When Medieval Draftsmanship Mirrors Cognitive Science
I am a tarot reader. (Yes, I know. When I tell people I am a tarot reader I get the same reaction I would get by claiming to be a stripper, minus the erections). The thing is, I approach the cards from my background as a visual communicator who understands that the job of an ‘image maker’ is to affect people through images. You probably know that the term ‘empathy’ was used by a psychologist, Theodor Lipps, to describe a certain relationship between a person and a work of art. For me, the tarot is at once a tool and a research field to understand that particular kind of empathy.
When you tell people you like tarot cards they tell you these images are associated with insanity and chicanery. You look around, you visit a few new age shops, read a few books, treat yourself to a few readings and end up confirming what you already thought: the tarot’s public image has been modeled by con-men and madmen. Trying to reconcile a love of the imagery of the cards with that harsh fact is difficult. It helps to know that the tarot’s official history is a fraud concocted in the 18th Century and that all the attitudes and superstitions around the cards evolved from that fraud. It also helps to know that in the last 20 years, a few serious researchers and historians have come forward with important and solid historical data that show how the tarot is a product of Christian medieval Europe and that it was initially conceived as a game of chance. Now, here is where things start to get interesting. First you learn that a long time before the tarot was used for divination it was used for poetic purposes. That is, the cards would be dealt out to a group of ladies and then the poet would improvise a few verses of poetry, comparing each lady with the image she was holding. The tarot was first, then, a game of analogies! When you dig a little deeper still on the use of analogies in the Middle Ages, you end up uncovering the notion of symmetry. In a work of art, each detail mirrors another detail either at a visual or at a conceptual level. All these details together mirror the larger work, giving the viewers a visual thread that would map endless conceptual connections and suggest to the mind a certain learning pathway. Most medieval visual documents were crafted with this notion. At this point, the visual nature of the tarot starts coming forward, and with it, the beauty of its design.
The medieval notion of symmetry made use of images to facilitate analogical thinking. Cognitive scientists today see analogies as a suggestive way to foster creative problem-solving. Many of the experiments suggest that when we use a graphic, or an image, to illustrate an analogy people understand the analogy more easily because it is easier for us to map visual sameness than relational sameness. All these ideas make it possible for us to start thinking about the tarot in different terms. The depth of the tarot’s original didactic intention is hard to establish. It was, after all, a game of chance which is still practiced in many countries of Europe just as we would play bridge or poker. But thanks to people like Michael Dummet, Gertrude Moakley, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, Robert O’Neil, Ross Caldwell and Michael Hurst we can trace its whole narrative sequence back to a ‘summa of salvation’, a morality tale that is a reflection of the time in which the tarot was created. That is the reason why you have never heard this story. The ideological agenda of the ‘new-age world’, which has claimed the tarot as a counter-cultural space for those who reject any official, male-modeled spirituality won’t have it. The market wants what the market wants.
Even so, if we want to understand the tarot as a visual document, we will do well to acknowledge the notion of symmetry – and its correlation with the tarot’s use in playing with analogies – as a viable starting point. The current understanding of the tarot, rooted in a fraudulent history, has it as a repository of symbolic knowledge. In practice this reduces the tarot to a set of mnemonic keys whose alleged meanings are parroted without taking into account the actual images. Very influential in this view has been the adherence by many tarot enthusiasts to the Jungian notion of archetypes and synchronicity as a way to explain the tarot. Disregarding the inherent value of such models, they constitute an a-historical view of the tarot that contributes nothing to our iconographic understanding of the trump series, and reduces the experience of the images to a mere intellectual exercise.
As an alternative, I propose a phenomenological approach to the tarot that doesn’t focus on symbolism as an intellectual construct but rather on the way we experience images. By contrasting the the medieval notion of symmetry with our current understanding of the brain through up-to-date cognitive and neurological research we will be able to apprehend the tarot’s language of shape. That way we will learn that in order for us to experience these images we must see them as actions, always keeping in mind that shape is a manifestation of movement. We must understand each card as a snapshot from a movement in a sequence. It is not that The Magician is ‘Snapshot One’ and La Papesse is ‘Snapshot Two’, but that The Magician includes the actual, visually verifiable act of standing up straight we see depicted in the card and it includes both the moment before and after that action. In other words, every image suggests a sense of flow. How do we experience that flow? We do so by mirroring the image. In its purest state, each image gives us a very clear directive: “Do as I do. Be as I Am.”
Mirroring is implicit in the idea of symmetry. Both are rooted on detecting sameness, a notion that is brought forward by analogical thinking.
Linguists suspect that we understand the world in terms of metaphors and that an important part of how we think about the world corresponds to our physical orientation in space. A very intriguing example of this is our understanding of time. Most of the metaphors we use to think about time are mapped from our relationship with space. In the tarot this becomes obvious as Left becomes ‘the past’ and Right becomes ‘the future’, so we can read the passage of time as a narrative and literally ‘travel’ through it. As we use our spatial orientation to orient ourselves though time each one of the the character’s postures on a card contains information about where we are, where we came from and where are we going. Here the idea of flow is again implicit. Using our body to orient ourselves both in chronological and experiential time implies mirroring with our body the flow we see in the cards. Current research on mirror neurons suggests that perception and action are linked and that the very act of contemplating an image engages the motor areas of the brain related with the performance of that action. More important, even contemplating an action engages us emotionally because those areas of the brain connected to mirror neurons are linked to the areas of the brain concerned with emotions. The implication this may have for our understanding of body movement is profound. Researchers who study emotions have found that mimicking facial gestures elicits the same emotions we normally associate with these gestures. Pantomiming sadness, for example, would eventually erode our sense of being content. Just as mood can affect our body posture, our body posture seem to be able to affect our mood. Mirroring a tarot card means embodying the features it represents, so each one of us could access our own experience of that body posture. In the tarot, “do as I do” becomes “feel as you have felt”. This mirroring serves as an opening for all the memories, beliefs, thoughts and sensations we have learned to associate with the specific action we see depicted in the card. Experiencing a body posture is a way of bringing forward our experience of the world. Given that this a subjective experience it opens the door for all our personal background and biases to fill-in the gaps, giving that body experience a unique and personal quality. In this way the tarot’s images can facilitate creative thinking by means of analogy. A card elicits our experience of our own body, and with it, our vast store of knowledge.
From a cognitive point of view, the tarot’s images are useful in narrowing down the field from which we can map the analogies between our current situation and our past experiences. From the perspective of the body, mirroring the tarot’s images imparts in us a sense of orientation, it gives us a key to access these past experiences and a way of grounding our circumstances in our physical sense of self.
In my Lecture Notes I alluded to the medieval quadriga exegesis as a feasible coordinates that may facilitate our lecture of tarot. This schema proposes four levels of lecture for a document: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. A phenomenological approach to the tarot would link the first and fourth layers of meaning and focus on them, leaving purposefully aside both allegorical and moral levels. It is my contention that the allegorical and moral level of the tarot are intrinsically linked, since we need to understand an allegory in order to read its moral implication. I do believe these levels to be useful in a reading, but understanding them supposes a familiarity with the history and iconography of the images that I don’t feel entitled to impart here. There is still much debate on the actual iconographic origin of the cards. Even so, I urge the serious student of the tarot to seek the work of those authors I have already cited. Besides, my practical experience suggest that a a non-symbolic approach to the tarot is more likely to generate practical information for the client. To underline the way in which our anagogical reading of the tarot is based on the literal one, in my Lecture Notes I proposed the formula: objective observation prompts intuitive insight. This essay could be seen as an expansion of that idea. ‘Objective observation’ will be inspired here by the theory of embodied semantics as way to help us understand the notion of shape-as-meaning, an idea that gives root to the tarot’s visual language and suggests that there is enough information in the posture of the characters featured in the cards for us to detect meaning without having to refer to any symbolism. In my work with the tarot I understand embodiment at two different levels. First there is the automatic physical response a person may experience by looking at an image. That response can be strengthened by describing the image in the card as an action instead of seeing it as a symbol. This is a sort of automatic mirroring in which the person’s experiences of that action – plus all the abstract concepts they have learned to relate to it – are elicited. At a second level we have the conscious action of mirroring the image, expressed when we suggest to a person that acting like the character in a card could be a positive course of action. In the conversations in this book I will suggest that we can build up the second kind of mirroring on top of the first one, in a pacing and leading schema. For now let’s just say that the physical description of an image serves both to activate a memory search in the person (sometimes this will be defined as a transderivational search or ‘TDS’) that occurs as an automatic response, and to point out a specific attitude the person may purposefully enact.
It is for this reason that the description of the image must focus on the human character we see in there. That human character, which very often is the main figure in the card, is the easiest element to map to the person who looks at the cards. It may be possible that at some point someone would feel they identified with one of the horses in The Chariot or with the black bird in The Star, but it is more likely that the person will mirror the charioteer or the blonde woman pouring water. In order to help us focus on these human characters I have devised a ‘grammar’ that will help us articulate the different parts of a character’s body and detect a coherent meaning. The basic elements of this grammar can be found in “An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development”, experimental psychologists Eleanor Gibson and Anne Pick state that the successful development of a baby depends on three key elements: Communication, Object Perception and Manipulation, and Bodily Motion. In order to thrive an infant must be able to engage in meaningful communication with others. At a very early stage this communication is of a non-verbal nature, consisting of gaze, gesture, and vocalizations. After this initial stage the child starts interacting with objects and understanding their meaning by experiencing their effect. Eventually the child’s legs and spine will be strong enough for him to become an ‘object among objects’, interacting with others from a more movable perspective. I confess that I read these findings with great curiosity and excitement, because they closely match my interpretation of the observable features of a character in a tarot card. When I was trying to synthesize a methodology to observing the images, I noticed that, with the exception of The Moon card, every single one of the trumps had a main character, and therefore, each single card could be mirrored from the perspective of our body experiences. (Even The Moon has a physical component, as it may be argued that an absence of human figures in the card suggests the possibility of our physical absence. Advise doesn’t get much more direct than that!). I also noticed that there were three constants in all the cards: all the characters have a head, a body, and two hands. I noticed that the character’s head could be categorized in three ways: facing left, facing right or facing straight forward. There were also three postures for most of the bodies: sitting, standing, or walking. Finally, while the hands of all the characters can be seen in several activities, they were always engaged in some action. Such action gives meaning to the objects these characters are holding, and by extension, they define the meaning of the four elements illustrated in the four suits, since they are all elements we handle with our hands, and therefore their meaning is the use we make of them. It was clear to me that by describing each one of these features in one card we could get a sense of what each specific posture means to us at an experiential level. More importantly, by looking at a few cards in a row we can see a movement sequence that can be described as a story. I want to make very clear that I am not claiming any historical validity of such meanings. I have devised a way to look at the cards that is founded in the tarot’s medieval origin. That is, I propose we read the tarot using the same coordinates that we would use to read any other medieval document: by acknowledging the four-layered reading proposed by quadriga exegesis and by following visual symmetries to prompt analogical thinking. But I am not using these coordinates to explain the tarot, only to activate it as a visual language. I have condensed all these keys into a poem:
Presence is meaning.
To the left, remembrance, to the right, l’Avenir.
Those who look straight at you are seeing the present.
Fill your head with attention.
Do what the images do, not what they say.
Sit passively, stand receptively and walk actively.
Embody your destination.
Duel with the sword, build with the wand,
offer a cup, plant a coin.
Let the hands show your intention.
Forget what red is and notice what is red,
stand on a number as you would on a hill,
strip down to your armor;
for what turns gold into lead also turns salt into sugar,
what one step fulfills another could encumber
and what you wear wears you down.
Know an image by its friends:
the deepest truths hide in the obvious.
Let’s look at it section by section:
Presence is meaning
stands for the very idea of embodiment. Each one of the tarot’s images features a main character and that main character has a body we can mirror with our own body. The very act of a character being there, illustrated in the card, is a message, a piece of direct advice: “Be like me! Stand up straight on your own two feet, remember where you came from, practice your craft and honor your talent”. Such words spoken by the reader will elicit a metaphorical mapping from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ in the client’s brain. Remember, one of the main findings of current cognitive science is that thought is mostly unconscious. We go through memories, connections, inferences, and sensorimotor responses without being consciously aware of it. We simply cannot help doing it. That is why the reader only has to describe the action depicted in the cards to get the process going in the client’s brain. The main assumption here is that, given the context in which these images are being described in a reading about that person, the client’s brain will naturally map anything the character is doing into an orientation about how to behave. More precisely, the literal attitude described from a card will be mapped by the client’s brain into a metaphorical way of being. There is no ‘technique’ and no magic words. And there is no right or wrong description of an image. What we really want is for our words, our ‘interpretations’ to get out of the way so the client can experience the image at a pre-verbal level, with our words simply building on top of that experience. But of course, our brain won’t simply process that information at a literal level. Metaphorical thinking emerges from our literal experience of the world. At a basic level our literal language accounts for our direct, embodied experience of objects and events, upon which we then we build more abstract models of communication by giving all those literal experiences a metaphorical value. In this way we use our direct experience to describe events that aren’t directly linked to our ‘here and now’. Since all metaphors imply a transfer of properties from the source domain to the target domain, we can use what we physically know in order to understand or describe what cannot be experienced physically. I have already described the way in which we use space to map our understanding of time. By looking at a few cards in a sequence we can see the passage of time in the way we have experienced it. But it’s not only a spatial orientation which defines our understanding of time. Each one of the tarot’s images depicts a motion that carries implicit a sense of timing. Compare for example the steady pace of The Fool with the abrupt momentum of The Tower. There is a speed in Judgement that we don’t see in The Hermit, and a steadiness of pace in Justice what we may intuit in The Emperor but feels very slow compared with The Magician. This sense of timing comes again from our personal and direct experience of the actions depicted and suggest narrative elements that can be used in a reading.
Here I would like to point out something so obvious that it may even be perceived as absurd: the identity of each one of the tarot’s characters is defined by its posture. The Fool is walking with a bag over his shoulder and a walking stick in the other hand, while being chased by a dog. If we decide to represent The Fool sitting on a throne and holding a scepter, he won’t be a fool anymore. Those are the attributes that give visual identity to The Emperor. Shape is meaning and, therefore, each character’s posture is meaningful because it can be mirrored by us and it can be experienced from a multi-sensory perspective. We can remember how it feels to walk in a landscape – here, again, we see time being illustrated – and we can remember the smell of the countryside, recall the warm feeling of the sun on our back or recall the scary thought of being chased by a dog. More importantly, mirroring the image it would suggest to us that we should ignore that dog and walk at a steady pace. At either a literal or metaphorical level that is all we need to be told by the image because that is all of what that action can afford us.
To the left, remembrance, to the right, l’Avenir
Those who look straight at you are seeing the present
is alluding at our space-time coordinates: we learn to understand time by moving through space. In their book ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’ George Lakoff and Mark Johnson provide us with a very clear model for this metaphor:
The Moving Observer Metaphor
|Source Domain (Spatial Motion)||Target Domain (Temporal Change)|
|Location of the Observer||The Present|
|Space in Front of The Observer||The Future|
|Space Behind The Observer||The Past|
|Locations on the Observer’s Path||Times On Motion|
|Distance Moved by the Observer||Amount of Time ‘Passed’|
These simple coordinates: Left (Space Behind The Observer), Center (Location of the Observer), Right (Space in Front of The Observer) are giving us something to see, something to mirror, and therefore, something to understand: a sense of flow, a storyline, a narrative continuum that we can define as ‘what is happening’ or ‘where we are going’.
Current research on embodied meaning tells us that we build our more abstract thoughts on top of our bodily experience of the world, from the very basic directions, like up, down, straight, curved, diagonal, horizontal and vertical, backwards and forward, to the most complex mental operations we are capable of, like mathematical or philosophical inquiry. That is why, when we refer to a man in terms of him being ‘straight’, we don’t assume he has an iron rod instead of spine, when we refer of a certain person as ‘twisted’ nobody suspects scoliosis, or when we talk about a woman being ’cold‘ no one would consider using her to storage fish. We are able to automatically transfer these attributes from our original experience to the new context that is presented to us. Back to the tarot, even if from an iconographic point of view The Hermit could be seen as representing either the reversals of fortune in the form of old age, Time or ascetic renunciation, we must first and foremost see it as man walking with the help of a cane and a lantern. A person may not know anything about asceticism, but we have all used a lantern at some time or another along our lives. Knowing what the card means from an iconographic -moral/allegorical- point of view is important to us, but that is not what would be more pervasive when talking to a client. That is all theoretical information that the client cannot necessarily link to her personal experience. But we all have used a lantern to see, and therefore, we could use that experience to understand other events, different from using an actual lantern. So, we can be confident that when we are describing to a person how The Hermit is “using his light to gain clarity” this person won’t be just hearing us talk about changing the front porsche’s light bulbs, but potentially about an issue that needs to be understood. Joseph Grady speak of primary metaphors as those first level abstractions we map from our bodily experience of the world. Among these primary metaphors we have “UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING”:
Understanding is Seeing Metaphor
|Source Domain (Vision)||Target Domain (Understanding)|
|Seeing an Object Clearly||Understanding an Idea|
|Person Who Sees||Person Who Understands|
|Light||“Light” of Reason|
|Visual Focusing||Mental Attention|
|Visual Acuity||Mental Acuity|
|Physical Viewpoint||Mental Perspective|
Notice how all of these mappings apply to The Hermit, and how the literal description of The Hermit’s attitude or posture can be understood metaphorically in virtue of the ‘Understanding is Seeing’ metaphor. The crucial point here is that we naturally map these sources to these targets in our daily lives without paying too much attention to it. That seems to be how abstract thought arises. So, when I talk about reading a card literally as the most direct way of eliciting experiential meaning in a person I am not inviting you to cross your fingers, trust your ‘gift’ and guess, or try to get it right by any cunning device, but to understand and utilize the way our brains make meaning. Below I have copied a list of primary metaphors compiled by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I have paired some tarot images with them. Try to think of sentences in which the literal description of the images can elicit these primary metaphors:
|Affection Is Warmth:||The Sun|
|Important Is Big:||The Pope, The Devil, Judgement|
|Happy Is Up:||Judgement, The Magician|
|Less Is Down:||The Hanged Man, The Tower|
|Intimacy Is Closeness:||The Sun, The Lover|
|Difficulties Are Burdens:||The Fool, The Star, Temperance|
|Similarity Is Closeness:||The Devil, The Sun, The Moon|
|Linear Scales Are Paths:||The whole suit of Wands, Swords, Cups or coins|
|Organization Is Physical Structure:||The Tower|
|Help Is Support:||The Tower, The Chariot|
|Time Is Motion:||The Wheel of Fortune, The Hermit, The Hanged man|
|States Are Locations:||The Hanged Man, The Devil, La Papesse, The Wheel of Fortune|
|Change Is Motion:||The Wheel of Fortune, Death|
|Purposes Are Destinations:||The World, The Chariot, The Hermit, The Fool|
|Purposes Are Desired Objects:||The Lover, The Fool, The World|
|Causes Are Physical Forces:||The Star, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, The Tower, Judgement|
|Relationships Are Enclosures:||The Lover, The Sun, The Tower, The Devil|
|Control Is Up:||The Hanged Man, Justice, Strength, The Emperor, The Empress, The Tower, The magician|
|Understanding Is Seeing:||The Hermit|
|Understanding Is Grasping:||Strength, La Papesse|
|Seeing Is Touching:||The Sun, The Hermit, The Tower|
You may notice how the same images have been paired with several different primary metaphors. If we talk about The Hermit in terms of “using his lantern to see” the ‘Understanding Is Seeing’ metaphor seems pretty apt, but if we were to add “The Hermit is using his lantern to see where he came from” then we will need the ‘Time Is Motion’ metaphor to map the left of the card to ‘the past’, the right of the card to the future and the whole left-right motion to the coordinates of The Hermit’s lifetime. While at a literal level The Hermit may be visually tracing back his steps, the sentence invite our brain to take its metaphorical meaning as in “looking at the past”. If we extended our reading further by saying “The Hermit is using his lantern to see where he came from and get a sense of where he is going” we will need the ‘Purposes Are Destinations’ metaphor to reframe The Hermit’s actions as mental activity conductive to orientation as a goal. Just as a simple concept can be mapped into a single body experience, we also put all we know about several body experiences -seeing, walking, sorting physical obstacles- at the service of one more complex notion. Combining the ‘Understanding Is Seeing’ metaphor with the ‘Time Is Motion’ metaphor and the ‘Purposes Are Destinations’ metaphor is what will allow us to see a man who walks with a cane and points a lantern to the left as letting our experience inform our actions.
Fill your head with attention.
This key corresponds to the head of the characters, or more precisely with their glances. By looking the character’s head we will know if the figure is suggesting us to pay attention to the past (Left), the present (Straight Forward) or the future (Right). depending on the direction of the main character’s head one single card will be saying to us “look back”, “Look ahead”, “focus on here and now”; but when we see more than one card in a sequence we can observe a ‘head movement’ that describes a change of focus, a redirection or even a persistence of attention.
Do what the images do, not what they say
is a direct allusion to observe the character’s action without getting derailed by its alleged symbolic meaning. In The Moon card, for example, I have suggested that an absence of human figures suggests our physical absence. This will be a lot more useful than seeing The Moon as ‘the mother archetype’. From a phenomenological perspective, night-time is dark and we have a set of experiential learnings that associate darkness with danger. But we also have an experience of the moon that gives us a sense of timing: we know that the darkness will only last a fortnight, and this is reinforced by the fact that after The Moon card we have The Sun card: daylight trumps night-time. Still, within itself, we can see the moon as full and regard all of our experiences about how this event occurs once a month. Here, a phenomenological observation of the image in itself is suggesting a different sense of time that we can, by transferring our literal experience into a metaphor, map into a feminine cycle if this is analogically sound. The moon is not a disembodied, abstract symbol, but an event we all have experienced. We don’t need to read Clarissa Pinkola-Este’s books to understand what The Moon means, we only need a window.
Sit passively, stand receptively and walk actively.
Embody your destination.
In his extraordinary book ‘From Molecule to Metaphor’, Jerome Feldman points: “… the process of understanding through embodied simulation inherently involves a choice of perspective. The three basic alternatives are: agent (pushing), experiencer (being pushed) and observer (seeing third party)”. A big part of what ‘mirroring the tarot’ means has to do with finding ourselves in the cards. We find three main body postures in the tarot: sitting, standing and walking. We possess experiential information for these three states. Sitting is our most passive state after lying down (which is not depicted in the tarot). Just as the child that learns to stand, in our upright position we become ‘an object among objects’. We are engaged with our surroundings but we aren’t yet active. That is why I describe that state as ‘receptive’. We gather information, we emit signals, but there is no definite sense of movement. Such movement will be the next step, defined as the actual action of walking. (There are other body postures defined in the tarot, like falling down in The Tower and kneeling down in The Star. Both of them imply one step beyond being standing still, and therefore they will be considered as active). Any of these three actions defines the ‘destination’ of our mind, our attitude expressed by our body. Mirroring the card would then imply mirroring that physical attitude, either at a literal or at a metaphorical level. For example, we have seen how The Fool walks forward, with his eyes fixed on the future. At a literal level this body posture could be mirrored by taking a walk, while at a metaphorical level we could talk about ‘moving on’ as a way to suggest we are forgetting an ex-lover. The important thing to reinforce here, that every single action in a character’s posture can be seen as direct advice, with application that could be literal or metaphorical. Comparing the different body postures of the characters we see in a row of cards gives us a sense of sequential motion describing an evolution or change of action: going from a card that shows a character sitting down to a card that shows a character walking gives a clear indication of taking action, while the opposite would suggest we wait. At each level: head, body and hands, the characters are giving us direct pointers as to be, or how to act.
Duel with the sword, build with the wand, offer a cup, plant a coin.
Four elements conform the tarot’s suits: swords, wands, cups and coins. We manipulate all of these elements with our hands. Both the use we have for them and the context in which we use them defines what they mean. Think for a moment about what would happen if a knight challenges another knight to a duel, and at the very last minute each warrior draws a cup instead of a sword. The whole event would get re-contextualized and the ‘crossing’ of cups will evoke in us a different set of multi-sensory references than those evoked by the crossing of swords. The sound of two cups clinking together, and all the memories it brings in all different sensory levels would be the meaning of the suit of Cups, just as the sound of two swords clashing, and all the scenes that sound brings up would be the meaning of the suit of swords. From this we can infer what is behind the phrase Let the hands show your intention. Someone who offers us a cup intends something very different from someone who points a sword at us or who gives us a coin. The hands of a character in a card show us what the character is doing, and since our experience of any object has an emotional component implicit in our reading of the goal such an object will suggest we accomplish whatever a character is doing with his hands and tells us what it is the character is hoping to achieve.
Let the hands show your intention
Looking at a single card, the hands of a character give us specific ideas about the kind of action that it makes sense to imitate. Looking at several cards in a row, each action of the hands can be seen as steps in a movement sequence, revealing a more complex and complete intention. The transformation of an object held by a character into a different object would suggest a corresponding evolution or reinterpretation in our goals. A passive scepter that becomes a cane suggests action, just as a cup being poured, symmetrically transfixed into a person tied up, suggest stagnation.
Forget what red is and notice what is red,
is another reference to privileging experience over disembodied symbolism. It is our experience of red, as in blood rushing through our veins, what gives red its meaning. Since this verse, and the following five, are symmetrical, this line will mirror this other line in the poem: For what turns gold into lead also turns salt into sugar. Meaning, defined by our relationship with the world, is what differences a nugget if one metal god only to cast little soldiers from a nugget of another metal we treasure. We experience a certain kind of white dust as salty and another one as sweet. We know what ‘salt’ means because our taste buds remember that particular experience and can distinguish it from the experience associated with the word ‘sugar’.
Stand on a number as you would on a hill
has symmetry with what one step fulfills another could encumber and both refer to using numbers sequentially and not symbolically. We learn to experience numbers through our fingers and we use that embodied knowledge to count. Counting can be both a quantitative act and a qualitative act. Two is more than one, which could imply that two defines a higher quantity than one, but also, that two is better than one if we are planning to venture into an unexplored cave, or one can be better than two if we got a last piece of cake and we are alone at home. Numbers define progressions that expand or contract. ‘Standing’ on a sequence of numbers suggest that, by orienting ourselves in space, numbers will point to us if we are advancing or retreating, moving ‘up’ or ‘down’.
Strip down to your armor
has symmetry with what you wear wears you down. Both sentences invite us to read the progressive nakedness of the tarot characters as empowerment through transcendence of the material world. In the trump’s sequence the characters start heavily dressed and start loosing clothing as soon as the heavenly realm becomes more present. The message seems to be simple: the more we need to wear, the less powerful we are. We are limited by our status, social perceptions, roles and insecurities. A naked character becomes pure movement. At a secular level I would reframe that by saying that transcendence lies beyond our menial needs for status symbols, and flow is only achieved if we drop our vertical defenses. The flesh that cannot be pierced cannot be loved. A raised bridge cannot be crossed.
Know an image by its friends:
is an allusion to the very notion of symmetry. Any image has a ‘friend’ on anther image that shares some of its visual or conceptual attributes. Some of these visual pairings are quite obvious, like The Lover and Judgement, or Temperance and The Star, some of them are conceptual in nature, like The Pope and The Devil, and therefore harder to grasp. Beyond that, the above set of keys suggest that all heads have symmetry with the other heads, all bodies have symmetry with other bodies, and all of the hands, and the object they hold, have symmetry with other hands and objects. Comparing and contrasting these symmetries is what gives us a narrative. But there are of course many other things that are symmetrical, like La Papesse’s body and the building in The Tower. (By comparing the evolution of the crown from one image to the other, we get a message). The pillars in the Chariot’s canopy are symmetrical to the trees in The Hanged Man, and the celestial body in The Sun has symmetry with The Hermit’s lantern. In fact, if you fan the cards so you can see at once only half of all of them, you will discover countless symmetries. They aren’t for me to point out but for you to discover.
All these keys suggest that we can draw a lot of information by approaching individual cards as actions and also by comparing how these actions evolve in a sequence of cards. In his book ‘The Meaning of The Body’ Mark Johnson tells us that “life and movement are intrinsically linked”. Cognitive scientists talk about ‘schemas’ as conceptual structures we have for understanding experiences. All of the movement schemas we have learned through our life-experience and have been encoded in our brains are activated in response to our environment. Since our brain is, in a way, an self-regulating best-match seeker mechanism, this often happens below our conscious awareness. But the power these schemas have to bring forward memories, feelings, and physiological sensations is the very act of meaning-making. We don’t need to be told what things mean because we know, we have experienced them, not as abstract constructs but in real life. Mark Johnson also points out how, curiously, our interface gets erased in the act of perception: we don’t feel our own body but these things our body is in contact with. That makes it very easy for us to overlook our own physicality as the foundation of meaning-making. That is why we can say: the deepest truths hide in the obvious.
The theory of embodied semantics proposes that “concepts are represented in the brain within the same sensory-motor circuitry in which the enactment of that concept relies”. My contention is that, since the objective of perception is to inform our actions, and since the human brain seems to respond to still images implying motion as if these images were actually moving, describing images as actions is a shorter path to suggest an idea to the brain. This all sounds very complex when in truth it is very simple: while looking at the tarot we must work with what is there, in the image, because that is a symmetrical – or analogical – way of tapping into what is ‘there’ within the other person’s experience. Describing a card automatically becomes a description of the person who is looking at the card. As I have already hinted when I mentioned mirror neurons, this model of thought argues that mental connections are in fact active neural connections. Of uttermost importance for my model is the idea, promoted by many cognitive experts, that the brain doesn’t separate shape from meaning, and therefore, we must look at each card knowing that the action depicted in it shows in itself its own conceptual intention.
On the other hand ‘intuitive insight’ can be further understood to be analogical thinking, and as such, stripped of any vagueness or mysticism. Considered by many as our brain’s best talent, analogical thinking is currently used by any student trying to solve new problems based on old lessons he read in a book, by lawyers who look for the right precedent for their cases, by researchers on artificial intelligence building computer models of neural connections, by scientists open to a ‘Eureka! moment’ or designers who seek inspiration in nature, by poets trying to say the same old things in new ways, and by anybody who uses their previous experience to face new challenges. Analogical thinking can also be seen as the root of magical thinking, as the sorcerer who aims to control nature by handling little bits of it. In that regard I would like to clarify that I am not proposing a causal relationship between a few random cards and a person’s life as a magician would. Seeing something happening in the cards won’t automatically make anything happen in real life. What I propose is that whatever can be pointed out in the card and taken as analogous to the person’s life can inspire an action if we build up on the empathy that is established between the image and the person, so that the image becomes a suggestion. This concept lies at the heart of the model I am proposing.
Analogical thinking can be very useful in fostering creativity and proposing unexpected insights, but is not magic. Although our ability to map an analogy doesn’t guarantee that the analogy is right, analogical thinking is our most effective tool when it comes to breaking away from ‘here and now’ to help us find alternative solutions to our problems. In working with the tarot, analogies have proved to be exceptionally useful at suggesting ideas. As Milton Erickson put it beautifully when speaking/writing about analogies in hypnosis:
“Because they can’t reject the analogy; they can recognize the parallel. If you just talk about the problem they can refuse to recognize that. The analogy they have to recognize; they have to recognize the parallel. In doing so, they partially recognize the problem.”
By understanding shape as meaning we can elicit an analogical response in a person. This form of advice taps into the person’s experience without imposing an external frame of reference. We are using that person’s experiential knowledge to define her coordinates and any possible course of action. Using the tarot’s images to help a person remember those learnings – either explicit or implicit – that they already have, can help them cope with reality in their own terms. The main idea I want to propose here is that in a tarot reading we use images to talk to the brain in a suggestive way. To clarify our objective, we must strive to do this by the most direct means, and along the way getting rid of any superstitious procedure whose effect within the reading cannot be causally established.
In conclusion, a descriptive approach to the tarot, both historically sound and in tune with today’s cognitive research should accomplish two things: first, by using medieval keys -quadriga exgesis and symmetry- to read the tarot as a medieval document we could reframe all the current notions about ‘secret codes’ and ‘hidden mysteries’ people associates to the tarot into a more sober understanding of what these images actually are. (As far as I know, acknowledging the quadriga exegesis as an useful reading schema for the tarot is something most serious historians do, but I have never seen the notion of medieval symmetry applied to the tarot before). Second, this approach should produce a more elegant model to think about the tarot, better suited to our contemporary understanding of how images affect us and what use we may have for that kind of aesthetic experience. This should help us dispense with the “How do you know the client’s question?”, “Do you look at their fingernails?” and all that nonsense which sadly defines the way in which most wannabe readers approach, or think about, tarot readings.
We now know enough about the brain to keep from using the psychic/paranormal understanding of the tarot. The supernatural is increasingly becoming an out-dated notion. If from a historical point of view the tarot was an amusing game, we can update that view to see tarot readings as cognitive play based on our brain’s ability to engage in analogical thinking to recall its own embodied knowledge. That’s how images work us.
New York, 2009