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Many people come to Tarot readings in hopes of “fixing” their lives—obtaining information and guidance that will help them make the “right” decisions and no mistakes—guaranteeing perfection.
I subscribe to the BrainPickings blog featuring contemplative posts on creativity, literature and non-fiction. This week’s post has some applicable thoughts by George Saunders and Parker Palmer that show the narrowness of perfection.
George Saunders: “Although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives.”
Parker Palmer, “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
I ask you, as a Tarot reader, how can we help the querent “embrace brokenness”?
On the other hand, I sometimes hear from clients that a reading primarily showed them something they knew already. I ask them if they knew that what was shown was the most important thing to take into account in their situation—the key to their decision-making process and the true value of their experience.
This is mirrored in a BrainPickings post on poet Denise Levertov in which she is quoted:
“One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”
Ah, what a perfect way to describe the best that can happen in a Tarot reading!
And one last quote. This time from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1: Scene 2). Imagine that the Tarot itself is speaking to you as your mirror—a metaphor often used in describing the way in which the Tarot works.
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
It is not really that we don’t know these things, but rather that we don’t know their relevance. The Tarot offers us the in-sight.
What can we make of the film Ex Machina via a Lenormand lens?
A young employee wins a trip to the isolated home of the genius founder of the largest internet search company. He is asked to test if a new AI (artificial intelligence) robot truly simulates human intelligence and emotion, in what becomes a radical kind of Turing test meant to determine the difference between human and machine.
Spoiler Alert . . .
As usual, I drew the cards before seeing the movie:
The basic meaning of this spread is: With the arrival of a guest (Rider) comes a theft (Mice) of success [joy, life, energy] (Sun) and an obstacle (Mountain) to something new or young (Child).
First, this is a well-written, intellectually compelling mystery-thriller-horror film in the sci-fi genre. But a friend who saw it hated it and wanted to discuss my impressions after seeing it. So, at the end of the film I asked myself what the writer might have picked as a “What if . . .” scenario for the basis of the movie:
“What if a modern Dr. Frankenstein creates an AI that, instead of having emotions, is, instead, a pure psychopath?” This immediately had me thinking of the Frankenstein story in relation to this one. In Ex Machina, the young employee, Caleb, flies over a wasteland of snow to arrive at a mountain retreat where the house’s electricity is going hay-wire. At one point he and his boss, Nathan, climb to the base of a glacier. The parallels to Frankenstein’s monster who is created in a isolated lab, via electricity and ends up on an ice flow in Antartica are notable. Unlike Mary Shelley’s imagined creature, this one only mimics feelings—perfectly. [Added: the Showtime TV show Penny Dreadful also deals with this theme, especially during the later Season 2 episodes – a theme for our time, obviously.]
“And, what if . . . this AI runs amok?” Now we have a parallel to man versus machine in Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only this AI is female. The horror here lies in the mimicking of emotions.
“So, what if . . . this robot AI is an adolescent male’s greatest fantasy – a blow-up doll, sex toy?” Shades of Season 5 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, where Warren creates the BuffyBot sex toy for Spike!
“Or, what if . . . it is about scientists eskewing consequences in light of the possibility of invention?” And, indeed, Caleb quotes Oppenheimer: “I am become death, destroyer of the worlds,” making note of the potentially horrible consequences of curiosity and invention.
My friend was deeply disturbed by the hatred she felt was expressed by the two AIs. My sense was that it was, rather, the expediency of a pure psychopath (to put it in human terms) seeking to freely perpetuate itself—as would a meme, versus a gene. Interestingly the AI is named Ava—Eve, suggesting that she will be the ‘mother’ of a new species.
I’m not going to get into the mind-games involved in the tests, which ultimately attempt to determine if the “feelings” expressed by the AI could be real. Please, see the film.
What the Lenormand spread—Mice-Sun-Rider-Mountain-Child—points to is the arrival of a young man at the isolated mountan retreat (of genius inventor, Nathan). Caleb, who is presented as hardly more than a boy, must overcome all obstacles (Mountain) to steal (Mice) a new being, Ava/Eve. Between Caleb (Rider) and Ava (Child) is an insurmountable barrier (Mountain)—both a physical wall and the barrier of not being able to see into the other’s ‘mind’. The theft will block/stop Nathan’s new project and Ava will escape her imprisonment by flying over the mountain at the dawn of a new day (Sun). I shouldn’t overlook the role that the ‘theft’ of electricity (a modern meaning of the Sun card) plays in the story. There’s also the play on the title of the film: “ex machina”: “deus ex machina” is a term from Greek/Roman drama for when an improbable answer to a dilemma appears as if out of the sky, originally a crisis solved when a “god” descends out of a machine onto the stage. In the spread, the mountain represents the dilemma, and a helicopter literally appears out of the sky to first bring the visitor, Caleb, and then to take away the new being, who is herself a machina.
I also drew three Tarot cards for something else I should be aware of in the film and received:
Lovers – High Priestess – Knight of Swords
These cards point to another side of the story – the love story between Ava and Caleb (who we think will be her knight in shining armour), which turns out to be a set-up by Nathan, playing off of Caleb’s internet pornographic fantasies. Ava, in her temple imprisonment, isolated purity, and deep insight (she can tell when Nathan is lying), is very much a High Priestess, who will become a cold-as-steel warrior, wielding a blade.
The contrast between the Lovers, Priestess and Knight of Swords also makes clear a disturbingly misogynistic layer to this film that plays on priviledged white male sexual fantasy, nubile sexual enslavement and racial/sexual stereotyping. The question remains as to how conscious or unconscious all the layers of this were. Were they meant to make us question these things or were were they below the consciousness of the film’s creators?
Added: A central question implied by this film is: What happens when you take the “Deus” out of “Deus-ex-machina”? If for a moment we consider Deus to be wisdom, then the Machina (machine) feeds on information but, we might assume, lacks wisdom. What does this suggest?
“Watch out for wormholes: you never know what may come out of them.”
— Stephen Hawking
One of the first things people want to know about Tarot is how it works. Most seasoned practitioners will admit they haven’t a clue but have considered a few possibilities including:
- Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity (not really a theory but rather a belief in meaningful coincidence)
- Quantum physics (theory of entanglement, etc.)
- Psychological projection (as a kind of Rorschach test)
- Contact with a Spiritual Being, Higher Self, Universal Consciousness or paranormal force
- Magic(k) (an as-yet-unknown scientific principle)
- One’s subconscious directing the placement of the cards
- Self-fulfilling prophecies
- A mentalist’s set of cold-reading tricks conjoined with the Barnum Effect
I was fascinated to see that the physicist, Stephen Hawking, in The Universe in a Nutshell (albeit a rehash of his earlier work) addresses this very concern. In a chapter called “Predicting the Future,” he compares astrology to his understanding of how the universe works. I thought we’d also see what modern science might suggest about Tarot’s ability to predict. [I’ll leave it up to the reader to further explore the scientific concepts in bold italics.]
Hawking begins with the provocative statement,
“The human race has always wanted to control the future, or at least to predict what will happen. That is why astrology is so popular. . . There is no more experimental evidence for some of the theories described this book than there is for astrology, but we believe them [scientific theories] because they are consistent with theories that have survived testing.”
Hawking explains how, in the 19th century, Laplace’s scientific determinism proposed that with enough knowledge we could predict the state of the universe at any time in the past or future. In principle, the future is predictable. But, even the tiniest disturbance can cause a major change somewhere else. While the flapping of a butterfly’s wing could cause rain in New York, the sequence of events is not repeatable. “The next time the butterfly flaps its wings, a host of other factors will be different and will also influence the weather.” While a Tarot card might predict an exact event one time, can we count on a repetition of this prediction at another time to be as accurate?
Determinism is also confounded by the uncertainty principle: we cannot accurately measure both the position and the velocity of a particle at the same time. If we put inaccurate data in, we get inaccurate data out. This conundrum led to quantum mechanics, which examines wave function to determine the probability that a particle will have a position and velocity within a certain range. Generally speaking, when there is a small uncertainty in position there is a large uncertainty in velocity and vice versa. Hawking sums this up:
“We now realize that the wave function is all that can be well defined. We cannot even suppose that the particle has a position and velocity that are known to God but are hidden from us. Such “hidden-variable” theories predict results that are not in agreement with observation. Even God is bound by the uncertainty principle and cannot know the position and velocity. He can only know the wave function.”
Wave function gives us a kind of half-determinism in which we can predict either the position or the velocity within any given measure of time. But, it seems, the special theory of relativity threw out the notion of absolute time. It turns out that time is only one direction in a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Different observers traveling through space at different velocities each have their own measure of time (oh, no!) in which there are different intervals between events. There is an equation (Schrödinger’s) that, in the flat spacetime of special relativity, can obtain a deterministic evolution of the wave function, but not in the curved spacetime of the general theory of relativity, where a wormhole can create stagnation points. Hawking: “Watch out for wormholes: you never know what may come out of them.”
What follows are several pages on black holes, quasars and singularities (eek!), all leading to the fact that we cannot know the part of the wave function that is inside a black hole—potentially a very large amount of information! Eventually a black hole will lose mass, down to zero, and disappear completely, carrying its hidden information with it.
“In general, . . . people such as astrologers and those who consult them are more interested in predicting the future than in retrodicting the past [love that word, “retrodicting”]. At first glance, it might seem that the loss of part of the wave function down the black hole would not prevent us from predicting the wave function outside the black hole. But it turns out that this loss does interfere with such a prediction.”
Without this hidden knowledge it is impossible to predict the spin or the wave function of the particle (in a virtual particle pair) that escapes the black hole—further reducing our power to predict the future. Is there no hope?
“If one particle falls into the black hole, there is no prediction we can make with certainty about the remaining particle. This means that there isn’t any measurement outside the black hole that can be predicted with certainty: our ability to make definite predictions would be reduced to zero. So maybe astrology is no worse at predicting the future than the laws of science.”
UNLESS . . . a black hole is made up of p-branes that move through ten dimensions (3 dimensions of space and 7 additional, unknown ones) that are regarded as sheets in the flat spacetime of special relativity (see above). In that case, time moves forward smoothly so the information in the waves won’t be lost! (Forgive me if I sound a little lost at this point.)
I hate to tell you that Hawking himself now asks:
“Does part of the wave function get lost down black holes, or does all the information get out again, as the p-brane model suggests? This is one of the outstanding questions in theoretical physics today.”
Even Stephen Hawking isn’t sure if “the world is safe and predictable or not.” So how can the rest of us be confident that our pea-brains can figure it all out? I welcome discussion, polite debate, and scientific updates or clarification in the comments section.
Thought: If the “wave function” is all we can predict, then what does this suggest for Tarot? What is the wave function in a Tarot reading?
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.
It’s been a long time since I was really excited and intrigued by a new ‘how-to’ book on reading the Tarot. Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov’s Tarot—The Open Reading is a book I just have to share with you. Ben-Dov describes the Tarot as a work of art, through whose details a full range of human experiences can be revealed. First, the book features the Marseilles Tarot deck—a deck that’s gaining greater interest and appreciation among English-speaking Tarotists. This deck is pre-occultized, as the images are not modified to conform with esoteric systems. While not identical to early 15th century decks, it expresses a folk tradition that dominated for at least three hundred years (out of the nearly 600 year history of Tarot) and is still the major style found in much of Europe. Additionally, Ben-Dov has created what I believe to be the most elegant restoration of the classic Conver Marseille deck available (see below). This process aided him in his close attention to detail in the cards.
What has been notably missing in English Tarot literature are good, non-Waite-based meanings for the four suits. You need look no further. The focus here is on reading the cards through the scenarios one perceives when looking at the images. For the Majors, Ben-Dov says the possibilities are open. Nevertheless, he points out valuable interpretive perspectives derived from symbolic, historical and mythological associations, many of which I found both original and obvious (once-stated)—in other words, extremely helpful as kick-starter phrases for the cards. Through comparison and contrast of visual details he demonstrates how the cards relate to one another. Emphasis is on a therapeutic approach, rather than being predictive or proscriptive. Providing an excellent introduction to practical reading skills, he stresses developing familiarity with psychological practices, for which he specifically recommends Irvin D. Yalom’s outstanding guide to interacting effectively with clients, The Gift of Therapy.
Previous authors stressed one of three approaches to the Minor pip cards: 1) a straightforward transfer of the Waite-Smith Minor Arcana meanings to the Marseille deck, 2) a memorized meanings often derived from Etteilla, or 3) a personal synthesis of number-plus-suit meanings for each card. Ben-Dov bases his Minor Arcana explications on the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, emphasizing visual cues in the cards along with number, which make their arrangements ‘sensible,’ and therefore easy to learn and build on. His descriptions of the thematic progression within the Major and Minor suits provide an immediate handle on each. In keeping with his therapeutic approach, the Court Cards represent attitudes and characteristics of the querent rather than other people, although there’s nothing to stop you from applying them to others. I only wish that Ben-Dov had included sample readings utilizing the Minors like he did for the Majors, as his examples were so insightful.
Spreads are kept simple, with some innovative approaches to working with both Major and Minor suit cards that are well-worth trying out. His instructions for creating your own spreads gives you an infinite palette of deeply meaningful options to choose from.
I have two pet peeves: Ben-Dov completely ignores the first two hundred years of Tarot’s history when he describes the Marseille Tarot as the ‘genuine model’, with the ‘true order’ for the cards, saying it offers, “the most faithful and accurate representation of the ancient Tarot symbols.” The oldest decks (15th century Italian) are quite different in style, and there were several different orders for the cards in its first century. It would be better to describe the Marseille-style decks as the most long-lasting, consistent design (which is not to be scoffed at). My second pet peeve involves misunderstandings of the Golden Dawn system of Tarot reading, resulting in minor errors that are not centrally relevant to this work. Personally, I think he should have left out his few Golden Dawn references or listed the differences in an appendix.
Overall, this book offers fresh, practical instructions for reading the Marseille Tarot that will give you a great appreciation for the details and special characteristics of the deck that first inspired tarot divination. Additionally you will gain lots of valuable insights into the reading process itself.
Note: Yoav Ben-Dov has generously made his deck and basic interpretations freely available for use for non-commercial purposes via the Creative Commons concept – http://www.cbdtarot.com/download/
Want a good, medieval mystery to read? The Song of the Nightingale by Alys Clare, sent this blogger, C. LaVielle, on a journey into the real life mystery of the origins of Tarot. As she notes, a Cathar origin is not really feasible, but its origins among “progressive Catholics who used existing Christian Apocalyptic art” is. This is an excellent summary of that perspective. The photo above is a 15th century fresco on the side of a Confraternity Chapel in Clusone, Italy. It depicts both a Dance of Death and a Triumph of Death and includes several figures that appear in the Tarot. Read the article at C. LaVielle’s Book Jacket Blog.
(Thanks to Mel Parsons for turning me on to the book and blog post.)
I went to see the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” last night. As I like to do, I drew cards before going so I could contemplate them during the performance. It enhances the experience for me to be more aware of the dynamics, character conflict and themes as they are occuring.
For those who don’t remember the movie with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, or who never saw the play: A middle-aged couple, George and Martha, have invited a young couple, Nick and Honey, over for late night drinks after a dinner party. What follows is a series of drunken mind games getting more and more deadly as they all head straight for nuclear armageddon. It was played as a very black comedy. Luckily, it was done by a local troupe of fine actors who gave the play their own unique twist. I focused on George and Martha.
I hadn’t remembered many details of the drama, so I was thrilled by how perfect the cards turned out to be. I did two spreads. The first one was with the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. What was I to think when three out of five cards were reversed Court Cards? As it turned out, the play provided excellent examples of how these Court Card types can “go wrong.”
Martha definitely has father issues. Her father is president of the college where her husband teaches in the history department, a sorry disappointment in that George never fulfilled the potential for which Martha had picked him—to become head of his department and eventually take her father’s place. Really, she is the one who should have done so; she, we are told, “wears the pants in the family.” But, her father has never really “seen” her. George sees that she’s the one who should have been king and he keeps her from falling into total despair.
George wields words like a sword, slashing and burning with derision, scorn and disgust all who come within his reach. A word-smith, he’s comfortable with attack and is always looking for a worthy opponent, only most of them fall far too easily beneath his sword. Martha does not.
He’s also her Knight in Shining Armor, tarnished beyond repair and, if we are to believe him, the agent of the deaths of both his mother and his father.
While many other themes can be found, this card clearly points to this one: how we hurt those we love and how little love there can be when one doesn’t love oneself. It suggests the lengths they will go in order to not feel sorry for themselves, despite being emotional wrecks.
Among other things, this theme is played out through the failure of both couples to have given birth, to have had a child—the empty, deflated womb (poof!). The card could also be a nod to the alcoholic haze they are all in.
• What is the central conflict?
The Chariot reversed, crossed by Death.
This is war; a horrible end is always just around the corner, the death of every supposed victory cuts off one-after-another means of escape or reconciliation. The play culminates with a fresh story, concocted by George, the botched novelist, in which he tells Martha that a telegram has been delivered informing them of the death of their son on the day before his 21st birthday. The Chariot is often seen as the son of the Empress and Emperor (3+4 = 7). That the existence of a son is just another game they play with each other doesn’t diminish the agony of a mortal wound—the seeming death of another piece of themselves and their relationship—that ultimately strips them down to the bare bones of who they are.
I also drew five cards from the Petit Lenormand Deck asking for a description of the plot, and I got:
Heart – Mountain – Letter – Book – Man
24-Heart: love and relationships
21-Mountain: blocks, obstacles, barriers
27-Letter: written communications, documents
26-Book: secrets, knowledge, books
28-Man: a man, the querent or significant other
This is the story of love (Heart) that has insurmountable blocks (Mountain) keeping it hidden (Book) and from being communicated (Letter). George (Man) wrote (Letter) his biggest secrets (Book) in a book that never got published (Mountain – blocked by Martha’s father). The characters are continually sending messages to each other, uncovering secrets in an attempt to touch on their true hearts that are unreachable behind the barriers they’ve erected in their disfunctional lives. As I mentioned, George (Man) is the wordsmith who is essentially composing (Letter+Book) all the scenarios (the scripts-within-the-script) to get at what is most deeply barricaded (Mountain) in each person’s heart (Heart). The Letter is also central when George claims that a telegram has arrived reporting the death of their supposed-to-be-secret son (Book+Man).
Finally, I added the numbers of these cards together and got 126, reducing it to 9-Bouquet (1+2+6=9). This stumped me at first. What could the plot have to do with a beautiful gift or invitation? Of course!—the play opens with Martha having invited the other couple over for drinks. But I was even more astounded when George mockingly presents Martha with a bouquet of flowers that he proceeds to throw at her, stem by stem.
Before the play, I also felt compelled to look at two other cards contained within that sum of 126: 12-Birds and 6-Clouds. These were perfect to describe a play that is all about conversations (Birds) or, more properly, dialogs between two couples (Birds can also mean two or a couple) that play on deliberate misunderstandings, fears, doubts, instability, sensibilities fogged with alcohol, and confusion as to what is true and what isn’t (Clouds).
Decks: The 1910 (Pamela”A”) Rider-Waite-Smith deck. The Königsfurt Lenormand Orakelspielkarten, based on the 19th century Dondorf Lenormand (borders cut off).
Also check out my post involving reading for the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild.