One of my absolute favorite writers, Italo Calvino, would have been 88 today, had he not kicked the bucket in ’85. I secretly entertain the idea that he would have lived longer had he gone Zen. The ‘don’t think’ doctrine would have saved him from the brain explosion that he suffered.
Calvino thought too much. Couple that with a heightened sense of play, and you’re in trouble. For, you end up tormenting yourself about whether to think or to play. The thinker, by definition, has a hard time with play that allows for all sorts of contradictions. For the thinker, the aim is often to say something instructive and clear.
The player, even when following a strategy for play, has his eyes on something else. Self-expression may be part of it, but the smart player will ditch that in favor of creating a space where other things can happen rather than merely deploying the actualization of one’s own ego in popular recognition.
After all, the player, also by definition will do anything to escape becoming entombed and impotent within the very world of self-imposed constrictions. The art is, and has always been to rise above limits.
What I like about Calvino is that he was obsessed with Tarot. Especially Tarot de Marseille. In his great book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969), a bunch of people – wanderers – end up in a castle on a dark and stormy night.
They want to have dinner together and chat like normal people, when they realize that they’ve lost their speech. The owner of the castle provides them with a deck of cards, Tarot cards, and they all start speaking in visual tongues.
The stories they tell are most truthful and accurate, heartfelt and hilarious, and there’s no ambiguity about anything at all. Everybody gets the picture. Speaking the visual language thus seems to leave no room for misunderstanding.
This is a very nice move. That the image can communicate its message in a more direct way than its verbal counterpart is rather liberating. One is free from having to make stupid assumptions, or having to ask all the time what the meaning of it all is.
What an image invites us to consider is the possibility that we might just experience a revelation. And the beauty of a revelation is still this one: that it needs no ‘rational’ discourse to explain it. It’s magical.
Since Calvino wrote his book there seems to be consensus among the serious Tarot de Marseille readers that he raised the bar on sophisticated interpretation. What is more, this sophistication is all about keeping it simple. You have the cards in front of you. There are pictures on them. You look at them and you have two options: to go the cultural way, or the free way.
Cultural preconditioning creates a preponderance for readings that rely on repeating set phrases. The gypsies and the occultists prefer this practice. The free-way types of reading prefer the space between your eyes and your nose, and the leading questions are always of observation.
What is happening? And how does it make you feel? In my opinion, the best Tarot de Marseille reader right now is Enrique Enriquez, who, following Calvino and other no nonsense men, argues for the efficiency of engaging the picture at the querent’s own level. According to Enriquez, the ideal situation in a one-to-one Tarot session is this one: the cards fall on the table.
The reader sees them, the querent sees them, and they both know it. Words are redundant. By following the simple rules of observing what elements rhyme with one another when going from one card to the other, and by looking at the shape, color, sound, and rhythm of these elements, we should be able to remember what we already know. Enriquez has even truncated the whole reading method to the idea that:
“Once Upon a Time” and “Happily Ever After”
is about going
from warm to cold
from cold to warm
about contracting if you have expanded
about expanding if you are contracted
because you are a lump of clay
(and I mean it nicely).
(from Tarology 101)
Calvino was a poststructuralist and a postmodern man. This means that while he appreciated all the binary opposites and beautiful symmetries he was not buying any mythologies.
He was no occultist, concerned with learning heavy stuff between heaven and earth by heart, and he didn’t give a damn about the symbol. Calvino was a man of letters. And he took the visual image’s own word for it.
For instance, and unlike some Golden Dawn folks who decided that the now 400 years old card of the Lover in the Marseille lore is about the marriage between heaven and earth, Calvino took a good look at what the image communicates beyond the symbol and decided that not only are we dealing here with a man unable to decide between two women, but that if we also looked carefully we could see that that choice has already been made.
The Lover, with his hand firmly planted onto the blonde woman’s crotch, while flirting with the smart one over his shoulder, is nothing other than a deceitful bastard merely enforcing what some other clever writers have emphasized ever so eloquently.
In the words of Nabokov: men always want to fuck Eve – as she looks like their mother – while being forever fascinated with Lilith – who doesn’t give a damn about reproduction. In the face of having to choose, or pretending that we do, for whatever reason, we have Calvino’s word for it that things are really much simpler than we imagine.
Thus he says in the Castle: “Every choice has its obverse, that is to say a renunciation, and so there is no difference between the act of choosing and the act of renouncing.”
In honor of Calvino’s birthday, I pulled 3 cards for him, wishing to see what he might communicate from beyond the grave, and what might be Calvinesque par excellence. Here’s what I got:
CINQUE DE DENIERS (FIVE OF COINS), LE FOV, CINQUE DE COUPES (FIVE OF CUPS)
Keeping with the tradition, here’s the 30-second interpretation – as it really doesn’t take any longer to figure things out:
Don’t be impressed by the exciting core of things, material or emotional, that are seemingly external to you. You are yourself this very center, forever caught in the paradox of ‘no difference between the act of choosing and the act of renouncing.’
Squeezed between the fives, now you let go of the money – and renouncing the establishment’s cat scratching your balls – now you’re ready to get drunk, giving in to the temptation of believing that love can make you feel special.
The Fool is what has always been: the truest to his unstable nature, and therefore the most stable. The one who believes nothing and assumes no responsibility for any claims, except perhaps this one: freedom doesn’t have to cost anything at all.
While writing these words, I’m thinking of yesterday’s event, when, over fancy beer at the local pub, The Bishop’s Arms in Jönköping in Sweden, I pulled these cards for myself in connection with musing over the freedom to do what Calvino did, whatever the fuck he wanted. Read more Tarot.
But how? There’s no tradition for it here in Scandinavia, not any that is worth much. I got these cards:
LA PAPESSE (THE HIGH PRIESTESS), LE CHARIOR (THE CHARIOT), JVSTICE (JUSTICE)
‘Jolly good,’ I said to myself: forge ahead with the knowledge you have, and go goddamn professional.
We bow to Calvino tonight, to Enrique Enriquez, and to our partners, who, although not Marseille’ists, pay close attention.
Here’s a treat, an animation of Calvino’s novel on tarot.