For this week’s THINKS to Think I present to you an artist who shares an interest with myself, one which is becoming more and more popular in a time of alternative facts and disturbing realities, it seems. Here is Max Guy, on tarot:
I’ve been having difficulty thinking of what I might contribute in regards to tarot and tarot reading, which is a relatively new practice for me.
Does tarot itself need an introduction? Tarot are playing cards, typically in a deck of 78 with five suits that include the twenty-two major arcana and 56 minor arcana divided into suits (originally the suits were: cups, coins, wands and swords). Each card is ascribed an archetype or quality that serves as the basis for cartomancy; a typical read involves a questioner shuffling a deck with a question in mind, pulling one or more cards from it and interpreting them. An individual can read the cards for themselves or for another person. The most common spreads (a combination of cards laid out to interpret) are probably the ‘Celtic-Cross,’ which uses 10 cards to devise a narrative, or a three-card draw, in which cards correspond to past, present, and future events respectively.
For this Celtic Cross spread, some time in 2017, I asked no question.
My introduction to tarot was pretty unremarkable. Perhaps like many other good things one finds affinity towards, I did not expect that reading the cards would become such an important daily ritual. I started reading tarot a little under a year ago in October of 2016, after returning to Chicago from a three-month stay in New York City. One night at my friend Laura’s house, rather than going out for a drink, we decided to stay in and read the cards for one another. She had recently moved into her own apartment and also accepted a full-time position; I was looking forward to a fresh start in Chicago with a part-time job. I tend to keep a photographic record of all of my readings but these first readings – hers and mine – have disappeared. My question though, regarded finding secondary work and was, in hindsight, a trivial one; the answer was rightfully confusing.
Since that first reading I have purchased three decks: the classic Rider-Waite deck designed by Pamela Coleman Smith, Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe Tarot, and Susanne Treister’s Hexen 2.0 deck. Some of the books I’ve picked up along the way to learn more about the tarot are Tarot for One by Courtney Weber, The Way of the Tarot by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism translated by Robert Powell and the Shining Tribe Tarot by Rachel Pollack. Lastly, Italo Calvino’s book The Castle of Crossed Destinies has been incredibly influential in my understanding of the types of narratives that can be constructed and the freedom and malleability of interpretation of the cards.
Comparing the Wheel of Fortune, Four of Pentacles, and Two of Wands in Suzanne Treister’s Hexen 2.0 Deck (left) and Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe Tarot (right).
Tarot has also proved cathartic within the present political climate in which the truth is obscured by alternative facts and fake news. Tarot turns such things into a game; by shuffling the cards and meditating on past, present and future events we are prepare ourselves for the unknown. We celebrate the presence of chance.
I don’t have a real investment in the mystical, psychoanalytic or occult studies that typically enlist the tarot as a supplement. For example, some people use the cards in order to elaborate on astrological readings. Because of this I often have difficulty describing my own interest in tarot. It probably appeals to my interests in symbolism, sequential art, collecting, but more than anything, tarot is social. I frequently post readings and spreads on Instagram (@m_xg_y).
Following, is a list of notes on the cards that will likely appear as vague to many readers, but have certainly helped me flesh out my own approach and investment:
1. Tarot is a game.
2. That tarot is a game should not discount its graveness. That we come to tarot with questions already says quite a bit.
3. Tarot is a system of divination like palm reading, geomancy, astrology, necromancy etc. it is a way of speaking and listening to chance.
4. Tarot circumscribes the unknowable, the unspeakable?
5. To read for another person implies some mutual agreement between questioner and reader. This agreement is not necessarily on the meaning of the cards, but on how the cards are to be used. A reader and questioner may have just met, and the encounter demands mutual respect.
6. Tarot cards present narrative archetypes and memes. They are problematic in the way they inspire hyperbole and superstition.
7. Tarot will never grant ethical superiority to a reader or questioner.
8. Consider the nature of the question when you ask it. More often than not, we ask ourselves questions that we already know the answer to. Other times, a question can reveal a present mindset or concern at the root of a problem. Why are you asking in the first place?
9. Sometimes, a question can be distracting us from the topic at hand; anxiety forestalls action.
10. Some say that tarot works best when a question is “open,” more general. Hypothetical questions work well.
11. A good exercise is to read without questions, shuffling and drawing a card on which to meditate. Even this has its trappings, such as when an interpretation becomes prescriptive.
12. It is important to contextualize the read, considering the present moment, the limits of retrospection and foresight. How far into the future or past are you looking, are you reflecting on a present state of mind?
13. The Rider-Waite deck, in contrast to the images on earlier decks such as the Marseilles or the Visconti pack, presents almost entirely figurative imagery. In some ways, decks that use figuration challenge the reader to be less hyperbolic, and reflect on our implicit biases. Decks such as the Marseilles or the Visconti make use of numerology.
A card I pulled after the second date with my girlfriend, in June of 2017.
14. Even cards like the Devil and Death can be interpreted with optimism.
15. Of the 78 cards in a typical deck, none of the cards are really opposite of another, although in combination they can present ironies and contradictions.
16. When a card is drawn upside-down, it is in reverse, but this reversal is not the opposite of the card in upright position. For example: the reversal of the Death card does not imply life or resurrection, but instead symbolizes stagnancy. There is a card for love, but the reversal does not imply hate. A reversal can even be affirmative.
17. Bad omens are scary, good omens are encouraging! Do not be afraid to express yourself when reading. Be mindful of your reactions. Tenderness is a virtue.
18. To read tarot well is to read or interpret aspects of oneself rather than attribute foresight to the image before us. In thinking through the nature of a question we are thinking through how to proceed in life and otherwise.
19. If there is such a thing as mastery of the tarot, the master will have found a powerful vehicle for skepticism. People talk about a “gift” in tarot, and I believe it is a combination of skepticism, self-awareness and tenderness.
20. Maybe mastery of tarot will allow the cards to be replaced by sticks and stones, or investing.
Max Guy is an artist. You can find information about him here.