In a previous discussion on astrology I presented W.H. Auden as a convincing though in the end inauthentic Aquarius, whose exact birth date falls not under the sign of the Water Bearer, but that of the Fish, Pisces. Therefore I propose that we butterfly stroke out of these murky waters and try something different.
Let’s undergo astrological rebirth! And what better place to do so than in Aries, the first sign of the zodiac cycle, harbinger of new beginnings. This time around, I would like to consider the Arian qualities of a character or two from literature and the books that begot them. That’s right – I’m asserting in a very Arian way that not only does a literary character possess an astrological sign but that a book does too. I would like to inaugurate this study with a profile of four Arians in literature: Sam Spade, his prototype, Odysseus, and the two books that birthed them, The Maltese Falcon and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey.
Sam Spade, for those of you who don’t know noir, is the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, published in 1929. From the first page of the book, on which Hammett describes Spade as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” we know that Spade is a tough, no-nonsense guy with a penchant for trouble, but willing to go to any length to solve a crime, or, in this case, get his hands on the coveted black bird. Odysseus, as you, kind reader, already know, is the great warrior and wanderer who spends much of his adult life overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I am profiling these characters in tandem because when I read The Maltese Falcon, I couldn’t help recalling Odysseus every time that Sam Spade outsmarts an adversary with his cunning and physical strength. It appears that one has begotten the other.
What makes these characters a pair of Aries? A fire sign, the Arian archetype is the Ram. Those born under the sign of the Ram, according to Steven Forrest, astrologer, “come forth into the world armed with intelligence, vitality, and an instinct for survival.” The Arian is a warrior, a daredevil: courageous, assertive, energetic, competitive and often impulsive. Sam Spade is nothing but courageous, daring, and, as his primary love interest Brigid O’Shaughnessy says time and time again, “altogether unpredictable.” When Joel Cairo, also known as "The Levantine," first visits Spade to solicit his services in recuperating what Cairo calls "an ornament……that has been mislaid," a "black figure of a bird," he holds Spade at gunpoint. Spade barely flinches at the threat: "Spade did not look at the pistol. He raised his arms and, leaning back in his chair, intertwined the fingers of his two hands behind his head." During the crisis Spade, to all appearances, is perfectly at ease. When Cairo pats Spade down to make sure he is not armed, Spade gets the better of the man, striking him in the face with his elbow and rendering him unconscious.
Similarly, Odysseus, a “raider of cities”, who outsmarts a one-eyed giant, excels in athletic competition. and fights a houseful of men intent on his demise, is a man who relies on his physical and mental prowess to get the better of his adversaries. He is the Hero of all heroes, the archetype itself, made plain by a straightforward narration that does not delve too deep – or at all - into the psyche of the exiled Ithakan. This is not to suggest that Odysseus does not have an inner life, or that an Arian is emotionally vacant. Yet as a “positive” sign, Aries tends to be extroverted in its sensibility. The classic Arian revels in communication and action and is less inward than a “negative” sign, such as a Scorpio, Capricorn, or any earth or water sign. It is undeniable that Odysseus is an outwardly expressive character.
So too Sam Spade: “Red rage came suddenly into his face and he began to talk in a harsh guttural voice. Holding his maddened face in his hands, glaring at the floor, he cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice. Then he took his face out of his hands, looked at the girl, grinned sheepishly, and said: ‘Childish, huh? I know, but, by God, I do hate being hit without hitting back.’” Brigid O’Shaughnessy responds: “You’re absolutely the wildest person I’ve ever known.” This passage shows Spade being angry as opposed to feeling angry; he glares, curses ad infinitum, and then excuses himself. To his sense of honor, there is injustice in a man not being able to hit back, and he makes his feelings perfectly clear.
When Odysseus triumphs over the Cyclops, it is not enough that he and his men escape. At sea he taunts the giant, putting his crew at risk of further harm: “Kyklops, / if ever mortal man inquire / how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye.” This soon meets Poseidon’s revenge: “and whelming seas rose giant above the stone.” In another instance, when a Phaiákian boy mocks him, asserting that Odysseus cannot throw a discus, he responds with “I find my heart inside my ribs aroused / by your impertinence…You spoke heart-wounding words.” Odysseus then rises to the challenge and wins, spurred on by an innately competitive nature.
If a person has an astrological sign, then why cannot a text? To understand The Maltese Falcon and The Odyssey as Arian texts we must return to this notion of the “positive” sign, and realize that the exteriorized narration of The Maltese Falcon and The Odyssey adheres to this principle of outward expression. It is as Erich Auerbach writes about The Odyssey in his essay “Odysseus’ Scar”: “Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear – wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor – are the feelings and thoughts of the people involved.” In The Odyssey, we know the character Odysseus through his actions and through his physical responses to situations. Of The Maltese Falcon this is also true. Every movement of the hand, twitch of the eye, tap of the foot is documented, rendering an almost cinematic quality to the narration.
There is one moment in The Maltese Falcon that requires introspection: the Flitcraft episode. Here the narrative digresses from the quest for the black bird and requires the reader to ponder why Spade is recounting a story about a man he knew that has nothing at all to do with the narrative at hand. In fact, the Flitcraft episode is so unique in The Maltese Falcon that filmmaker John Huston omitted it in an otherwise faithful 1941 adaptation of the novel. In general, however (and by astrologizing we must do a good deal of generalizing), The Maltese Falcon follows the model of The Odyssey, possessing, according to Auerbach, “the Homeric style [that] knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.”
One detail in The Odyssey surely proves the protagonist’s astrological provenance, if not that of the book itself. It is hardly an accident that a certain domesticated animal enables Odysseus’ escape from the Cyclops’ den: none other than the “woolliest ram, the choicest of the flock.” Odysseus and the ram, “the leader…weighted by wool and me with my meditations” become a single body that outwits the blinded giant. The Hero finds salvation in the Ram.
-- Jill Baron