I have always pooh-poohed astrology, but late last year, after a conversation with a friend who had her birth chart made, and whose life it kind of changed, I searched around on the web for the astrologer she meant. I thought I found the guy she was talking about, but I didn’t; instead I found Jonathan Cainer.

Cainer is one of the U.K.’s most popular astrologers. He’s been publishing in mainstream newspapers and elsewhere for about twenty-five years (he’s fifty-four now and writes the Daily Mail’s astrology column). He first encountered astrology in 1977, but it wasn’t until five years later that he felt writing horoscopes might be part of his purpose. He maintains a popular website where which he gives daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and decade-long predictions, both written and spoken. He writes over 25,000 words a week, and is the author of several books on astrology.

I sort of got hooked and slowly my life began to feel like it was being led by his hand—something I’d never before experienced; a sensation at once comforting and kind of schizophrenic and scary. I found myself planning six months in advance for vague things I otherwise would hardly have imagined might happen. But his tone of warmth, wisdom, and kindness made it all seem okay; even helpful. I paid less attention to certain stresses and saw things that seemed negative in an optimistic, long-term light. I paid his site money and was right there with him every day.

I finally wanted to speak to him, to try to understand how he had managed to affect this in my life; this experience that was for me, in many ways, more intense than most other experiences of reading (like the experience of reading a novel), because the sensation of being spoken to personally, about how one should live, felt so relational. In some ways, I consider him a great artist, or at least capable of achieving what many artists dream of: altering the lives of the people they reach. We spoke one afternoon over Skype, he from his home in London. – Sheila Heti

THE BELIEVER: I wanted to start by saying I’ve been reading your horoscopes… not that long; since October of last year. But I came upon them kind of randomly—and I’m a Capricorn—and I heard your prediction for 2011, the year that had just passed. And it felt so amazingly accurate and wise and thoughtful and helpful, and I started looking at your forecasts every single day. The thing that surprised me so much about what you do is that you have such a great sense of narrative.

JONATHAN CAINER: Hm. Me and my sense of narrative. I know that I like telling a story. I know that the planets seem definitely to be telling stories to me, and I let them communicate onwards as stories.

BLVR: I wonder, do you have a picture in your head of what it looks like for everybody of a different sign, going through time? Or… what do you see?

JC: Well, I suppose there are several things I know I don’t do. I don’t hold in my head an individual who encapsulates to me the essence of this zodiac sign or that zodiac sign. But I do make a point of collecting several people born under each zodiac sign and keeping an eye on their lives—not least because when I’ve written something, I like to read it back or listen to it back and say, If I was a Scorpio right now, would I be relating to that? Would that seem to make sense, given what I understand of so-and-so’s life? But that’s part of the checking process, not part of the creative process. When I’m doing it—this is just going to sound a bit ridiculous really. I just go into a bit of a zone! I don’t really know. I know that I like to work with what I’ve already said. I often consult the last forecast I gave. I know that I like to try to keep a feeling of—what you’re saying—narrative. I like to look and say, What did I say to this sign yesterday or last week? so that I have a feeling of tracking their journey.

In general, I suppose I assume I’m talking to someone I know and care about; someone I feel fairly close to and am able to be fairly blunt with, but somebody who I want to support, and help. Then I look at the challenges which the planets are bringing to them, or which I perceive astrology is telling me to advise them about, and I say, Okay, looks to me like these are your issues, and these are the best ways forward. It’s almost like I’m talking to someone’s heart, more than I’m talking to their persona.

BLVR: Okay, that’s interesting. You say you go into a bit of a zone. I guess also in that zone is some kind of calculation, right? Because you’re not making things up out of the blue; you’re making things up with these—in relation to the planets and so on, yeah?

JC: Yeah. The real acid test is, if you ask me to give you a forecast and you didn’t tell me your zodiac sign, I’d be stuffed. Point two; if I didn’t have in front of me my current list of where the planets are, and my current understanding of what those planets are meaning at any given time, again I’d be stuffed. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I couldn’t do it. So I’m definitely not a psychic. I’m using received astrological wisdom, as it’s practiced by many astrologers around the world, and actually, the person I was on the telephone to when you just called me is my astrologer!

BLVR: Right!

JC: She performs two functions in my life, one is [his telephone rings]… I’m just going to turn my phone off; so sorry… if I ever want to know what’s happening in my own chart I ask her, because I don’t consider myself objective enough to judge my own horoscope [laughs] but perhaps more crucially, I have her track my work. She’s called Catherine, and she’s a very good, qualified astrologer, and I ask her to read everything I’ve written so she can check it, the way an editor might check your punctuation, or if you made a factual reference they would go look it up to see did you get that right.

If I talk about Venus is trining Pluto, Catherine would go and first of all she’d check: is Venus trining Pluto? Has he got that right or is his eyesight now so failed he’s read his ephemeris wrong; which does happen. And the next thing is, occasionally she comes back and says, John, you just gave this forecast, and you said it was because of Venus trining Pluto, but you know, me and the rest of the astrological community would have difficulty associating what you’ve just said with that planetary alignment. So either you know something about Venus trining Pluto which you haven’t shared with the rest of your fellow astrologers, or maybe you’re hanging it on some different reason, but you ought to know that you’re currently off-the-wall, or out-of-whack with current, contemporary thinking on this topic.

I consider it very important that astrologers sing from the same hymn sheet. I feel that it’s always a bit of a shame when an astrologer says something and they don’t back up what they’re saying with astrological information. One of the great joys of being an astrologer is: if you come to me for a reading, my style might be different, and my advice might be different, but in essence I’d be assessing the same challenge that any other astrologer on the planet would also assess. Given the same astrological information, they ought to be giving you a pretty similar reading.

BLVR: So when you go and read other astrology columns, do you generally feel like, Oh, we’re in alignment—they’re seeing what I’m seeing?

JC: Yeah, to some extent I do. You know… most practicing astrologers are academics. They love the study of the planets and the stars; they really enjoy checking out possibilities: Oh, what’s happening if this planet’s here and that planet’s there? They’ll do research, they’ll do all kinds of work to increase their own understanding of astrology, and although some make money by giving readings, a lot of astrologers are amateurs; that is to say, financially. They’re not dependent on their astrology for their income. I am not such a great astrologer! I know astrologers who have a much vaster understanding of this topic than I could ever dream of having. My gift is in communication, not necessarily in the assimilation of the information.

BLVR: I’m curious about how you actually work. Do you just sit down and write one after the other, or do you take a day and do two a day? What is your actual process?

JC: Well, to some extent I’m guided by practicality, so although I run my own website, I’m also published in papers, and annoyingly, the week-ahead forecasts, the month-ahead forecasts, they go out to publications earlier than the daily ones. So sometimes I find myself doing next month’s Capricorn forecasts, and two minutes later I’ll be doing tomorrow’s Gemini forecast. So it depends on who’s wanting me to deliver copy for which publication when.

BLVR: Okay. I wonder… I’m a novelist, and my parents are both in science, and I have these two parts of my brain; one which is very skeptical and one which is very credulous. So there’s one thing, which is the literal arrangement of the planets in the sky, and the other thing, which is the interpretation of what those things could mean for human life. But how does that bridge happen? Is that bridge something that goes back thousands of years, that current astrologers are adapting? 

JC: It comes from a long established tradition which does indeed go back thousands of years, although the application of astrology to the particular processes that we’re familiar with in the 21st Century are relatively new. So for example, up until the late 1880s, 1890s, in most parts of the world, if you asked, When were you born? there’s a very good change they wouldn’t know. They may not even know their month. They might not even know their year. Until birth certificates became such a regular feature of the Western civilized world, you didn’t have the luxury of knowing somebody’s time of birth or place of birth; you wouldn’t know if somebody was a Scorpio or a Gemini.

So the rules of astrological interpretation were traditionally based on a different system of charting. Only kings and queens would get personal charts. Otherwise you’d come to me and say, My husband’s in the navy on the seas, and is he going to come back? Is his boat going to sink? And I would cast what was called a horary chart. I’d say, Right, you’re asking this question at 3:35 in the afternoon, we’re in London, or we’re wherever, and I’ll cast a chart based on the place I’m in, and let those planets tell me the story of your husband in the boat, and I’ll give you all the information from that.

Which I guess is a form of divination. The rules for giving that divination are very strict and carefully laid down in a bunch of books dating back a couple of thousand years. I’m sure there were books prior to that, but a whole lot of books got burned in a whole lot of libraries throughout history, and the earliest books that we still have extant go back to Claudius’s Ptolemy, who died in Alexandria around 180 AD. So there’s a system, and it gives me my structural framework.

And although it’s been adapted for the idea of personal horoscopes or personal readings or people with their zodiac signs, still the essence of Venus and Saturn—I could talk to an astrologer who lived on this planet 2000 years ago, if I had a time machine, and I’d be kind of comfortable that we were dealing with the same images. He’d be saying, Yeah, Saturn’s about structure, restriction, limitation; Venus is about some description of creativity; this is about the relationship between those two essential, archetypal impulses. And that’s how it would be done. So the structure’s definitely part of a tradition.

BLVR: Okay. I know you do I Ching readings on your site; that seems more like that ancient art which is not about where you were born, it’s about this moment in time, right? The moment that the questioner asks the question?

JC: Yeah. I used to be very wary about divinations. I used to think, well, astrology is much more sophisticated; it has its roots in divination but it’s a much more scientific process. As time has gone by, I have developed more respect for people who practice divination of any kind; be it I Ching or Tarot… The entire government of Tibet makes some of its key decisions by taking a YES, NO and MAYBE, sticking it into dough, rolling it up into balls and putting it into a bag, and they say a prayer and they pull out the one which first comes to hand, and that’s their answer!

Astrology, in essence, is another form of divination. The rules are a lot more complicated and difficult, a lot of people who enjoy practicing divination take one look at the number of rules that an astrological diviner has to use and go, That’s too much for me. Still, in essence what I’m doing is a form of divination, for sure.

BLVR: I guess one of the reasons I was curious to talk to you is because at a certain point—I’m following your readings every day and so on—I started to feel as if I was living in such a way that I knew the future. I knew what was coming. I almost felt like I was living in a novel that you were writing. And it was a very unsettling, not totally unfamiliar, but kind of bizarre thing. I thought, Should I stop reading or listening to him?—just because to have that much sense of the future, I don’t know. It was very different to feel like the future was sort of there.

JC: Oh, bless you. I’m feeling a little bit like, Wow I did that? Sometimes I think I’m writing into space, because something inside me says write. I’m doing it, it’s my job, I’ve got to do it, but in my reality I’m looking at an empty screen each day going, This screen is empty; it better be filled up with some predictions; let’s see what we can find today.

One of the things that I’ve discovered about life on planet earth is that the people who live here are often much more telepathic, intuitive and potentially psychic than they give themselves credit for being. We all have a much greater sixth sense, or extra-awareness, where we really know. And when you get a relationship going down between any two people who’ve got a degree of access to their own telepathic power, that becomes intensified. So somewhere in the relationship between what I feel is right—for reasons that I don’t fully understand—and you in the way that you’re reading it and the response that you’re having to it, there’s a little something going on which is neither you nor me. It’s the bridge between you and me, and I think the best name we could give that would be magic.

BLVR: Yeah. [laughs] Okay, here’s a question I have for you: do you feel like the future exists already? I mean, I have friends who are physicists and there’s, you know, there’s so much speculation about time. What’s your understanding or what’s your feeling about it?

JC: I think we all see ourselves as if we’re travelling on a conveyor belt, which can only go in one direction and can only go at one speed, and the only moment we’re in is the moment we’re in right now. But both scientists and mystics, though they disagree on a lot, tend to agree that that’s not really how time works. Certainly, if I didn’t think it was possible to get some sense of what the future held, and to be accurate about that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

So I can’t honestly say I have an intellectual understanding about how time works. I have a faith in how it works. I believe that the future is rather like a pencil drawing. And when an artist takes a pencil drawing and they paint it, then it becomes a reality. My job as the astrologer is to divine the pencil drawing of your future—the probabilities and possibilities of what await, and to help you see them, so you can go, Yep! That’s good. I’m going to fill that in. Or to say, I don’t like the look of that. I’m going to see if I can redraw that. [laughs] I’m sure that as time goes by, we’ll get a deeper understanding of our relationship with time.

Also, there’s always the possibility that when you perceive what’s coming up in the future, the very fact that you’re perceiving it effectively means that you’re changing it.

BLVR: Right, right.

JC: This is head-boggling stuff.

BLVR: It’s a fact that I’ve been relating very very deeply to your column. The things you’re saying are not superficial. They’re really about how to live, how to love, how to see oneself and other people in a more profound way. Your love reading for Capricorn for the year was all about how we sometimes think that love is this moment where everything feels perfect and seems right, and you’re saying no, that actually love is… uh… it’s much more difficult, much more about compromise and sacrifice. That’s a very beautiful thing to say, and a very true thing to say.

JC: Well, when I write and when I talk, I’m drawing on all sources, including my own experience of life, my own philosophy on life, the stuff I’ve learned from other people… teachers. I try to draw the best advice I can. But if I give an over-clear depiction of what is about to happen, if I say, Soon after you finish this phone call, you’re going to encounter a big-foot gorilla and he’s going to wave a baton around—okay, it’s a bad example, but, you know, the next thing that happens is I’ve encountered this phenomenon that is something all astrologers are very wary of, and it’s called self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps a more pertinent example is, people say to me: I saw a fortune teller and they told me that I would die at this age, and I would get seriously sick at that age, and I’m really worried about it. I have to go, Well, okay, on what basis did they tell you that? And what right did they have to say it? Even if their system of divination has given them information that they thought they could rely on, my feeling is, if I’m going to say something to somebody, it better be something that encourages them, inspires them, and brings forth their deepest wisdom or understanding. Because that’s got to be part and parcel of the responsibility.

BLVR: So is that how you look at your job? As a way to bring forth the wisdom in the people who are reading your words?

JC: Ultimately, I’m talking to people who have some affinity with what I’m saying, and if you didn’t have some wisdom of your own, whatever I was saying wouldn’t resonate with you. At the same time, if I was giving people advice based on, The world is full of really bad people; watch out for them cause they’re going to get you if you lose your guard for a moment, I’d be feeding that stuff within you. That would be the attitude I’d be helping you to bring forth inside yourself. So I’m cautious to make sure my forecasts are not informed by that level of paranoia or that level of fear.

BLVR: This has been such a huge part of your life since the late 70s or early 80s, when you started becoming interested in astrology. Does your being feel somehow different, doing this every day?

JC: I can’t imagine what it would be like not to do this anymore because I’ve been doing it so long. I just wouldn’t even know who I was if I wasn’t doing this! I know I love doing it. I know I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet to have this job, so I have to be grateful for that. And I also recognise the moral and ethical responsibilities that come along with giving this much advice to this many people every day.

BLVR: Do you feel like most of the people you read—other astrologers—do they take their ethical responsibility seriously, and are they doing a good job of it?

JC: One of the things that I often try and tell people—in my horoscope readings—is that when we judge people, it’s never a good thing. And when we get critical of others or ourselves, we do it at an expense. We become righteous, and that is not the state of mind to be in. So I am loathe to say, Oh I don’t think the other astrologers do it as well as they ought to, because that’s implying that I’m better than they are. I certainly wish that certain astrologers put a little more thought into what they did; or I look at what they’re doing and think, Oh Lordy, I’m glad I’m not taking my advice from you! [laughs]

BLVR: Right! So the reason I ultimately decided not to stop following you, was because I realised my brain was subtly being rewired—I mean, I don’t like the metaphor of wires, but—the channels were—the pathways were changing a bit, because my brain tends to be quite, in some ways, pessimistic or paranoid, and I felt like reading your stuff every day, my thoughts were naturally starting to go along different paths which were more optimistic, or hopeful or joyful. I thought, Okay, so even if it does have this strange side-effect of feeling like there is this sort of pencil drawing of the future, there is this benefit in being able to think along different paths that are more—not even optimistic; that is too simple a word for it, but more open to surprise and beauty and possibility.

JC: Well, I’m really glad that’s where your head’s at. It’s a nice place to be.

BLVR: Yeah, it’s nice!


[Please read my subsequent clarification on this piece. - Sheila Heti]