Newsletter 0.21

Ken Kesey on The Fool + some notes on Zen and the suit of Swords

Recently, I had a new insight into The Fool. 

The surprising source was Ken Kesey, whose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1968) became one of the 20th century’s best-known novels, and was adapted into Jack Nicholson’s most famous movie.

Kesey was not only a literary icon, it seems—but also a student of Tarot.

Though I don’t know how seriously he pursued that study, I do know that his remarks on The Fool expanded my understanding of this pivotal trump. They came in a 1994 interview, published in the Paris Review . . . . 

The interviewer asks:

What connection is there between Ken Kesey the magician-prankster and Ken Kesey the writer?

And Kesey responds:

The common denominator is the joker. It’s the symbol of the prankster. Tarot scholars say that if it weren’t for the fool, the rest of the cards would not exist. The rest of the cards exist for the benefit of the fool.

The fool in tarot is this naive innocent spirit with a rucksack over his shoulder like Kerouac, his eyes up into the sky like Yeats, and his dog biting his rump as he steps over the cliff. 

That fool of Shakespeare’s, [played by] the actor Robert Armin, became so popular that finally Shakespeare wrote him out of Henry IV. In a book called A Nest of Ninnies, Armin wrote about the difference between a fool artificial and a fool natural

And the way Armin defines the two is important; the [Shakespearean] character Jack Oates is a true fool natural. He never stops being a fool to save himself; he never tries to do anything but anger his master, Sir William. 

A fool artificial is always trying to please; he’s a lackey. Ronald McDonald is a fool artificial. [Gonzo journalist] Hunter Thompson is a fool natural. So was [Charlie Chaplin’s] Little Tramp.

For me, this distinction added another layer of meaning to The Fool — something else to think about when the card appears in a reading. Is it representing “a fool natural” or “a fool artificial”?

I haven’t found out much more yet about Kesey’s relationship with the Tarot, but two entertaining items did come to light.

First: Maureen Hurley, who was sort of accidentally involved with the Tarot/counterculture connection, shared this recollection on her blog:

Ken Kesey once sent me rather unusually inscribed checks to purchase some new age tarot cards I was selling. My job at Western Star Press, located in the basement of Alice Kent’s big Victorian house in Kentfield, was sorting tarot decks.

It seems some malfunction at the printing plant had jumbled hundreds of decks into one huge pile, and Maureen had to find a proper sequence of 78 cards from the pile to fill each order. (I love imagining this!)

That was in 1971, and the deck in question seems to have been John Cooke and Rosalind Sharpe’s T: The New Tarot, which was marketed as “a Tarot for the Aquarian Age.” (The design of the cards is very hard to characterize, so have a look here.)

Second: Kesey appears as the Knave of Chalices in Hexen 2.0, Suzanne Treister’s truly unique Tarot project. And the card itself is a miniature biography.

The “Kesey card” is just a hint of why Hexen 2.0 is fascinating. Whatever you think the limits of Tarot might be, Treister has gone one step beyond—so I’ll say more about her work in Newsletter 0.28.

In the meantime, as promised: Zen and the suit of Swords.

Recently I’ve been writing on Medium about meditation, and looking through some related materials collected over the years. In the process, I found several unexpected resonances with Tarot practice . . . .

For example, this passage from American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck:

Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can. None of us is very willing to use it; but when we do — even for a few minutes — some cutting and burning takes place.

All practice aims to increase our ability to be attentive, not just in zazen but in every moment of our life. As we sit we grasp that our conceptual thought process is a fantasy; and the more we grasp this the more our ability to pay attention to reality increases.

Zazen is the Zen Buddhist practice of “just sitting,” which Beck describes as a way of “breaking our exclusive identification with ourselves,” through the use of active attention.

From a Tarot perspective, Swords —typically characterized as  the “mental suit” — summarize not only the importance of attention, but also the difficulties and discomfort that can go along with it. When we turn the full power of attention on ourselves and our own thinking, we may come face to face with things we had not wanted to recognize.

Beginning Tarot students often struggle with Swords. That’s especially true because the pip cards for this suit in the Waite-Colman deck (and its many adaptations) really are quite gloomy!

But Swords by their nature capture one of the most valuable aspects of working with Tarot. Like zazen, Tarot practice can be a tool for cutting through ordinary ideas and assumptions, by paying attention to a more essential kind of information.

That made me wonder if the other suits might correlate in some way with approaches to meditation. And of course Cups immediately jumped out in connection with metta, or loving-kindness meditation.

I’ll stop there because this is something I’m still thinking about. It turned into part of a story I was writing about “Tarot, time, and mind,” which you can read in my Medium publication. And from there I started to reflect on possible connecting points between meditation and divination—but so far that story hasn’t gotten past a few notes. If anyone else has been thinking along these lines, I’d love to hear.

Looking ahead . . .

Cycle 1 of the Exporation Project newsletter begins on December 1!

In the meantime, I’ll be concluding Cycle 0 next week, with more about Suzanne Treister’s Tarot project, plus an unexpected story about the deeper significance of “Gypsy” associations in Tarot history.

Warmest regards, Cynthia