by Enrique Enriquez
The unconscious responds to vibration and to shape. The meaning of a concept is its cage, and for that concept to reach the unconscious it must free itself. This, I would say, is the key to understanding the Marseille Tarot’s distinctive language. The Marseille Tarot speaks a language of signs which expresses itself through direct revelations. We understand these revelations by drawing an analogy between the image we see and our personal story. Instead of affording an intellectual understanding of ourselves, the Tarot transforms the consciousness so that new realities and possibilities can emerge. The Marseille Tarot speaks the language that we can also see carved in the stone of European Romanesque churches, full of visual puns and graphic messages which are understood in a single glance. That is why they are so easy to miss! That is also why it is so easy to overlook The Marseille Tarot’s iconic language. Looking at these images is an enormous challenge to us because we have forgotten how to reach out through our senses. Images are poured into our eyes from increasingly bigger and better screens, sounds get plugged into our ears, we feel life through a joystick or a remote, and we type electric whispers, hiding comfortably inside our virtual placenta.
How can we understand a language that comes from a time long-gone, when men had a different relationship with their own senses? The over-saturation of pictures in our contemporary world renders each image we create obsolete as soon as we produce it. Perhaps that is why the Marseille Tarot’s primal, raw and humble images, bearing the voice of the stones within their forms, still have the power to ‘deliver’ us into this world.
The Marseille Tarot can only be known through direct experience. It expresses itself through shapes and colors as soon as we look at it, speaking a language which, in order to become alive, must kill the meaning of its symbols. It is a language that never lets itself be caged. This is not a symbolic language in the sense that each card is a memory prompter holding a stack of meanings. This is not the language of the occultist’s Tarot. The Marseille Tarot is not a book, because books where created to free our memory from its burdens. These cards shouldn’t be memorized: they simply awaken our memories when we look at them. The content is not in the card, but in us. The Marseille Tarot is more like the alphabet of an iconic language which we understand without uttering a word because we listen to it with our eyes. This is a language that doesn’t contain, but rather reveals, our inner truths.
The Marseille Tarot functions as an autonomous language because it is composed of several basic meaning units, a minimal inventory of concepts that are both decomposable and atomic, and which can be rearranged into a vast number of possibilities. As I suggested here: www.tarot-authentique.com what makes the Marseille Tarot units of meaning so effective is their high iconic level, their sharp simplicity.
If we can resist the temptation to find exact correspondences, that is, if we resist the temptation to put the bird into a cage, comparing the Marseille Tarot with our phonetic alphabet can be very helpful in understanding its language.
The Tarot is not the alphabet. The Tarot is an alphabet. Pointing out how the letter A resembles a standing Bateleur won’t be as useful as understanding that letter forms carry suggestions. These suggestions may become more discernible if, instead of seeing each letter as a definitive shape, we see them as snapshots of a graphic continuum. Shape is a consequence of movement, and movement is a visual manifestation of space. For the sake of orientation, let’s imagine two spatial axes, a vertical one that we will define as ‘being’ and an horizontal one that we will define as ‘becoming’. A single vertical stroke creates the most minimal shape in our alphabet, the letter I. We could take this basic shape as reference, and establish it as “being.” The letter I would represent the individual. Now, let’s assume that our sense of being gets reshaped by our sense of becoming. This is, when the vertical axis represented by the letter I is activated horizontally, we have the letter I reshaping itself to form all the other letters of the alphabet. When the letter I breaks apart and becomes receptive to the ground, we have an A. When the letter I grows arms to embrace the world, it creates the letter B. If the letter I curves itself, forming a letter C, it becomes receptive to the future. This way, by understanding the ‘motion’ that took place for the original vertical stroke to become any other letter, the content of such movements becomes an indirect tale. Each letter becomes a play, a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, giving us the chance to experience the alphabet in an entirely new way. This cognitive shift is similar to the one necessary for us if we want to abandon a symbolic conception of the Tarot, and start speaking the Marseille Tarot’s true language. This is a vocabulary made of shapes, and focusing on them is a visual meditation. This way, if we look at two cards in a row we can ask ourselves: “what needs to happen for this image to become that other one”?
Let’s look at one single letter. The letter M is one of our alphabet’s basic units of meaning. At first sight we could call it an atomic component. Letters are the basic cells of our language and cannot be divided. But a deeper look at its shape makes us think that the Letter M is also decomposable into a letter V hanging between two letters I. Perhaps a letter M shows two Is holding hands! Obviously, normal communication would become severely impaired if we insisted on derailing our understanding of each letter in this way, but from time to time it might be useful to play this game with letter shapes and let our amusement open the way to new insights. Is not this the very same thing that happens when we look at an individual Tarot card for too long?
In the Marseille Tarot, sound becomes an optical rhythm. Just as ‘A’ is the sound we experience when we look at the letter A, The Fool is the vibration one gets tuned-into when looking at The Fool. Every person who reads “Aaaaaa” generates a similar sound, just as every person who looks at The Fool comes into contact with the same properties of the image. If we were to ask ourselves “what does the letter A mean?”, we would be in trouble. The same thing happens with each Tarot card. Since different people will relate to The Fool’s attributes in different ways, we cannot explain in words what The Fool’s attributes are. We can only experience them. What we can do is to describe The Fool’s basic unity of meaning: a man walks to the right, his eyes fixed on the horizon, while seeming to ignore both the path he walks and the pain inflicted by an animal-like creature who is scratching his ‘noble’ (like Noblet?) parts. When we look at the card we take in this whole image at a single glance, just as we perceive the whole letter M by looking at it. But this atomic sense, indispensable for the image to become operative, can be decomposed. Now and then we may feel drawn to The Fool’s bag, or to his shoes, or to the aforementioned gray creature and its knotty, knotty, paw.
Even so, a letter alone is rarely useful to convey meaning. The same thing happens with each of the Trumps, Honors, and Pips on the Marseille Tarot. Exploring each letter on its own, or exploring each card isolated from its context, is deceptive. Concepts reshape their meanings according to whether they are expressed alone, or in the context of a phrase. Context is, in fact, what makes concepts useful.
To incorporate each simple unit of meaning into a more complex one, this unit must be elementary enough to prevent its own shape from drawing undue attention to itself once it has been integrated into a larger context. This is part of the secret of the Marseille Tarot’s iconicity.
Back to the alphabet: notice how much more difficult the act of reading a text becomes if we employ a fantasy font in which the basic features of each letter have been obscured by capricious ornamentation. There is no point in devoting too much attention to each letter, because the meaning of the word “BABY” is not B and A and B and Y. The word’s gestalt outweighs each letter’s single identity. Likewise, when we look at some cards spread over a table, we see all of them at once. It doesn’t really matter which card was laid down first, or which one second. We apprehend the whole gestalt and it immediately becomes a coherent unit of meaning. The Tower, The Fool, and The Star together become “The fool leaving the Tower for the Star”, or more precisely, indicate that we must “get out of there in order to find relief”. We are afforded an overview which integrates and expands the individual attributes of the three cards. Just as letters disappear within the words they create, these three cards aren’t just three cards anymore, but an event which vibrates analogically with our own experience and thereby reveals its meaning for us.
Syntax allow us to build complex concepts by grouping simple ones. In this way, the atoms of our language: (Pips, Honors, and Trumps) generate larger units of meaning. Instead of going card by card, like a child in a spelling bee contest, maintaining a holistic view of the cards will allow us to practice this unique optical language.
This is the way the Marseille Tarot speaks to us.
New York, January 2008.
* The images illustrating this article are from the Jean Noblet Tarot: