I try to keep abreast of Tarot as it appears in fiction but somehow I missed this one: The Holy by Daniel Quinn (2002). The entire book is the playing out of a Tarot reading, made explicit by full-page illustrations of Rider-Waite-Smith cards that introduce book sections.
The central what if is, “What if the God of the Bible was not the only God, and what if the “false gods” referred to in the ten commandments actually exist?” We can extend this to ask the questions: Who are they? and What do they want?—questions the author leaves only partially answered.
This is a Fool’s journey, cross country, undertaken by several different people, at first independently and then with converging stories, all foreseen in the Tarot reading that becomes explicit only as the tale evolves. Quinn is known for his philosophical novels, starting with the highly regarded Ishmael, for which he won the half-million dollar Turner Tomorrow Fellowship. Quinn is an original thinker whose process has been described as “seeing through the myths of this culture” or “ripping away the shades so that people can have a clear look at history and what we’re doing to the world.” It’s interesting that despite the centrality of the Tarot reading and Tarot illustrations in this book, the Tarot content is hardly ever mentioned and never discussed in the reviews I’ve read.
Synopsis: Sixty-plus year-old private detective Howard Scheim is hired by an acquaintance to discover if the “false gods” of the Bible really exist. In agreeing to discover if he can even undertake such an inquiry he interviews several people including a journalist, a tarot reader, a clairvoyant and a Satanist. Meanwhile the Kennesey family is undergoing upheaval as husband David decides to walk away from his job, his wife and his 12-year old son, Tim. Tim and his mother go searching for David and, when Tim becomes accidentally separated from his mother, Howard stumbles upon him and offers to help Tim find her. As it turns out both David and his son Tim are being courted by amoral, non-human “others” who plan to “wake up” humanity because their blindness is creating havoc. These “others,” who refuse to define themselves, are trickster beings, neither evil nor benevolent, who have existed far longer than homo sapiens. They have been known to enchant those humans who look to the physical world rather than to a transcendent being to benefit them.
The Celtic Cross Tarot reading shows Quinn to be knowledgeable about Tarot consulting. References to people named Case (P.F. Case authored an influential Tarot book) and John Dee (magician to Elizabeth I), as well as a road named Morning Star Path (a Golden Dawn offshoot was called the “Stella Matutina” or morning star) makes it clear that Quinn is referencing modern occult lore.
Tarot reader Denise starts by explaining that the first card in Howard’s reading indicates the predominant influence in the subject’s life. Howard draws the Seven of Swords and Denise asks Howard to tell her what it is about, explaining this is not her usual way of working but, “If I proceed normally, you’ll think I’m slanting it.”
He describes a thief stealing swords for a battle who has overlooked something (two swords left behind).” Denise summarizes it: “You’re getting ready for a battle and you’re overestimating your own cleverness and underestimating the strength of your enemy. You’re overconfident and you think you can’t be hurt in the enterprise you’ve planned. . . . The reading will center on the conflict you’re preparing for.”
The Seven of Swords is crossed by the Two of Pentacles: “The pentacles represent grave extremes: the beginning and the end, life and deah, infinite past and the infinite future, good and evil. Nevertheless, the young man is dancing.” Denise says he takes the situation too lightly.
The card above him is the Eight of Cups: “At best, you can hope for a strange journey, an adventure into darkness.”
The frontispiece illustration is that of the Seven of Cups, appearing in the reading in the environment position: “A man is disconcerted by an array of tantalizing apparitions of love, mystery, danger, riches, fame, and evil. Illusions will bedevil you. You’ll be pulled in many directions, and your choices will be confused.” Perhaps this is the underlying theme of not only this book but other works by Daniel Quinn: Humankind is bedeviled by the illusions of culture and civilization so that our choices are confused, centering on all the wrong things. Quinn has one of the characters quote Plato’s The Republic: “Whatever deceives can be said to enchant.” Adding, “Anyone who shakes off the deception shakes off the enchantment as well – and ceases to be one of you [a homo sapien].” The Holy, p. 260.
I’ve left out most of the interplay about the cards, and I won’t reveal more of the story as I hope you will explore this book for yourselves.