Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A meditation on the tarot

with 6 comments

A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which it results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

6 Responses

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  1. Thanks for sharing such an illuminating perspective. There are so many ways to search for and obtain meaning in life as well as creative inspiration. You make a great case for trying The Tarot.


    July 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm

  2. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!


    July 10, 2014 at 3:27 pm

  3. Are you still using the Marseilles? If you’re just focusing on memorized meanings it might not make any difference, but, as far as inspiring card art goes I would definitely recommend switching to the Crowley Thoth or one of many beautiful modern decks. Deviant Moon is very well thought out but has a very specific art style not everyone will like. I also highly recommend Mary El Tarot.

    The Mary El points to an interesting problem with these more lush, eccentric decks though. Mary El comes with its own very internally consistent set of meanings, but the cards at times start to be just different symbols for the same thing. Specifically, some of the cards are just different takes on “find your purpose in life, and then live it.” (Well… I guess it’s a little more specific than that, but it’s hard to explain.) I think such personal re-imaginings are a necessary part of what created the Tarot in the first place; everyone who learns to read Tarot recasts meanings a little. So it’s interesting to ask, if you made a Tarot deck, what would you focus on?

    Daniel Demski

    February 1, 2017 at 3:22 pm

  4. @Daniel Demski: I’m still using the Marseilles, but I’m getting a little tired of it. I may switch to another one soon.


    February 8, 2017 at 8:51 pm

  5. Your perceptive remarks about the formation of a temporary structure in the visual arrangement of the cards gets at the heart of why I love the Tarot. Indeed, these are maps. They are transient maps with which we can pluck the strings of our subconscious, sometimes a dull twang in the night, sometimes with resounding cataclysms of insight. About which deck to use, I find the Marseilles to be quite excellent. One thing about the Crowley – Harris deck is that the minor cards also have astrological and symbolic depth, which the usual numbered suits lack. In that respect, there is a curiosity by Godrey Dawson, the Hermetic Tarot, which presents much of the same occult parameters in black and white. Personally, I found an alternative in The Sacred Circle Tarot, which dispenses completely with the baggage of Qabala, monotheism, and European authoritarian political baggage and regenerates the full range of deep connections in the context of Druidism. You might check it out. Sadly, there are too many tarot decks! As the subconscious proves, all transformations and manifestations are valid, even the delusional ones. In the chaos of possibilities, I like to stick the basics, such as: What were the two skulls that Jung found in the subterranean chamber of his dream? (see chap 5 of Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

    Lex Berman

    June 2, 2021 at 9:23 am

  6. Glad you liked the post! Since I wrote it, I’ve switched to the Rider-Waite deck, which appeals more to my sensibilities. I still use it every time I start a new project or book chapter.


    June 2, 2021 at 12:00 pm

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