Posted on 6 mins read

Imagine you’ve misheard the lyrics to a song. You’ve interpreted it to be saying something the musician could not possibly have intended. This is a common experience: music adds sensory noise to speech, making it more difficult to decipher what’s being said. And people frequently mishear each other anyway, even when speaking clearly in a quiet place.

Music also adds an emotional dimension to speech. Some people (myself included) have misheard the lyrics to a song and then formed an emotional attachment to them, resulting in disappointment when the true lyrics are known. A few have even made major life decisions in the grip of inspiration by a misunderstood song. This has very little to do with the song, though—how could it? The song has become a reflection of the listener’s expectations and subconscious desires.

If a song can act as mere catalyst for the listener’s self-reflection, bearing no inherent meaning in itself, then a written text can do the same. The reader may even read the text perfectly, word-for-word, and still attach meaning that was generated within themselves. To some extent this is inevitable. Much of modern literary criticism, it could be argued, amounts to the justification of one’s hobbies. A text can be warped through interpretation to serve varying agendas, whether its author is still alive or not.

But here I’m not interested in the application of a premeditated “lens” to a text. Rather, I want to consider the practice of using a text to elicit unanticipated insights—unanticipated by both author and reader. A common example of this is the horoscope. Some people sincerely believe in astrology; for now I exclude them from my examination. Many others read the horoscope even though they don’t believe in it. They aren’t superstitious—they have no illusions about the effects of celestial objects on one’s fate. They just find it insightful. You don’t need to believe a text literally to gain something from it.

What is gained? Primarily, a new mold for one’s thoughts. We habitually think the same things in the same way over and over again. We deny ourselves novelty. Enter the horoscope, a text that purports to tell us, very vaguely, what to pay attention to and how to spend our time. We take its personal relevance as given, but it doesn’t echo the language of our thoughts. This allows it to apply interpretive pressure. It can nudge one to break out of a stale pattern of thought; it can introduce an alternative perspective to a situation one had written off; it can motivate one to act rather than stewing in indecision, which is no small gift.

Why the horoscope, specifically? After all, any text can be interpreted—reading is not a simple transfer of information, much as we depend on it being so. It’s a negotiation between text, which is always ambiguous, and reader, who is never without baggage. But purely transactional texts, like office memos and instruction manuals, are made with the intent of closing off as many interpretations as possible. The reader’s personal attachments rarely produce more than a minor factual misunderstanding or a feeling of being snubbed. Of course, one could apply (for example) numerological analysis to something as sterile as a grocery store receipt and extract insight from it. But a receipt resists our attempts to see ourselves in it. Horoscopes, on the other hand, are crafted to open up maximal interpretive possibilities, despite a thin veil of specificity. We see ourselves in them because that’s the point.

The result is what I call horoscopic projection: when the literal meaning of a text submits to a meditative reading of one’s own mind. The text is not ignored, but made subservient. Its ambiguity is put to use. The negotiation between reader and text becomes a dramatic interpretation, the work of an actor who wishes to perform their own life story but is required to follow a script. This can’t help but be transformative to a greater or lesser degree. Some astrology skeptics become believers in recognition of the the things the horoscope teaches them about themselves—but of course, they could have had the same insights even if the horoscopes were scrambled and they’d been unwittingly reading Sagittarius instead of Gemini. Importantly, it doesn’t stop working when one starts believing in it. Rather, it works better.

Several other kinds of texts lend themselves equally well to horoscopic projection: religious scripture, of course, as well as fortune cookies and motivational speaking. The occasional novel is written with enough allegory to serve. Philosophy will do, though not consistently. But the text’s natural disposition is not the only variable that matters. Any text can theoretically be used as a dowsing rod for objects of psychological interest, assuming the reader has a particular attitude about it: first, that they believe it is relevant to them; second, that they intend to take it seriously; and third, that they expect it to have transcendent meaning that can be apprehended through careful examination. If a text does not disillusion us too aggressively or fly in the face of our preestablished values, we will easily coerce it into meeting our expectations.

The difference between a misheard song and a properly-read text is that, while the actual words of the song are lost in interpretation, the text still has some initial force. When it comes to self-discovery, the flaw of many popular texts is their tendency to be biased, rote, or mercenary. A text cannot be a true mirror while also seeking to accomplish some other goal. But then, a true mirror would be useless to us. We are seeking some kind of distortion, some variation of ourselves. It would not be so valuable to have our thoughts repeated back to us verbatim. A funhouse mirror is more insightful to us than a placid lake. One should be cautious, though. These distortions, while necessary, have the ability to warp the process of self-discovery in subtle ways. Fixation on a single text, concept, genre, or author is risky. Our best defense against assimilation is to seek variety in what we read.

To read while in a mood of introspection is to place one’s thoughts under a microscope. Each word is an opportunity to free-associate, and given a meaningful context within which to do so, the refraction of one’s own thoughts evokes new structures in the mind. I submit that reading in this way is neither inferior nor secondary to reading for inherent meaning. It’s a practice that should be appreciated and performed intentionally, as a way to prevent the self and the mind from becoming set in a particular way of being.

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