In thinking about the widely-held but just as widely dismissed opinion that tarot cards have personalities and “speak” to us with anthropomorphic aptness, I recalled that science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison once wrote a story titled “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” This led me to finally pin down what makes for my ideal pack of tarot cards, and why I own so many undeniably beautiful decks that are almost entirely mute for the purpose of divination. In general, those decks that move me are emphatically “declarative” rather than “allusive” in their subliminal discourse.
I learned long ago that the dainty, gentle watercolor renderings of fairies in pastoral settings weren’t for me. I had art-school training as a graphic designer back in the late 1960s and prefer my images on the bold side; to be honest, I wasn’t much of a painter myself. These decks may whisper cozily in the ear of some people, but I’m almost tone-deaf to their faint refrain. The same is true for “animal” decks, which can’t possibly have anything original to say about the human condition unless we project it onto them, thus serving only as a mirror for our self-contemplation. Since I’m usually after situational awareness and developmental insights of an action-and-event oriented nature in my readings, such animistic navel-gazing isn’t of much use to me.
Dark, gothic decks with zombies and vampires exhibit no such feebleness of expression, but I can’t say that I appreciate their somber style. So-called “art” decks with visuals culled from or inspired by fine art just seem formal to me and devoid of feeling (with the notable exception of Brian Williams’ quirky Post-Modern Tarot and its sly salute to famous paintings). I have yet to thoroughly explore the historical Italian genre, but at the moment the Sola Busca looks like the sole contender for my undivided attention. My reaction to almost all of these decks is “Where’s the beef?”
I need a deck that is conversant with Arthur Janov’s cathartic “Primal Scream” emotiveness, able to shout “Arrrrrrrgh!” at the top of its ink-and-cardboard lungs and kick me squarely in the gut with its visceral immediacy. Even in its later, less impressive incarnation, Frankie Albano’s vivid version of the Waite-Smith tarot is an almost perfect example since it injects Pixie’s theatrical scenes with a jolt of adrenaline (making me think that anemic decks are suffering from a case of “adrenal insufficiency”). In the RWS line, no other deck even comes close, not even the Radiant, which is a bit too “brassy” for my taste. A few of the “clones” do work for me, but right off the top of my head none of them jump out so I must not have used any of them lately.
The Thoth still stands tall among all of the esoteric decks in my collection, mainly because of the brilliant execution of Frieda Harris’s evocative Minor Arcana. They may only be “semi-scenic” when compared to the RWS minors but they speak volumes through her adroit use of mood and color. M.M. Meleen’s Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus is a worthy companion to the Thoth but in my estimation not an actual successor; frankly – and I don’t in any way mean this as a criticism – I find it a little too visually “rich” for daily use. There are a few other Thoth “knock-offs” like the Rorig Tarot that inspire me with their vigor, (again not to trivialize their merit, it’s just that I already used the term “clone” in this essay); but they still don’t see a lot of use in readings.
The capstone of my recent experience with hard-hitting decks is the Tarot de Marseille. The woodcut designs are graphically strong (if sometimes crude) and the primary colors are compelling. While it might be argued that the spare presentation of the minor – or “pip” – cards is mostly inscrutable from a narrative perspective, that’s a large part of the charm and challenge of trying to come to grips with these decks in divination. There are none of the potentially misleading thematic distractions associated with more melodramatic artwork, making it essential to accumulate and internalize a personal library of meanings for the cards. I’ve been happily working in that direction with them for some time now, and will continue until I’m satisfied that I can read them comfortably without resorting to interpretive “crutches” from other systems. In practice I’m still falling back on my self-created keyword cheat-sheet to modulate its “white noise” (which brings up memories of the dissonant chaos of the Velvet Underground’s 1968 White Light, White Heat album that bassist John Cale described as “anti-beauty”); it shouldn’t be long before I can fly without it. At that point, it is likely to become my primary reading deck.