Tone vs. Substance: “Soft Focus” and the Art of Simplification

Sometimes (well, actually, more often than not) I think people just starting into the practice of tarot reading expect far too much from it in the way of precision. I was talking to a frustrated individual online who admitted to being extremely analytical and receiving little encouragement from the persistent lack of congruity between his own insights and the interpretations he has been reading in tarot books. He feels that he simply can’t get the hang of it, and assumes that the fault lies with his own limited intuitive faculties and not with the art of divination as a discipline of capricious deductive potency. As a university student his intellectual life had been dominated by the drill of “pounding the books and taking the tests,” and he brought the same sensibilities to his tarot studies. He didn’t seem to realize that what is found in even the best tarot books is merely someone’s learned opinion based on their own views about the tradition backed up by personal experience, and about as far from a scientific treatise as one can get. Instead, the entire published canon exemplifies the biblical expression “through a glass darkly” – an obscure or imperfect vision of reality.

For that reason I always apply a “soft focus” to any attempts at predicting future circumstances and events, and emphasize the “tone” of the cards over any precarious assumptions about their factual “substance.” Painting an impressionistic “storytelling” overview of the speculative landscape allows clients some space to decide for themselves how they are going to navigate the terrain. I try to err on the side of simplicity so they get the idea that the situation will be somewhat elastic and they aren’t “bound to the Wheel of Fate” or “riding on rails” to an unavoidable destination. Back in 2017 I tackled the subject in one of my “Cheap Shots” essays, in which the bottom line was a dash of cold water on the super-heated expectations of aspiring enthusiasts who want to dazzle others with their fortune-telling prowess:

“Beating oneself over the head with the subtle, often slippery, multi-layered symbolism of tarot cards can be an exercise in frustration. The broad-brush analysis of future circumstances is a more satisfying way to prepare a client for eventualities than an iron-clad verdict. Saying that a tarot reading is about portents and possibilities, not certainties, isn’t an apology for lack of precision, it’s an acknowledgement of the fluidity of human experience.”

Regarding my analytical friend, I advised him to give the Lenormand cards a try for their much more robust pragmatism.


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