The Mountain

In 1967, Donovan Leitch recorded a song titled “There Is A Mountain” that reflects at least obliquely on the philosophical detours (and occasional dead-ends) we encounter when attempting to abstract the objective nature of reality to suit our personal belief system. It features the refrain “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” A Wikipedia search yielded the following information.

The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan writes:

“Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”

Mountaineer George Mallory apparently agreed with Qingyuan Weixin. In 1923, the New York Times asked him why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, obviously expecting Mallory to impart some eloquent, heroic vision of “man against nature.” Instead, Mallory simply replied “Because it’s there.” Those of us who read the cards would do well to heed Mallory’s laconic remark as a Zen-like study in the economy of thought. I’ve always been a proponent of pithy reductionism in reading, at least in spirit, but now I have a conceptual framework on which to hang it: “More Weixin and less woo.”

As I see it, the “mountain” that must be acknowledged in the world of tarot is the documented body of historical observation (or, if you prefer, literature) that has grown up around the practice of cartomancy, mostly over the last two hundred years. The culture of instant gratification we now inhabit has little patience for the careful, disciplined thinking that went into capturing this knowledge for posterity. There is a strong modern urge to treat it as an irritating and irrelevant obstacle to intuitive learning than as the underlying bedrock of our art. Those writers of tarot books who advise disregarding the traditional knowledge base are at best cynical and at worst duplicitous: just rely on your feelings, they say, and don’t bother with books (but buy my book, of course).

The greatest disservice to a literal comprehension of the minor cards of the tarot was probably rendered by publication of Arthur Edward Waite’s tarot deck. It offered easy-to-digest storytelling fodder that could be transformed into all manner of gratuitous fluff, often departing from the author’s original theme in markedly imaginative ways, egged on by the artist’s pronounced flair for commonplace anecdotal vignette. The merry-go-round certainly didn’t stop there, with almost every new deck in the “RWS style” layering on it’s creator’s unique interpretive outlook, often to no worthwhile effect. The kind of visually associative reading these decks inspire strikes me as “the blind leading the blind:” the gullible querent being led by the only marginally wiser reader down rambling byways of free-form tale-spinning, bereft of anything more intellectually convincing than the reader’s own self-indulgent fancy.

Assuming I live long enough, my personal path will most likely veer even further toward the Tarot de Marseille and its non-scenic “pip” cards, unless I remain firmly ensconced in the Lenormand universe where I now spend most of my time; the Lenormand cards are much less vulnerable to New Age psychological revisionism. Unfortunately, at least in English there are few trail-maps to the TdM “mountain,” and none of them with any historical stature to speak of, so I will just have to keep scrambling and backsliding until I reach the top. Maybe, like Donovan, I will find that “the caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.” It will almost assuredly be the butterfly I lost sight of back in 2011 when I began dividing my attention between the Thoth deck with its semi-scenic (“glorified pip”) minor cards and the spoon-fed RWS.

4 thoughts on “The Mountain

  1. >Unfortunately, there are few trail-maps to the TdM “mountain,” and none of them with any historical stature to speak of

    While this may be true as far as English material goes, it is not so for French (and perhaps other languages such as Spanish). Paul Marteau’s book is one such book, for one, and it is worth bearing in mind that some methods, for instance, Jodorowsky’s, have been around for decades before being published “properly” in book form.

    I have been looking at some of Jodorowsky’s writings from the 70s and they differ little from what his published book says – some 30-40 years later. One must bear in mind that teachers such as himself and Tchalaï, for example, ran regular seminars and workshops for years before publishing books, and that their influence (read: historical stature) was much greater than one might think.

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  2. One of my fondest wishes is to be able to read French fluently, at a level beyond my four years of high-school classes, now largely forgotten. I struggled through most of the LWB for Kris Hadar’s TdM using a French-English dictionary but it wasn’t a very satisfying experience. As for Jodorowsky’s book, I’m very near the end of it now; he writes the way he used to make movies – surrealistically. But that doesn’t detract from what I found valuable in it. A while back, someone on Aeclectic Tarot (it may have been Richard) told me that there is really no established tradition for divination with the TdM that goes back to its origins; everyone who has written material on it is basically “winging it” in that regard. I’ve absorbed all of the worthwhile books I can find in English except that of Enrique Enriquez, and I find in watching his documentary that I like most of his approach. I’ll have to get that, although it seems a touch, let’s say, “creatively enthusiastic” in much the same way as Jodo.

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  3. It’s not real hard to teach yourself to read french. I can read french and spanish in a very basic way. I could refresh my abilities to read both, but i don’t bother. You just need info on pronouns and verb conjugation. And a dictionary. Alot you can gleam from none words in the english language.
    here are some vids from Langfocus:

    I was hoping he had one comparing english to french, but i couldn’t find it.
    I am in a reading mood, so i stuck you blog on my open list in my browser for reading LOL

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