I was just reading a fascinating wiki article about Canadian cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” while analyzing the impact of media sources like television on society, and who concluded that the delivery system is more revealing of modern collective values than the contents. In commenting on his rejection of the assumptions of Teilhard de Chardin (with whom he had been favorably compared), he observed:
“The idea that anything is better because it comes later is surely borrowed from pre-electronic technologies.” (This seems to be an off-hand jab at planned obsolescence – like the annual update of automobile models – in marketing.)
C.S. Lewis said something very similar in The Discarded Image: philosophers in the Middle Ages revered what was handed down from their predecessors and sought to preserve it intact with little or no embellishment, but when the Renaissance came along there was a forceful reaction to recidivist thinking in which the ideas of the present were thought to be superior to those of the past. (Tarot deck creators, take note.)
All of which leads up to my main point here: the explosion of new tarot decks in the last few years has produced works that are markedly “different” in style but hasn’t really provided many that are “better” in any but a cosmetic sense. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful recent decks that I lust for like any normal consumer of tarot artifacts. But it’s not because I hope they will yield any kind of startling cartomantic epiphany; in fact the closer they adhere to the traditional model, whether it be Waite-Smith, Thoth or Tarot de Marseille, the more useful I find them for divination. Everything more fanciful (faeries, animals, zombies and such) is just so much window-dressing that reflects popular culture more than metaphysical antecedents; call them “TINOs” (“Tarot in Name Only”). Ditto for the various attempts to “rectify” (to use Richard Cavendish’s phrase) the symbolism of the older decks; Aleister Crowley and Freida Harris did so with consummate skill, creating a new standard in the process, but others have merely sullied their source material. I’m sure there is a place for them among the casual seekers who have little interest in the cultural or esoteric roots of the art, but not on my bookshelf or, more importantly, in my practice.
Beyond the fact that it is currently unrealistic to acquire every deck I think I might like (as if it ever was), I seem to have gotten over “latest-and-greatest” syndrome as the driver of my tarot consumerism. Utility is now king in my world; before any purchase, I ask myself “Will I ever use this or will it just sit in its box alongside most of its predecessors?” I’m not at the point where I couldn’t buy any deck I want as long as I’m rational about it (unfortunately, no Victorian Romantic for me), but why bother? Right now I’m convinced I need another pocket-sized deck for my small reading table since I’m tired of using the Waite-Smith Centennial Edition. There are a handful of tempting choices, most of them new takes on old designs (specifically, Thoth and Tarot de Marseille) but it looks like it’s going to be the Swiss Thoth Pocket Edition (now if it only came in a tin); that I’m sure I will use.
To be fair, there have been inspired reinterpretations of the classics, some of which I own. I’m convinced, though, that one must be much more than a proficient artist to do adequate justice to the underlying principles of the tarot and avoid creating yet another vacant approximation. A handful of talented and innovative deck creators mining this particular vein have brought a unique voice to the table. Robert Place is one; regardless of what you think of his rather formal neoclassical style, his decks are both stunning and functional. The gorgeous and esoterically correct Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus by M. M. Meleen, a faithful Thoth retooling, is one of the best examples. The radical recoloring of the older Albano-Waite RWS reboot furnishes another workhorse. In Tarot de Marseille space, any modern release that isn’t a painstaking historical facsimile is by definition a derivative product (which is not to say they aren’t remarkable); I especially like the Conver Ben-Dov and the two colorful Fournier TdM decks. Lynyrd-Jym Narciso has created the Tarot de Maria Celia that looks fresh and promising; he has also done some compelling Lenormand decks, as has Lynn Boyle. I turn to the sociopolitical sarcasm of Brian Williams’ RWS-based Post-Modern (PoMo) Tarot when I need it. And I even like the non-traditional inventiveness of the Chrysalis Tarot which – despite its title – reads more like an oracle deck (very successfully, I might add). But, by and large, most of the contemporary decks I’ve purchased on a whim or an errant recommendation don’t really deliver for me. Although I certainly appreciate high-quality artwork and impeccable production values, I try not to become dazzled by the medium when all I’m really after is the message.