Saturday, June 10, 2017

Religious Identity Politics, Narrative Appeal & Tarot Envy

It's not uncommon for me to throw a book across the room. If the content is religious, this reaction is pretty much a given.
Only one dent -- must've liked it!
I vigorously abused a recent biography of a "spiritual artist and Christian mystic" before finally depositing it in the blue box. This particular biographer was intent on discerning not just the character of the artist, but the character -- or "Character-with-a-capital-C" -- busy at work shaping the artist. Any number of religious impulses tend to chafe me, but the one that infuriates is the effort to establish Divine Narrative in a person's life.

"And yet you call yourself a Christian."

Yeah, well. I usually dodge that by saying "'Christian' isn't an identity you claim for yourself, it's an identity other people claim on your behalf -- or not."
T(o) wit.
Still, the human concern with naming and claiming a particular narrative is inescapable, fraught and freighted. We all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For most of us, particularly those of us confronted with tragedy, that is not enough -- even the most ardent materialist is keen to reach beyond beginnings and endings in the name of something "larger" ("History" or "Science" or "Family" etc). If I say I am religious (but not spiritual) I admit to some hope that the grammar I attend to attends to me also and does indeed place me within a larger narrative at work in humanity.

Nuffadat -- let's play cards.
For me the unhappiest development under the aegis of 45 thus far is just how thoroughly his belligerence has beguiled every single one of my favourite information aggregates -- some of which had once been remarkably catholic in their scope of concern. It is doubly remarkable, then, to note which subjects seemingly unrelated to the man and his effect on, well, seemingly everything remain a matter of curiosity and exploration.

Tarot, for example.

This week over at Aeon we have James McConnachie, your typically cheerful British skeptic, asking, "Assuming that tarot cards do not work as a method of reading the future, why does tarot persist? How has tarot survived as an object, a practice, a text, and a peculiarly velvety strand in European popular culture? Where did something so strange, dream-like and overburdened with symbolism come from?"

Previously we had Bookslut Jessa Crispin relate her transformation from reluctant querent to invested (and in-demand) reader -- which she has parlayed into a real live book.

And of course there are creative types like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jeff Vandermeer who have spun remarkable narrative gold from Tarot typology. Even Tim Powers, a devout Catholic, purchased a deck of Ryder-Waite Tarot cards to assist his writing -- which he unpacked but did not shuffle.
The typology has a certain flexibility to it.
All of this is, as McConnachie dubs it, "soft tarot" -- a flexible sequence of images used to prompt the psychotherapeutic or creative process. "Hard" tarot practitioners view the cards as gateways to otherwise hidden plains of consciousness -- explicating the buried motivations and indiscreet behaviors of people not in the room, say, or catching a glimpse of the oncoming tide of fate, the better to surf the wave to favourable results.

Below: Tarot typology retrospectively applied to historical narrative in the opening title sequence for HBO's Carniv├ále. -- a brilliant manipulation of viewer intelligence and narrative yearning. We know the characters are perched on the cusp of a grand historical drama, of which they are ignorant. Yet we are beguiled to learn how the characters' particular drama(s) will unfold within these larger currents. The sequence is recycled in the opening title for FX's The Americans.

Tarot fascination is strictly page three material, of course. But still -- why the fascination at all? Where are the page three stories on palmistry, phrenology or tasseography?

My guess: due to its visual content, Tarot has become a universal story with easy, immediate appeal. The images in a deck of Tarot cards are invested with narrative, in contrast to the narratively neutered images of the face cards in a standard player's deck -- or the tea-leaves at the bottom of your cup. Essentially, everybody who beholds Tarot images "reads" them at first glance. Hey, this is a story! I get it! I'm in it!

If my Facebook feed -- to say nothing of the feed my daughters participate in -- is any indication, the predominant narrative being fostered in our collective consciousness is that of identifying as the beleaguered or even actively persecuted victim of larger forces -- "an arms-race to feel the most victimized," to quote Clay Routledge. Nobody is immune to its appeal -- that a Tarot reader was able to elevate Ms. Crispin's internal gaze from a self-defeating investment in this narrative was, from the sounds of it, an unexpected blessing. We should all be so fortunate.

This is, I suspect, why the Tarot Story has become a fixture on the third page (alongside Ayahuasca ceremonies and the reassurances of LSD microdosing, etc). Even smartypants skeptics seek affirmation they are playing a valuable role in the human drama, and not just that of a sad-sack tragedian in denial.

Concluding miscellany: "I'm the victim here!" -- liberals, conservatives, free-thinkers: whatever ideology you've subscribed to, you've probably bought into the victim narrative. And with that self-effacing disclaimer out of the way, allow me to state the obvious: evangelical Christians have swallowed the victim narrative hook, line and sinker. War Room, God's Not Dead 1 and 2 -- "these are films for people who have a fetish for feeling persecuted, and that to me is where the exploitation comes in." Thank God for Jesus, Bro! -- a parody of Christ-sploitation films. Irreligious intellectuals of liberal or conservative stripe will just have to settle for South Park reruns.

And finally some personal disclosure (Mom, this is for you): I was raised to steer clear of activities such as card-reading. Steer clear I have, and steer clear I shall. Too many friends have come back with stories about turning over the Death card -- "Bear in mind, this is a symbol of sudden, dramatic change, and not necessarily..." -- and having a loved one keel over within the week. For me the "soft" use of Tarot will never completely shake free of the "hard" -- why invite that spectre to hang over my shoulder at all?

Which circles me back to my opening peeve: if the New Testament suggests anything at all about Large Narratives, it is that humanity is spectacularly inept at discerning them. The Son of God shows up, we kill him. He reappears three days later and even his closest friends have trouble recognizing him. It takes 150 years to get the broad strokes of the story down. Message? If you think you've got a lock on THE Narrative, odds are you're wrong. Best, then, to pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.

Shalom -- WP.

3 comments:

paul bowman said...

Likewise dodging, this week on FB — without evincing quite the readiness to question it: dyspeptic young Polish-American Catholic intellectArtur Rosman.

Whisky Prajer said...

"I couldn't become Protestant, even if I tried"?? Man, I thought I was an underachiever!

paul bowman said...

haha!