I found myself pleading this week. As I was browsing several virtual book fairs dedicated to fine art and letter press books, I quietly intoned: ‘please, stop torturing me… I don’t have 5 or 35000 dollars for this one.’ The life of the bibliophile can be hard, as there’s always the extremes that make it so. Some books are too damn fine. Others, although presented as such, can also make me plead, ‘please stop. Excellent binding. Very bad art… Please, don’t waste my money and my time with it.’
I experience the latter pleading especially when I dive into occult literature. While I love it that occultists have an eye for the materiality of the book, and thus make an effort to present it as best as they can, the contents don’t always match the fine binding or elaborate typography.
As a general rule, it’s not easy to pull off an occult book of value, because the genre itself presents a challenge. As most occult writing is based on an individual’s personal gnosis and praxis, I must admit that I hardly ever find it fascinating to hear about a practitioner’s relationship with Saturn, and just how it went with his visualization of the Lord of Death, while conjuring the image of a tight coffin. I mean, sure, fine by me. But, so what? Is this thing going anywhere? No, because it’s personal…
I also have a problem with the so-called channelled art, and I’m pretty sure that the ‘High Ones’ out there are already pissed off with my objections. When I come across books that reference this or that hermetic or magical order’s ‘secret’ manuscripts, all channeled material, I want to scream: ‘That’s it, High Ones? Is this all you can do for us, mortals? Present us with lame art of no significance?’ I guess I’m not very nice in my judgments.
Now, granted, if you check your history books, you’ll learn that most occult material has never been intended for public view, as it’s ‘occult’ for a reason. So the art is not really art and the thought that goes into it is not really a thought either. Thus, as far as I’m concerned, most occult material should stay hidden from plain view, so that we may all be spared the lamentation: ‘please, stop. I don’t want to see this…’
But publishers insist. ‘Isn’t it fascinating to read Aleister Crowley’s occult, bad poetry?’ It isn’t, if you ask me. Then the fancy production. Publishers give the personal gnosis a nice cover, and hope that we can all suspend our discernment, going for the book as a fetish instead. I fall for this trick, but only so many times…
As I was mailing a copy of my own fine edition book, Tarot for Romeo and Juliet, to famed tarotist Rachel Pollack, we had a brief exchange about the lack of fine bindings in the Tarot world. There’s no shortage of those in the occult world. Tarot collectors collect cards, not fine bindings, and this was a point of lamentation. Rachel mentioned her contribution to the book accompanying the Tarot of Lenonora Carrington by Fulgur Press. In addition to their standard edition, they also issued a fine edition that sold out quickly. So that was good.
Then there’s Scarlet Imprint’s book, The Game of Saturn, by Peter Mark Adams, referencing the Sola Busca Tarot. I gave a longer review of this book when it came out, mentioning its looks too. A fine thing indeed. In terms of content, however, although it’s announced in the title that the book is about decoding the Sola Busca Tarot, in actuality The Game of Saturn is not about Tarot, but rather, about the conjectured sinister occult practices of elite families in Venice and Ferrara. The cards are used to hypothesize about these practices. Still. A fine book.
And that’s about it. Where are the others? Where are the good looking books that are not just the ‘little white books’ accompanying a deck of cards, now a concept that most in the Tarot world have started to revolt against? There’s good writing about the Tarot out there, but often the packaging doesn’t match the content.
As a way to shut myself up about it, I looked today at a gift that just dropped into my mail box, a gift that actually prompted these thoughts. Cartomancy student and artist Merete Veian sent me back my own book, The Arcades Tarot: Haiku Poems. Why would she do that after a year of keeping it, I thought to myself, until I opened it. To my astonishment it looked like Merete illustrated the whole thing, making excellent use of the ample negative space around each of the poems. A most astonishing feat to the eyes. This was good art I was looking at. Just like that, my poetry book got elevated to an art book. I liked that.
Then I glanced at another book, an art book that Merete did as a graduating project in my Cards and Zen program, Nonreading. I thought about the art books I had been looking at this whole week, books that I couldn’t even begin to get close to – though I tried my best to support the artists. My heart was filled with joy. I have such things in my house, unique takes on art as art relates to cartomancy in general and the Tarot in more specific terms. Merete’s book is a most ingenious concoction, worthy of the ‘special collection’ category in reputable museums. She did everything herself, the binding, the paper (hand dyed), and the writing…
Next to Merete’s book on my shelf of fine bindings and art books is also Carissa Krueger’s graduation project. The 22 major arcana explained. In hand writing and collage art. The quality of thought that goes into this book exceeds most of what I’ve seen in the occult world. This is not the regular grimoire recipe book that goes in steps, or in trite descriptions of method and analysis, ‘first you do this, and then you do that, and when you’re done channeling Beelzebub, think of how transformed you are, and therefore a much better person than before…’ A good book that reflects on the Tarot will do more than describing or heralding unsubstantiated claims.
I’m waiting for more good looking books to happen, whose content lives up to what the covers promise. I’m waiting for more publishers and editors to demonstrate discernment, choose authors who actually enjoy writing, rather than the name writing gives them. I’m waiting for good art to happen. I’m waiting for discerning readers to demand beauty of thought and powerful talismans from the books that they read. Words are magic. Let us try to fuck them up a little less, think about just what kind of celebration that goes into the creation of a book.
In the words of Lucille Clifton: ‘People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that’s a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated.’
We use cards and books as a gateway to the extended field of the imagination. Why limit ourselves to what is merely commercially viable, to what sells, with the selling point fashioned in prejudice and assumption, as in, ‘this is what people want?’
What people want is not cheap and ephemeral validation and confirmation of their identities. People want an author and an artist’s lust for life. I’m invested in this desire myself. I buy the books and cards of authors and artists, if I can clearly see that their lust comes across. If that’s not present, then I activate my lamentation magic phrase and act in accordance: ‘Please stop. Don’t waste my time…’
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