The business of card reading is a business of extremes. As someone who doesn’t read cards for a living, but reads cards for the sake of reading cards, I get to observe what happens in the world of cards from a convenient distance.
One thing that is striking these days is the increasing speed with which people shift allegiance, say, from tarot cards to fortunetelling cards – though in some contexts, the latter are preferred not as plain playing cards as tradition has it, but as cards with pictures on the suits, such as the Lenormand cards or the Sibyllas.
This is all very fine. The times have changed, and if people even feel a surge of creativity, they can now publish their own work in a snap. This is doubly fine. The only challenge is to find as many buyers as there are deck creators.
What I don’t think is so fine is the argument behind leaving, say, the world of tarot for the world of fortunetelling, supposedly in the name of getting more ‘to the point’. It occurs to me that the reason for changing camps has to do with the fact that people have gotten tired of interpretation and find that the literal approach to fortunetelling is less time consuming.
But here I find that those who want to claim that tarot is esoteric, complicated, psychological, downright bullshitting and nothing like a practical little oracle (the Lenormand cards are hitting big right now) have understood neither tarot nor fortunetelling cards.
What one forgets is this: The world of cards is a world of representations. When we operate with representations we operate with a subjective manipulation of language: interpretation. So claiming that the tarot is a lesser practical tool than the oracle is nonsense.
What we say about the tarot is no better than what we say about fortunetelling cards. What we say about fortunetelling cards is no better than what we say about the tarot. Both are equally crafted and invented stories, often more mediated by economic interests rather than noble ideals.
It is a fact that the market is saturated with tarot productions, so if we experience a shift towards reviving the fortunetelling tradition, or attempt to save it from its bad rep by invoking its language of ‘clarity’, then we do so because of money. There’s money to be made now from fortunetelling – or so some believe.
Now, what interests me here is not really people’s motives for shifting allegiance. It’s not for me to judge why some find it worth their time to ‘denounce’ and renounce tarot, or embark on fortunetelling because it’s more ‘straightforward.’
What I find interesting is the dynamics of their stories. An oft-invoked argument is that since the tarot deals with hidden and obscure stuff, it is not good for practical divination.
Here I just want to ask: really?
Let’s take a 3-card spread to demonstrate a point of difference that has nothing to do with the supposedly inherent meanings of the cards (esoteric in tarot and exoteric in fortunetelling), but everything to do with what we see as the end-result.
First, the Tarot from which we get:
Queen of Cups, Emperor, Magician
Here my reading goes like this: The Emperor is threatening the Magician with his big scepter on suspicion that the Magician has tried to make a pass at the lovely Queen of Cups. (If we were to read the cards in a circular movement, we could argue that the Queen had enticed the Magician with her big cup).
For this reading here I have neither philosophized, nor used occult knowledge to decode encoded conspiracies or the forces of the universe – on a side note, there’s nothing that irritates me more, if irritation is something that my Zen mind is actually interested in, than conspiracy theorists who deny that they are conspiracy theorists and try to sell you all sorts of new systems of thinking as a revival of some old shit system of thinking that will replace the new shit system of whatever, whatever.
Back to the reading: As far as I can tell, this is as straightforward as it gets. Suppose this is a reading for a female client who wants to know what she can do about her despotic husband. Here, if the aim is to get the woman to communicate better with her man, then we might tell her that she needs to turn her cup around.
If we want to employ traditional fortunetelling reading methods, then we might get even more to the point and tell the woman to stop fainting every time she sees a gigolo pass by.
This will give her monster of a husband no reason to be jealous and everything will return to the order of the world: Man commands, woman obeys. But bringing in another method here doesn’t change the initial message.
Let us contrast the above with a reading with playing-cards from which we get this: LA DAME DE CARREAU (Queen of Diamonds), LE DIX DE TRÈFLE R (10 clubs reversed), LE VALET DE CARREAU (Jack of Diamonds).
Here the reading goes like this: A blond woman is running away with her lover, a government official.
Just as in the above example, where we started with a reading style in tarot language, and then imported some variation from fortunetelling, we can also bring in here some tarot parlance and advance the idea that the Queen of Diamonds, being an enterprising woman, does what she feels is good for her. And if it is good for her to have a fling with a dashing young man, then she will do it without a flinch.
And now to my point: If there’s a difference in the reading styles, then this difference would consist of what we might agree with a client is appropriate in a reading session. If the client comes to us to be reassured, get confirmation for his or her acts, confess from the innermost recesses of the soul, then we can venture into a more counseling style and offer an analysis of the alternatives to the torment that the cards disclose.
The cards have a powerful transformative potential. Psychotherapists can testify to that, and so can the poets who see cards as tools for a poetic derailment of reality. By participating in the cards’ images we get to uncover major blind spots. The best tarotists are able to do this with great elegance and skill. Moreover, tarotists who are well versed in the fortunetelling tradition read tarot as they would fortunetelling cards. My favorite example is that of Madame Colette Silvestre, and a few others I know who are not in the business of flashing their image in the social media.
Now, what gave fortunetelling a bad reputation is the manipulation of simple facts or events. I’ve seen people going back to fortunetellers to hear what they can do about their many enemies upon having been told that they have many enemies, or how to get rid of an obsessive lover who may have put a spell on them.
We encounter such manipulations in reading with tarot cards as well, where the manipulation is not so much with ‘facts’, but perhaps more with ‘wrong energy alignments’ and the like.
But as with all lines of business, there’s good practice and bad practice. Nothing new under the sun. While there’s never anything wrong with the cards, a lot can be wrong with the approach to the cards. But who is to judge? I don’t give a flying fuck. I always leave it to the sitters themselves to see just who makes sense out there and who doesn’t. Isn’t this how real value gets to be assessed? Indeed it is.
My point is that both tarot and fortunetelling cards are only as good as we make them. They are only as good as we choose to practice them. Neither is superior to the other, nor more pragmatic. Consequently, a reading style amounts to what we make of a situation and what we make of the way in which we engage with the cards. A certain image can do wonders for a fortuneteller, but at some point she has to rise to her reputation. If she can’t, she’ll just vanish into the sunset, like many others before her.
These days I’ve been thinking of Etteilla, and the way in which he separated the tarot from fortunetelling. I suspect that his reason had to do with the fact that he wanted to elevate the common man to a higher degree of understanding what the meaning of life is.
But some things never change. Women are still out to get other women or their husbands, men are out to get other men or their wives, big financial fish want to know if they are cursed, and parents want to get rid of their children.
The fortuneteller who can tell the best horrendous story wins. And her clients come back to hear more horror stories. If we must be into redemption at all, then it is not the cards we need to redeem, but ourselves.
I wonder what would happen if we were to go beyond all identifications? With our image, our ‘all-knowing’ embodiments, our problems and the problems of other people? If we just read the damn cards?
Jean Noblet’s Tarot de Marseille, 1650, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy
Petit Etteilla, B.P Grimaud, 1890
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