Contemplate the Edges

Here is an ancient adage that we all know well: “There are two sides to every coin.” But in my ongoing reading of The Tao of Thoth I was intrigued by the notion that it might be more fruitful to contemplate the edge of the coin that simultaneously divides and unites the obverse and reverse sides. The following quote led me down this unmarked path:

“There is the other side of the coin, and in an even more nuanced metaphor the other side of the coin has its other side too. That is to say, there is always a nuanced contrast, and there is also a nuanced contrast beyond that.”

In the practice of tarot reading, I see this as most applicable when trying to grasp the muted positive implications of a traditionally difficult card in order to translate them into insights that are both pertinent and constructive. The idea I came up with is to treat any dissimilar properties not as contradictory opposites but as complementary contrasts that encourage reconciliation (something I’ve already done with Elemental Dignities by recasting the Golden Dawn’s “neutral and supportive” combinations as “complementary opposites”). The “edges” of the title could be understood as the borderline between the conflicting elements of symbolic “good” and “bad” within a card’s inherent nature where we can roll back the clouds and shine a little light from the contrasting perspective, the better to isolate and chase down the “shadowy corners.”

This can assist us in elevating the card’s slim virtues to approach an even footing with its markedly less-fortunate aspects, such that the interpretation won’t be arbitrarily skewed by our preconceptions and can go either way within the context of the question or the relevant spread position. I know we all strive to do this (especially when caught in the “bad-card-in a-good-position” trap), but it can help to conceptualize exactly what it is we’re trying to do: create a nuanced (and ideally balanced) viewpoint that doesn’t so much “accentuate the positive” as resolve any internal discord in a way most comprehensible and valuable to the querent. It goes without saying that this same wisdom can be applied to integrating any “hidden” negative qualities into our impressions of a generally positive card (for example, the “too much of a good thing” conundrum often associated with the Sun).

Another case where this assumption would be useful is in the premise behind the practice of reversal. In my own work, a card’s reversed emphasis is almost never the polar opposite of its nominally “good” or “bad” upright meaning; instead it is typically a more oblique expression that exhibits a discernible measure of refinement. This can invite “contemplation of the edges” where the two meet to form a third opportunity (or more likely a range of opportunities) for subtle variations on the theme. A second relevant quote from The Tao of Thoth neatly sums up the kind of poise, patience and finesse required on this “path of refinement:”

“The more we are integrated with contrasts . . . rather than polarized or separated, the more we can function in a higher and more graceful manner.”

A third, slightly different, way to approach “pondering the edges” is to pose the question “What is going on outside the frame of the card?” This is particularly useful when a troubling image fails to offer any obvious internal resolution. Although I haven’t done so exhaustively for all of the Waite-Smith cards, two excellent examples that I cite regularly in my readings are the 9 of Swords and the 8 of Swords. In the former, there seems to be no relief in sight for the tormented insomniac, but looking more carefully we notice that the points of the nine swords terminate off the right side of the card, customarily considered to show the “future.” This suggests a way to release the almost unbearable tension in the scene (even if there is only a brief respite before those swords come back with a friend and stab the unfortunate victim in the back). In short, there is movement toward “the rest of the story” where none was immediately apparent.

The same can be said of the 8 of Swords; the bound-and-blindfolded woman appears to be completely stymied, with no way to extract herself except by hesitantly feeling her way forward with her feet. Then the observer notes that the water in the foreground is departing the lower-right corner of the picture, offering the sensation of forward progress to the woman’s exploratory probing and giving her blunted awareness a fresh surge of direction and purpose. This sort of thing is often done with the non-scenic “pip” cards of the Tarot de Marseille, in which the patterns formed by the suit emblems and “arabesques” (decorative embellishments) of one card are visually linked in imaginative ways to those of an adjacent card to create a narrative flow (the “visual poetry” of Enrique Enriquez) where there is typically little observable interaction beyond that gleaned from suit and number theory.

None of this hair-splitting is going to guarantee that we will fine-tune our methods for the purpose of “dialing in” our observations to maximum effect. There is still the matter of the “tarot reader’s art” that is wholly the province of inspiration, imagination and ingenuity, and that is often impervious to structured manipulation. But the idea of “resolving contrasts” rather than downplaying their existence in a tenaciously optimistic fashion can position us to make better use of their extremes of meaning. Johnny Mercer may have written in Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive “You got to spread joy up to the maximum/Bring gloom down to the minimum” but sometimes a flipped coin landing on its edge can let us “mess with Mr. In-between” in highly productive ways.

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