Edmund White, Memoir & Astro Reading
About halfway through reading My Lives by Edmund White, I expected to give it a two-star rating. White spends so much time narrating his abject erotic experiences. But the last two chapters of the book redeem it for me. White seems to lift his eyes from his own feelings of lovelorn inadequacy so that other aspects of himself are revealed.He's not only a sex-obsessed lover; he's also a writer, professor, biographer, an advocate for gay rights and AIDS awareness. And he's a good friend. He's funny and tender. I learned from the last two chapters to appreciate the excruciating honesty of the preceding chapters. And to see how different one life can look when viewed from within - through a lens glazed by White’s self-doubt and, even, self-loathing - vs. when the view pans out and we see, for example, the perspective of a person blossoming as he engages in the challenging work of writing a biography.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes “the self-aware memoirist constantly pokes and prods at his doubts like a tongue on a black tooth.” White spends much of the memoir prodding the black tooth, sharing intimate details of his sex-life and S&M experiences and his feelings of inadequacy as a misfit in a society trying to cure him of his homosexuality. A look at his natal chart shows that White has Pluto in Leo in the 1st house—creative expression of the taboo and his psychological wounds is a front-porch activity for White. And while White has no planets in Scorpio, it’s the sign on the cusp of his 5th house, conditioning his pleasure, his love affairs and his self-expression with its dark, taboo-breaking inclinations. White also has Venus in the 8th house, the House of Sex, Death, the Taboo and the Occult; he’s doing shadow-work through his relationships. With Venus in Aquarius, that shadow-work might be with outcasts and exiles and through these relationships White is able to release the conditioning that veils his authentic nature.
Reading My Lives, it’s apparent that relationships are of primary importance for White, relegating much else to side-show. That’s fitting for a man whose Capricorn Sun is in the 7th house, the house of relationship. His identity is formed by encounters with the other. Finding his center within relationships without orbiting or being orbited is a lifelong work for him and White is honest in his memoir about his heartbreaks and failures as he struggles to form relationships based in equality, commitment and mutual respect.
Identity formation has been a skipped step for White in the karmic past. But he’s not meant to compensate by being a me-first individualist in this lifetime. He’s meant to form relationships, building a bridge of rapport with people who hold him in high regard, whether they are friends, business partners, creative partners or lovers. Of course he has stories of beloved, charismatic blondes—with the Sun in the 7th, we’d expect him to be attracted to solar types who radiate gravitas and dignity. The key is to form relationships in which differences are bridged with partners who esteem him as he esteems them so that neither partner expects abject devotion from the other. The pitfall for White, one he seems to stumble into repeatedly, is to be pulled into the orbit of another person, losing his own forward momentum.
But White isn’t aiming for nonstop peachy-keen ease with his partners and friends. That 8th house Venus wouldn’t want such peace, especially if it’s achieved by covering up or denying the darker truths of relationship. White is learning to become the kind of friend who can walk the dark roads that take him and his companions off the beaten path. (How many friends does he accompany through the valley of the shadow cast by AIDS?) White is meeting his own psychological wounds through relationships: baggage must be unpacked, flaws faced with fierce honesty, dark predilections acknowledged.
Those dark predilections are likely carried over from a brutal karmic past. With the South Node in Aries in the 10th house conjunct Saturn squaring the Sun, White is in recovery after lifetimes of intensity, exhaustion, drama, isolation and harsh circumstances that may have left him with a residual sense of urgency, crisis, nihilism and defeat. Having public status is a karmic pattern for him, but in past lives his reputation and his duties were prescribed by another more powerful authority with ego-crushing results. Internalized patterns of cruelty have left a mark on his soul that he plays out in his childhood games and in his erotic encounters as an adult. As White says of his childhood, “I always had a single game in mind: king and slave… I didn’t much care which role I played so long as the drama of domination and submission got properly performed.”
The harsh circumstances of his karmic past have ingrained in him a pessimistic view of reality, as evidenced by his adolescent attraction the the nihilism he perceives in Buddhism:
“No matter how pessimistic I might become, I could never begin to approach the extent of Gotama’s nihilism. He saw the self as an illusion, desire as the root of all evil, rebirth as the worst of fates and extinction as the only goal. In this world the most and the least one could expect was sickness, old age and death. Whereas Hindus posited an irreducible soul, the atman, the Buddha preached the doctrine of ‘no soul,’ anatta. In an unpeopled universe full of nothing but illusion and suffering, not a single entity existed, certainly no deity. This is realism, I thought with grim satisfaction.”
White’s 4th house Libra North Node points toward the healing path, which is the opposite of existential nihilism, inviting White into warm connection with the human family. He’s healed by turning inward, exploring his feelings, seeking true self-knowledge and, if he chooses, establishing a harmonious home and soul-family. With Venus ruling the North Node, relationships are once again emphasized as a helpful stepping stone to this higher ground, especially relationships that force White to wrestle with his shadow. Facing his psychological depths through relationships will ultimately support his individuality and authenticity, as he learns that relationships can be nuanced and complex, that aesthetic beauty can be healing and that love is bigger than passion.
The karmic characteristics that we bring into this lifetime can be tremendous assets at the same time that they are, to our soul, old hat. Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in Aries in the 10th house are part of White’s karmic past creating a complex picture of a person habituated to public status (10th house), success (Jupiter), a warrior king’s intensity and passion (Mars conjunct Jupiter in Aries) but with a stern (Saturn) awareness of hard limits and cruel realities. There are echoes of both status and loneliness in the fantasies White had as a boy: “I saw empty royal palaces and objects - jewels and graveyards - just as when I built castles of sand in the summer or of snow in the winter I peopled them with lonely, tragic tsarinas floating through crumbling wings of the Old Palace long since abandoned.”
There’s also a karmic pattern of being in the public eye, rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful. We tend to replicate karmic patterns without feeling deeply fulfilled by them, making it easier to understand why so much of White’s memoir is focused on his relationships—the fresh impetus guiding his Sun, Venus, and North Node—rather than the achievements that have placed him in the same milieu as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates.
Yet these achievements are also part of White’s blueprint for a life well-lived. He’s meant to be living his 10th house Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in Aries: to do the hard work required to have a worthy role in the community; to have a colorful reputation as he makes a difference in the world (Mars); to energize a community of people he doesn’t know on a personal level (Jupiter).
Combined with the strong emphasis on effort in relationships and public mission (10th house planets, 7th house Sun in Capricorn) and the fiery nature of his public reputation (10th house stellium in Aries), White’s Ascendant in Cancer and Moon in Pisces give him a watery, intuitive, nurturing bent. This perhaps accounts for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when reading his memoir. Wide-eyed, reading White’s descriptions of sometimes grotesque sexual experiences, I would have an image of White as Baron Harkonnen engaged in degrading sex acts. Then I would turn the page to a photo of White with puppy-dog eyes and a shy smile and I would wonder how I got such a distorted picture in my mind.
Those sweet eyes and smile befit a man with a Cancer mask. This is the mask of a healer and with a Pisces Moon as the ruler of his chart, White must have extraordinary sensitivity—both emotionally and spiritually. This sensitivity is evident in his boyhood feelings toward his mother: “As a little boy I’d lived for her. I’d suffered when she wept over the divorce. I would read to her the beautiful words of Emerson and feel the same glow of admiration as she did, for such depth, such wisdom. I would sometimes cry hysterically when I was unable to console her.”
Growing into well-functioning adulthood would mean learning to protect this sensitivity without numbing out completely, to be caring without being consigned to the role of caretaker. His first order of business is healing his own ability to navigate the world with sympathetic and caring engagement, which, conversely, would require a sense of safety that comes from ample time for quiet self-reflection and the deep comfort of soul bonds with caring, nurturing friends. (White devotes a whole chapter to “My Women,” which details how he’s essentially brought out of his shell through these comfortable friendships.)
The distortion between White’s appearance and his stories arises because White writes from what Melissa Febos calls the “super messy” inside of consciousness. The outer mask creates an organized image by which the outside world knows us. All memoir—or all good memoir, as in White’s case—takes us below the mask. As Karr explains it:
“The life chroniclers who endure as real artists come across as folks particularly schooled in their own rich inner geographies. A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.”
Showing up at the ball boldly naked is a very un-Cancerian activity—the Crab likes his shell. But the Crab also likes introspection and indulging the deep imagination and those Cancerian activities draw White into the healing behaviors of his 4th house North Node.
Memoir-writing, then, becomes part of White’s healing path, drawing him into the 4th house realm of his “own rich inner geography.”