Jack Spicer's "Plan for a Tarot Book"
Notes made by a Beat poet in 1958
Briefly: The Beat movement flourished during the 1950s, beginning in New York and spreading to California, where it converged with what’s now known as the San Francisco Renaissance. There was a great deal of diversity among Beat writers, but to the extent that common themes can be identified, they would be the rejection of social norms and the search for spiritual experience.
Although Spicer was part of the “Beat era,” he did not consider himself part of the “Beat movement.” A complicated distinction, but here’s a very good explanation:
Unlike his Beat peers, Spicer did not believe that poetry should be the expression of an inspired and uncorked self. Instead, the poet’s work is reduced to an almost mechanical act of listening to and receiving what Spicer called the Outside — a field of forces that invade rather than inspire, and before which the poet is little more than a secretary taking dictation. (Erik Davis, “Voices Carry”)
Although Spicer was influential in the San Francisco scene, his complex ideas were not widely appreciated during his lifetime (1925–1965). Lucky for us, though, his work steadily gained attention — and in 1977, friends Robin Blaser and John Granger published Spicer’s “Plan for a Book on Tarot” (in the journal boundary 2, Vol. 6, №1).
The plan was found with some notes written around 1958. So the document is interesting from one perspective as a sort of time capsule, describing attitudes toward Tarot that were prevalent among the public at mid-century. But it also contains some insightful observations about Tarot.
The complete text is shared below. But here are some passages that stand out. (I added the emphases.)
Fortune-telling is an unexplored parascience. Its relation to the science of prediction (or statistics, to take it in its narrower form) is quite the same as the parasciences of telepathy and telekinesis had to the science of psychology before Dr. Rhine started his experiments. A parascience is not a science — it is a mixture of rules of thumb, half-truths, and fanciful lies painfully yoked to each other by centuries of experience; but a parascience can become a science; alchemy can become chemistry; astrology can become astronomy; fortune-telling, after a century of patient scientific observation, could become a new means of understanding time and necessity in the universe.
[I would be] stressing strongly the fact that the individual card has no meaning solely in itself but only in relation to the cards around it and its position in the layout — exact analogy to words in a poem.
The Poetry of Chance: Some possible explanations to account for the fact that Tarot cards can, under proper circumstances, predict parts of the future and clarify parts of the past.
As a contextual reminder — those ideas came from a poet and literary theorist, in a year when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, and The Beatles were still The Quarrymen. More than a decade would pass before the “Tarot revolution” really began to take shape.
Note: The following content is an exact transcription of Spicer’s notes, published in 1977 by Robin Blaser and John Granger, in the journal boundary 2, Vol. 6, No. 1. I have reformatted Spicer’s text for easier onscreen reading.
If the average person has heard of a Tarot deck at all, he is likely to associate it with dark rooms full of cheesecloth ectoplasm, old women who make a practice of sticking pins in wax dolls, or one of the various seedy attempts to exploit the occult which, for all their impressive trappings, move the modern man to pity rather than to terror. If he had the further misfortune to read one of the many books written on the interpretation of Tarot cards, he would have the further impression of a very old and impressively historical set of symbolic pictures whose meanings are as clear and arbitrary as the language of flowers and, while admiring the quaintness and charm of their design, would look on their use for a serious purpose as an idiocy - or, at best, a parlor game.
The truth is quite different. Fortune-telling is an unexplored parascience. Its relation to the science of prediction (or statistics, to take it in its narrower form) is quite the same as the parasciences of telepathy and telekinesis had to the science of psychology before Dr. Rhine started his experiments. A parascience is not a science - it is a mixture of rules of thumb, half-truths, and fanciful lies painfully yoked to each other by centuries of experience; but a parascience can become a science; alchemy can become chemistry; astrology can become astronomy; fortune-telling, after a century of patient scientific observation, could become a new means of understanding time and necessity in the universe.
Let me state at once that this book is not even a beginning of such an investigation. Its only advantage over its predecessors lies in the fact that its methods and attitudes are empirical and that its sources are not a recopying of previous books but the active, practical experience of those who have used Tarot cards as an instrument for several hundred years - carnival gypsies, and, in a way the more important, my own personal experience in using these cards. These sources are admittedly inadequate from any scientific viewpoint, but, compared to the scholastic repetitions of the other books on the subject, they are at least the beginning of a new and more modern approach.
What exactly are my objections to all the previous books that have been written on the Tarot cards? The same objections that a physicist would have to books written on physics in the middle ages - the information contained in them is separated by centuries from practice and experience. When a mediaeval scholastic wanted to know how many teeth there were in a horse's mouth it would never occur to him to look in a horse's mouth or even to ask a horse trainer. He would look in Aristotle and Pliny for the answer and, if the two disagreed, he would say that a horse had so many or so many teeth and leave it at that. Previous Tarot writers have done the same thing. It has never occurred to any of them to consult their own experience on the meaning of a puzzling card like The High Priestess (La Papesse), to observe what happened to the hearer after the card appeared in this position or that position, or even to consult people like carnival gypsies who use the Tarot cards as a usual thing.
Their solution, and it is an easy one, is to copy what their predecessors have said on the matter. No method is less likely to lead to knowledge. But, someone is bound to ask, is not this after all the right method? Are not all books on occult parasciences written to preserve and keep pure the hidden traditions of the past? Isn't every innovation grafted onto the great tradition a dilution, even a perversion, of what was once pure knowledge? This, of course, is nonsense. There might be some point to this objection if there were any reason to believe that men read Tarot cards with more accurate results in the fifteenth century than they do today, that there was something lost in the past, some greater knowledge, that it is up to us to reconstruct as we would reconstruct the text of Homer. It would be pleasant if this were true, but what historical evidence there is (and there isn't much) indicates that nothing much has been lost or gained in the reading of Tarot cards in the last six hundred years and that the practice was as difficult and as tentative for our forefathers as it is for us.
There is another consideration which must be mentioned here . . . .
Unfortunately, Spicer’s introductory notes break off at that point. His proposed outline follows, and seems to have been completed.
Understanding Tarot Cards: A Short Manual On The Use Of Tarot Cards For Predicting The Future And Clarifying The Past.
I Introduction — 5 pages
Stressing empirical nature of the book, explaining the superiority of practice and observation to academic theory in magic as well as in science. Explaining further that the symbolic content of a visual image can change over a period of years just as can the symbolic content of a word. The basic empirical sources of my conclusions are from (1) American carnival gypsies from whom I learned the basic fundamentals, (2) my own experience in practicing these fundamentals over many years. The opinion of the "scholastic tradition" of Tarot writers will be mentioned but not followed when it disagrees with these.
II The Poetry of Chance — 3 pages
Some possible explanations to account for the fact that Tarot cards can, under proper circumstances, predict parts of the future and clarify parts of the past. Attacking old explanations: the traditional, the Freudian, and the Jungian, and, putting forth an explanation of my own very tentatively in terms of the difference between randomness and nonsense in statistical theory. Discussing the question of the necessity of belief for the reader or for the hearer.
III The layout — 5 pages
Its three levels of time and three levels of necessity.
IV The deck — 5 pages
A general description and a brief historical summary. Stressing strongly the fact that the individual card has no meaning solely in itself but only in relation to the cards around it and its position in the layout - exact analogy to words in a poem.
V The cards — 166 pages
The greater and lesser trumps. Explanations, explications and comments for each on a separate page with illustrations on the facing page.
VI The dangers of Tarot — 3 pages
The legal, moral, and magical dangers of Tarot.
VII Sample fortunes — 12 pages
1) for a perfect stranger, 2) for a friend, 3) for yourself
VIII Suggestions for further reading — 3 pages.