Thursday, February 12, 2015

Thank God for Darwin Day?

A Patron Saint of Reason: “From ignorance to enlightenment, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) took mankind farther than any other person in our quest for self knowledge: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnothi seauton, nosce te ipsum, temet nosce. If knowing who we are and and our place in the universe is the essence of religion, then Darwin was our greatest theologian.” So what were his views regarding God?

Darwin was called both a theist and an atheist by his contemporaries, and by people today as well. Neither label seems appropriate. He came from a family of Unitarians and Freethinkers, liberal-minded children of the Enlightenment. Yet he went to a Church of England school and attended Cambridge intending to become a clergyman. Given that liberal Christian background and given his zeal for fact-based knowledge, it is not surprising that he was a Deist in his youth who became an Agnostic. Crucially, he rejected the Bible both as history and as revealed truth of any sort, and equated Christianity with other religions. He retained a humility in his beliefs, and attempted to treat other views with respect even while stating his own. That point of view and humility are reflected in this note, written when he was 70:

Letter to the atheist John Fordyce.
Quoted in Fordyce’s Aspects of Skepticism, 1883.

In a letter to a Dutch student, (April 2, 1873), Darwin points out the weakness of arguments for a God, but refuses to draw the obvious conclusion.

“It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty.”

From a letter to a German student in 1879:

“I am much engaged, an old man, and out of health, and I cannot spare time to answer your questions fully,—nor indeed can they be answered. Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.”

There is a fuller statement of his views and their evolution in his autobiography.

Religious Belief
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character

Written in 1876; published in 1887.
[Some passages italicized for emphasis.]

[On the Bible]

DURING THESE two years [October 1836 to January 1839] I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished,—is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. This appeared to me utterly incredible.

H.M.S. Beagle in the Straits of Magellan at Mount Sarmiento.
(Conrad Martens, ship’s artist on the Beagle, c.1832.)

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

[Darwin's slow but complete rejection of Christianity]

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.
And this is a damnable doctrine.

[The Argument from Design is not viable]

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domestic Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered.

[Theodicy and the Problem of Evil]

But passing over the endless beautiful adaptations which we everywhere meet with, it may be asked how can the generally beneficent arrangement of the world be accounted for? Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world, that they doubt if we look to all sentient beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness;—whether the world as a whole is a good or a bad one. According to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove. If the truth of this conclusion be granted, it harmonises well with the effects which we might expect from natural selection. If all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this has ever or at least often occurred. Some other considerations, moreover, lead to the belief that all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness.
Every one who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantageous or disadvantageous to the possessor) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, together with use or habit, will admit that these organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings, and thus increase in number. Now an animal may be led to pursue that course of action which is the most beneficial to the species by suffering, such as pain, hunger, thirst, and fear,—or by pleasure, as in eating and drinking and in the propagation of the species, &c. or by both means combined, as in the search for food. But pain or suffering of any kind, if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action; yet is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil. Pleasurable sensations, on the other hand, may be long continued without any depressing effect; on the contrary they stimulate the whole system to increased action. Hence it has come to pass that most or all sentient beings have been developed in such a manner through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides. We see this in the pleasure from exertion, even occasionally from great exertion of the body or mind,—in the pleasure of our daily meals, and especially in the pleasure derived from sociability and from loving our families. The sum of such pleasures as these, which are habitual or frequently recurrent, give, as I can hardly doubt, to most sentient beings an excess of happiness over misery, although many occasionally suffer much. Such suffering, is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.
That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

[Mystical or sublime experiences]

At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God. There are also many barbarian tribes who cannot be said with any truth to believe in what we call God: they believe indeed in spirits or ghosts, and it can be explained, as Tyler and Herbert Spencer have shown, how such a belief would be likely to arise.
Formerly I was led by feelings such as those just referred to, (although I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me), to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, 'it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.' I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. The state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity; and however difficult it may be to explain the genesis of this sense, it can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God, any more than the powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.

[Emotion leads to belief; reason to skepticism]

With respect to immortality, nothing shows me how strong and almost instinctive a belief it is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicists, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus gives it fresh life. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.
Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.
This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote The Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.
I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of scepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life.

That is most of the section. The entire section, with some originally redacted passages highlighted in bold and some related materials as well, is presented here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fools Head Inn

Francesco Piscina, in 1565, explained Matto and Bagatto. He explained them badly, albeit creatively.

I do not want to leave out unmentioned another explanation, even if it will seem to be a joke. In order to make it clear, you must know that it can be read, in a very pleasant and acute comedy written by the very learned Intronati, of the famous Academy in Siena, not devoid of seriousness, of the amusing controversy between two very tight-fisted innkeepers: all people of any kind, when they had to travel, used to go to the Inn of the Mirror, but for a long time they have preferred to go to that of the Fool, more appropriate to their will and their actions. This is why, with great mystery, we see the Fool in the game of Tarot being represented in such a way that he looks behind towards a mirror, making fun of the fame of the Mirror, that is lost among all people, who once used to go to that inn. This is why his face is so joyful; he rejoices and glories in the credit he receives, so that all men run behind him. He is followed by the one that is called the Bagat, dressed as an innkeeper, not without subtlety, because as the signs of the Inns are seen by travellers in search of lodging before they see the innkeepers, as the signs used to give good reputation to the inns, as we see in those of the Lilies, Eagles, Falcons, Crowns and Kings, that in all good and famous cities show good lodging, in the same way the Fool, being the figure of the inn, has been put before the Bagat, who is the Innkeeper, meaning that famous inn in which most people prefer to stay.

... where Angels fear to tread. (Alexander Pope)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Patron Saint of Reason

From the ancient Greek philosophers to the leading edge of 21st-century physics, there has been no more insightful and iconic example of reason than Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882). From ignorance to enlightenment, he took mankind farther than any other person in our quest for self knowledge: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnōthi seauton, nosce te ipsum, temet nosce. If knowing who we are and and our place in the universe is the essence of religion, then Darwin was our greatest theologian. Reading aloud from the Book of Nature, he taught us that we are a part of the natural world, created not by mythical gods but by the planet itself. Though the question remains the same, the childish answers of religion give way to the grown-up answers of reason: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection tells the real story of Genesis.

Love That, Not Man Apart from That
Robinson Jeffers

Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly.
Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

There are, of course, much more popular views of man and nature. In 2013, only 2/5ths of Republicans polled admitted to belief in human evolution.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Methods of the Moderately Resourceful

In her 1992 survey of the world of Tarot, Cynthia Giles wrote:

Certainly the synthetic process is not in itself a bad thing. But it’s all too easy to create seemingly rich and significant explanations of occult systems by building up layers of reference and allusion without actually having sorted the worthwhile information from the worthless, and without ever showing whether the bits and pieces really do fit together in a meaningful way. … Tarot is particularly afflicted by such “synthesism” because it can be related, by even the moderately resourceful, to practically everything under the sun.
The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore

There are thousands of such moderately resourceful people who become attracted to Tarot, and who then amaze themselves with fatuous confections of facts and fiction.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Perverse Meaning in Art

What does it mean? What is “the meaning of Tarot”? It is a simple question but vague, as demonstrated by the countless, extravagantly varied answers which have been offered. Writers in various branches of philosophy, in linguistics, semiotics, pragmatics, hermeneutics, literary criticism, and other fields have developed theories of meaning for assorted purposes. Often they involve elaborate, highly specialized jargon. These modern theories of meaning, whichever may be currently fashionable, are often appealed to by writers in an analysis of some particular text or image, perhaps a sculpture or a social custom, to divine its meaning. In most cases, common sense and historical context are rigorously avoided.

Historically, European art tended to be didactic or devotional. It had a meaning which was pretty clear to anyone of that time and place. There were, of course, decorative arts and embellishments, but anything significant was meaningful, usually conveying some moral lesson. During the Renaissance, mythological subjects were used allegorically to convey conventionalized Christian themes. Also at that time, portrait paintings by great masters became popular. This was a step in the direction of art for art’s sake. The popularity of landscapes and genre scenes was a later development. Occasionally they were allegorical, but in general terms their meaning was simply an artistic depiction of the subject, as with portraits. Modern art, in the sense of abstract or non-representational works, abandons even that meaning in favor of pretentious play. This simplistic path from Peter Comestor’s quasi libri laicorum to Umberto Eco’s “open works” is a useful outline for thinking about meaning in works of art.

Modern exegetes take many different approaches to understanding and misunderstanding antique art and its meaning. A great example is provided by this spectacularly beautiful genre painting, Woman at the Piano, by the impressionist Renoir.

To any reasonable person, the subject of this painting is rather fully encompassed by its traditional title: Woman at the Piano. For anyone who admires the (cloying) art of Renoir, this is a brilliant example of art for art’s sake. The subject matter and the execution of the work combine to evoke a pleasurable response. There is no need for complex exegesis; surely none was intended; and any such attempt can only diminish one’s understanding and appreciation of the work itself. However, not everyone is that reasonable. To exemplify the unreasonable, we will quote from the “Introduction” to James Elkins’ Why are our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity. His view of iconography, one in which anything goes, renders the field worthless. However, his initial example demonstrates why such relentless relativism is untenable and even embarrassing.

At first nothing could be more charming than Renoir’s Woman at the Piano, painted in 1875. The nameless woman plays quietly, almost dispassionately, her fingers placed lightly on the keys. It’s a popular image, and for many people it is refreshing and innocent: I can imagine the liquid motions of the pianist’s hands (or at least one of them – her left hand is just a blur), the fluent sounds of Saint-Saëns or Chopin, the flowery breeze, and the compassionate, fatherly eye of the painter.
If the painting is beautiful, it is because we can let ourselves drift into the swirl of a slightly meaningless reverie. If it is treacly or a little nauseating, it is because we cannot follow Renoir into the damper recesses of his feminine devotions. Either way, the painting is nothing but the purest, most sincere portrait of a certain sense of music, and a certain hope for what women might be. People who love Renoir also tend to be absorbed in the sheer luxury of it all. “The focus is so soft,” observes one historian, “that one can just make out that the piano stool is apparently upholstered in a flowered wool challis (or perhaps silk), and the diaphanous fabric of the dress – mouselline de soie, possible mull – is beautifully realized with its black ribbon banding and blue underdress.” If any painting is forthright, this one is: it wears its allegiances on its sleeve, and makes no secret of its happy, somewhat humorless pleasures.
Perhaps the painting is fundamentally a “dazzlingly painted” exercise in synesthesia. I would prefer to see it as a psychologically suspect, partly unintended expression of desire – more like the beginning of a confession than a dream. Other historians might rather explain it as a sign of its times: as a bourgeois utopia or an emblem of middle-class aspirations. Still others might say that it is just another sign of Renoir’s odd inability to make contact with the more interesting artistic themes of the 1870s. No matter which narrative we choose to tell, the painting remains fairly simple. It never loses its straightforwardness, even if it comes to seem a bit unfortunate or misguided.

In fairness to the artist, (and most of mankind), simplicity, along with other bourgeois sensibilities and aspirations, need not be the unambiguous insults which pretentious elites assume.

But art history has learned to find dense complexity in even the most simpleminded picture. Consider another interpretation of the same painting: this one from Birger Carlström’s Hide-and-Seek, a monograph devoted to exposing the Impressionists as political pamphleteers. In Carlström’s version of history, painters from Gainsborough onward made use of their newly liberated techniques to secrete hidden political slogans in their paintings. Each artist had different concerns, and they used their pictures as platforms, telegraphing their messages at unsuspecting audiences.
Renoir, it seems, was particularly obsessed with the politics of the Panama and Suez canals.

At this point, Elkins presents some details of Carlström’s various claims regarding Renoir’s Young Girl Reading, Portrait of Marie Goujon, and Umbrellas. We will omit them, but it is immediately apparent that something is wrong. Carlström may be insane, implausibly dim-witted or naive, blinded by an idée fixe or theoretical obsession, perpetrating a grandiose prank, or perhaps merely indifferent to any historical intent which could be justifiably attributed to the works(1). In that regard, Carlström seems like a typical Tarot enthusiast: it is difficult to be certain whether they are sincere crackpots or trolls with too much time on their hands. Can anyone be this pathologically misguided?

In other paintings Carlström finds evidence that Renoir was angry at Russia and Austria for their treatment of Poland, that he was upset at France for its liberal policy about immigration, and that he was disappointed in Napoleon III. In Woman at the Piano, Carlström sees the Isthmus of Panama in the houseplant at the upper left. One twig that lies at an angle is the “black line where the canal is to go,” and he reads the letters PAN and COL for the cities of Panama and Colon at opposites ends of the canal. The canal is drawn a little inaccurately, Carlström says: “the Isthmus of Panama goes a little more west-east, than what Renoir has put it out here”; but it doesn’t matter, because Renoir has written the essential message across the middle of his cryptic map: “TAC = BANG.” The entire scandal, Carlström says in half-English,

were to degager shortly. And so they were. From c. 1884 Renoir has now told about this project of Panama-canal and he and the French people are now demanding for an open account but in the next year 1889 so it crashed and many people lost their savings. TAC = BANG.
The same painting also depicts Russia’s relations with Poland, which Carlström calls “the Poland-Strangling”:

If we have a look at the light spot to the right just on the piano [at the far right margin of the painting] we can see the head of a bear and the text below it: R LOI A POL, what means RUSSIAN LAW IN POLAND. And if we turn the picture up and down we can also find on this head [i.e., the bear’s head, in the smudge] 19 ANS = 19 YEARS. Yes, in 1869 the Russian started the take-over of the university and then also all the other schools of Poland. That was to start an obliteration of that country and Renoir cannot help telling it over and over again in his works.
And there’s more, because what we have thought to be the music-stool is only another big brown bear.

The discussion of Carlström goes on, but the point should be clear. Both his observations and their interpretation are figments of his odd imagination. Carlström is, as Elkins puts it, hallucinating these details and their meaning.

It’s exhausting, reading these descriptions. And what has become of Renoir’s painting? Once it was a sweetish scene of summertime music-making, and now it is a combination atlas and menagerie, with explosions, strangulations, and festering boils. What was originally the dappled stem of a plant has become a map of Panama. The “flowered wool challis” has become an allegorical bear throttling a doll-like woman. The harmless signature, “Renoir”, has turned into a ripening ulcer. And what’s worst, it seems the interpretation has hardly begun. I can imagine Carlström writing an entire monograph about Woman at the Piano, turning it into an illustrated history of mid-nineteenth century Europe.

Elkins lists four problems with Carlström’s interpretations.

  • We have no independent evidence (from Renoir’s letters, from contemporary critics, from any other Impressionist or Postimpressionist painter, historian, or critic) that Impressionist artists hid messages and images in their Paintings....
  • It may also seem that his interpretations are just too far outside the consensus—too wild, too idiosyncratic to be taken seriously. They don’t connect well—or I should say, at all—with other historian’s concerns, and so in a way they are beside the point....
  • It’s a complementary problem that Carlström’s accounts are too different from one to the next, too unpredictable. He finds stick figures in some pictures and fully-fleshed ‘paintings’ in others. Sometimes he sees letters that many viewers might also see; other times he merely reports on lettering so tiny it does not reproduce. Although most of his readings are political, a few are personal or anecdotal....
  • Perhaps in the end Hide-and-Seek is just too detailed. Woman at the Piano may be just that: a woman, a piano, some music, some lights. Carlström may just be seeing too much, spending too much time looking. It appears that Renoir wanted to create a relatively simple, focused drama—there are no French engineers parading across the painting, no Russian flags flying, no newpapers displaying banner headlines about the destruction of Poland. The painting has very little in it, and even apart from the sheer implausibility of Carlström’s claims, it can seem that he simply says too much.

Anyone familiar with pop-culture Tarot interpretations will recognize the same problems. Whether the claims are traditional silliness (Egyptian, alchemical, numerological, astrological, and the endless other esoteric preoccupations, along with transmission by Albigensians, Templars, Gypsies, and so on), or more recently devised crackpot notions, they all lack supporting evidence. As such, they are beyond the interests of legitimate historians. The third problem, extravagance and incoherence, is almost always present in Tarot theories, along with the fourth – there is no end to the imaginings. It is fair to say that Carlström is either delusional or disingenuous, (Matto or Bagatto to employ the Tarot archetypes, fool or charlatan), and the same is true of most Tarot enthusiasts.

Elkins, however, defends even such indefensible nonsense. He admits that this seems crazy, but he argues that while Carlström is a striking example of such excesses, the criticisms themselves apply to modern art historians in general, and there are no criteria within art history by which Carlström could be dismissed from the fold.

Carlström might well be wrong about Renoir’s intentions, but he is not ‘wrong’ about art history. He is what statisticians call an ‘outlier’: a data point far to one end of the scale, but not off the scale altogether. He is less an eccentric, out of time and place, than a symptom of contemporary art history. The purpose of this book is to understand how pictures drive each of us to behave—more or less, with reserve or abandon, inadvertently or with full awareness—as Carlström does.”

Elkins’ book offers many interesting discussions of pathological interpretations. He is both amazed by some of the bizarre imaginings which have been put forward by art historians in the last century, and yet also sympathetic to the methods employed. To borrow Popper’s term, he finds no criteria of demarcation by which to distinguish between legitimate and bogus interpretations. Even the most plainly perverse readings, such as Carlström’s, cannot be ruled out of bounds. Perhaps the entire field is indifferent to the truth value of its claims, as are most Tarot enthusiasts(1).


 ✎ 1. Harry Frankfurt famously defined “bullshit” in terms of a speaker’s indifference to the truth value of what is said. Some things may be true and others false, but neither is of concern to the bullshitter.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Modern Catholic Looks at Tarot

The previous post contrasted the manner in which a modern Tarot enthusiast might look at Catholic iconography (e.g., declaring a personification of Ecclesia to be an evil Egyptian magician, with a tail!) with the way in which a rational person might interpret the same image, based on copious evidence from the period including many dozens of cognate examples. Tarot was an inspirational card game created by 15th-century Italian Catholics for the enjoyment of 15th-century Italian Catholics, and that is the only proper context for interpreting the moral allegory of the trump cards. The trump cycle has much in common with other moral allegories of the time, (including various Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works), with other allegorical cycles (including Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione and Petrarch's I Trionfi), and with the immensely influential catalogs of Fortune, Boccaccio's encyclopedia of moralized biography De Casibus, and Petrarch's encyclopedia of moralized circumstance, De Remediis. This was the stuff of mainstream pop-culture Italy in the 15th century.

Petrarchian Triumph of Death, after Heemskerck
Three Registers: All Mankind, Allegorical Triumph, Afterlife

Michael Dummett (The Game of Tarot, 1980, and other works) was himself a Catholic, and that may be one reason why he was never deceived by the fools and charlatans of the Tarot community and their two centuries of anti-Catholic folklore. Another modern Roman Catholic -- one who has also spent many years involved with all manner of games -- is currently presenting a summary analysis of Tarot history. Thomas L. McDonald is nearly finished with a series of blog posts on the "real history" of Tarot. Many of his conclusions are the same as any other rational person's might be, and vastly better than might be found on a Tarot "history" forum. (He even discusses Ross' translation of Bishop Wibold's devotional game.) McDonald just uploaded the post which I was waiting for, on the meaning of the cards, so we'll post some links and comments.

1. Reclaiming Tarot (July 3, 2013)
2. The Real History of Tarot (July 3, 2013)
3. On Divination (July 3, 2013)
4. The Bishop’s Dice Game (July 15, 2013)
5. The Fake History of Tarot (July 16, 2013)
6. The Meaning of the Cards (July 21, 2013)
7. Playing Tarot (link added 7/23/13)
8. Meditations on the Tarot (link added 7/24/13)

Sadly, McDonald has adopted the typical pop-culture approach to interpreting the cards, taking the images out of context and cherry picking a preferred reading for each. He offers more reasonable interpretations than most Tarotists, because his bias is appropriate to the subject matter, and he has therefore accepted the findings of playing-card historians. For example, two of the subjects which have baffled generations of Tarot enthusiasts are the Popess and the Traitor. McDonald gets them both right, but he fails to understand what they're doing in the series.

Some cards appear to be a puzzlement. La Papessa (The Popess/Papess) is often wildly misread as a reference to the mythical figure of “Pope Joan,” a “female pope” who never actually existed. The answer is actually far more mundane: The Popess would represent the association of the Pope with Rome or the Church, which would be depicted as feminine figures (eg, “Holy Mother Church”). It’s simply an allegorical image.

This is very good, as far as it goes. But what is the Church doing as one of the lowest of the trumps, triumphed over by almost every other subject? Was Tarot created by heretics, or perhaps by proto-Protestants?

Similarly, The Hanged Man mystified some people with its image of a man hanging from a scaffold by his left foot. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out What It Could Possibly Mean. In fact, it was a Northern Italian method of execution for traitors. That’s it. Researcher Timothy Betts finds evidence for this in a 1393 decree for Milan and Lombardy: “Let him be drug on a [wooden] plank at a horse’s tail to the place of execution, and there be suspended by one foot to the gallows, and be left there until he is dead. As long as he lives let him be given food and drink.”

McDonald has this subject, the Hanged Man, identified as clearly and correctly as the Popess. (He even cites Timothy Betts, Tarot and the Millennium, 1998.) Of course, this basic identification has been well known for decades, since Moakley (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966), and it is still presented out of context. Without the sequential context of the entire sequence there is little understanding to be gained. Does the relatively high rank of the Hanged Man, in the middle of the cycle, mean that Tarot is celebrating evil? Why would a Traitor triumph over the Holy Roman Emperor and the Vicar of Christ, or over the three Moral Virtues? McDonald's problem is that he ignores the central question re Tarot's meaning: What is this figure doing in the trump cycle? Why does he follow cards like the Triumphal Chariot and Love, then Time and Fortune, and why does he precede Death? Overall, however, McDonald has done the most important things a writer on Tarot can do: Start with Dummett; remember that Tarot was and is a game; and remember that the trump cycle was created by Roman Catholics, for Roman Catholics.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Catholic Church in Rome

Seven years ago, in 2006, Ross found and wrote about a great allegorical image of the Roman Catholic Church conveying blessings. It was used as a printer's mark in a number of books in the early 17th century. Ecclesia is shown with the characteristic papal crown, making a blessing gesture and holding a cornucopia. The five crowns in her lap represent the five patriarchal sees of the Church. There are vanities at her feet, including books, artworks, and musical instruments, and what appears to be a game ball. The motto HINC RELIGIO VERA ("From here the True Religion") indicates the location as Rome, (as do the landmarks in the background), and identifies the bounty symbolized by the cornucopia: True Religion.

Examples are easy to find. When I Google the motto, (quoted, in this order: "vera hinc religio"), the first item that comes up is a 1610 book at, Galileo Galilei's famous Sidereus Nuncius. The site has two copies: Sidereus Nuncius and Sidereus Nuncius. The 1600px image below is a reduced version of the illustration from that book, but still larger than what either of us has posted before.

The Catholic Church conveying the blessings of True Religion from Rome

Like most of the nearly 100 Popess images which Ross and I have found and presented, this serves as a devastating rejoinder to the occultists who maintain that the Popess must have been heretical, alchemical, Pagan, or otherwise non-Christian.(1) In the smaller version below, some of the main elements have been highlighted. The great cornucopia of blessings from the Church, in green, extends all the way to the ground. Symbols of the arts and letters, in red, are displayed as mere vanities scattered at the feet of the Church. Characteristic of Rome, a triumphal arch, an obelisk, the Colosseum, Trajan's spiral column, and a domed church are shown in the background. And the precise nature of the blessings is spelled out in the motto.

An Allegory of Blessings from the Church of Rome

The second item that Google returned is the old page by Ross: "Papesse" as an allegory of the Roman Catholic Church in 17th century printers' marks. (Some old Geocities pages have been resurrected.) He explained the emblem's function as a printer's device for some Venetian publishers. A lot more material is online today, so his list can be easily expanded. There are at least three slightly different versions of the image, and several of the online reproductions are good quality.

In 1607 the Venetian publisher Gio. Batista Pulciano used the emblem in L’Ortigia Tragicomedia Boscareccia, by Viviano Viviani. (This is an example of the first variant image, somewhat simplified.) In 1609 the Venetian publisher Thomas Baglioni used the emblem in Arte del Navigare by Pedro de Medina. As noted above, in 1610 Baglioni used the emblem in Sidereus Nuncius, by Galileo. Also in 1610 Baglioni used the emblem in Consilia Medicinalia, by Cristoforo Guarinoni, and used the emblem again in De Morbis Occultis, by Eustachio Rudio. (This is a good example of the second variant image, with some additional details. This is particularly noticeable in the procession passing through the triumphal arch.) In 1611 Baglioni used the emblem in De Radiis Visus et Lucis, by Marco Antonio de Dominis. In 1613 Baglioni used the emblem in Ad Theorema Geometricum, by Giovanni Camillo Glorioso. In 1616 the Venetian publisher Vincenzo Fiorina used the emblem in Disquisitionum Magicarum, by Martin Antonio Del Rio. In 1617 the Venetian publishers Giorgio Valentini & Antonio Giuliani used the emblem in Opere di Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo. The image was repeated within the book, at the head of two separate works, and again when some of Garzoni's works were published separately. In 1665 the Venetian publisher Michiel Miloco also used the emblem in a work by Garzoni, La Piazza Universale di Tutte le Professioni del Mondo. In 1679 the Venetian publisher Domenico Milocco used the emblem in La Monarchia d'Oriente, by Giacomo Fiorelli.

Naturally, that is a sketchy list, based on a little Googling. However, it does offer one more example of how the Popess was a commonplace figure in Roman Catholic iconography.(2) Just as this image has an intended meaning, (Eco's intentio operis), one which makes sense of the composition and motto in a conventional way, most other period works of art can also be explained. The "arcana", supposedly inexplicable mysteries of Tarot, can also be sensibly explained without resorting to silly Egyptian fantasies or New Age impositions.

May 1, 2013 postscript:

Here are the two variations mentioned above. First the simplified version from Pulciano, 1607, and second the more detailed version used by Baglioni in 1610 for both De Morbis Occultis and Consilia Medicinalia. In the latter, note the throng in triumphal procession, as well as the large figures with identifying attributes located in each corner.

An Allegory of True Religion from the Church of Rome

An Allegory of True Religion from the Church of Rome


 ✎ 1. Sadly, such claims are not a strawman. This folklore remains a popular belief even today. The author of a 2012 book which, supposedly, “exposes the origin of the Tarot symbolism” in ancient Egypt, “from the Unas Pyramids Texts to the Ptolemaic period”, made this claim: “Yes, the Tarot is pre-Christian. Why wouldn't it be? Would Christians invent such a thing? If it were Christian, would it not be a single card rather than a deck? Is La Papesse a Christian concept?” (Answer: Yeah, she really is. Always was.) The post which precipitated this one argued that the present emblem shows an Egyptian setting, which the author connected with Tarot because... derp. I guess because everyone is supposed to know that Tarot is Egyptian. The main figure: “she is an evil magician”. This archaic folklore is not a strawman; it is a zombie idea, dead but undead, still walking around. “Fuckin’ magnets – how do they work?!”
 ✎ 2. This emblem is a great case study of a Popess figure outside of Tarot, but there are dozens of other examples. The more exceptional Popess figures have been presented in detail, including the earliest and the most famous and spectacular. Here are some links.
 • Pre-Tarot Images of Pope Joan (Mar. 26, 2009)
This post includes Popess images by Georgio Vasari, Pasquale Cati da Iesi, and Pieter Pauwel Rubens, but is primarily about early (pre-Tarot) Pope Joan illustrations of Boccaccio. There is also an essay regarding Vincenzo Imperiali's 16th-century comments on the Popess. Perhaps most valuable, it also includes a list of about a dozen old posts and pages from Ross and myself. Most of the links still work.
 • A Florentine Allegory of the Lord's Mercy (Mar. 28, 2009)
This post presents what may be the earliest Popess allegory using a papal tiara. Earlier allegories of the Church, (both Ecclesia per se and Maria Ecclesia), are common dating to the 12th century, but they either failed to use a crown at all or they used a different form. This post also discusses the Maria Ecclesia figure, Mary identified with the Church, who was sometimes depicted with papal attributes, and it presents an example from the 1440s. (Sponsa Christi, Regina Coeli, and Coronation of the Virgin are common motifs which imply Maria Ecclesia. Some show no crown, some show a papal crown, and most show other forms of crown.) Ad hoc allegories using a female figure with papal attributes are also discussed.
 • Popess: The Exemplary Mode (Aug. 16, 2012)
This post presents three wallpaper images which contain about six dozen non-Tarot Popess images. The figures can be grouped into four categories: Pope Joan is a legendary person; Maria Ecclesia is both a legendary person and an allegory of the Church; Catholic allegories are the most interesting category, usually Ecclesia but also an assortment of ad hoc allegories; the Protestant anti-Ecclesia is the Whore of Babylon as the Church of Rome. This post also includes a discussion of two magnificient Popess sculptures in St. Peter's Basilica.
 • A Popess for Pope Pius (Aug. 20, 2012)
This post discusses the Vasari Popess in some detail, and includes good quality images of that painting and two others. Like the sculptures in St. Peter's, each of these figures is perfectly orthodox as Christian allegory, and yet each one symbolizes a rather different subject.
 • Allegory is Allegory (Aug. 26, 2012)
This post presents some famous and striking examples of the Popess, as an allegory of the Roman Catholic Church, in anti-Catholic art. This anti-Ecclesia is typically shown as the Whore of Babylon from chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation, riding a seven-headed beast. This is another motif in which some figures are depicted bare-headed, some with a papal crown, and most are shown with a different form of crown.
 • The Most Celebrated Popess (Aug. 30, 2012)
This post discusses Pope Joan, and presents some pre-Tarot examples, examples of the continuing tradition, and the only Pope Joan illustration that has some arguable connection with Tarot. There is also a discussion of Joan's “crime” in comparison with the condemnation of the Popess by the author of the famous Steele Sermon.