Cheap Shots (The Final Cut): “Is It Live or Is It Memorex?”

This will be the last installment of my “Cheap Shots” series. My “inner curmudgeon” isn’t going anywhere, of course, but I’ve moved on into more productive (as well as kinder) areas of expression. I’ve said enough already about my views on current populist tarot culture, and need to chill before the “New Age police” discover where I live.

Those of you who are old enough will almost certainly remember the Memorex TV commercial where Ella Fitzgerald shattered a wineglass on stage with her voice, and then her taped voice shattered an identical glass in the same way. The implication was that the recording quality of Memorex magnetic tape was so superior that its output was impossible to distinguish from the natural human voice. I seized on the Memorex slogan to illustrate my growing distrust of seat-of-the-pants, visually-cued, “anything goes” cartomantic divination as opposed to the inspired use of internalized knowledge in the service of the creative imagination.

I’m becoming convinced that there is a whole generation of new readers who know nothing but the approximations of completely unstructured interpretation. In his fantasy novel The NeverEnding Story, Michael Ende wrote of the “Nothing” that consumed the world, little by little. If every tarot card has a kernel of immutable truth, a hidden “Something” at its core that serves as a touchstone for unraveling its mysteries, uncritical “gut-feel” assimilation of its “surface noise” amounts to a disavowal that there is any occult meaning encoded in the card at all. In short, the Nothing will triumph, abetted by Waite and Smith and the modern perpetuators of the myth that narrative style trumps content. It can all too easily degenerate into a case of that old W.C. Fields remark coming home to roost: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

I’d like to get a popular misconception out of the way: one definition of intuition is “noninferential knowledge” that produces “immediate apprehension or cognition.” By that definition, reading a tarot card cannot be “noninferential” because, in the tarot equivalent of “sight reading.” inference is drawn from the visual imagery on the card, and unique impressions are then fashioned from one’s (usually subconscious and emotional) reactions. The term “intuition” is therefore an overused and poorly understood misnomer when applied to tarot reading; I avoid using it and instead describe my non-knowledge-based insights as coming from “inspiration, imagination and ingenuity.” These are all talents a storyteller can rely on, since they accrue over time and aren’t as hit-or-miss as random flashes of intuitive stimulation. I’m half scientist and half mystic anyway, and subscribe to Aleister Crowley’s Scientifiic Illuminism (“The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”) in my reading; I don’t function all that well in the void, without a star to steer by.

I would argue that unschooled intuitive readers who turn their backs on the wide and deep body of knowledge that has accumulated over the last couple of centuries and just go with whatever “pops into their heads” are making a grave mistake. Even if that wealth of information isn’t needed in most ordinary reading situations, having it at one’s fingertips when seated with an inscrutable client can spell the difference between a resounding success and a miserable, floundering flop. Where all the impressionistic verbal flights of fancy in the world won’t make a dent in that sitter’s tough hide, one well-chosen historical, cultural or other shared experiential analogy that the individual can readily relate to often acts like a “magic can-opener” that unlocks the door to comprehension and appreciation. I’ve seen it happen many times: the “Aha!” moment that follows a string of dismal failures to communicate in a more free-form manner. In my opinion, learning as much as I can from the long line of seasoned veterans whose knowledge and practical work have been captured for posterity has been well worth the effort. I heartily recommend it.

As always, though, “Results are king.” The cards will deliver whatever the querent’s subconscious requires of them at that time; they don’t care about the niceties of polite human discourse. But if sitters need to receive hard truths and come away with only charming affirmative fairy-tales, that’s not the fault of the cards. Enabling is not the same thing as empowering, and too much “sugar” is nobody’s friend. Sensitivity to feelings is fine, but I draw the line at empty encouragement. When a reader ignores the bitter seed and delivers only the succulent fruit, what purpose is served when the querent belatedly discovers it was all an engaging fantasy? In that case, it may be better for the reader’s peace of mind (not to mention professional reputation) to avoid keeping a faithful record of the outcome on the remote chance that the client returns negative feedback. Vague memories of oral predictions are easier to “spin.” Alternatively, one can simply go out and buy some “angel” cards, permanently  removing the risk of too much unvarnished honesty.

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