Saturday, June 26, 2010

Critics and Their Critics

In my review of Explaining the Tarot there is a lot of seemingly extraneous material. It is there for context of one kind or another, and that includes the three mini-reviews in the footnotes. This morining I received an email complaining about two of those mini-reviews. I will reply to some of the concerns here, as they may have occurred to others as well.

First, this is my blog. The views expressed in my review of Explaining the Tarot are entirely my own. I identify myself as clearly as I can at the top of the blog—glance left and you’ll see this:

Caveat Lector
I’m a Tarot geek, fascinated by the factual history and characteristic medieval allegory of this remarkable artifact. The bad news is that I'm not an art historian. My only credentials are having read most of the salient books on the subject and having a strong preference for facts over fiction. The good news is that I am not an apologist for occult, paranormal, or other New Age nonsense, nor a sucker for pseudo-historical fantasy. That has made me a skeptic among the true believers who dominate the online Tarot community. These are some of my musings.

Guilt by association, blaming someone else for anything I write, is as faulty a methodology as unsubstantiated 21st-century speculation based on unsubstantiated 19th-century speculation.

On the other hand, those who object to my mocking Tarot bullshit are far from being alone. In past years I have been "moderated" on two Tarot forums in addition to being invariably outnumbered by proponents of what might be euphemized as the "speculative history and iconography of Tarot". In my defense, I try with some diligence to say nothing that is not correct and to substantiate my claims either directly or if/when questioned, usually by reference to playing-card historians or by pointing at the pictures on the cards. Moreover, I take correction very well when it is based on evidence and argument that is better than my own. Mea culpa is not hard to say, and there is one such example in this post. In other words, I’m not a troll, picking fights or taking positions for the admitted entertainment value.

With regard to Farley’s book, if the author had been less grandiose in her claims, less blindered in her treatment of Tarot’s origins, less absurd in her interpretation of the trumps (which was gratuitous in any case), or less distracted by occult myths in her attempts to discuss Tarot history, she would not even have merited a mention. Likewise, if she had presented the book as as the cultural history of occult Tarot, she would not have merited a mention. However, she ignored most of the cultural history of Tarot—pre-Gébelin Tarot—which is a shame. Given the focus of this blog, that needs to be mocked a bit. A cultural history of Tarot would be a great subject for a book-length treatment, and much of the required source material has been collected and organized already.

It has also been pointed out that I can’t count, and I stand corrected. Chishty-Mujahid’s book is 133 pages of text plus 30 unnumbered pages of poor-quality illustrations. It has also been pointed out that her book is published by Mellen Press, which published Dummett & McLeod’s 2004 A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. Here we move from the superstitious guilt by association to the equally fallacious merit by association. That was a 2-volume work of 900 pages, summarizing decades of historical research, and as anyone familiar with The Game of Tarot can attest, these are factually dense pages. In contrast, the two chapters of Chishty-Mujahid’s book which I critiqued were essentially fact free and infused with esoteric speculation on every page. (It might also be noted that Mellen’s reputation as an academic vanity press is so well established that their own site carries a testimonial denying it. Their imprimatur is no guarantee of quality.)

This may be a futile exercise, but because of the complainant’s initial courtesy I will indulge it anyway. To begin with, I do not know what motivates such people as these three authors. I have no idea whatsoever. I am, however, pretty clear about my own motivations in this regard: I don’t like being deceived. I don’t like being taken for a fool, and I don’t like others being taken for fools. So when the emperor quite obviously has no clothes, I laugh and point and say snarky things out loud. When seeming experts peddle intellectual garbage to others who 1) want to believe and 2) lack the critical skills to evaluate the pseudo-scholarly trash, someone should speak up.

When I became interested in Tarot history and iconography, I unwittingly blundered into a bedlam of Mattos and Bagattos, fools and deceivers who inhabited a fantasy world. When I began to learn about the real history, and began to see something of the actual meaning of the trump cycle, it was natural to point those things out. That instigated debates which cannot be resolved in this world, because they are founded on very different views of epistemology. One view is empirically based, insisting that historical claims be tied to historical evidence, known facts, and that speculation is to be used only to fill in blanks between facts rather than build castles in the sky. Iconographic claims are likewise tied to facts—in the case of Tarot, the pictures on the cards and the sequences of the cards—and conclusions are based on comparisons between those things and contemporaneous cognate works of art and literature. That is the great thing about the two Discorsi: they are historical facts. The other worldview is defined by Antoine Faivre’s six criteria for defining esotericism. (Chishty-Mujahid discussed that reasonably well. I enjoyed the first two chapters of her book.) In particular, the use of imagination as a substitute for empiricism (#3), the notion that correspondences necessarily imply connections (#1 & #2), and the conspiracy-theory mentality/assumption that there is always an "underground stream" linking things together (#5 & #6) are very problematic in terms of derailing rational thought and discourse.

An activity such as identifying those processes as significant elements of esotericism, analysis to create a workable definition, is part the academic study of esotericism. On the other hand, employing those same processes to make up a really cool story, based on another really cool story, with no basis in historical fact, is not the study of esotericism—it is the practice of esotericism. In parts of Chishty-Mujahid’s book she is a scholar of esotericism, and in other parts she is a practitioner.

Right now we are seeing a new phase in the "false history and false interpretation" of Tarot, and it is approaching full bloom. The more sophisticated cultists seem to have gotten over some of their New Age enthusiasms, but we are seeing a number people writing up what appear to be scholarly treatments of Tarot history and meaning. They are adopting some of the trappings of scholarship, everything but good research and reliance on evidence, and using that as a sham to cover recycled occultist legends. Those three books I mention at the end of my review are 21st-century examples of this new age of Tarot pseudo-history.

Yes, "speculation" sounds better than pseudo-history, but in either case it’s just stuff the author makes up and can’t find any facts to support. Worst of all, as I noted, is that the author ignored the mundane facts that are known. Chishty-Mujahid has followed Stuart Kaplan in implicitly identifying the E-Series model book as a form of occult Tarot, and including subsequent works by Ludovico Lazzarelli and Andrea Ghisi as further esoteric mysteries. However, some of the facts about these works are as follows:

1. The E-Series of 50 copper-engraved prints was a model book, a pattern book for artists. This is a fact, not speculation. Arthur M. Hind documented many examples of its use as such, in a variety of media, starting immediately after it was first published. The images were printed on thin paper, not card stock, not ever. They were not Tarot, they were not playing cards nor cards of any kind. In a number of surviving examples they were bound into books, literal model books. “...the existence of several series in practically contemporary binding does show that, even if used as a game, the engravings were also preserved as pattern- or picture-books, or epitomes of knowledge represented in pictorial form (a sort of Summula Graphica).” (Hind, Early Italian Engraving, 1938, p. 222.). This is the historically documented purpose of the E-Series and its copies, and that must at least be mentioned, even if only to be dismissed in favor of some more entertaining speculation.

2. Consistent with their purpose as a pattern book, the subjects of the E-Series model book included a wealth of the most common subjects for Renaissance humanist illustrators, depicted in a new and pleasing Renaissance style. Hind substantiated these facts which need to be mentioned. Various artists used these models over and over for more than a century, and that is an interesting part of a larger history.

The art of the woodcut and of engraving soon spread all over Europe. There are engravings in the manner of Mantegna and Botticelli in Italy, and others from the Netherlands and France. These prints became yet another means through which the artists of Europe learned of each other’s ideas. At that time it was not yet considered dishonourable to take over an idea or a composition from another artist, and many of the humbler masters made use of engravings as pattern books from which they borrowed. Just as the invention of printing hastened the exchange of ideas without which the Reformation might never have come about, so the printing of images ensured the triumph of the art of the Italian Renaissance in the rest of Europe.
(Ernst H. Gombrich, The Story of Art)

3. Consistent with their purpose as a pattern book, the commonplace subjects selected for inclusion in the E-Series were as encyclopedic in their scope as possible, given a manageable number of prints. This encyclopedic scope was assured by the outline of the book, dividing the entire cosmos into five types of subject matter and presenting all of the members of each group. As was common in such numerical matching schemes, whether by fours, sevens, or in this case tens, not all of the subjects matched that well. This particular arrangement of five decades was dictated by 1) the need to have the top group include the standard cosmos, the controlling pattern for the whole series, and 2) the fact that ten is a cool number that also permitted such a design. The lower groups were all padded a bit to fill them out. (The three "celestial risings" were an odd addition.) The details of the arrangement were spelled out by John Shephard (The Tarot Trumps: Cosmos in Miniature), in 1985, and he got it exactly right. This simple explanation, directly connected with the known use of the series as a model book, needs to be mentioned, at least.

4. Lazzarelli used the E-Series model book for its intended purpose, to provide illustrations. He wrote some jejune verses about the Pagan Gods and wanted to jazz it up. His poetic design was not a perfect match, naturally, so only some of the E-Series prints were used, and other images were specially commissioned. Even if such a simple and sufficient explanation is rejected or expanded upon, it needs to be at least mentioned as the most parsimonious account.

5. Ghisi... same deal. He used the model book as a model book. The fact that the E-Series images were an afterthought, included only in a second volume, is a huge clue that their meaning is irrelevant, as is the fact that, as with Lazzarelli, they don't actually fit Ghisi’s needs. Both were using the model book as a model book, which needs to be mentioned.

6. The operational details of Ghisi’s Labyrinth are perfectly known, in an English edition. It is a trivial parlor trick, not some woo-woo Hoodoo manifesto. Again, this needs to be mentioned even if only to be dismissed for something sexier.

Another fact that should be mentioned, since Chishty-Mujahid makes such a big speculative deal out of the reversal of some prints, is that when artists used prints for models, (which was a routine practice in the Renaissance and beyond), images were often reversed. In some cases this had to do with the method of reproduction. Playing cards offer an illuminating parallel, in that decks copied from an earlier design sometimes had some of the images reversed and other not.

Those are some basic facts, pretty-much off-hand on a Saturday morning. Hind cites many many facts. Shephard’s analysis can be compared with endless other cosmographical schemes, as an expansion of their four sub-lunar worlds and 7+ cosmic spheres. Ghisi’s English version has been available at Early English Books Online for some years, (and a scholar should have looked it up, even if it were not readily available). None of these things are new. All that is required is to put the pieces together, and that’s what a new, scholarly article should do. It would be a real contribution.

The only pre-Gébelin Tarot blog that matters.
“Is there a lot of competition for that slogan?”

In contrast, what writers like Phillips, Farley, and Chishty-Mujahid have done is to provide yet another layer of fiction, new "speculation" on top of older speculation. I would not have discussed Farley's book if there were not that element of pretense—the academic poseur giving us the first comprehensive yada-yada—and I would not have discussed Chishty-Mujahid’s book either if not for the patina of academic objectivity. And I would not have mentioned Phillips, except that his primary source appears to be a hoax of the Michael Poe or Priory of Sion variety.

I haven’t posted anything to my blog for over a year, but Explaining the Tarot is an exciting development. It is real history and a great resource for real iconography. That is so rare that I had to comment, and it was a perfect opportunity to contrast it with the books of Graham Phillips, Helen Farley, and Nadya Q. Chishty-Mujahid. Someone needs to point out the difference between those accounts which begin from a factual basis and keep their conclusions and speculations close to the facts, and those which begin with folklore and freely add to it. I just happen to be here to do that.

Memento Mori
There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be running from the rain when I'm gone
And I can't even suffer from the pain when I'm gone
Can't say who's to praise and who's to blame when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here
(Lyrics by the late, great Phil Ochs)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks much for what you do, Michael.
    Your blog is the best I've ever read on the subject.