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.

6 comments:

  1. Wouldn't it be the high time for the Author of this blog to review Ronald Decker's "The Esoteric Tarot"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmmm... well, maybe a summary. First, I had been hoping for a detailed interpretation by Decker for many years. I saw some of his earlier notes on the subject, and hoped for the best. This book was touted as well researched and a major contribution to the history and iconography of Tarot, so I bought a copy immediately.

      Unfortunately, Decker's "The Esoteric Tarot" largely ignores both the actual history and iconography of Tarot. Instead, the book takes as its mission the rehabilitation of antiquated and fraudulent folklore, and the redemption of the authors who first concocted the false history and false interpretation. (A cynical aside: it is these stories which sell Tarot books.) Specifically, Decker finds that Tarot was always an occult manifesto, containing real Egyptian symbolism as well as idiosyncratic gibberish which elite Renaissance fools mistook for "hieroglyphs".

      Decker follows the New Age model of interpretation, whose motto is, "it’s all good". Thus, Tarot contains various bizarre "systems" of astrology, numerology, Kabbalah, Neoplatonic magic, Hermetic initiation, elaborate structures and symmetries, etc. Quelle surprise mon ami -- not one of these claims regarding Tarot has any direct parallel in any historical esoteric writings or images. The conflation of all of them is a completely modern development. Yet another layer is piled on, much more obvious: these secrets are buried beneath conventional allegories like Love, Fortune, Death, and Christian figures like the Devil and the Angel of Resurrection. This makes Decker's vision of Tarot the most elaborate, extravagantly multi-faceted creation, by far, in the history of pre-Modern art.

      But wait, like a cheesy infomercial, there’s more! Even the suit cards, the regular deck of playing cards, is revealed to be a system of Sabian astrology, one which was recognized and incorporated by the designer(s) of Tarot. (Again, no supporting evidence that anyone, anywhere, ever saw them this way.) Antoine Court de Gébelin, the Comte de Mellet, and the fortune-teller Etteilla are revealed to be misunderstood geniuses who, although lousy historians, nonetheless divined the true nature of Tarot. Oddly, none of their insights tend to match Decker's in any detail, but he is the latest entrant in the long line of creative writers they initiated.

      Like Robert V. O'Neill's 1986 "Tarot Symbolism", this is occult apologetics rather than iconography. Both writers seek to justify 19th and 20th-century impositions rather than search out the 15th-century intentions. This is a great book for the gullible, the true believers, but it has only a rambling and nebulous pretense of historical support.

      Delete
  2. Oh, bugger!...
    So the old Dummett/Decker collaborations are still unavoidable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL! It depends upon what your interests are.

      For the historically inclined, Dummett's "The Game of Tarot" is still the most important book on Tarot history, despite being 34 years old. No one else has even attempted such a comprehensive look at Tarot. It covered the history of playing cards before Tarot was invented, as well as the early history of Tarot in Italy and its spread. It covered the early uses of Tarot, mostly as a card game but also as the literary parlor game of 'appropriati' and other literary appropriations. It covered fortune-telling with playing cards and especially with Tarot, and also the origins and development of occult Tarot. And that was just the first 1/4 of the book -- the majority of the book was devoted to gameplay, the rules and regional variations of the game over the centuries.

      Subsequently, Dummett (usually with co-authors) updated and expanded on the topics from that book. Most notably, for most people's interests, were "A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot" (1996) and "A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970" (2002). Prior to their publication, chapters 5 and 6 of "The Game of Tarot" constituted the best history of occult Tarot ever published. Today, WPC and HOT remain the best history of occult Tarot yet published.

      Dummett's Game of Tarot
      http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2012/02/dummetts-game-of-tarot.html

      Ostensibly, Dummett was not explaining the iconography of the standard trump cycle in any of his books. However, he also provides a crucial introduction to that area as well, along with many specific explanations and essential ancillary information about things like the historical names of the cards.

      Michael Dummett and Tarot Iconography
      http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2011/12/michael-dummett-and-tarot-iconography.html

      So yes, if one is interested in the history of occult Tarot then the old Dummett books are unavoidable. There have been a few notable findings in the last decade which are related to pre-Gebelin occult Tarot. These include, among other things, some isolated examples of fortune-telling with playing cards before Etteilla, and the Venetian witch-trial accounts. An update, effectively an appendix to WPC, is needed. Whether an article for "The Playing Card", or a monograph, or even as incorporated into a new book covering the same ground as WPC but from the author's own perspective, this updated history is waiting to be written. Until that appendix or wholly new book is written, Dummett's really the only "Game" in town.

      Some 21st-century books which *appear* to address the origin of occult Tarot from a scholarly perspective are largely apologetics for traditional folklore. This approach began in the 1970s, and probably reached its zenith with Robert V. O'Neill's book in 1986. These include Paul Huson (2004), Robert Place (2005), Nadya Chishty-Mujahid (2008), Helen Farley (2009), and now Ronald Decker (2013). The least objectionable is probably Huson's, because his chapter on the original meaning of the trump cycle focuses on Petrarch's "Trionfi", medieval drama, esp. the Dance of Death, and the Four Last Things. This is about as reasonable as Gertrude Moakley's (1955, 1966) analysis. However, there is also a raft of nonsense in his book, and the majority of it is a how-to manual for fortune-tellers. The other 21st-century books cited are worse, each in its own way.

      Best regards,
      Michael

      Delete
  3. Well, try to lay your hands on "The Game of Tarot" where I live...
    I haven't yet read any of Dummett/Decker's books, but I'm planing to. Of what I understand about their contents, they aren't actually divided by time periods, but rather geographically, "A Wicked Pack of Cards" covering the continental Europe until the times of Papus, and "A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970" mainly on the British and American developments (starting with the borrowings of continental traditions by Mackenzie and Beverly Randolph through FRC and FRIA), and their subsequent worldwide dissemination. But "A History of the Occult Tarot" covers also variations on the French tradition that emerged after the first decade of the 20th century. Am I geting it right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Overall, it's pretty much a chronological presentation. "A Wicked Pack of Cards" covers the first century of occult Tarot and "A History of the Occult Tarot" the second century. Within that broad outline they focus on significant individuals and developments. They give considerable discussion to the various larger spiritual and social movements within which occult Tarot found itself.

      So on the one hand it's not a *pure* timeline or chronological listing of facts and events, but on the other hand it gives an account which is predominantly chronological. HOT does cover both European countries (even including chapters on Switzerland, Germany, and Russia) and the more influential English-speaking developments. They continue up to Eden Gray, and their discussion of "Dr Gray" (and everyone else) is far more objective, informative, and respectful than online nitwits claim. Glancing through the two books yesterday made me want to read them again, cover to cover. Thanks for prompting me to go back to them.

      Best regards,
      Michael

      Delete