Tarot Symbolism in Divination: Fabulism or Impressionism?

I’ll clarify my terms before starting. “Fabulism” denotes the placement of fantastical elements into an everyday setting; “impressionism” refers to allusions based on subjective reactions, often loosely-stated. As an example, this distinction aptly displays the difference between the Waite-Smith 7 of Cups, which could best be described as moodily phantasmagorical, and the same card in the Thoth deck, a more evocative but even more dolorous tableau alluding to inevitable corruption and decay. Each is peculiar and profound in its own way, but on their surface the first one is easy to interpret as showing confusion or a multitude of choices, while the other is disturbingly sinister and requires looking much deeper for hints of a “silver lining.” I’m setting the idea of “literalism” aside since I don’t think it receives much respect from contemporary tarot readers (it requires internalizing a massive number of definitions and is therefore highly suspect in a “plug-and-play” world).

As I contemplate the various ways in which tarot cards are interpreted, I find that in my own practice I don’t seek unstructured intuitive insights as often or as effectively as I pursue lucid impressions via free-association directly from the images, usually by chasing down the elusive meanings that flit in and out of view but don’t quite speak plainly to the intellect. Enrique Enriquez characterized this elastic discursive quality as “visual poetry” and also equated it to the “language of the birds” in a more lyrical sense. This is a far cry from the offhand, instinctual improvisation that – however prophetic it seems to the psychic sensibilities at the time – may sometimes veer off into surrealistic visions (the “fabulism” of the title) that can be difficult to square with the reality of the matter at hand. (It’s no accident that I generally read the RWS 7 of Cups with a Thoth/Golden Dawn slant, along with many of Smith’s other prosaic minor-card vignettes.)

The focus of a reading is supposed to be on the message in the cards, not on the compelling “movie” playing in the reader’s head. When our observations become decoupled from any connection to the pictures, we do our clients no favors as they try to puzzle out the import of what we’re saying relative to the array of images in front of them. It’s kinder to point out an enigmatic feature in a cartomantic scene and elaborate on the consequences that it may conceal than it is to just intuitively “wing it” under the premise that we are attuned to a Higher Consciousness that won’t fail us even if the evidence is there in the sitter’s doubtful expression that it already did.

My purpose here isn’t to disabuse anyone of their faith in the sublime infusion of truth they believe informs their best efforts, but I do think it should be pegged for what it more commonly is: a collection of suggestive assumptions filtered through the reader’s subjective “lens” and cited as objective conclusions. On the other hand, an accomplished student of the art delivers, in a relatively “spin free” fashion, intimations gleaned from the cache of meaning ascribed to the cards over the centuries, after first shaping them into modern storytelling prose through the ingenious use of impressionistic cues. Mystical and psychic readers will certainly protest that they just “get out of the way and let it come,” but I don’t see how they can be entirely free-wheeling when the result must be turned into coherent descriptive language, and that is often freighted with previous suppositions and associations from their own experience. (I might agree with them if the wisdom could be relayed telepathically, but then there would be no need for psychics.) Me, I “just read the cards.”

To my way of thinking, this subjective presentation isn’t always a faithful rendering of the story in the cards, it often amounts to editorializing or riffing on one’s own opinions and theories instead of attentively synthesizing the knowledge the spread is attempting to convey. When reading for others, I try my best to “dazzle them with brilliance” (not mine, the tarot’s) so I don’t have to try even harder to “baffle them with bullshit*” (which, as an honest man, I would have to own up to if I were wired that way).

* “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” (Original source unknown; attributed to W.C. Fields)

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