In 1967, Donovan Leitch recorded a song titled “There Is A Mountain” that reflects at least obliquely on the philosophical detours (and occasional dead-ends) we encounter when attempting to abstract the objective nature of reality to suit our personal belief system. It features the refrain “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” A Wikipedia search yielded the following information.
The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan writes:
“Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”
Mountaineer George Mallory apparently agreed with Qingyuan Weixin. In 1923, the New York Times asked him why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, obviously expecting Mallory to impart some eloquent, heroic vision of “man against nature.” Instead, Mallory simply replied “Because it’s there.” Those of us who read the cards would do well to heed Mallory’s laconic remark as a Zen-like study in the economy of thought. I’ve always been a proponent of pithy reductionism in reading, at least in spirit, but now I have a conceptual framework on which to hang it: “More Weixin and less woo.”
As I see it, the “mountain” that must be acknowledged in the world of tarot is the documented body of historical observation (or, if you prefer, literature) that has grown up around the practice of cartomancy, mostly over the last two hundred years. The culture of instant gratification we now inhabit has little patience for the careful, disciplined thinking that went into capturing this knowledge for posterity. There is a strong modern urge to treat it as an irritating and irrelevant obstacle to intuitive learning than as the underlying bedrock of our art. Those writers of tarot books who advise disregarding the traditional knowledge base are at best cynical and at worst duplicitous: just rely on your feelings, they say, and don’t bother with books (but buy my book, of course).
The greatest disservice to a literal comprehension of the minor cards of the tarot was probably rendered by publication of Arthur Edward Waite’s tarot deck. It offered easy-to-digest storytelling fodder that could be transformed into all manner of gratuitous fluff, often departing from the author’s original theme in markedly imaginative ways, egged on by the artist’s pronounced flair for commonplace anecdotal vignette. The merry-go-round certainly didn’t stop there, with almost every new deck in the “RWS style” layering on it’s creator’s unique interpretive outlook, often to no worthwhile effect. The kind of visually associative reading these decks inspire strikes me as “the blind leading the blind:” the gullible querent being led by the only marginally wiser reader down rambling byways of free-form tale-spinning, bereft of anything more intellectually convincing than the reader’s own self-indulgent fancy.
Assuming I live long enough, my personal path will most likely veer even further toward the Tarot de Marseille and its non-scenic “pip” cards, unless I remain firmly ensconced in the Lenormand universe where I now spend most of my time; the Lenormand cards are much less vulnerable to New Age psychological revisionism. Unfortunately, at least in English there are few trail-maps to the TdM “mountain,” and none of them with any historical stature to speak of, so I will just have to keep scrambling and backsliding until I reach the top. Maybe, like Donovan, I will find that “the caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.” It will almost assuredly be the butterfly I lost sight of back in 2011 when I began dividing my attention between the Thoth deck with its semi-scenic (“glorified pip”) minor cards and the spoon-fed RWS.