter Mitty, June now lives in a fiery realm of vivid make-believe, in which she danced with Bob Fosse, had dinner with the Kray brothers, addressed the Albert Hall, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, prosecuted criminals and flew aeroplanes. Tales of personal tragedy and triumph mingled, but the scale was always large and she was always the centre of the story. Whether she herself believed her confabulations or not I really couldn't say: I always had the unnerving feeling that there was a kind of 'filter' around her, so that she only saw what she wanted to see and heard what she wanted to hear. She was quite capable of talking of someone who had stopped speaking to her 20 years before as a close friend, or of saying, without irony, that she wasn't too worried about the alarming flea infestation 'because fleas will only live in a clean house'--even as she sat squalidly surrounded by thick dust and fly-egg-encrusted saucers of catfood. (She approached but never reached the outer stages of Diogenes Syndrome, and was without doubt in the category of compulsive hoarder.)

Our second factor, Uranus in the 12th, is hugely tense in June's chart. It receives aspects from every other planet except Venus and Saturn. In a close square aspect to the Moon, it suggests a Promethean rage at the body and its fallibility, a hostility to the lunar realm of instincts and physiological rhythms. June's health was a disaster, and she blamed her body for most of her misfortunes, regarding herself as suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, apparently self-diagnosed.* (This is also a reflection of Chiron in the 2nd, with its associations of chronic pain and the unreliability of both the body and the physical world.) But again, some of her stories about her physical health were unusual, to say the least. She claimed, for example, to have gone through the menopause at the age of 36, as a side-effect of painkillers administered in A&E for a broken arm. She also claimed multiple allergies: she apparently became ill if she smelled hyacinths or sandalwood, took antibiotics or any painkiller including morphine, or, bizarrely, ate pork. (Some of these were later proved to be fictitious--given morphine under a different brand-name in hospital, she was observed to have no allergic reaction whatsoever.)

As often with strong Uranus aspects, June found fitting into to everyday life difficult. She ate poorly, and usually slept in until 3pm. Prone to superstitiousness and fearful intuitions, she would often claim that somebody somewhere had a 'poppet' of her, into which they were jabbing pins. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to point out sensitively that some of the undoubted difficulties of her life could be ameliorated by different choices, so I usually kept quiet. A Uranian misfit, June used to describe herself as 'one who hears the beat of a different drummer.' With the planet's placement in the 12th house, I wonder how much she was channelling ancestral patterns here: it's interesting that in later life she chose to identify with the archetype of the witch, the ambivalent, marginal old woman who sets herself against society and pleases herself, in league with mysterious powers. I've no doubt that in choosing this self-image, she was telling a profound symbolic truth about herself.

The trouble with Uranus here is that it is a placement of intense idealism. Uranus likes vision (like Neptune, and indeed Jupiter) but its vision is of cosmic perfection, of abstract from messy human concerns and the needs of the body--a ruthlessly electrical blueprint. Uranus cannot tolerate imperfection, and June's Uranus, closely aspecting both the Sun and the Moon, is very powerful. I saw this side of June's nature quite frequently: she would dream of perfection, but sabotage any attempt to actualise that dream. So, for example, she would talk regularly about how desperately she longed to visit Paris again, and in particular a certain magasin de parasols, talking about the city with great fervour. But, should she visit, she would have to be back the same day (she insisted) because she had to sleep in her own bed: and although she lived only twenty minutes away from the main Eurostar terminal, she refused to use the Channel Tunnel, which thus made the journey impossible and effectively ensured that her dream was unfulfillable. At 28, I now realise that her feelings were ambivalent beneath her idealistic language: what if the city had changed, what if she herself had changed so much that she could no longer enjoy the place, and so spoiled precious memories? Further, she would have been relying on an adoring teenage boy (probably something of a nuisance) to finance every aspect of the day out, and even June--who could be spectacularly exploitative--might have felt uncomfortable at such overt freeloading. Being pushed into that feeling of dependence might have made her feel very angry indeed. Compromise was impossible, and in the end, June wanted the beautiful, melancholy ideal of Paris more than she wanted the actuality.

As the walls of her physical world shrank, her imaginary world seemed to grow more florid. On several occasions, she would announce that long held dreams had suddenly come true: having always said how much she would like to meet Sir Derek Jacobi, she announced one day that she had in fact met him, quite recently, on a painted sacking 'street in London'. (June could hardly get herself to ASDA under her own steam, let alone to London.) Similarly, after the Hell's Angels tore through our village, she proclaimed that one nice man had given her a ride all the way to the coast on his bike. The sadness of all this wish-fulfillment is striking: all June's stories created a parallel world in which she was recognised as remarkable or special, or in which she had pregnant encounters with remarkable or special people whose glamour thereby rubbed off on her a little. Ultimately, I think it is a rage at flawedness, a sense that this is not how things should be, which fueled June's confabulations, and, in part, prevented her from actually making anything concrete of her life. As with Paris, there was always some fatal and fated flaw somewhere, some fly in the ointment which, though never her fault, meant that she had never completed her training, never gone to university (though she--of course!--had been offered a place at Cambridge), never married, never had children, never emigrated to Canada, never bought her house, never saved any money, never wrote her novel...the feeling-tone seemed to be if something isn't perfect, or isn't perfectly timed, then I won't have it at all.

It's all very sad, as well as being an object lesson in the ambivalence of astrological symbols. But the route of confabulation and the 'histrionic' symptoms are not merely Uranian. After all, someone else could have exactly this brand of paralysing idealism and instead of fantasising an elaborate alternative biography could merely have come to the conclusion that life is shit and there's an end on it.(We all know the kind of person who loves poking holes in other people's dreams.) This takes us to the Chiron~Neptune~Saturn T-Square, which shrieks across the chart like iodine in an open wound.

I've noted above that negative aspects are difficult to integrate because two planets are permanently grating against each other: even if, as planets, they basically 'get on' (Mercury and Uranus, Venus and the Moon, the Sun and Jupiter), in square or opposition aspect they will be by definition in non-complementary signs, and so will be working in ways which are difficult to combine. Very often, especially with the opposition, the tendency is to identify with one 'pole' and to project the other. (And, that which we do not make conscious returns to us as...etc.) The close Saturn~Neptune opposition in Jean's chart is of this nature, I suspect. She indentified very much with Saturn--which, with all those planets in Capricorn, she would be wont to do--seeing herself as a hard-bitten, practical realist. (She was actually one of the least practical people I've ever met: she lived with a collapsed ceiling in her front bedroom for years because she never got around to moving the piled-up boxes of useless junk so that the landlord could come in and repair it.) And yet Saturn in Pisces can suggest a deep sense of disillusion and emotional inadequacy, of life being very cruel and tough just where one is most tender. At its best, this placement can suggest and emotional realism born of suffering, and June certainly felt that that was a good description of her work as a counsellor: work, needless to say, which I am not at all convinced was real. I suspect that she herself may have had counselling after a breakdown at some point, and merely switched the roles. She was fond of remarking that she had had to have counselling as part of her training, and I find it very unlikely that any counsellor worth the name wouldn't have picked up fast that something was pretty wrong somewhere.

This means, of course, that June was likely to project her Neptune in Virgo: identifying with pragmatic Saturn and the world of matter, the world of dream and fantasy was kept powerfully unconscious. It's interesting that she should have represented herself as the sage counsellor (Saturn) to those mired in Neptunian addictions, whereas in reality she had a very strong drive towards hazy escapism herself, as seem in her fantastical delusions, or perhaps self-deceptions. By projecting Neptune, it came to dominate her. None of this is a moral issue: Saturn~Neptune oppositions are often very painful, because the two principles are so wholly incompatible. Like Elizabeth I, June's motto might have been semper eadem, 'always the same', imagining herself as a rock around which the sea of chaos beat. One of her favourite catchphrases was 'this too will pass', a motto of stern Saturnian patience.

But, as always, we encounter that which we project through the outer world. In particular, Saturn~Neptune encodes various varieties of Victim/Redeemer patterns, which occurred again and again in June's relationships. She constantly gave the impression that innumerable people depended on her, people who were usually referred to vaguely as 'Ooofie-Doofie' or 'Madam Flanjan', as if to underline their anonymous contingency. Unlikely mercy missions included midnight flits to the the beds of dying AIDS patients in London, or helping agoraphobics to go shopping. Certainly with me it was unclear who was playing the victim and who the redeemer. I met June by chance for the first time one day on the bus coming home from school; in later years June took to telling people that my grandmother had asked her to look after me. In fact, no more absurd request could have been possible, as my grandmother loathed June and strongly disapproved of our friendship, seeing her as a manipulative bad influence--an interesting example of June's Neptunian ability to rewrite reality to something she preferred, and then to believe it.

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What can psychological astrology do for someone like June? Being realistic, the answer is not a lot. Now in her seventies, these are patterns of being which have been laid down over a lifetime, and there are serious mental health issues which are far, far beyond the competence of a counselling astrologer to deal with in the normal two sessions. She is, to put it bluntly, barmy, and underneath all the confabulation lies a defeated person. She needs help beyond the sort that astrology can give. Perhaps depth psychotherapy might have helped, but perhaps also it needs to be accepted that there are people for whom nothing can be done, though of course it's never to late to change or begin some kind of honest encounter with one's unconscious drives: the chart keeps on changing and growing throughout one's life. Hers is certainly a difficult chart: with a grand cross and a T-square, there's an awful lot here which doesn't come easily, a lot of incompatible archetypal principles yoked for a lifetime and forced to interact. Saturn (form, limit) would rather not speak to formless, oceanic Neptune at all; the instinctive, body-focused Moon is terrified of Uranus' chilly, dirigiste cerebrations. There's the psychologically hard childhood to consider, felt to be undemonstrative at best and poisonous at worst, filled with dark familial undercurrents to which our sensitive little Moon~Pluto girl would have been all too alert. ('Why does Daddy love me and Mummy doesn't? Why does Mummy love Joanne when Daddy seems to hate her?') But there's also a lot of strength here: Sun~Jupiter in Capricorn is an aspect which does see life as a banquet, even if it regards itself more as the beggar Lazarus looking to catch the scraps which fall from the rich man's table than the rich man himself. It can also bring enormous determination to achieve: one of the saddest things about June's chart is that she genuinely could have been any of the things which she posed as: she had the intellect and dramatic flair to have been a successful barrister, and the patience and experience of personal suffering to have made a sympathetic counsellor, for example. The thing that makes the difference, that has locked her into this 'fated' victim-redeemer complex, is hard to pinpoint astrologically. It is, in part, down to one's degree of consciousness, that is, to one's willingness to take honest responisbility for one's own complexes. No one, least of all me, can deny that this is very hard indeed, and that the primrose-path of least resistance often seems infinitely more tempting.

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*I remain dubious on this subject. My suspicion is that when the aetiology of the disease (really a vague list of symptoms) which we now call 'CFS/ME' is properly worked out, we will find that about 30% of diagnosed sufferers have some kind of genuine, chronic immune-system disorder, another 20% will be malingerers cheating the DSS, and the remaining 50% will have some kind of mental health issue. I've met too many people with ME whose personalities are too reminiscent of each other not to have a somewhat jaundiced view. One common pattern that I've noticed consists of Superficially Biddable Teenage Girl locked into an unconscious passive-aggressive fight-to-the-death with Overbearing Mummikins, in which the daughter parks her own wheelchair-bound body as though it were a truck in front of the hurtling freight-train of Mummy's ego--but there are others. They tend to be Pluto/Neptune issues, in astrological terms. Despite the symptoms of mental fogginess, lassitude, and exhaustion (Neptune), deep down in the Unconscious is a complex of cold, imperious will and rage, burning black on black (Pluto).

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