by Vanessa Starr, M.A.
“Trying to fathom the eternal mysteries is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.” Saint Augustine
When I began teaching the Tarot, the first item on my agenda was to expound on what the Tarot is. Inevitably, I would end up talking about its cloudy origins, tracking its nomadic history through many disparate cultures and countries. Or I would listen to myself intrapolate its relationship to the Kabbalah, or use metaphors like “mirror”, or Jungian terms, like “synchronicity”, falling back in desperation on what the Tarot does. In short, I would discourse on anything but what the Tarot is. My beginners always noticed, much to my chagrin, and I began to feel increasingly like that teaspoon-dipper St. Augustine describes.
Suspending my Virgo Ascendant for a moment, maybe I could forego the urgent necessity I and others feel to define, identify, and ultimately pigeonhole the Tarot. That moment of suspension, after all, is very like what I ask my clients to do: suspend investment in timebound matter for the duration of a reading.
Seekers come to a reader with many ‘matters’ on their minds. With the ‘matter’ of their lives suspended, the soul speaks – volubly, through the figural language of an oracle.
I would like to say that the Tarot’s oracular function has been well-documented, but it has not. Its fame as a fortune-telling tool, on the other hand, has survived in folklore – that indelible marginalia that sits alongside our history books. Even there, in its marginalized position, its divinatory properties were altered from the original meaning of “divining” -which implied parleying with the gods to see what’s what – to mere forecasting. The Tarot’s function as an oracle, amanuensis of the soul, is much less well-known.
So when I started reading professionally, the predominant question was: What is going to happen to me? And, as any fool of a fortune-teller knows, it’s easy to foretell future events through the Tarot. Learn the keywords and one or two popular spreads, practise on a few friends, and you’re on your way to the intoxicating thought that you, powerful you, can see the future.
The average clientele, after all, come to a reading with most choices already made, choices that determine their future in ways they could hardly imagine. The responsibility of those choices is so burdensome that it is easier to externalize their consequences as fate or destiny, or dare I say it, a personality disorder. The Reader’s responsibility is equally fraught, what with trying to untie the synchronicitous jumble of soul intent, choice, causation, and symptomatic manifestations – and then, once s/he sees, having to find the words to describe effectually what s/he sees. It makes you want to get a day job, for it’s easier to fall in line with the client’s omnipresent question, which, by the way, is more often expressed as a whispered demand “Tell me my future”, and always expels a plaintive fear of life – that amorphous, globulous thing ‘out there’ that brings us obstacles and crises and just seems to have a vendetta against us.
Well, this is how it feels sometimes. We experience life, the time-and-matter-bound lane, phenomenologically within a subject-object dialectic, and periodically feel like pusillanimous objects manipulated by a prodigious subject-perceptor whose agenda is inscrutable. Anyone who has ever felt trapped between a rock and a hard place – and who has not? – recognizes this feeling. Even if you disdain the phenomenological premise, let’s agree that incarnate life is acausal, a condition possessing in and of itself no particular vendetta or grace.
Thus, what the fortune-teller risks doing is pandering to people’s fear of life and its vicissitudes. By consenting to reveal future events without placing them within the text (not to say supra-text) of the soul, s/he tacitly agrees that life is indeed fearsome and can be controlled by foreknowledge. Incarnate life may indeed be frightening, since ringed by mortality and all kinds of personal and global holocausts, but the text of life is constituted also in that which cannot be made carnate. Perceiving events without accessing this other text is to be ineffectual in assisting the Tarot to transform someone’s perceptions of life and their life-choices. And deep, immediate transformations do take place with those clients who have come to the Tarot at a critical juncture in their lives. Oftentimes, as a reading progresses, a ‘client’ transforms into a ‘seeker’ and the Tarot into a neutral ground in which one’s fate and free will may meet in a quivering equipoise.
Perhaps an equally pernicious development in modern Tarot practice is to ‘psychoanalyse’ the client, thereby becoming their (unqualified) therapist. It’s so easy in this age of psychobabble to borrow snippets, like ‘projection’, ‘subconscious’, ‘ego’, ‘synchronicity’ -words rent from their originary contexts, distilled from their voluminous, explanatory texts. A bit of Freud, a dash of Laing, a lot of Jung, and the communication which the Tarot – that palimpsest of the soul – surrenders thereby and becomes wholly derivative.
Yet, as civilisation slouches forward, so too does language, and the nature and type of information language can convey. Why not exploit the jargon of other helping disciplines to communicate with Tarot clients? How else to articulate the wisdom encrypted in the Tarot except through derivative language and metaphor? Or do I lack spiritual sophistication: is there some other way to work with an ancient oracle?
Distinguishing between ‘information’ and ‘wisdom’ might be key here. And the distinction goes far beyond semantics. In contemporary discourse, information is pretty much all we get. It relies for its meaningfulness on the extrinsic and the mundane, and it is explicated to the Tarot client within the framework of linear time. Peeling an onion, I call it, that first extrinsic layer of information or data that helps situate both reader and client, i.e., your spouse left you three years ago; your son is dyslexic; you just lost your job. The extrinsic is essential: neglecting it can actually impoverish the fulsomeness of the spread. Information, as opposed to wisdom, in a reading is one of the many buoys or markers that invite further depth. In practical terms, it’s a good, even necessary, place to start, for where does the soul reside if not in the realm of choice and will, projected into the world of matter? But it’s not a good place to end.
One of my students had the habit of describing a spread by saying ‘this spread is about…’. To her, the spread always had to be ‘about’ something – business, illness, divorce, a lawsuit – really, whatever she felt was uppermost in the client’s mind, and to her, the spread only covered that one area.
Reading in absentia a rich in-law dying of cancer whom she had described as excessively materialistic and power-hungry, she declared the spread to be entirely ‘about’ a recent business decision he had made from his hospital bed. When I suggested that the spread revealed a soul immersed in the world of matter unto sickness, she looked like she was about to ask for her tuition back. So, of course, heartened, I persisted.
The spread is about both illness and ‘business’, and it is about neither of these things, said I. Both and neither. Both, because the extrinsic layer (illness, business, also a loveless marriage, disgruntled children, among other things) expelled a lifelong, symptomatic disregard for, and neglect of, the soul. Neither, because what the spread exuded about the sickness of the soul could not be reduced to any of these things. The spread unveiled one particular soul’s journey through incarnation as a gradual and comprehensive immersion in the world of matter. This exclusivity was killing a man barely into his forties.
The soul-energy, so long forced to mirror human ability and energy as exercised solely in the material realm, had fully saturated the first ground of the incarnate, the body. The illness of the soul had not merely manifested in the body; it had taken over the body as if there were no other place for it to go. The man’s body, like his world-view, lay dying of a homeopathic, self-generated dis-ease. It was as if the soul were demanding a victim to compensate for its neglect. Well, that is how it feels sometimes. Yet the spirit has no iniquity but what we assign to it. What was this reading ‘about’?: a point in the journey of one man’s soul through matter embracing, nay careening towards its endpoint, and a joyless, unaware one at that.
I felt exhausted and dispirited by this devoilement. The man’s soul lay sprawled, disquieted and unutterably eloquent in the stillness of the spread. If he had sat before me eight years prior when his cancer was seeded – or at any other critical juncture of his life – would I have been able to effectually convey to him the wisdom encoded in his spread? Or, as caught in a tractor beam, would he have remained pinioned by his own intemperance? Was he a ‘client’ or a ‘seeker’, or now, neither: just very tired and out of breath?
There are moments in some, not all, readings when, despite our enfeebled forays into inadequate language, seekers confront their own souls and undergo an indefinable self-authentication. You can see it in their faces and their eyes, hear it through the phone wire. They go somewhere down deep or up high, returning perhaps to a place before birth, before choice, before being. And you are present at that moment, returning with them, a witness, a hearer, an auditor, and you are humbled. You have assisted the Tarot in making someone literate in the text of their own soul. This moment, with this man’s spread before me, was not one of those. And as the class continued, the cards remained there, face up on the table, expelling an energy, a wisdom that no one was there to receive.
I still don’t know what the Tarot is. But I know what it does. I have been there when ‘it’ happens, though words fail me ever. It straddles the two contexts of humanness: the spiritual and the mundane. Neither is privileged, though often the one suffers at the hand of the other. Events, past, present, and future are indeed revealed. But the soul too is made accessible. That’s why its primordial routines became ritual, raised to the level of sacred. Thus the Tarot is an oracle, a congenial meeting-place for the exoteric and the esoteric, the extrinsic and the intrinsic, the matter(s) of the body and the text of the soul. And even these convenient dualities fail miserably to define it. The Tarot is the name of the rose. When I stop lugging that teaspoon, I’ll let you know.
Copyright © by Vanessa Starr
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