“The thing itself is unreachable, but its phenomenon can be apprehended through the structures of thought.”
“To have a new vision of the future, it has always been necessary to have a new vision of the past.”
–Historian Theodore Zeldin
When I recently wrote and created The Counterculture Tarot I finished a journey: one taken nearly 50 years ago but left forgotten in a box of old news photographs. Among the images were this journey’s beacons, waiting to form a map to the experience of an influential and controversial time, very roughly a decade of the last century referred to simply as The Sixties. Opening this box released a flood of human and historical experiences, revived in photographs not widely seen and, therefore, free of accumulated iconography. Like the Tarot, these photographs told many stories. Some framed experiences of life and death, some of revolution and retribution. Some expressed the triumphs of personal freedom or revealed incipient hints of a dramatic cultural shift yet to come.
I was stunned to discover that many of my photographs fell naturally into the order of the Tarot that for centuries has served to display and interpret through its rich symbolic structure a limitless range of human consequences. The 500-year-old Tarot apalogue, reproduced through the centuries in remarkable card variations, awakened for me a new view of the Sixties and its most significant and original development: the Counterculture.
A few years ago I found a slender pamphlet by Theodore Roszak, entitled Fool’s Cycle/Full Cycle: Reflections on the Great Trumps of the Tarot. Those who recall the Sixties may remember Roszak as the author of The Making of A Counterculture (1969), a book that offered, more than any other of the time, an original cultural analysis of the period’s signature generational revolt and linked its promptings to other Romantic movements of the West. Roszak notes in Fool’s Cycle that the Tarot has been surrounded “with congested systems of astrological, numerological, alchemical, and mythological correspondences.” Yet he confesses to an irresistible fascination. “In spite of the occult clutter that I found surrounding the Tarot,” he writes, “the twenty-two great trumps continued to haunt me. The Fool, the Magus, the Hanged Man, the Tower…there clings to such images the peculiar attraction of all great symbol systems.” Roszak, too, links the Tarot with astronomy, alchemy, the I Ching, and the iconography of major religions. “All have acquired over the generations a compelling glamour, a vast rhapsodic resonance, along with a tantalizing elusiveness.” Great symbols, says Roszak, are uniquely commanding presences that seem to say, “Yes, you make our meaning as you go along. But that is because we are the themes on which your life plays its variations.” And he concludes that “in a much deeper sense we are their projections–each of us becoming one of an infinite number of possible readings that give these universal motifs a particular historical enactment.”
Roszak offers his interpretation of the Tarot as a cycle, a vision that he confesses came to him in a dream. “There at the beginning of the cycle was the Fool, giving his non-number–the zero–to the equilibrium line. There, at the center was the card of the Wheel of Fortune acting as pivot point. There, at the bottom of the downward curve was the card of the Devil. There, at the end of the journey was the card of the World. And with this striking configuration came the strong impression that, yes, this was the Fool’s journey, this was the course that consciousness must run in its evolution.” The striking feature of Roszak’s Tarot “cycle” is its movement along the path of a moving point; a concept that Roszak notes appears “uniquely in modern Western mathematics.” It results in the plotting of oscillations against time, “of blending the circular with the linear.” And he notes, “only a culture uniquely gifted (or burdened) with a deep historical sense could recognize that what repeats may also develop.” The cycle, for Roszak, is a circle that “gets somewhere” and therefore has drama, a narrative, a beginning, a middle, and end.
As I sorted through my photographs to plot the historical trajectory of the Counterculture, I recognized that countless oscillations had contributed to its narrative; that all these oscillations had each begun at a particular point and returned to a different one; that they comprised a much larger cycle of nearly imponderable diversities that rumbled into existence with a collective rush and then scattered out again in the wake of ever more oscillating cycles. And in the Tarot I saw symbolic touchstones for these oscillations that converged on events, personalities, ideals, intentions, and conflicts, and that shaped the contours of an era. Moreover, I found in my photographs symbolic points of departure for many of these experiences, points that—like the Tarot—responded to the plotting of a path and to the aggregate qualities and events that describe it. In response, I used some of these photographs to create a Tarot deck. And as I weighed the qualities and experiences represented by each new “card,” as I researched and wrote about each image and what it came to represent, I became a pilgrim on a new Fool’s Journey. The journey seemed to follow old trails, but the Tarot’s compelling map illuminated them with new understandings.
To address an apparent contradiction—a narrative journey spread across the otherwise mapless oscillations of so many experiences—is to wrestle with a view of history. The attempt here is to explore the Counterculture as a non-fiction narrative by using the symbolic structure of the Tarot. As people live their lives they seem, at any number of points, to bring these lives together in waves, or—to use Roszak’s term—oscillating cycles—of commonly created momentum. And the mechanism, especially where ideas and experience intersect, may be entirely idiosyncratic. If this is so, one can think of the Sixties, or any other era, as countless people in their own oscillating cycles, their own fool’s journeys, cycling together and apart, swinging in and out of each other’s orbits and, to a degree not commonly acknowledged in most histories, engaged in a quantum expression of experience across time and space. Despite our confidence in history to express the flows and trends of human progress, it is really no easier to deconstruct these many moments of experience, these infinite, symbolically described journeys, than it is to measure the speed or location of a subatomic particle. Even as the shadow of zeitgeist gives human history an apparent, if approximate, time and place, history itself—as much literature as social science—is not fully measurable. But this does not mean a story cannot be told.
In describing this work as narrative, I draw on ideas developed by historiographer and critic Hayden White. In 1973 White published Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe, a book that called into question claims of fact and objectivity in historical works. The demands of narrative presentation, not the least of which is the use of language, introduced for White a bundle of postmodern challenges to the idea that historic truth is anything but an unattainable teleological vagary. Good histories, in fact, are studied for a glimpse of the times in which they are written at least as much as they are for the subjects they are written about. And while White goes very far to claim that historical narratives are comparable to literary fiction, it is fair to say that, at best, historical fact is provisional. White’s caveat about historical narratives has constructive value. White wrote that, with a need to appear scientific and objective, history “had repressed and denied to itself its greatest source of strength and renewal.” This “greatest source” is the creative process that constantly reframes human experience to both explicate and to understand it. Indeed, White wrote that historical explanation “can be judged solely in terms of the richness of the metaphors which govern its sequence of articulation.” Tropes and poetic structures are welcome. Good history, if it mirrors human experience, can’t elude ambiguity or contradiction or the broad range of impacts that batter successive generations, however inchoate or submerged these may be. In fact, compelling historical narrative should make every effort to include them.
White’s metahistory is manifest in many modern historic narratives. Poetry and documentary appear together in a variety of recent historic works. One of my favorites is Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity (1994). Zeldin structures his unique work as a series of conversations with French women about what seem at first mundane subjects: work, marriage, children, family, friends, money, aging, etc. But these women, who have taken Zeldin into their trust, share deeply personal feelings that Zeldin then frames as historical problems. This approach produces chapters titled “How humans have repeatedly lost hope” and “Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex,” which may seem whimsical until one digs in to find that Zeldin has used his dialogues to explore a vast range of historical influences on interpersonal human relationships. Zeldin quickly makes it clear that it is the emergence of women, the rise of feminism (which he values as a profound historical change) that has provoked a new consideration of how humans feel about each other. It is a subject that Zeldin addresses with an encyclopedic and panoramic explication of history that rests entirely on the investigation of difficult modern emotions. “You will not find history laid out in these pages as it is in museums, with each empire and each period carefully separated,” writes Zeldin in his introduction. “I am writing about what will not lie still, about the past which is alive in people’s minds today…”
The issue of probability is a popular refuge for the divinatory impulse, whether that impulse belongs to an historian or a fortune-teller. Both are tempted to explore the ways that synchronous experience, combined with probable momenta, might offer a map to the future. It is undeniable that trends and inclinations emerge from broad samplings of human cultures and that science has made enormous contributions to the intentional inventories initiated and maintained by the social sciences. And while the existence of a cycle seems to be the first measurable human reality (as described by Mircea Eliade in The Myth of Eternal Return) and one with enormous practical applications (the birth control pill, for instance), it cannot with any certainty predict the future. For all their thoughtful preparation, social scientists know no better than physicists what they really measure. History, while in the words of George Santayana may be something we are doomed to repeat, is also, as Stephen Daedalus describes in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” The ponderous burden of history lies in the challenge of fleshing out crucial moments of a period’s vibrant self-creation, even while conforming to a shared, skeletal, reality. But rather than being chronicled in static frames of reference, historical events discussed in The Counterculture Tarot, whether iconic or idiosyncratic, coalesce around nodes of human experience.
And what are these nodes of experience? In The Counterculture Tarot they are the 78 cards of the Tarot, first reframed with photographs I made during the era and then interpreted through real events aligned with each card’s traditional and reflective symbolism. Thus, we revisit the Counterculture, not as a chronicle of incidents but as an expedition of adventures, or a “trip” in the era’s popular sense of an all-embracing journey with deeper psychological meanings. And our signposts along the way are not the turnings of the years but the full range of Tarot markers of experience that includes The Magician, The Empress, The Lovers, The Hanged Man, The Devil, The Sun, Judgment, and The World. These iconic touchstones play out the Sixties without regard to time. The Lovers card dwells on emerging changes—and choices—in the nature of human relationships. The Hanged Man brings forward experiences of personal suspension derived from drugs or incarceration. The journey begins with a Fool (Neal Cassady perhaps, or is it Abbie Hoffman?). Death arrives in the middle and not at the end, its sacrifice of Vietnam soldiers and civil rights workers a bitter but necessary step toward renewal.
Beyond the 22 most familiar cards of the major arcana (the “Fool’s Cycle” that so intrigues Roszak) there are 56 more cards divided into four suits. These of the minor arcana are as rich as the major cards in offering nodes of experience and I have addressed each of them with much detail (at least as much as that given the major cards and sometimes more). Below four arching umbrellas of experience (that parallel in their ancient and elemental structures the continuums evident in many approaches to inquiry) these cards represent fire, earth, air and water. The four suits also have been interpreted as Jung’s four sensing functions (sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling), or as the four fundamental forces of nature, or as other quaternary structures in philosophy, religion, and science. In The Counterculture Tarot these suits become inspiration (Wands), attachment (Cups), conflict (Swords), and tenacity (Pentacles). The suits address the responsive details of experience: deceit, despair, happiness, security, discontent, ruin, etc. and the actors (pages, knights, queens, and kings) who project them. Through the Wands suit we experience the clash of ideas that inspired the Counterculture. In the Cups suit we examine the attachments and lifestyles that formed new ways of having feelings and relationships. The Swords suit wrestles with the era’s conflicts, the cultural backlash to the Counterculture and its wars in the streets. And the Pentacles describe what remains, the material and spiritual remnants of the era, what was lost and what was kept.
The intricate and ancient structure of the Tarot presents a continuum of existence in which no experience ever ends. At points of crucial reflection we interpret the apparent facts of our lives through poetry and metaphor, in the reprise of a popular song, for instance, or a regarded homily, or the characterizations of fantasy and fiction. These points of reflection are animated by the memories of experience that return again and again, in which death comes well before the end and in which everything, including doom, oscillates without permanence. We are in constant search of the thousand joys that are unavailable without the consequent experience of a thousand deaths. As Tarot historian Cynthia Giles states, Tarot cards are “snapshots taken in the imaginal realm” or as depth psychologist Mary Watkins says in Waking Dreams, her study of the phenomenon of the active imagination, “Images inhabit each thought and occupation.” The Tarot is famously a way of looking at the future, as cards are spread and interpretations symbolically posture possible outcomes. Here the Tarot becomes another way of recalling the past, of recognizing how oscillations of recent human history cluster at the nodes of eternal human experience. If these placements seem arbitrary, it is important to remember that the Tarot has accumulated a rich and nearly limitless literature of interpretation at these nodes and that living life with poetic imagination was a regarded Counterculture objective. The Counterculture Tarot is not entirely a history, even as it is laden with facts and primary material drawn from historical and journalistic resources. Rather, it is a kind of “reverse inquiry,” a selective—if still broad—inventory of events that views the Counterculture’s primary, oscillating experiences through the lens of a reactivated psyche. It is a return trip and the cards of the Tarot, reformed anew from recovered photographic fragments of the era, are its signposts.