The Importance of “Focus”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: While ordering my thoughts for this essay, I toyed with the idea of talking about “landscape” and “distance” (near, middle and far) as displayed in the scenic cards of the tarot, since both imply “action in the world” (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s supple phrase) that can be explored during the interpretation. But then I realized that the concept of “focus” (or where a card’s primary emphasis lies) will cover both bases.

In my previous posts on the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) “pip” cards I carefully examined whether the suit emblems on the cards are arranged in a “closed” (inwardly-focused) pattern or a more “open” (outwardly-directed) one. I translated these features into the idea of subjective and objective expressions of the cards’ energy. The cards of the Thoth deck, although in some cases they subvert the original designs in pursuit of Crowley’s esoteric assumptions, can be read in much the same way. Due to Pamela Colman Smith’s theatrical zeal, those of the Waite-Smith deck often ignore the “focus” aspect in favor of narrative discourse (aka “canned vignette”) that tells a narrowly-framed story. Here I’m going to see (through analysis of a few examples) whether I can find in them the same “targeted” significance as in the other decks (but I’m making no promises). (The TdM images used in this essay are copyright of Naipes Heraclio Foiurnier, S.A., Legutiano (Alva), Spain; those of the Thoth Tarot and the Smith-Waite Centennial Edition are copyright of U.S. Games Systems, Inc, Stamford, CT.)

In the TdM “pip” structure, the suit of Swords – although the notion seems counterintuitive – is the most self-contained since the curved blades encompass a central space that is only intermittently breached – mainly in the odd-numbered cards – by a sword-point exiting the sealed area. The Cups and Coins arrays are a mixed bag, and the Batons (Wands) are almost entirely projective in nature. The “glorified pips” of the Thoth deck follow this model in all of the suits except the Swords, where Crowley introduced occult symbolism that disrupts the geometric continuity. With the RWS Minor Arcana it is largely impossible to follow the same line of inquiry.

In both the TdM 2 of Batons and the Thoth 2 of Wands, the staves reach for the four corners of the image; the only instance of union occurs where the shafts cross. The decorative elements (floral “arabesques” in the TdM, flames in the Thoth) also project outward in parallel with the staves. The focus is almost entirely directed toward external circumstances, with only a moment’s consideration for a coordinated and cooperative thrust; the forces coexist but they are not in harness and accelerate away from their nexus. In the RWS 2 of Wands, the central figure has his gaze symbolically focused on the “world-at-large” (the globe in his hand) but any initiative he might take is constrained by the two staves front-and-back. By bounding his reach, they defeat or at least limit his expansiveness; he is essentially “in a box” that he longs to escape. This card is much more timid in its expression of the potential for unfettered growth.

In the TdM 2 of Cups, the two open chalices sit outside the central arabesque, apparently waiting to be filled (the lack of “slash” lines in the vessels shows that they are empty), although the “inner focus” of the closed container above excludes them. In the Thoth 2 of Cups (titled “Love”) they are full to overflowing, creating a sense of harmonious synthesis that eludes the TdM version. In the RWS 2 of Cups the idea of emotional fulfillment is more personal than universal, and therefore more mannered than fluid in its expression; however, it does create a shared sense of communion that the TdM card lacks completely and the Thoth card presents as an abstraction.

The TdM 2 of Swords suggests a fence or enclosure surrounding a garden, nurturing “inner growth” while offering “cut flowers” (productive ideas) to the outside world. The Thoth 2 of Swords turns this analogy inside-out; its focal point becomes the kernel of inspiration where the two blades cross, and a tentative impression of growth is conveyed by the “origami-looking” blossoms that seem to be “penciled-in” around the swords. There is nothing lush about the Thoth card since the insights it yields are linear rather than organically profuse.The RWS 2 of Swords is close kin to the Thoth version (I thought I would never say such a thing about the two decks), although the woman’s crossed arms create the impression of a “closed heart” that is giving away none of its secrets. All action is suspended while an internal – even “blind” – act of contemplation rules, and a “crop”of any kind has yet to be produced. The waters in the background look cold under the crescent Moon and not particularly fertile, which is a far cry from the TdM image.

The suit emblems in the TdM 2 of Coins are almost completely sheltered, with only a thin screen of flowers and leaves closing them off from the outside world; it suggests gestation of seeds in the dark womb of earth, with the plant life symbolizing its initial “sprouting.” The Thoth version emulates this design without the floral motif, with Crowley’s addition of the Taoist yin-and-yang symbols supporting his title of “Change.” The RWS card bears a fully closed lemniscate and a queasy feeling in its off-balance imagery; developments here are not natural and orderly but restless and barely in control.


The TdM 6 of Batons and the Thoth 6 of Wands are almost identical in their design, with the Thoth replacing the TdM’s botanical features with “inner flames;” the TdM’s interlaced shafts suggest an intricate plan underlying the external objective (one cartomantic keyword for Six is “paths”), while the Thoth card (titled “Victory”) hints at the marshaling of desires that drive the impulse to act assertively (even though the fires seem more “banked” than raging). Both cards convey the idea of “conquest through strategy.” The RWS card depicts the aftermath of victory by showing a triumphant procession; the appetite for expansion has been assuaged and the energetic ambitions have been tamed, while the staves are held aloft in celebration.

In the TdM 6 of Cups, the chalices surround the central arabesque as if mounted on a kind of armature; they are external to its generative function but still dependent upon it for nourishment. This suggests exposed feelings that have no “buffer” shielding them from foreign impingement, so they must cling to their formative roots as a source of self-protection and self-preservation; they are parallel in operation but divided in purpose. The “closed” formation of the Thoth version conveys the essence of emotional conservatism; it is almost entirely self-contained with only the ambient environment and the lotus stems offering access to external stimulation. The “pleasure” of the title is largely auto-generated, coalescing around a theme of inner harmony and contentment; Crowley called this card “one of the best in the pack.” The only true sense of inner focus in the RWS 6 of Cups lies in the enclosed courtyard; it is otherwise a card showing the exchange of personal sentiment much like the RWS 2 of Cups. It suggest being stuck in a claustrophobic “temporal loop,” a static moment in time during which very little happens to move circumstances along. It reminds me of “stop-motion” animation, in which only tiny steps are taken toward full disclosure; it may show low-key “happy time” but not an emotionally enthusiastic one.

The TdM 6 of Swords is another iconic expression of the “closed system” depicted in the even-number cards of the suit. Like the 2 of Swords, it nurtures “inner growth” while displaying the products of its cultivation to the outside world, but its motives and ministrations are more intellectually complex. The Thoth 6 of Swords is full of nervous energy that finds its focus in the central point where the sword-tips meet; its inner-directed emphasis is therefore mentally induced rather than unforced and organic as it is in the TdM card. This strikes me as more appropriate for the cerebral nature of Swords. The scene in the RWS version is “in motion” and outwardly-directed toward the far shore; except for the contemplative posture of the seated figures, there is very little of the TdM’s husbanding (as in “superintending”) of ideas in it, and almost none of the “scientific” intensity of the Thoth card.

The tokens in the TdM 6 of Coins seem about to make their debut in outer circumstances; the gates are open and the world beckons. This is a highly productive scenario that augers well for the disciplined unfolding of success. The Thoth 6 of Disks is in fact titled “Success” in all practical affairs but it is much more self-contained, echoing its elemental “cousin,” the 6 of Cups, which gives the impression of self-initiated achievement; its color scheme is strikingly materialistic, befitting its Moon in Taurus correspondence. The RWS 6 of Pentacles strays entirely off the page in terms of focus. There is nothing in its Golden Dawn source material that speaks of charity or generosity; it instead presents the “Lord of Material Success,” which is about nothing beyond self-realization and self-satisfaction in material terms. Smith’s theatrical presumptions diverged widely from the norm here, as they did in the 6 of Cups.

Next I will explore the impact of the odd numbers on the concept of “focus” in the pip (aka Minor Arcana) cards, with the Sevens as my example. The TdM 7 of Batons repeats the external thrust of the other members of the suit, with the addition of a prominent central staff that creates a more singular sense of purpose, bucking the diagonal, four-cornered slant of the image; it appears to be trying to break out of the interlaced matrix of staves and drive toward its own unique goals, unaided but also unimpeded by the floral embellishments. Its pale grip sits behind the rest, implying that its aim is independent of the prevailing intent. The Thoth 6 of Wands precisely mimics this structure with one exception; in the Thoth iconography Crowley emphasizes the “crude,” unruly nature of the rough club in front in contrast to the “fixed and balanced” cards in the background. This brings its maverick energy into sharp relief, in keeping with the irregular nature of the Sevens. The RWS 7 of Wands dramatizes this premise while maintaining the “one-against-many” symbolism, making it a fair approximation of the Golden Dawn’s characterization as “Lord of Valour” (extraordinary courage in the face of daunting odds).

The TdM 7 of Cups depicts one closely-guarded chalice, one that is just emerging, and one sprouting the foliage that seems to be holding the entire pattern together, while the other four have “escaped the womb” and must now fend for themselves. This is a complex scenario that shows emotions in transition from an internal, defensive posture to an externally exposed and vulnerable one. About the Thoth 7 of Cups, Crowley had absolutely nothing good to say; its focus is on decay of the pleasurable harmony of the Six, with the added seventh chalice overflowing with a “poisonous green slime.” Rather than trying to correct and redirect this unfortunate undercurrent, it may be best to simply walk away from engagement with it. The RWS 7 of Cups is generally interpreted as meaning “confusion” due to the disparate nature of the contents of the seven vessels; defying any kind of “focus,” it conveys a sense of bewilderment or distraction that sabotages attentive regard.

The TdM 7 of Swords introduces the notion that the quiescent central field bounded by the curved swords has been punctured and deflated by the single central blade that exits at the top of the array. The well-tended garden is gone, replaced by a militaristic urge to “strike a blow” for creative dissonance. This is the “you have to break eggs to make omelets” paradigm that all of the odd number signify. The Thoth version turns the prominent middle sword into a target of the aggressive intentions of the six smaller blades; Crowley describes it as “a contest between the many feeble and the one strong.” There is no constructive focus here, this card is more about the mental impotence that Crowley titled “Futility.” The RWS 7 of Swords displays a conflicted sense of focus, not in an internal or external way but more of a “past/future” duality of attention; the apparent thief in the image is moving toward the past but is looking back over his shoulder toward the future. His sly expression suggests that he is going to hide his booty where no subsequent prying will be able to find it, but he is still “watching his back” for any hint of pursuit.

The TdM 7 of Coins has some similarities to the 7 of Cups, but the inner-and-outer distinction is more pronounced. One token is still immersed in gestation, two are held captive by wilting foliage that may have a deleterious effect on their post-partum viability if maintained in place for too long, and two are fully autonomous and available for constructive output. It conveys the notion of halting achievement that may not completely come to term. The Thoth version is an almost exact copy of the TdM image, to which Crowley added the correspondence of the geomantic figure of Saturn (Rubeus) with all of the mundane delay and defeat that implies. Although this card is titled “Failure” and exudes an ominous sense of “blight,” the Golden Dawn’s description of “Lord of Success Unfulfilled” may be more to the point in light of the TdM interpretation. The RWS 7 of Pentacles has been almost universally misconstrued by the average “non-esoteric” tarot reader. The consensus seems to be that it shows patience leading to eventual success, but it’s notable that the man has only harvested one “fruit” and now he’s resting on his farm implement. The implication is that he’s been defeated by the realization that he will never gather the rest in time to get them to market. Once again, “Success Unfulfilled” is in the air.

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