Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Tarot of writers

Triumph of Death fresco (1480) at Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone

In an afterword to his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Italo Calvino described Tarot as "a machine for constructing stories." In his two-part story, travelers who are trapped or stranded communicate through cards drawn from two early decks, the Visconti Tarot and the Tarot of Marseilles.
    In the time of the Renaissance, a Benedictine monk named Teofilo Folengo wrote poems in which the fortunes and characters of individuals are revealed by the Tarot cards that are dealt to them. His Tarot poems appear in his 1527 work Caos del Triperiuno, written under the pseudonym Merlini Cocai. In one of the sonnets, he finds room to mention all 22 of the major arcana in a bragging contest between Love (the name for the Lovers card at that time) and Death personified as female, as in the macabre and magnificent 1480 fresco by 
Giacomo Borlone de Buschis at Clusone, where all the powers of this world bow down before La Morte.

“What a Fool I am,” said Love, “my Fire, 
that can appear as an Angel or as a Devil 
can be Tempered by some others who live under my Star. 
You are the Empress of bodies. But you cannot kill hearts, 
you only Suspend them. You have a name of high Fame, 
but you are nothing but a Trickster.” *

The monkish author was a living testimony to the power of Love. He abandoned his monastery and roamed Italy with a lovely young woman of noble birth named Girolama, though he returned to the cloister, in Sicily, to seek a peaceful Death.
    Fr Teofilo's use of the cards to compose poetry started a literary craze among the sixteenth-century Italian nobility for a game that came to be known as Tarocchi appropriati, or "Appropriated Tarot". As described by Paul Huson in Mystical Origins of the Tarot (Destiny Books, Rochester VT, 2004), "Here trump cards were selected by one player and presented to another, who would interpret them thematically by a process of idea association to create verses about himself or herself, about another person, or most popularly, to praise certain well-known ladies around the court."
    Many writers have been inspired by Tarot. The Tower and the Hanged Man fascinated W.B.Yeats, whose magical diaries are filled with personal Tarot readings and was thoroughly familiar, as an adept, with the use of the major arcana in ceremonial magic and pathworking by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
    Leading Tarot authority and novelist Rachel Pollack published an anthology of Tarot Tales (co-edited with Caitlin Matthews) and more recently produced a strange and wonderful solo collection of Tarot stories, The Tarot of Perfection (Magic Realist Press, Prague, 2008). In her Introduction, she explains an exercise in "Tarot for Writers" that she developed for her students in a course at Goddard College in Vermont.
     In this spread, you draw seven cards in sequence with the idea that they will answer the following questions about the characters, themes, and plot development of a story:

Who is my character?
What situation does he or she face?
What is the outer motivation?
What is hidden?
What opposes her or him?
What helps?
What is at risk?

I tested this just now, with a deck I like a lot by rarely use for personal readings, the Tarot of the Spirit. My "character" proved to be a theme, presented here as the Three of Water (3 of Cups in other decks), Love abounding and overflowing, going beyond duality. The "situation" is the ultimate Three, the Empress, Trump III. Perhaps the "situation" my character faces is to encounter and claim (or be claimed by ) the Threefold Goddess. The "outer motivation", by a curious paradox, appears as the High Priestess, one of the most "inner" of the cards. Perhaps the "outer motivation" is the desire for initiation and admission to the Mysteries. 
    What is "hidden" is the Father of Wind (King of Swords elsewhere) shown here as a double being riding a rearing bull through a flaming sky. What "opposes" is the arcanum numbered I, here called the Magus; he is shown leaning over a cubical table where the four magical weapons are laid out, a whirling golden lemniscate (figure of 8) above his head. What "helps" is the Mother of Wind, shown here as a glamorous woman in a swirling marigold dress, weaving the reins of power the Father may or may not be able to hold into a larger figure of 8, a Möbius power strip.What is "at risk" is the Brother of Wind, the reckless, sometimes tormented Son of the family. 
    A family drama then, with greater forces in play. So many clues to follow. Who or what is the Magus that opposes? What is in the visual echo between the figures of 8 above his head and in the control of Wind Mother?
    Will I write from these cards? Maybe, but writing this reminds me that I have an unfinished Tarot novella that was first inspired by a dream, one of those dreams that haunts you - with its mystery and its invitation - down all the long corridors of the years.

*There is a complete translation of the sonnet, with all the attributions to the Greater Trumps, at Mary Greer's Tarot blog, an excellent resource on all things Tarot.


nina4667 said...

Robert, I so look forward to your posts, and this one has not disappointed me! I have many Tarot decks, my favorite at the time being Osho Zen Tarot, and am currently in the process of writing a book about synchronicity. So, I can't wait to use the technique you lay out here. What fun!

Rachel said...

So wonderful to see that spread inb use, Robert. Thank you for a thoughtful article on a favorite subject, the machine for constructing stories.