A Baleful Thing?

Upon the recommendation of a fellow on-line “Tarot History” member, I’ve begun reading The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis, a study of Medieval literature and its iconography. At the very beginning of the Introduction I encountered a passage that stopped me in my tracks. He was talking about how, when we come upon “hard places” in old books, we resort to notes, commentaries and other “helps” for understanding the obscure text, the unfortunate effect of such frequent searches being to “sadly impair receptive reading, so that sensitive people may even come to regard scholarship as a baleful thing that is always taking you out of the literature. To be always looking at the map when there is a fine prospect before you shatters the ‘wise passiveness’ in which landscape ought to be enjoyed. But to consult a map before we set out has no such ill effect. Indeed it will lead us to many prospects; including some we might never have found by following our noses.”

I was immediately reminded of the disconcerting appearance of “hard places” in tarot readings, which compel the diviner to seek insights in the written word rather than arduously wringing them from the puzzling images on the cards. This is the plight of the beginner, who by default turns to the solace of  keyword lists when sense fails to emerge from observation, which unavoidably takes one out of the mystical and spiritual ambiance of the reading and into the “baleful” realm of the researcher. Only when sufficient experiential evidence of their validity has accumulated in the memory will the knowledge-based inferences become automatic and perfectly susceptible to instant recall. But the hazards of choosing to ignore the documented foundations of the art and just “fly blind” from the outset based on intuitive assumptions (that is, “following our noses”) are even worse, giving rise to purportedly “visionary” circumlocutions that have little bearing on the querent’s understanding of his or her personal reality. After all, whether it is conscious or subconscious, our querents’ awareness of the situation will always be inherently superior to our own even when our opinions are supported by the most compelling of cards, unless we cheat by subtly “picking their brains” and passing it off as a revelation from the Cosmos.

To my mind, this is one of the strongest arguments for internalizing a solid core of traditional wisdom “before we set out,” from which we can then mount more imaginative forays into free-association. It speaks to the aphorism that one should “learn the rules before trying to break them.” Obviously, the flip-side of this argument is that we need to be judicious about whose rules we take to heart; I will usually favor any one of Aleister Crowley’s sharply-worded remarks over the dozen or more vague inanities (and I’m being kind) with which Etteilla wallpapers every card. Taken as an elastic and ever-expanding compendium of organically-connected ideas rather than as a clinical punch-list of individual keywords and phrases carved in stone, it can serve the goals of the intuition admirably rather than confounding them with its arid literalness. Too often, I’ve seen this reluctance to pursue a firm grounding in the underlying rationale behind each card – when it isn’t just smugly superior – to be a general aversion to fact-based conclusions in what is considered by many to be a purely empathic, psychic or spiritual (e.g. emotional) art form that elevates the receptive “passiveness” over the “wisdom.”

There was once a UNCF appeal to support disadvantaged candidates for  higher education that went “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” As much as we might like to deny it, the same principle applies to reading the cards; it is a cognitive process that must render their implicit meaning into salient language with which we can communicate their message. The less precise our words, the more likely the querent is to mishear or misconstrue them.  Reading the cards should make us (and our clients) think, not just feel; actions stemming from the latter with no input from the former are too often rash and ultimately regrettable.

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