Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gertrude Moakley

Gertrude Moakley passed away ten years ago this friday.
This seems like a good time to remember her.

Gertrude Charlotte Moakley was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 18, 1905, to Arthur Irving Moakley and Josephine Henry (Barrett). She received a B.A. from Barnard College in 1926 and a B.S. from Columbia University School of Library Science in 1928. (Photo from Barnard College yearbook, Mortarboard 1926.) She then began working as a librarian for the New York Public Library. She appears in directories of librarians from 1933 through 1970, and she published several books on filing codes, including Basic Filing Rules for Medium-sized Libraries, foreword by Rudolf Flesch, (1957). This biographical information comes from page 2 of that book.

Gertrude Moakley... has been a staff member of The New York Public Library, Cataloging Office, Circulation Department, during 1928-34 and from 1945 to date. In charge of filing for about seven years, she served as chairman of the special committee, which revised the Filing Code of the Circulation Department, during 1949-53. In 1953-54, Miss Moakley was chairman of a special committee on revision of the ALA Rules for Filing Catalog Cards appointed by the executive board of the ALA Division of Cataloging and Classification. Miss Moakley has contributed articles to the Bulletin of The New York Public Library and the Journal of Cataloging and Classification, and she has lectured on catalog arrangement at New York University.

At some point Moakley became interested in the study of Tarot. Her article, "The Waite-Smith Tarot: A Footnote to The Waste Land", appeared in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, (v.58, 1954). She argued for the influence of Arthur E. Waite's Tarot book and deck on T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem. From 1955 through 1967 she corresponded with art historian Erwin Panofsky; this period brackets her article and book on the iconography of the Visconti-Sforza trumps. The 17-page article, "The Tarot Trumps and Petrarch's Trionfi: Some Suggestions on their Relationship", appeared in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library (v.60, 1956), and foreshadowed the 1966 book for which she is famous.

In 1958 she wrote a brief introduction to the Arcanum Books edition of Waite's translation of The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Papus. Among other things, it expresses her interest in and understanding of the two sides of modern Tarot. She compares the duality of Tarot to "the Yin-Yang symbol, whose dark [occult] side has a little spot of brightness at its center."

To complete our idea of the Tarot symbolism we need to add to the darkly veiled side the bright conscious side with the spot of dark unconsciousness at its center. That is, we need to recognize that the literal facts about the Tarot cards are probably quite different from the occultist account. But this brings us again to another veiled darkness: the unconscious motives of those who meant to use symbols only to add to the amusement and excitement of a Carnival game. We may then accept the occultist tradition as a valid myth, that is, a solemn way of stating a truth symbolically with such imaginative force that even its authors at first always mistake it for the literal truth.

Today, a half century later, the more sophisticated Tarot cultists take much the same view. It has been noted that, around this time, Moakley was a guest on "Long John" Neville's late-night radio program "about psychism, spiritual mysteries, and paranormal phenomena", on WOR in New York. Their introduction was made by Eden Gray, godmother of modern Tarot. It is clear that Moakley was a significant figure in the Tarot world during this period, and in 1959, for the University Books edition of Waite's The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Moakley wrote an insightful introduction to Waite, his artist Pamela Colman Smith, and their Tarot deck. Crediting both for the deck, providing biographical information about "Pixie" as well as Waite, and dubbing the deck "the Waite-Smith Tarot" (rather than Rider-Waite) for the title of her earlier article, all seem natural today but might not have in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, her understanding of Waite was far better than most Tarot enthusiasts today. She also appended an unusual section, "Note on The Tarot as a Game", describing how Tarot games are played. Few people in the English-speaking world had any knowledge of or interest in the cards primary purpose. Moakley observes in passing that the game might have some connection with "the essential meaning of the Tarot". She recommends the book to people beyond the expected readership of fortune-tellers and occultists.

Waite's Tarot is full of symbols to which he attracts your attention only indirectly. The gradual discovery of these is one of the delights of owning the book. Even in the plagiarized and debased De Laurence edition it has been for years one of my treasures, and it is good to see it appear again in its more gracious form.

And even to a person with no interest in mysticism, the book may be of great value. The section entitled "The Tarot in History" is an excellent summing up of the development of occult Tarotism and a sound estimate of its claims. It will be useful to anyone who wants to study as a cultural phenomenon this modern instance of what Robert Graves has called iconotropy.

Then, too, this book will be useful to anyone who is curious about the imagery of T.S. Eliot's great poem, The Waste Land, and who refuses to let his curiosity be inhibited by Eliot's recent disparaging remarks about "wild-goose chases after Tarot cards." The "traditional Tarot" which plays so great a part in this poem must have been Waite's and it is all to Eliot's credit that his imagination was kindled by it in the second decade of the twentieth century.

Today, of course, Moakley is best remembered for her 1966 book, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Historical and Iconographic Study. Here she presented the first (and what remains to this day the most respectable) iconographic study of a particular Tarot deck. Her research (by this time over a decade of it) encompassed the history of the Visconti-Sforza deck itself, the family for which it was made, their heraldry and relationships, the artist who was responsible for its creation, and the symbolism of the allegorical figures. She provided sober identifications for "enigmas" like the Hanged Man and "mysteries" like the Popess, opening the door for subsequent rational treatment of Tarot iconography. Her findings in each of these areas remain foundational today, and her conclusions about the iconographic program of the trump cycle remain more reasonable than 99% of what has been written since.

Gertrude Moakley died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 28, 1998. Reportedly, she had continued to study Tarot and work toward a revised edition of The Tarot Cards, and both her research notes and the rights to the original book were entrusted to Stuart Kaplan. Unfortunately, there is no indication that either a reprint of the original or a revised edition will ever be released.