The PoMo Tarot Deck Interview

If Brian Williams’ Post-Modern Tarot deck from 1994 had a motto, it would be “Nobody likes a smart-ass.” Williams managed to put his finger squarely on the pulse of bored, self-indulgent, late-20th-century American culture, and then tweaked its collective nose hard. I’ve had it since 1994 but seldom used it until recently, when I had a chance to examine a dysfunctional marriage with it and was amazed by its relevance. I wanted to explore what makes it tick, so I did a “personality profile” reading on it.

Much of the imagery is based on famous works of art from the past two hundred years, which lends a nice “guess-the-artist” vibe that makes it fun to use. The only quibble I have with Williams’ re-imagining of the suits is that he equates his TVs with Wands, but then says they represent elemental Air, while his Guns replace Swords, which he relates to elemental Fire. I’m a traditionalist who thinks Wands should be Fire, for which Guns are the best fit, while Swords belong to Air, and the suit of TVs symbolizes the communication aspect of Air quite convincingly. So I turned Guns into Wands and Fire, and TVs into Swords and Air; I now like the alignment much better.

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The “first impressions” column on the left is all trump cards. Either this deck has pretensions to greatness or delusions of grandeur. The Wands position presents the High Priestess in the guise of Mona Lisa. It’s ardor is of the wry, measured sort that doesn’t telegraph its punches like a rookie boxer. It reminds me of a jokester who, coming up on the punch-line, teases his listeners by saying “Wait for it!”

The Cups position delivers the Hermit, another card of carefully-parsed wisdom. It’s Diogenes with a flashlight instead of a lantern, and he seems to be looking for a safe place to crash rather than seeking an honest man. Its derelict look gives me the impression the deck will be leering and spluttering through broken teeth.

The Swords position offers the Chariot, implying a good deal of forward momentum and self-confidence, even brashness. This deck will shoot first and ask questions later.

The Pentacles position displays the Hanged Man and its inward-looking gaze. With three of the four cards in this column exhibiting a circumspect nature, I’m thinking of revising my hunch about the mouthiness of this deck being its main theme.

The “normal mode of speech and conversational tone” column in the middle begins with the Ace of Guns in the Wands position; maybe there will be a bit of “run-and-gun” to the deck after all. “Inspired bluster” without much sensitivity to nuance could be its strong suit.

The Cups position yields the agreeable 6 of Bottles, suggesting that emotional indulgence will loosen its tongue. Give it its head and it will give you its heart.

The Swords position carries the 2 of TVs,  indicating that the deck may resemble a closed-circuit TV that only loops one channel continuously, or maybe a “one-note samba.” As imaginative as the deck seems, I’m not sure how profound it is.

The Pentacles position sports the 3 of Bills. I once had an annoyed boss say to me “You young people want your money first and then you’ll agree to do the work later” (I was quitting because he wasn’t paying me enough). This card does seem to be saying “show me the money.” Hopefully its payout won’t be the tarot equivalent of a $3 bill.

The center and right-hand columns taken together reveal something about the overall nature of the deck. The Wands row joins the Ace of Guns and the World. This deck will put a pistol to Mother Nature’s head and then say “Just kidding!” These cards suggest the line from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Pistol threatens to take Falstaff’s coin-purse (although he wasn’t joking):

“Why then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open”

If the deck manages to hoard its treasures until the moment is ripe for casting, it could in fact disgorge a few pearls. If not, then the swine take it as a miscreant!

The sequencing of the 6 of Bottles with the 5 of Bottles in the Cups row reminds me of the old high-school nonsense song “99 Bottles of Beer.” If this deck keeps “taking one down and passing it all around,” it could be talking gibberish and I would just grin and nod at its cleverness.

The 2 of TVs and the 6 of Guns in the Swords row could almost be a parody of the scene from the John Cleese movie The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It (itself a parody with Cleese as Sherlock Holmes) where the African delegate to the meeting of international sleuths (looking for all the world like Idi Amin) shoots a malfunctioning computer after saying “I’ll show you how we fix computers in my country!” Perhaps the deck will shoot itself in the foot more often than it hits the bulls-eye if I don’t use it judiciously.

The Gunwoman following the 3 of Bills in the Pentacles line looks like a shoot-out at a poker game, with the woman absconding with the ante. The deck can be coaxed into yielding its meager repast (the image is from the Van Gogh painting The Potato Eaters) but only because Earth is on friendly terms with Fire. Forgive me if I can’t resist trotting out the old Billy Preston lyric “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’ ” The other cliche that comes to mind is “all sizzle and no steak.”

To be fair, I don’t think Williams intended this deck to be anything more than a sly swat at American cultural foibles (which it accomplishes to perfection). But I’m likely to use it only when confronted by living representatives of that benighted class of social poseurs he portrays in the deck.

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