ebook available 2011: www.mcfarlandpub.com
From Tarot and Other Meditation Decks: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Typology © 2004 Emily E. Auger by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com
The recent history of Tarot is part of the developing cultural importance of the individual and subjective life, particularly moments of crisis in that life. Tarot may, like the epic, assert that at least some aspects of human experience are eternal and universal; but, like the novel, is often multi-vocal or heteroglossic. While “heteroglossia” is a feature associated with the novel’s realism, it is developed more romantically in Tarot through exotic symbolic and functional associations with the cultural Other, the gendered Other, and, of course, the Other of the unconscious. In contemporary Tarot, as in post-modernist art and literature in general, distinct genres and symbolic systems are self-consciously mixed; even the visual and literary are juxtaposed to foster and exploit awareness of a greater “metamythology.” Like all “divinatory” tools, Tarot is also intended to blur the categorical boundaries between fiction and non-fiction; more specifically, contemporary Tarot is intended to foster the unique mode of apprehension necessary to the reading of the cards as signs operating in a heterotopian space where memories of the past, present realities, and future possibilities exist simultaneously. […]
Contemporary Tarot, like many myths, is about rites of passage and transformation. The querent-reader, like the hero in mythology and fantasy, typically faces a dilemma or mystery and seeks the quasi-mystical aid of the deck in its resolution: the spread is popularly understood as a reflection or double for the querent-reader’s inner self. As in Percival’s quest, awareness of the need to ask questions, and to ask the right questions is paramount to the success of the exercise. If the right question is posed, the reading may be an epiphany, equivalent to the hero’s meeting of a supernatural guide. Like the mythological hero, the querent-reader may undergo a coming-of-age or consciousness raising experience through the interpretation of the Tarot clues, at least some of which are likely to be psychological in nature, and the process of bringing reality in line with an idealized and previously established representation of it. He [or she] consults the conventionalized Tarot characters, social arrangements, and situations and seeks to understand and even rationalize his own situation by aligning it with them. In Tarot, as in myth, “reality” is based on a previously agreed upon social reality in which, or relative to which, the “hero” must find his place.
Contemporary uses of Tarot and Arthurian mythology share an emphasis on the individual, his or her relationships to others and to society, and the idea of healing the wounded land or person. The importance of questions and the sometimes ambiguous answers provided by the Tarot reading specifically aligns it with myths centering on riddles, such as those associated with Oedipus and Odysseus. […] While the sources and development of Tarot imagery are essentially art historical, the personalization of myth that takes place in the revised imagery and use of many contemporary decks demonstrates many affinities with literary fantasy and “romance” genres, such as gothic, detective, and cyberpunk fiction. Literature tends to encourage the reader’s identification with the hero through a variety of devices, such as first person narrative and familiar circumstances and predicaments, and these features may also characterize the Tarot reading. In addition the “significator,” as well as the question and quest features implicit to Tarot, establish the presence of the querent-reader as a kind of hero within the spread. Affinities between Tarot and literature also derive from their shared reliance on mythological prototypes for the verbal interpretation of the deck’s visual images, motifs, and themes. […]
Among the major constituent units of literature are concepts of place and space: these are frequently seen in literary fantasies about the utopianized place of individuals in society and about heterotopian spaces of transformative intellectual, spiritual, and emotional experience. The properties of utopias and heterotopias are demonstrative of the cognitive methods applicable to literary fantasy construction. Utopias exemplify a simple conceptual approach to fantasy since they typically involve the creation of a substitute for the thing itself, such as characterizes simple allegory, maps, commemorative works, dioramas, and dolls (Frye 90-92). An analogical approach involves the manipulation of more complex categories such as race, society, cycles of time, and value, as is typical of comic books, battle accounts, and pornography (Gowans 183, 214, 473). An analytical approach adds the complexities of historical time (Gowans 474), “aesthetic” improvement, and the co-ordination of multiple parts in relation to the whole so as to lend it order and meaning (Gowans 297). Heterotopias, given that they involve spaces of transformation, are more than simple concepts and involve analogical or analytical thinking.
Utopias are places created in fantasy, places which are unreal because they exist only as analogies to the “real space of society” (Foucault 352). They are written or created for the purpose of resolving or neutralizing social problems or contradictions in a “representation” that is “not a world beyond, but the reverse side of this world.” Such representations function as models or as maps which may be compared with reality by the reader or observer (Marin 51, 53-55). […] Unlike utopias, heterotopias are, as Foucault explains, real locations where otherwise incompatible spaces intersect or events that are incompatible with social norms occur. They are carefully arranged isolated fragments of the world that also represent its totality and have special systems of entry and exit isolating them from the rest of the world and also make them accessible to it (Foucault 355). The heterotopia tends to be linked by “bits and pieces of time [and] enters fully into function when men find themselves in a sort of total breach of their traditional time”; that is, the heterotopia coincides with heterochronism (Foucault 354). Examples include the spaces set aside for rites of passage and crisis that are often associated with time: puberty rites, the honeymoon, and death, as well as the theater, garden, colony, brothel, ship, library, and museum (Foucault 353, 355-56). It is apparent that the human body can become a heterotopian space in which the disparate and conflicting desires and interests of one or more individuals may intersect. Heterotopias, and particularly the idea of the female body as a heterotopia, became increasingly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for a variety of political, social, and economic reasons […]
The images and characters shown on many Tarot cards are based on fixed medieval social positions and allegories and may thus be regarded as utopian representations. […] In spite of the obvious affinity of Tarot with the utopia genre, it is apparent that the querent-reader’s extensive identification with the idealized Tarot images fosters highly subjective explorations of the individual “self.” The individual, identified by his “place” in a hierarchy is quite different from the individual who identifies that “self” as a subjective “space” for the consideration of ideas, theories, and policies, and the formulation of feelings and opinions. […]
Contemporary Tarot, like gothic, is […] heavily reliant on the subjective life of the individual for its popularity. The spread provides a representation of the querent-reader’s heterotopian self that evokes a sense of the uncanny, even epiphany: the Tarot querent-reader experiences his [or her] own reflection; that is, he encounters the being from within when he consults the cards. The meaningfulness of the Tarot spread, like gothic fiction, derives from its ability to represent the heroine’s passage to self-knowledge and maturity and to expand the querent-reader’s world to accommodate elements not normally given a place in it. As in the conclusion of a “good” gothic novel, where the heroine ends her exploration of inner space by finding her proper place in conventional society, the effect of a “good” reading is the recovery of a sense of inner peace, wholeness, and place, or, at least, a sense of direction. Having served its role as a symbol of the permeable boundary between the conscious and unconscious, the deck, like the trunk in gothic fiction, may be locked away again until the next time it is needed. […]
Contemporary Tarot and its reading is historically, stylistically, and functionally related to the articulation of mythology in literary fantasy and popular genres. Tarot also appears as a motif and structuring device in many works of twentieth-century fiction. […] In all of these narratives, Tarot functions in the liminal space between a mundane and an Other reality, conceived as a meta-mythic heterotopian space where the potentials of life, death, and other kinds of transformation and association between things, people, and events are intensified.
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1985-86). Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997. 350-356.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: four essays. 1957. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Gowans, Alan. Learning to See: Historical Perspectives on Modern Popular / Commercial Arts. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1981.
Manlove, Colin. The Fantasy Literature of England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Marin, Louis. “Disneyland A Degenerate Utopia.” Glyph 1 (1977): 50-66.