Monday, March 14, 2011

Hermeneutics's just another word for nothing left to lose (tarot ramblings)

In response to my post about the tarot and dream interpretation, a friend writes:
"If a Catholic refuses to supply his friend with a gun for use in a murder, it's because murder is wrong, not because he's superstitious about guns. The Tarot is, worst-case scenario, a means to divination; it's prohibited, if at all, on that ground.
The Catechism is unequivocal in condemning 'all forms of divination', defined as 'recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead, or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.' (2115) Clearly the Tarot, as you describe it, does not involve 'recourse to Satan or demons' or 'conjuring up the dead,' so the question becomes (isn't law great, by the way?) whether it's a 'practice' that is 'supposed to "unveil" the future.'
(We may take it as given that the future cannot be unveiled, so the word 'falsely' functions here only to remind the reader of that fact. The Catechism does not, I'm pretty sure, contemplate a 'truth defense' for any means of divination.)
Your claim, I think, is that 'unveiling the future' is NOT what Tarot does; rather, that it uses symbols deeply rooted in the natural human psyche to initiate a conversation about the 'querent's' (?) present, and perhaps past. I'm not taking a position on whether that claim takes the Tarot, properly practiced, out of the Catechism's condemnation; just trying to make sure I understand your claim."
The Catholic Catechism on "Divination and Magic" (emphases mine):
"2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity."
Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, a Catholic. Proceed with caution.

I'll start by explaining my understanding and appropriation of tarot, with another disclaimer that I am not at all involved in any broader community of readers, that what follows is based solely on my experience and fairly limited reading and research, and is in no way necessarily representative of any dominant "tarot theory" (for better or for worse). 

SO: my friend is absolutely correct to say that, under my tarot theory at least, a reading is much more about understanding the past and present than about attempting to "unveil" the future. Granted, there is a very wide variety of spreads, and nearly all of them include at least one position whose card is supposed to indicate something about the future-- the tarot book I've always relied upon most heavily uses the phrase "probable outcome"; I tend to say "possible outcome" when doing readings myself. No self-respecting reader (if you can accept that such a person exists) will use language stronger than that.

It is important to understand what cards in these...'forward-looking' positions actually signify (or are supposed to signify). The tarot is misrepresented in a variety of ways in pop culture, but one of the lies about its "power" is that it is supposed to predict very specific actions and/or circumstances. It does no such thing, and no reader will tell you it does. Even if I'm doing a ten-card Celtic cross spread with an honestly chosen significator, the tenth position ('likely outcome') will never tell me that you're going to meet a tall handsome foreigner in a bookstore on the Sabbath-- just like the third position ('roots of the problem') will never tell me that your father drank too much because he was a closeted homosexual scarred by his experiences in the Second World War.

The cards have survived this long ('occult tarot' first appeared in the 18th century) precisely because they represent aspects of man and his relationships that transcend particular historical contexts.

To illustrate this I'll explain one of my favorite cards, the Two of Swords.
"Prague" version
(the deck I own and use)
Rider-Waite version
Each card in the tarot is composed of many different layers, and its significance for the querent emerges only when one both sees the layers for what they are, and the shapes and shades they combine to create.

The Two of Swords, for example, is in the minor arcana, which means it signifies less portentous things than a card in the major arcana (the cards with names). The minor arcana is constructed just like a typical deck of cards, with four suits that run from Ace to King. That this card is of low rank reinforces the smallness of the situation it represents. The number  itself (2) signifies paradox, balance, partnership, opposition. It is a Sword; its element is therefore Air. Swords deal with rationality, intellect, the pursuit of knowledge, and the attendant emotional coldness, distance, and insensitivity. The Sword's dedication to the pursuit of truth and confidence in the primacy of the solitary intellect becomes cruel if untempered by the sensitivity of Cups, fanatical, reckless, and stubborn if unchecked by the pragmatism of Pentacles, and chimeric, feckless, and eventually incommunicable if not fueled by the dynamism of Wands (pretty much everyone in the PB is very, very Sword-- at least while they're in college).

So how does any of that help me understand the significance of a blindfolded woman on a riverbank? Should I ask Bobby to the Prom or not?!

To begin with, note how the card's imagery reinforces what we already know: the woman is alone (the Swords' fierce independence). She is female, but her feminine traits (intuition, sentimentality, mysticism, empathy) are undermined by her clear separation from, and seemingly willful ignorance of, the river behind her. The river signifies those traits not only because fluidity seems to recall them in our minds, but because Water is the element of Cups.
Swords are Vulcans, Cups are Betazoids.
(No, I cannot take credit for this work of art.)
She is simultaneously at war with herself (the duplicity implied by the number 2) and the outside world. There are no visible threats, and so she seems excessively antagonistic (Sword)-- in the Prague card especially her stance seems more one of defiance than of defense. 

Is she compensating for her blindness? For that she can blame only herself-- her hands are not bound, and she could remove the blindfold easily if she'd put down the damn swords. Her blindness again highlights her fundamental imbalance: vision, like all the senses, is part of the physicality central to Cups, which signify primacy of the felt over the known; the importance of the unrationalized, unanalyzed, and unexplained. But the Sword, in its stubborn gnosticism, has no desire to see, and rejects the possibility of gentle interaction (and with it the possibility of emotional pain/vulnerability more broadly),  in favor of isolation and impenetrability (not to beat you over the head with the gender theme or anything).

WHEW! So, back to this divination business. Now that we have a basic idea of what the Two of Swords carries within it, what does it mean if it turns up in the "outcome" position in, say, a very basic five card spread? That depends somewhat on the other four cards, but much more than that it depends on the querent himself. 

The "potential/probable outcome" position is always about self-knowledge and never about the immutability of fate. Think about it: the entire tarot, as I've described it, is nothing but a tool to help us tell stories about ourselves. If a card here or there makes it to the end of the reading neither shaped by nor shaping the narrative, the whole thing's pretty useless, isn't it? 

At this point I'm gonna let you in on some of my ground rules.
1. No readings for complete strangers.
2. Really try to avoid readings for "acquaintances".
3. The querent has to want the reading.
4. The querent must be seeking guidance/direction, not a clear answer to some binary.
5. The querent should not tell me their query.
6. If the querent absolutely must tell me their query (and sometimes they do, you'd be surprised), make them wait until the reading is completely over.
These rules have evolved organically over the years, but I think they're essential now, and here's why: they maintain an appropriate distance between querent and reader-- not too far, but not too close. 

As we saw earlier, tarot cards are incredibly gravid and complex, and very often bring to the surface equally deep and complicated problems. I've inadvertently driven more than one querent to tears over the course of a reading and that's not because the cards are demonic-- it's because the symbolism is well-crafted and powerful, and it's incredibly unnerving to see our neuroses, weaknesses, vanities, and fears stare up at us blankly from a card table at a cocktail party. 

Tarot readings are, when you get right down to it, like group therapy sessions-- with thousands of people, spanning hundreds of years. We on the right so often bemoan the death of tradition-- here's one for you boys, neatly stacked and tied with a gold ribbon. The tarot represents, no, embodies, accumulated knowledge of human nature, personal relationships, and political and entrepreneurial ambition-- all we need do is lay out the cards and look. 

Which brings me back to my imaginary querent, who was unfortunate enough to find the Two of Swords, er, not-staring right at him at the end of the spread. To unlock the key to his future (ooooo),  the reader must figure out the querent's relationship with Swords. Is he himself more like a Sword or a Cup? Is the card a warning or an encouragement? Does the story of the previous four cards make sense if this is the conclusion? How does the querent seem to feel about this as a conclusion to their story?

There are, when it comes down to it, two options: either the final card flows with the rest of the story, or it doesn't. If it does, but the outcome seems undesirable, examining its relationship to the rest of the spread and figuring out how the querent feels about those certain repeated elements is nothing more than a useful psychological exercise.

For example, if we have the Six of Swords in the second position ('the present') and the Two of Swords in the fifth position ('potential outcome'), it's clear that the querent runs the risk of emerging from the difficult transition period indicated in the Six not with strength and quiet dignity, but damaged, defensive, and afraid. If the querent already sees something of the Six in his situation, then the Two is a very appropriate warning, and again, not because of divination, but because of the elegance with which the tarot lays out human psychology. The same applies for a desirable outcome in a spread that fully coheres.

However, if the final card makes no sense whatsoever, no matter what aspect of it is emphasized or how its message is spun... the querent still learns something about himself, noting his own confusion at the incongruity.

Let's say you have a really Pentacle heavy spread, all about money, business, duty, craftsmanship, etc, but the last card-- the "probable outcome"-- was the Hanged Man, who typically signifies suspension-- both of thought and of action. He may be Limbo, or Nirvana, or even just a sabbatical, but he's definitely alien to everything else in the spread-- the past, the present, the warning and the suggestion are all firmly rooted, down-to-earth, and devoid of the faintest hint of spirituality. So ought the hypothetical querent faced with this reading tremble and be fearful, worrying every moment that his life will be completely upended?

No! He should decide whether he wants to embrace what the Hanged Man signifies. Ideally the rest of the reading will help him evaluate the proper place of the Hanged Man in his life. 


  1. Went to go look through the cards in your deck (to remind myself what the Page of Swords looked like) and I was reminded of how much I particularly admire the design for the Tower and the Nine of Swords.

  2. It was such a pain to write this post without my deck or book with me! It is also somewhat frightening how much the cards have seeped into my brain (though I haven't referenced them on the floor in a VERY long time-- I've cited the Two of Swords in at least one speech...).

    There are thousands of decks out there, but I really, really like this one. Obviously owes a debt to Rider-Waite but really blows it out of the water in so many ways.

    The whole point I wanted to make when writing this is that thinking in images is good. I clearly got very side-tracked, ha.

  3. OK - brilliant! Some questions:

    1. "We on the right so often bemoan the death of tradition-- here's one for you boys, neatly stacked and tied with a gold ribbon."

    Have you read Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"? If not, let's pick up this thread whenever you do. Especially since you continue:

    "The tarot represents, no, embodies, accumulated knowledge of human nature, personal relationships, and political and entrepreneurial ambition-- all we need do is lay out the cards and look."

    Based on what I know as of this writing, I accept that. What's more, it's not my position that tradition has to be overtly Christian in order to be acceptable (e.g. wisdom about politics from the Greeks and Romans).

    But I'm still curious whether the wisdom accumulated in the Tarot was accumulated merely outside the Christian tradition (that much seems obvious, or else there'd be a specifically Christian Tarot tradition), or actually in contravention of it, either as a pre-Christian "irreconcilable" (think "demons" in Chesterton's dichotomy of "The War of the Gods and the Demons," in "The Everlasting Man") or an active pagan holdout (think Ortrud).

    In short, on a continuum that stretches from the Catholic confessional to the Brazilian "condomble" that Eco shows in FP, which end are we closer to here, as far as "tradition" is concerned? I'm not demanding an answer: just explaining why (even apart from classic and boring "bad tradition" hypos) "tradition" by itself is not the gold standard.

  4. Another comment, and with it, a source of unease:

    "The cards have survived this long ('occult tarot' first appeared in the 18th century) precisely because they represent aspects of man and his relationships that transcend particular historical contexts."

    Transcending particular historical contexts -- the closeted Straussian comes out! Let's have a party!

    A preference for texts over symbols is very swordy of me, so I won't insist on it (and as an opera fan I don't think I could), but those 18th roots -- what's up with that? Of course, Leo Strauss lived in a particular time, but he drew from texts ranging from the pre-Socratics to his own day. Tarot symbols, on the contrary, have (forgive me) a sort of Hollywoody faux-historicalness that makes me feel disoriented, all the more b/c I get the sense it's supposed to.

    (In this regard, btw, I much prefer the Prague Two of Swords to the Rider-Waite -- but what's that castle or cathedral in the background, besides being kind of, you know, Prague-y? The RW doesn't have it. Is it part of the essential symbolism or not? If not, what's it doing lurking there so suggestively?)

    Back to the 18th cent. thing. This was a time when sources of wisdom separate from Christianity were being sought out in the West for precisely that quality. Leo Strauss was no Christian, but at least he denounced the anti-religious pretensions of the Enlightenment. The Tarot, as you've explained it, now sounds like a form of the Enlightement universalism critiqued by McIntyre (as well as Strauss), decked out in symbolism that may be powerful but whose origins are still under question (see my previous comment).

    OK, I guess that's all for now. Great post, though: it answered my initial question and helped me understand what you see yourself as doing.

  5. Just read Leah's post and your response. Sign me on to the assertion (without more) that Tarot decks can be beautiful things, and that the Prague deck that Tristyn talks about seems to be particularly so. But their beauty is of an ominous kind, at least to me.

    Someone who's not a crackpot must have researched the history of these images in a scholarly fashion. (Or maybe not?) If so, do you have any leads?

    I'd do a search myself, but I don't have time to wade through the nutter sites that would come up, and also, in all candor, I don't want them to leave traces on my computer, esp. here at Regent.

  6. I'll address some of your other points a bit later, but actually the tarot used to have much more explicitly Christian imagery (I don't think this is going to make you feel any better)-- Rider-Waite sort of de-Christianized it and that became the standard.

    For example, they changed what was traditionally "The Pope" to "The Hierophant", "The High Priestess" used to be "The Popess". The Prague deck actually comes with two different versions of the Death card-- a more "traditional" one with an armored skeleton on a horse: and this alternate version:

    You can actually look at the entire deck here (an album I hadn't found when I wrote this original post): More examples of Christian imagery can be seen in "The Lovers", "The Wheel of Fortune", "Judgment", "The World", and others. "5 of Cups" is the Golem.

    My book, which is back in NH, gets into the history and evolution of various symbols; might find some way to work that into a future post about something.

    Another element of the tarot I didn't touch on, but which I hope is obvious, is how much of a parlor game it is, and how much fun it can be working together with a querent to string together the disparate elements into a coherent whole, or something approaching it-- not that that would be any sort of excuse, but I don't want anyone to get the impression that I take this incredibly seriously.

  7. "Du fuerchterliches Weib! Was bannt mich noch in deiner Naehe?" - LOHENGRIN, Act II

    Srsly -you're right, the Hierophant and Popess don't do much to reassure me that a Tarot is whatchermightcall part of the New Evangelization or anything like that. But your last sentence reframes the whole thing.

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  20. The Hanged Man image is extraordinary. Which deck does that come from?

    1. Ok. Still the Prague deck. Was thrown off scent by the difference in style.