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.