Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gresham's Law of Tarot History

December in Southern California: the brush-fire season gently overlaps the flash-flood season. The front-yard Birch and the back-yard Liquidamber are mostly bare, frustrating a hundred goldfinches seeking a sheltered perch between feeding frenzies. And a time of Agonizing Reappraisal as a new year approaches. Today's question: is there a place for Tarot history discussions in the online Tarot "community"? The previous post pointed to fact-based Tarot history online, but here we'll discuss the more common sorts of online Tarot -- idiotic (foolish in one way or another) or idiosyncratic (peculiar to an individual or small group).

I've been a minor and fringe figure in the online Tarot "community" for the larger part of a decade now. Yesterday I found myself in a borderline surreal discussion with a forum moderator. Her topic was what kinds of censorship were taken for granted, (e.g., talk about the forum itself or the rules under which it was run was obviously forbidden), and what kinds of censorship were less obviously necessary, (e.g., some "meta" discussions were forbidden but others were not, and there were no rules or even guidelines to clarify which are which). A couple weeks ago, in a different forum, a moderator made a bargain with another poster that would allow me to select five of her idiotic posts for deletion in return for the deletion of five of mine which she objected to. This ludicrous proposal was supposed to be "fair" and, apparently, appropriate in some way that I do not begin to understand. Needless to say, I had no interest in deleting any posts, hers or mine. To help pacify the List I deleted all my posts from this year and stopped posting, which I found less offensive. Admittedly, I'm a sardonic SOB, but what sort of hateful posts are being objected to? Critical ones, naturally. Any harebrained theory that has supporters is, simply because some people believe it, considered worthy of respect. Here are a few examples of steaming bullshit which are considered respectable by prominent online Tarot writers.

Poe's Tarot Temple of Serapis. Michael Poe resurrected the Tarot temple fabrication begun by Etteilla: "The Tarot is an ancient Egyptian book... conceived in the year 2170 BC, during a conference of 17 magicians presided over by Hermes Trismegistus... then engraved on gold sheets which were placed around the central fire of the Temple of Memphis." (Etteilla, quoted in Tarots: Art and Magic, 1995.) Poe read a version of this tale as recounted by Bernard Bromage (The Occult Arts of Ancient Egypt, 1953): "Certainly there is good evidence for asserting that the figures which adorn the twenty-two 'Major Arcana' of the Tarot were first discerned as frescoes painted in the Cave of Serapis near ancient Naples and were interpreted as forming part of an Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth...." Poe bolstered this fantasy with additional fiction about an archaeological report on a temple excavation in Naples, describing "20 illustrations that were on the wall prior to their destruction during WWII". The alleged descriptions in the report just happen to coincide precisely with the descriptions of Tarot trumps by the 19th-century occultist Paul Christian -- sacré bleu, a miracle! Despite the obviously fraudulent character of Poe's tale, occultist and Gnostic bishop "Dr. Lewis Keizer, Ph.D." finds it wholly plausible, and concludes, "if Poe's information is correct, we would have an excellent possible source for the earliest Italian Tarocchi images, devoid of Egyptian dress." His doofus essay is part of the curricula at Tarot University.

Rom's Code. This anonymous writer had a hunch that the names on the trump cards of a particular Tarot de Marseille deck were selected and spelled, or misspelled, so as to encode the numbers of the cards. This is not an absurd idea -- it would be mildly clever and easily understandable as a playful "easter egg" hidden by a cardmaker with way too much time on his hands. The problem was that even a perfunctory examination revealed that the coded message, as trivial as it was, didn't exist. After the initial hunch is examined critically and demonstrated to be false, which should take about five minutes, it becomes dumb, disingenuous, or delusional to claim that it is true. And yet that thesis has been maintained to this day, combined with assorted historical speculation about Tarot having been invented in the 12th century by Abbot Suger of St. Denis, etc., most of it dramatically opposed to all existing evidence.

Filipas' Abecedarium. Mark Filipas had a hunch that the subjects on the occultist's traditional Tarot deck, Tarot de Marseille, were indeed selected to correspond with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- perhaps not originally, but certainly at some point in time. This was done in the manner of an abecedarium, "C is for cat, cap, crap..." and so on. Like Rom's Code, this is not an implausible notion, a priori. Unfortunately, it is immediately apparent that the hunch was mistaken. The names on the trumps don't support this reading, which is enough to reject it. The principle subjects on the cards likewise fail to support the hunch, even when synonyms are cherry-picked from Hebrew lexicons. Finally, even with cherry-picked substitutions of alleged synonyms for minor details on the cards, it still doesn't work in any but the most arbitrary manner for a subset of the elements. After this has been examined and the facts pointed out, it is dumb, disingenuous, or delusional to claim that the original hypothesis has not been refuted.

Payne-Towler's Missing Link. Occultist and Gnostic bishop Christine Payne-Towler determined to her satisfaction that Lodovico Lazzarelli was the historical "missing link" between the occult and Tarot, specifically, the so-called "Mantegna tarocchi". De Gentilium Deorum Imaginibus was incorrectly assumed to be an occult work, and the Mantegna cosmographic images were incorrectly assumed to be a form of Tarot -- Q.E.D. No evidence supporting either of these assumptions was adduced, (both are patently false), but instead preconceptions and speculation were given free reign. Moreover, she mistakenly believed (based on a relatively reliable source) that Lazzarelli had written 22 of these illustrated poems, and that magic number necessarily implied -- to her -- Cabalistic design and meaning. Given these blunders and flights of fancy, Lazzarelli's poem became the "smoking gun" which demonstrated beyond doubt that Tarot was an occult artifact from its creation in the 1400s. Despite being corrected in detail by Robert V. O'Neill in 2000, she maintains this newly minted esoteric lore to this day, again as part of the curricula at Tarot University.

Meador and Postel's Key. John Meador, a New Age apologist for traditional occultist lore, resurrected a flagrant fabrication about Guillaume Postel's Absconditorum a Constitutione Mundi Clavis. In the 19th century Éliphas Lévi made up an elaborate fiction concerning a 17th-century illustration to Postel's 16th-century book, and Meador wants to justify this in the 21st century. Unfortunately, Arthur E. Waite debunked Lévi's claims in 1896: the illustration was a later accretion to Postel's book, and neither it nor the book itself had any connection with Tarot. This absence of supporting evidence is adduced by Meador as supporting evidence! It indicates that Tarot was not only being alluded to but that it was of special significance: "Yes, and we wonder, why in the world would merely 'a card game' remain unmentioned?" Again, this appears either dumb, disingenuous, or delusional.

And so on. The point is that such blatant bullshit is encouraged. Hunches and notions -- never substantiated, subsequently examined and found false years ago -- continue to be promoted as viable Tarot history and are treated with respect by most of the online Tarot community. Idiocy is not to be mocked! If such drivel were asserted in these people's daily lives, they would be institutionalized. (An obvious exception to that involves orthodox religious idiocy expressed in the increasingly medieval Christian U.S. and Muslim theocracies around the world.) One more example: Two days ago a translation of Boiardo's Tarot poems was announced online. In deference to heavily promoted crackpot theories, (cf. The Beast, referenced in the previous post), the announcement on the ATA Newsletter pointedly suggested that the poems might have been the origin of Tarot. Tarot, however, is documented as being decades older than Boiardo's poems and quite widespread by that time. This eccentric theory was also alluded to on the Tarotpedia website, where the Boiardo translation is also published. In addition, the Tarotpedia page discusses the Comte de Mellet, Eliphas Levi, and the Sefer Yetzirah, leading to, "This also raises an interesting further question as to whether Boiardo may have been in any way influenced by Hebrew contemporaries to choose the number of Hebrew letters (22) for his trumps".

Naturally enough, most Tarot websites and online Tarot forums tend to cater to the interests of the majority of Tarot enthusiasts, people who yearn for ancient secrets, initiated mysteries, and other esoteric lore. That's their audience, and in most cases that audience is devoid of both historical knowledge and critical thinking skills. Tarot is a cult object. It was openly called "holy", "sacred", and "the absolute key to occult science" by an earlier generation, and is deemed to be "inspired" and representing "universal truths" (psychological and/or spiritual) by many of today's cultists. Two central reasons seem responsible for the general acceptance of such rampant idiocy: preconception and an abhorrence of critical thinking -- after all, essentially religious positions cannot be empirically or rationally refuted.

The Tarot pack is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.
(Ronald Decker, et al., A Wicked Pack of Cards, 1996.)
It is considered a serious breach of community ethics for members to criticize one another's beliefs or practices, at least publicly. Refusal to acknowledge many paths to truth and enlightenment is perceived as dogmatic and intolerant.
(Danny Jorgensen, The Esoteric Scene, Cultic Milieu, and Occult Tarot, 1992.)

The many varieties of Tarot pseudohistory are given credence, treated respectfully long after they have been discredited, and forever accepted as viable alternatives to the documented history of Tarot. In a popularity contest between that factual history and speculative pseudohistory, the latter will always win. The sober and documented reconstruction is just one narrative against many, and it is the least enticing of all. Real history is based on facts, that which we know, while pseudohistory is based on imagination, that which we want. These inventions are naturally more appealing because they were created specifically to be appealing rather than to conform to the findings of historical research. Rather than representing rational analysis, they indulge wishful thinking, and such bad (but appealing and easy) Tarot "history", and the demand that it be treated respectfully, will tend to drive out good (but boring and tedious) Tarot history.

If wishes were horses, it would explain all this horseshit.