The Impressionistic Tarot – “”What-If?” or “So-What?”

(NOTE: I’m not talking about a particular deck here, just a method of reading the cards.)

It’s undeniable that I’m more literal (some might say “clinical”) than mystical in the way I go about dissecting the meaning of a tarot card. I start with a firm footing in the traditional definitions that have adhered to the cards over the last couple of centuries beginning with Etteilla and then extrapolate from there following my own muse (although it’s accurate to say that I no longer have to think very much about the process, it just flows). But when I get right down to it and closely examine some of the interpretations I’ve written for this blog and for online clients, I find that almost every one of them is larded (like a good prime rib, that is) with more impressionistic observations based on free-association from the images, and also on my constantly-expanding library of narrative tropes – mainly literary, cultural and historical metaphors and analogies.

There is nothing wrong with literal interpretation as long as it doesn’t begin and end with the exact keyword meanings from a textbook. Those are only “training wheels” to get one past the inevitable wobbly introduction to the art; they will yield a serviceable approximation of the truth but there is no artistry or subtlety in their unadorned use, just rote parroting of someone else’s ideas that produces a kind of “Frankensteinian” pastiche. There is also little or no storytelling “juice” in that approach, the kind of vivid imagery that the most compelling readings are chock-full of and that truly bring a narrative to life. A story-line that has reached a dead-end as far as the sitter’s acknowledgement of its relevance can be given a dramatic reboot via a few well-chosen detours down other visionary byways. Anything that elicits the “Aha!” response is fair game; even if it isn’t the last word in the interpretation, it frees up the creative imagination from its narrow strictures, ideally enabling it to soar again. It’s also one of the best ways to engage clients in active participation because it can rouse them to their own inspired insights.

The danger in this sort of thing is that we can become so enamored of our clever fabrications that we lose the thread of the reading and ramble on into irrelevant “fairy-tale” extemporizing. “What-if?”-ing is a legitimate way to crack open a tough interpretive nut because it offers options for the sitter’s consideration, but it can too easily turn into a futile exercise in “So-what?”-ing if the sitter becomes thoroughly frustrated and disenchanted. This is where I part company with the “intuitive crowd,” for whom anything that “feels” true must unquestionably be true at some level of significance (although not always one the sitter can recognize as applicable). This unstructured approach can segue sneakily from “impressionism” (which still has one foot planted in the card’s imagery) into unabashed “surrealism” (in which the narrative can become untethered and wander off into “La-La Land”) At that point I believe we are screening our own subconscious cinema rather than truly reading the cards, something I call “psychic navel-gazing.” The one exception I might allow occurs when working with the Dali Tarot, with which it can be difficult to escape the Master’s peculiar surrealistic vision. But I can’t guarantee that it won’t create some disturbing “castles in the air,” kind of like watching an early Jodorowsky film such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain.

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