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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

Partial review of Jodorowsky and Costa's "La voie du Tarot"; thoughts on "authenticity"

Jodorowsky and Costa's La Voie du Tarot arrived from Canada today. Despite Diana's negative review, I was interested in this, it seemed fairly comprehensive. Browsing through it, it looks like he does a fair amount of creatively visualizing and imagining conversations with the cards. This is congenial since it strongly resembles Gareth Knight's method. I enjoyed his story about growing up in Chile.

But he started losing me once I actually started reading it and came to page 20, where he makes the somewhat startling assertion:

Une oeuvre sacrée est par essence parfaite; le disciple doit l'adopter tout entière, sans essayer de lui ajouter ou retirer quoi que ce soit.

A sacred text is necessarily perfect; the disciple should take it as it is, as a whole, without trying to adjust or remake what it is.

This is crystal clear, and it appears in the course of an argument against the alterations made to the deck by Waite and Crowley. Still, living in the USA, where there's a great deal of That Sort of Thing in the air, these assertions that the Tarot de Marseille is a "sacred work" to which we must bend the knee and accept as a revelation that must be swallowed whole or not at all, is rather off-putting. Conver said it, I believe it; that settles it!

Especially since, in a later passage, he also refers to the TdM as a folklore transmission, and observes that as a part of the folk process, lore is passed from one generation to another without being perfectly understood. This is part of the appeal of the TdM, a genuine reason to respect general fidelity to its outline — and also an argument against what Christians would call "proof-texting" the small details of one variant, imagining that this colour or this leaf is the key to the mystery, and its alteration or absence makes some other deck an imperfect and impure thing.

I've always liked the French word intégrisme, probably because it doesn't carry the social and political baggage of "fundamentalism," its imperfect twin in English. Its metaphor of intact preserved purity reminds that there are arguments in favour of holding such a position. But still, it is something I think it's best to be leery of. There are those who uphold the Marteau deck as The One, and attach great meaning in its colour scheme, even though it does not date from before the 1930s. What would appear to me to be quite serviceable decks like the Hadar deck have been accused of deviance, and I seem to remember some posts that say that the Camoin and Jodorowsky deck itself contains error.

I came back to pip card decks generally because I came to find the English RWS mainstream tradition confining. Is it possible to maintain an appropriate respect for the TdM tradition without taking one form or another of it and giving that version the spurious virtues of "inerrancy in the original autographs?"

What Hadar and Jodorowsky did isn't far removed from what Smith and Waite or Harris and Crowley did: they remade a Tarot based on an assumption that esoteric ideas lie behind its designs, and their versions were made to represent those ideas. The fact that TdM designs were deeply rooted in parts of France, while any Tarot was exotic in England, goes far to explain the far freer adaptations made in England.

Restoration is frequently heard by those who are making changes while wishing to deny that they are doing anything of the sort. Again, religion suggests analogies: the Mormons claim that they have "restored" the true original practice and doctrine of Christianity, even if it seems obvious to outsiders that they have made highly original changes.

Attempting to make the true Tarot an ideal for which any extant deck is but an imperfect approximation is again something that is analogous to religion. The hard-core Bible thumper affirms that the Bible is infallible "in the original autographs", which are conveniently unavailable; this gives him an escape hatch if cornered. The Roman church wishes us to have vast respect for the teachings of the Pope, but he is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. This gives them quite a bit of wiggle room, especially when dealing with statements by popes before the doctrine was announced. The number of statements covered by the doctrine varies by who you're talking to.

Myself, I consider that there was a great deal of folk transmission and historical contingencies in both the selection of particular designs to be the TdM "ur-text"; and also the selection of the TdM, as opposed to the Tarot de Besançon, or even a North Italian deck, as the foundation of the esoteric tradition. Preserved older decks seem to show a range of variety not found in the eighteenth century TdM, and the development of a playing card industry in the city and the selection of the TdM pattern as a standard had something to do with tax laws and the areas where the tarot game was popular, not because the people of Marseilles were better acquainted with Thoth and Hermes Trismegistus. These are among the reasons why I do not consider myself a TdM intégriste; I'd be prepared to accept other historic decks, or engraved decks generally faithful to the traditional images, as quite adequate embodiments of the Tarot.

Originally Posted by CharmingPixie

This leads me to suspect that the True Tarot is somewhere in between the individual decks. Does that make sense? I think that truths can be found in the inconsistencies.

The folklorist in me wants to deny the possibility of a "true" Tarot. This may not be far different from what you mean, but there is a difference.

Take a traditional folk ballad, say, "Barbara Allen." Current scholars will tell you that great mischief was done in the past by people who collected various versions; they presumed to critique them, seeking the "truest" and most "authentic" version of the ballad's words and music. This was usually done by seeking archaic features, and attempting to reconstruct an "original" form of the lyrics. In fact, the current model holds that any version of the song that people actually sing is "authentic."

To treat a folksong as some sort of museum piece or textual problem is to intervene in the original path of song transmission with goals that are extraneous to it, and that threaten to distort it. A canny busker learns to give the audience what they want. If a vocal segment of the audience wants archaism, they'll invent archaism.

I suspect that the card shapes were standardised at least in large measure to make them easily recognised by card players. Even a chess master may be taken aback trying to play with pieces shaped like Civil War generals or Pokemon characters. In this sense, any card design that could meet that purpose is "authentic" enough to serve.

In fact, the printing tradition we know of of the TdM isn't much older than esoteric tarot. Wide variations exist in the pre-1760 decks we have. Probably any of them would have served game players. My understanding is in fact that the designation "Tarot de Marseille" starts with Paul Marteau. The traditional designs were pregnant with the possibility of esoteric speculation, even if this was not their first use, and even if we accept that it was largely Court de Gebelin or Etteilla's work. And once that speculation was introduced into the stream, Tarot producers gave the audience what it wanted, and added "esoteric" detail.

Maybe I'm just stuck in the twentieth century, but it seems to me that a Tarot deck is a fluid concept, a stream transmitted by essentially folk processes --- essentially, a "social construction." (always hated that jargon, but it fits.) It isn't a work of authorship of a sort that would make it possible to establishing a canonical text by critical processes. If there's any question of "authenticity," I'd say that any deck that contains traditional figures and that could be used to play the Tarot game is authentic enough to pass.


A sacred text is necessarily perfect; the disciple should take it as it is, as a whole, without trying to adjust or remake what it is.

Tell that to a Talmudic scholar.

I always kinda liked the idea that we could never know the real origins of tarot. Growing up the way I did with everything pigeonholed into one or another esoteric tradition, after while you started to feel kind of stifled. Like you couldn't use your imagination.

In fact, one of the things we really didn't like about theosophy was that they'd tell you pretty much anything you imagined, you didn't really imagine, it was all from a past life. Jason Lee will tell you how he tested them and found them wanting.

To treat a folksong as some sort of museum piece or textual problem is to intervene in the original path of song transmission with goals that are extraneous to it, and that threaten to distort it.

I see this as close to the same thing that gave us the US Copyright Laws and forbids downloading and especially sampling and creation of sound collage as Negativland do. It is an effort to push everything into a mould (yes, mould. Mould, mould, mould) and say it has to be this way and can't be any other way. That way lies stagnation and the loss of intellectual as well as artistic free play. It's enough to make you want to make up your own tarot and then see what people will go around saying it "really" is, if it catches on.