“No Wrong Way” (But Maybe Better Ones)

I’m weary of hearing well-intentioned metaphysical mavens trumpet “There is no wrong way to read the tarot,” which is usually appended with “Just do whatever you feel.” I recently came across a quote from Aleister Crowley that I think is appropriate here:

“There are only two operations possible in the Universe, Analysis and Synthesis. To divide, and to unite. Solve et coagula: said the Alchemists. If anything is to be changed, either one must divide one object into two parts, or add another unit to it.”

A tarot reading might be described as a deductive (or “inferential”) act in which we adroitly parse each card and strengthen our initial grasp of its import by compiling and comparing the “molecules” of its meaning, or an inductive (aka “synthetic”) one in which we add cards when we don’t understand the original one at first glance until we come up with a medley that makes sense to us (usually called “pulling clarifiers” despite evidence to the contrary). The first is “Analysis” at its most anal; the second is half-baked “Synthesis” which amounts to little more than accumulating ideas and picking the ones we like best without bothering (or being able) to blend them into a seamless whole. I would argue that when performed correctly the second way is a lot more work; as presently done it usually over-complicates the process for little gain in knowledge. We could liken deductive interpretation to apportioning a meal into easily-ingested bites, and characterize its inductive counterpart as trying to swallow the whole thing at once (along with the appetizer and dessert) – the bloated reading that can ensue might produce a “Mr. Creosote moment” of information overload (if you’re not a Python fan, look it up: “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more”).

I’ve been thinking lately that the most sensible approach to reading the tarot is to take a page from the Lenormand textbook. Come up with one or two key thoughts for each card and always apply those first unless (and until) the interaction between the cards takes you in a different direction. This way you immediately conjure up a coherent “snapshot” of the situation that can then be fleshed out with amplifying detail. There is no flailing about for meaning because you have an orderly way to build it into the narrative in a “top-down” manner. To the hard-line intuitive reader this may seem like a rather “bloodless” way to proceed, but carefully-chosen ideas, often couched in storytelling tropes like metaphors and analogies and captured in vivid euphemistic language, can really jump-start a reading.

This technique also strongly supports the “gestalt” method of initiating an inquiry, in which we first scan the situational landscape offered by the totality of cards on the table to arrive at a preliminary inventory of salient themes, a valuable way to figure out in advance where to place the most emphasis in the card-by-card analysis. Imagine it as a “topographical battlefield map” and the reader as a “military strategist” seeking the high ground from which to command the action.

I’m reminded of the words (or similar ones) that Irving Stone put into the mouth of Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy: “If I want to carve a statue of a horse, I just remove everything that isn’t ‘horse’.” The same might be said of deconstructing the interpretive content of each card, elevating those meanings that are most germane to the matter at hand and discarding the rest (for the time being). We are left with a much more manageable pattern of “core concepts” with which to begin. We might also think of it as an “alchemical” process, in which we separate out the basic constituents that are most useful to the reader’s purpose, then reformulate and condense those elements to create an economical and efficient verbal composite to plug into the story-line.

I find this way of working to be much less messy than the full-on mystical approach of throwing imaginative impressions “at the wall to see what sticks.” Improvisation obviously has its place in my reading, but mostly in the form of shrewd “free-association” from the images in support of the knowledge-based core meaning. Once again, fully intuitive insights may not be wrong, but they are typically much too allusive (and potentially too ambiguous) when not every querent is seeking a whimsical yarn about a half-glimpsed, chimerical future. I suppose it comes down to whether we want our life with the cards to be afloat (I hesitate to say “adrift” although the thought crossed my mind) in an indulgent sea of misty personal assumptions rather than skippered by the sometimes austere “wisdom of the ages.” Or it could simply mean that I’m a Crowleyan male “theoretical clinician” wielding the Method of Science (and an occasional “hedge mystic” with the Aim of Religion) navigating a veritable ocean of holistic female practitioners who may soon be after my scalp.

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