Aleister Crowley went to some trouble in The Book of Thoth to characterize the cards of the tarot as living beings. Much like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (who was rewarded after a fashion when his creature began making “yummy sounds” in the basement), I’ve been on a similar quest to coax heart-and-soul out of the pip cards of the Tarot de Marseille. The trump and court cards are already bursting with personality in their quaint medieval way, but the numbered cards – with the arguable exception of the Aces – have always seemed more like furniture to me, or perhaps “mannequins” is a better analogy. We can dress them up as much as we want in the trappings of other symbolic systems, but it’s devilishly hard to get them to walk and talk on their own.
Some writers have made valiant attempts to animate the obstinate pips. In my admittedly limited experience, Enrique Enriquez has come the closest to what I’m after. Rather than simply deconstructing the graphic features of the pips in the same was as Yoav Ben-Dov, he seems to have put his finger on their pulse in a more dynamic sense. He employs a type of visual free-association that stays firmly grounded in the architecture of the cards, without spinning off wildly into the kind of breathless hyperbole that derails so much modern interpretation with other tarot systems. (lore-averse, freestyle RWS readers, I’m looking at you.) I don’t really like the term “woo-woo” since it seems too patently dismissive, but it does nail what I’m talking about here.
Alejandro Jodorowsky comes closer than many other post-Occult-Revival writers as well, but he strays into the weirdly surrealistic a bit too often for me. If you’ve ever seen his film El Topo, you’ll understand why I say that. I had high hopes for Caitlin Matthews’ TdM book, but in my estimation she comes across more as a wise master technician than as a consummate out-of-the-box thinker. She has her moments, but they are scarce. I really need to dive more deeply into Jean-Michel David’s course material, since I choked on the early religious assumptions he presents, although I realize now that he was most likely just trying to explain the historical underpinnings of the trump cards. I’ve read Yoav Ben-Dov’s The Open Reading twice now but it still doesn’t inspire me in memorable ways (that is, in ways worthy of internalizing).
What I’m up to now is akin to staring at ink-blot images. I’m trying to synthesize the hard and the soft, the formal and natural features of the pips in ways that will set them forth in three dimensions. As they stand, the artistic devices in the cards remain uniformly flat, casting no shadows; I want to introduce a kind of figurative bas relief that lets some features stand out from and take on more cogent meaning than others, thereby providing grist for the interpretive mill. At present I see it mainly as a study in contrasts hinting at useful insights that go beyond mere decorative embellishment. In all honesty, the artists who conceived the designs may never have had such intentions, but they certainly left tantalizing clues to a deeper system of thought. I think it’s obvious that this must be the case if I can only find a convincing “master key.” TdM author Lee Bursten was kind enough to point me at the translated writing of Philippe Camoin, so that’s where I’m going next. If I could only read French, my horizons would be so much broader.
I’m not sure I buy the idea of a “secret code” in the cards since the connections between them lie very near the surface if we only have eyes to see and the imagination to put them together in sensible ways. For me, it’s not so much about visual free-association as it is running my mental fingers through the warp and woof of the fabric, picking out dominant threads. If I can find a harmonious pattern in all of it, maybe I can stir some life in the old pasteboard yet.