The Stars Down To Earth
by Jennie Cole
Jennie Cole (she/her, they/them) is an artist and writer who lives and works in London, UK. Her work spans artist’s books, video, poetry, printmaking, and painting, with enthusiasm for unruly formats and the crossing of discourses.
This story is part of the ongoing project Monetaredelia, a developing collection of short stories that offer psychedelic visions of economic realities. Monetaredelia aims to manifest and examine the range of ways in which money makes life very strange.
More about Jennie’s work at jenniecole.org.
Note to the text. Not based on Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘The Stars Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrology Column’, due to its irrationality. Partly inspired by Walter Benjamin, ‘On Astrology’, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 2 Pt. 2 1931-1934, ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, trans. by Rodney Livingstone et. al. (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 684-685. Also inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poem ‘The Cry of the Excavator’ (1956).
When the economy went bad, silence fell. People withdrew into themselves, into their troubles and fears, playing these out in their imaginations, in the countless rooms in my city where they lived and ate and slept and sat alone, trying not to cry.
They called this practice ‘managing anxiety’. It entailed near-total avoidance of family, friends, and lovers, in favour of an enforced emptiness, a hushed solitude punctuated only by the loud broadcasting of strong yet barely-held opinions across their socials. These usually appeared in the guise of jokes, queries made in bad faith, vignettes of thoughts and activities, or mundane, quotidian revelations.
It became quite normal to message a friend and not hear back from them for days or even weeks, if at all. Invitations to meet up or go somewhere usually attracted no response. Friendly messages from other sources poured in regardless, but all of these were impersonal, sent by companies desperately advertising their services, cheerily inviting the recipient to spend money they most likely didn’t have. Some received messages from people they rarely saw, informing them that their mutual acquaintance was being terminated, due to some mild affront given when they last had contact or in the period since. Often, what was at issue was the emotional anguish the sender experienced over the other person’s approach to managing their social life, and how meagre this had become. I am told many also received insultingly cursory messages from people they barely knew, proposing brief and hopefully meaningless sexual encounters. I myself did not.
Mostly, people worked, behaving as though this aspect of life might soon begin to deliver some extra reward beyond money, particularly since any actual remuneration increasingly counted for less and less. Many jobs at this time did entail participation in a sort of simulated social life, with regular attendance required at dinners and drinks, the business itself serving as dull fodder for seemingly endless small talk. The idea of sustaining human contact and connection in this manner was of no use to me, not least because I was studying, awaiting employment.
Under these conditions, I found I couldn’t sleep a wink, and could no longer be bothered to read in the dark. Most nights, I’d lie staring blankly into space, towards the ceiling. Sometimes I imagined I could see a little fleck of bluish-green glowing up there on the bare plaster, but I knew this was only a memory. When I was a child, I had stickers of stars and planets spread out all over my bedroom ceiling, arranged into carefully co-ordinated shapes; I was trying to learn the constellations. Later, I removed these stickers, gripped by a frenzied lust for maturity and the independence it promised, but I missed one. Every night after, I couldn’t help but see that final, overlooked star, glowing dully above me, and when I shut my eyes, the afterimage remained. It irritated me even in my dreams. Sometimes, I would wake up in the morning and try to find the rogue sticker in daylight, but I never could. It was as if it had somehow fused into the ceiling paint and become a sort of inhabiting presence, intent on haunting me forever.
Still, this memory gave me an idea. As the long nights dragged on, I decided to address my insomnia by getting up from the bed, going over to the window, and counting all of the stars I could see in the sky. The reliable darkness of the park across the street aided me in this, as did the nighttime energy blackouts that had become a regular feature of life at that time, solving the problem of streetlamps, allowing me a far greater share of visible stars.
During these bouts of stargazing, I refrained from attempting to identify constellations, as I had enjoyed doing when I was a boy, although it was still no trouble for me to pick out the major asterisms. At some point in my childhood, I had come to understand that the latter term for star-shapes enabled an important distinction from constellations in their fullest sense. A constellation was not merely a grouping of visible dots of light in the sky, chained through tradition and convention into myth-laden forms by the application of imaginary lines; rather, it was an entire domain of space. Learning this had caused me to enjoy watching the surrounding blackness as much as observing the stars themselves.
These half-hearted attempts to bore myself to sleep became so habitual, being one of the only pleasures my life held at that time, that I stopped drawing my bedroom curtains altogether. In the meantime, utterly deprived as I was of social contact, I felt my loneliness closing in around me. What pained me the most was the absence of human touch. I wondered, on my routine trips to the library, whether the strangers who passed by me in the street could tell how desperately I longed to have another person’s body in close proximity to mine. In this condition, the thought of being encircled by the arms of another was almost too much for me. Just the slight, modest pressure of someone else’s hand would have done. But when I thought of this, I couldn’t help also recalling the past sensation of other men pushing their hands into my clothes, the delicate movements of their fingers carefully unfastening buttons, seeking the openings that led through those layers of cloth to my flesh beneath. These memories caused me to feel an acute sense of longing that I would previously have struggled to even imagine.
So, night after night, I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, often gently hallucinating that little greenish star-smudge at its centre, until I could stand it no longer. I then took up my station at the window again. Sometimes I stood there with a glass of warm milk, if I had any to heat up, my shoulders wrapped in a blanket, my eyes fixed on the dark sky as I fiercely willed every twinkling, distant speck in it to send me to sleep.
I sometimes broke the monotony of this routine by reading horoscopes in the moonlight that streamed through the window-glass, but this was rather cold comfort. I was a male Libra, ruled by Venus, and therefore nil, as the old joke went. On one particularly sleepless night, I tried to address this problem by preparing a natal chart for myself. By the wheeling forms that resulted, I found that the circumstances of my birth had me doubly governed so, with both my sun sign and my ascendant sign being Libra. A lover twice-confirmed by destiny, then, but without a lover.
I had never been the sort of man who was able to get laid just by hanging out in bars or joining a gym. I had always been too bookish, too sensitive. And with times as hard as they were, I kept finding that even the beautiful boys in all the bookstores tended to eye me warily. The recent silent onslaught of mass distress and the resulting solitude was clearly weighing heavily on them, too. It had seemed to make all people wary of people, bringing them together in this cruel manner, and no other.
On one of my long, sleepless nights, I managed to locate my old tarot deck, lurking at the top of my bookshelves. Some years past, I had grown tired of being informed by others that my use of it was unmanly, and had therefore reluctantly filed it away, for the sake of peace and quiet. Now I lived alone, with no flatmates, no visitors, no lovers, and with my friends entirely absent, that didn’t seem to matter. As I unpackaged the tarot cards, I decided that for now, I would stick to using only the Major Arcana, since I was out of practice, and the meanings of the full deck had faded from my memory. I began, every night, by selecting a single card. I never drew the six.
Eventually, I decided to make a three-card spread to address my situation, my actions in response, and the likely outcome, and then leave the deck alone for a while. My cards were The Moon, The Star, and The Empress. I perceived in this arrangement a sort of compound image: a dim but dancing wheel of bright light amid a cluster of shadowy, lush verdure, reflected in a lake of tears. The dogs beside it wept uselessly into its dull, placid surface, serving as nothing but a backdrop for the little hard-shelled scorpion that danced beneath, mocking me. I left the cards on the floor, bathed in a cold shaft of moonlight, and returned to the window, where I sat in silence until the sun came up.
As the weeks dragged on, and the shortages in the local shops really started to bite, I was unsurprised to see that other people became more noticeably absent, retreating further into their private suffering, or otherwise, made a noisy fuss about their hardships. The selected response was evidently a matter of disposition. I could feel the rising sense of collective desperation that emanated from them; it seemed to pool around me, soaking into everything, threatening to submerge us all.
In this state, I suddenly began sleeping like a rock. Every night, as soon as I got into bed, I fell into a deep and desperately grateful sleep, in which I dreamed hungrily of all the foods I could no longer find or afford. Sometimes, in these dreams, I found myself wandering through a supermarket that was stuffed with nothing but fresh lettuce, row after row filled with neat little bundles of curling green leaves, sprouting rosette-fashion from the pale heart that sat at each of their cores. When my imagination entered a more decadent phase, the shelves brimmed with cheap, gaudy bars of chocolate, or even neat little boxed rows of exquisitely formed sushi. On other nights, I’d dream I saw one of the foods that I craved suspended above my head in a sparkling miasma of stardust and pulsating coloured lights, the sort of display sometimes seen in advertising, but reserved for only the most addictive foods and beverages. I was effectively paralysed for the duration of these dreams, gazing up at the garish, captivating display before my eyes in a kind of spellbound, static fervour.
But one night, in the middle of one of these strange, colourful dreams, the spell broke abruptly. I realised I had been woken by a low, constant, slightly distant roaring sound. And the ceiling was no longer a blank, darkened plane, a dim backdrop for the ghost of that bluish-green dot, but was covered with a thousand tiny, jagged slivers of dancing light. They almost resembled the whirling mass of blue stars that my young brother had chosen to adorn his own childhood bedroom ceiling, projected from his crude little plastic planetarium mobile. But the lights that jittered on the ceiling above me were, like the noise, obviously coming from the street outside.
When I hauled myself out of bed and took up my habitual place at the window, I was surprised by the scene that greeted me. The street held a densely-packed crowd that must have been building up out there for hours. It had reached the sort of density you would expect to see at a busy protest. But instead of waving placards above their heads, the people in the street were holding up objects. Expensive, exquisite objects. I saw them suspended below me in a floating array, all sparkling, more or less, in the moonlight.
In their desperation to keep on buying food and other necessities, it seemed that my many neighbours from the surrounding buildings had made a loosely synchronised decision to sell their most valuable possessions as quickly as possible. This had evidently caused a sort of frantic, improvised market to spontaneously engulf our street. From my elevated position at the window, I strained to identify the wares in the darkness. Directly beneath me, a man I did not recognise held up an open case of expensive cutlery. Beside him, I saw my downstairs neighbour waving an enormous cut glass vase above her head. They were surrounded on all sides by other people displaying their own wares in similar fashion, while shouting prices at each other. Everybody seemed to be selling something. I couldn’t help but wonder who, exactly, was buying.
Beyond them, the rest of the impromptu market that filled the street seemed to consist of hundreds of pairs of outstretched hands, offering up gleaming sets of wine glasses, brandy balloons, metal goblets, china plates, ornate decanters, laptops, televisions, mirrors, candlesticks, decorative paperweights, games consoles, speakers, kitchen appliances, serving trays, dusty bottles of vintage port, jewelled rings and necklaces, and glazed ceramic statues. I wondered idly if any of the items for sale had been stolen, as I glimpsed a pair of men struggling against the crowd, holding above their heads an enormous crystal chandelier.
For a brief moment, I paused to consider whether I had anything lying around that might warrant my own participation in the scene outside, but quickly determined that I didn’t. Instead, I fetched a cheap, ordinary glass of my own from the kitchen, and filled it with the contents of the last bottle that lurked beside my empty wine rack. I think it was Fernet-Branca.
Cradling the glass between my hands, I returned to the window. Watching the churning swell of activity outside, I let my eyes settle into half-focus. The blurred scene below resembled a swirling river of glittering lights, somehow more soothing than my typical view of the sky. The stars down to earth.
As I stood there sipping my drink, for the first night in months, I felt I wasn't alone.