The Literal Tarot

It sometimes seems to me that trying to learn tarot as a neophyte in the 21st Century is like stepping into quicksand with cement overshoes, especially when talking to those ad-hoc mentors who see intuition as the only reliable arrow in a reader’s interpretive quiver. The idea that there is any kind of intellectual bedrock on which to build a sound understanding of the system underlying the cards (or that such a system is even necessary) gets short shrift in some quarters. The only advice offered to the drowning student is often “Just feel it, you will be OK.”  (To which the only answer is “glub, glub, glub” as the desperate seeker struggles to a less treacherous shore, lost forever to the enticements of tarot study and practice.) This became nowhere clearer to me than when I set out a few years ago to learn the art of Lenormand cartomancy. Here was a system in which you almost always knew where you stood with any given card in any situation. The number of discrete meanings for each card were few and the “magic” lay in their combination, not in their individual significance. There were intricacies of technique, to be sure, but I was impressed by how coherent the whole thing seemed after very brief exposure, and how straightforward it was to “bootstrap” my way into its heart with the guidance of only a couple of well-written books.

The crux of the modern distaste for structure in tarot seems to be the traditional literature, as if anything that might contravene a diviner’s own heartfelt perceptions and opinions should be shunned as suspect. I’ve even talked to people who proudly state that they have read only one or two beginner tarot books in all their years of practice, and that those were discarded as soon as a sense of proficiency had been attained. It seems to be a badge of honor to feel that one is able to disregard centuries of previous experience in order to “seize the moment” in  an entirely fresh and fortuitous way. This is all well and good as far as it goes (I use free-association myself as an initial source of insight), but what happens when the intuition dries up and fails to deliver? With no safety net of “book-learning” on which to rely, it’s the overconfident reader’s turn to gasp and flounder as the client sits there expectantly. We’ve all had that uncomfortable sensation of the bottom falling out of our most well-crafted narratives when the sitter utterly fails to connect with our observations. It’s what the electrical engineers call “failing open,” like an overloaded circuit breaker. We often rush to fill the void with half-baked conjecture (especially if the client is paying by the minute), and wind up wrestling mightily with our inadequacy while the client’s interest (and satisfaction) fades by the second.

To those of you who are just getting your feet wet with reading the cards and are feeling tempted by the urge to “just wing it,” my advice is “Don’t do it!” Build yourself a solid knowledge base as you go. You’ll thank me for it later.

7 thoughts on “The Literal Tarot

  1. This blog post makes an important point, one usually neglected by all those who feel that “feelings” trump knowledge or experience. Naturally, and quite obviously, intuition plays an important role in Tarot divination, even the most mechanical, by-the-numbers methods make this clear.

    Quote: “The interpreter is expected to know without any hesitation the meaning of the cards, either on their own or in association with other cards that influence them. A good knowledge of the cards combined with practice, observation and intuition will do the rest.” (Grimaud booklet, 1977.)

    The logical – and dare I say ‘traditional’? – starting point for divination begins with the conventionally-accepted divinatory meanings, or one’s own, following a certain amount of study and reflection. Tying together the various results for a given spread then necessitates intuitive reflection, which deepens with experience. There is no debate about this.

    But putting the proverbial cart before the horse – especially where Tarot is concerned – involves such semantic contortions that the mind boggles at some of the advice dished out, whether in print, online, by well-meaning “tarologists”. Like that old tune, “Anything Goes” – and nothing holds meaning any longer.

    That the Tarot symbols are therefore ultimately empty and devoid of any intrinsic meaning – other than that which we project onto them at a given moment – is the logical conclusion of this relativistic – and psychologistic – argument. One which, incidentally, is held by the late Yoav Ben-Dov in his otherwise worthwhile “Open Reading. (But he was a quantum physicist, which may explain that.)

    The point you make about the traditional Lenormand method reflects the manner in which a good number of French Tarot works proceed: stock divinatory meanings (avoiding the arbitrary); context, context, context; intuition. Voila. The quote provided above makes that clear.

    Even the pioneering work of Tchalaï is based on a rational approach to the intuitive faculty: reading the Tarot thus consists of observation, deduction, experimentation, and refining. Now whether rote-learning inhibits the intuitive process, or on the contrary, provides a solid basis for it to express itself, is another matter entirely.

    But let us bear in mind that many of the Surrealist artists, for example, were conventionally-trained, and indeed had to be: in order to transcend the limits of one’s art, it is necessary to first have mastered the basics. This is not a popular view nowadays.

    Again, part of the problem is that there are very few decent “advanced” – or intelligent – books on Tarot in English in the first instance. But perhaps things are changing.

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    • Interesting that you bring up Surrealism. Before he became a tarot guru, Alejandro Jodorowsky was a Surrealist film-maker (boy, was he ever!) I see a good deal of literary surrealism in the text of The Way of Tarot, and Jodo was Yoav Ben-Dov’s teacher. The lack of advanced books is probably why I still value Aleister Crowley and Joseph Maxwell so highly in my own practice. Unfortunately, I don’t have easy (or at least inexpensive) access to some of your sources.

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  2. Speaking of A.C., the brief book by Gerald Suster, “The Truth about Tarot”, although written with the Thoth deck in mind, contains a lot of practical advice – in my opinion – for both beginners and “false beginners” alike as far as getting started with the learning/intuition business is concerned. His exercises with exploring astrological attributions are also valuable.

    I’ll see if I can find time to write more on Maxwell and his method – as described by another author who managed to sum it up succinctly and compare and contrast it with more analogical approaches.

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    • I would welcome anything more on Maxwell, since the French AT members didn’t think much of Ivor Powell’s 1975 translation, and I doubt I’ll ever learn enough French to read it in the original. I remember Gerald Suster from years ago, but more recently for his ferocious anti-New-Age that I posted here a while back.

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