The first of two personal essays--plus a little extra lore . . .
For this issue, I planned to share two personal essays: “Re/Creating My Tarot Books” (reflections on the process of revising and updating my early work) and “Connecting with Tarot” (a personal story of divination and discovery).
But by the time I’d expanded the two essays, the text was getting quite long. So I’ll offer the first one today, in Newsletter 1.21, and the second on Saturday, in 1.22. For lagniappe, I’ve added a new “Lore” story at the end of each—starting off with a Tarot dance performance.
The following essay is a lot about my own experience of my own books. But it adds a little context, I hope, around the experience of looking at today’s Tarot literature in a fresh way. And around the reasons and aspirations that shape the Exploration Project.
Re/Creating My Two Tarot Books
I remember writing The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore as well as I remember anything —in depth, and in detail.
That’s partly because it was such a huge labor!
I still have every draft, every revised manuscript, every marked-up galley. I still have the big folding table I bought at K-Mart (which still existed then) to spread out the pages and decide where to put illustrations.
The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More was a little easier to manage on the mechanical side, but had its own set of challenges. I sent out two hundred questionnaires, got many of them back, and read through the personal stories shared by Tarot professionals and enthusiasts all over the country. I gathered remarkable art, transcribed fascinating interviews, and looked far and wide to find original and provocative ideas about Tarot.
Writers often say that creating a book is like having a baby—and there are a lot of similarities. But for me at least, a big difference has developed . . .
I now remember the labor better than I remember the product of my efforts.
So this year, I determined to reclaim my relationship with these books, which were such a big part of my personal history.
When I was actively teaching and talking about Tarot, I referred to my own books often—but it’s been quite a while since Tarot was my primary focus, and the books are not deeply present to me in the same way they once were.
The structures and symbols of the deck were still a foundational element in my creative world—not often consciously considered, but always shaping my thought. And the skills I acquired as a reader still inform my social interactions, personal reflections, and professional activities.
But the facts and ideas assembled for my books didn’t take up a permanent place in memory.
So I decided to reread them in an attentive way. For me, it’s always easier to be attentive if there’s activity involved—and since they had never been made available as ebooks, I thought it would be a pleasant, productive exercise to put the texts online.
More than a bit naive!
History, Mystery had never existed in electronic form. At the time it was written, PCs were basically clever typewriters, and the text of the book went back and forth in big envelopes full of printed pages. So I knew it would have to be recreated via scanning and OCR.
And I was aware that text which seems readable enough on the printed page may not work well when viewed onscreen—especially when the text contains a lot of tightly organized information.
But I assumed the solution would be breaking up paragraphs more frequently, and perhaps simplifying a few sentences.
In a print book, you can see two whole pages at one time. Your eyes can easily go up and down, side to side—which creates a large contextual field. When reading online you have a much smaller unit of content in view at any given time, so it’s easy to lose track of the threads running through a complex network of ideas.
And that’s just part of the challenge. Readers today are accustomed to a more conversational tone, especially onscreen, as well as more visual variety to mark out the structure of the text.
So I began trying to create the right sort of flow—and quickly realized there was room (even need) for clarification and expansion in some parts of the original text.
By that point, I’d made the giant leap from reformatting to revising, with a little new writing in the mix. And that’s been working out okay for my first book, History, Mystery. Generally speaking, people liked the original work, and I’m still proud of it.
But when it came to Methods, Mastery, I made an uncomfortable discovery . . .
I always wondered why this book never found an enthusiastic audience. I thought it might be in part because the design and typography were very annoying. (I complained at the time, but to no avail.) I also thought some of the content may have seemed too far afield—that is, not connected in an obvious or familiar way to Tarot.
And looking at the book today, I still think those were factors. But . . .
As it turns out—in at least some ways—my second book was just not as good as it needed to be.
The whole approach of the book, along with some of the writing, now strikes me as a little self-indulgent and undisciplined. I suspect that because my first book had been much more successful than I’d expected, I was either trying too hard the second time, or assuming too much.
But on an honest re-reading, it’s clear that in crafting the second book I was thinking more about the writer (me) than about the reader. And that just never works out well.
On the other hand, though, I put some things in Methods, Mastery that I really cared about. And some of the ideas included seem to be even more important today than they were then.
Which of course raises the question of whether to walk away from the whole text, or sift through it for the “good parts.”
For now, I’m experimenting with the first two chapters of the book. Chapter 1 is too dated to be of interest to readers as it is. But it contains some wonderful material that can be recontextualized from a more historical perspective. I’ve planned to incorporate some of it here in the Exploration Project.
Chapter 2 of Methods, Mastery, and More seems overwritten and unnecessarily abstract. So I’m recreating each of its three sections into standalone stories—improving the text as I go, or at least trying to.
The first effort on that agenda turned into “The Future Factor: Time, Tarot, and the Mind.” I’m very happy with the way it turned out, but it’s a long way from its MMM origins! Coming next are stories that rework ideas originally discussed in “Divination Deconstructed” and “Fortune/Telling.”
One dilemma I’ve encountered in revisiting the MMM chapters is that they included a lot of references to non-Tarot sources (works on science, psychology, cultural commentary, and so forth). Some of those references seem very dated now—but in looking for sources to replace them, I find that several key topics (like parapsychology) have just not received much attention in the 21st century.
Other topics (like particle physics) have gone through so many adjustments in theory that it’s hard to know where to start in “updating” anything I had to say a quarter-century ago. I’m not giving up though! I still think there are valuable connections between an expanded understanding of divination and an expanded understanding of —for want of a better word—“reality.”
Meanwhile, in revisiting History, Mystery, and Lore, I’ve been amazed by how much work has been done on Tarot history since my own early attempt. I think the basics of what I had to say still hold up, but I’ve tweaked a bit here and there—adding some details, rearranging for better flow, and very happily including color illustrations.
All three segments of Chapter One, “The Historical Tarot,” are now posted here on the Exploration Project, and coming soon, the first section of Chapter Two, which traces the creation and elaboration of an “esoteric” Tarot.
But I think there still hasn’t been enough attention paid to the “New Revolution” period of the late 20th century—and that was part of my reason for starting the Exploration Project. Transforming Tarot offers a high-level overview of that period, and Newsletters 1.1 and 1.21 give a hint of the material I’d like to develop over time.
So in the process of recreating my first books, I’m also exploring the Tarot landscapes that have taken shape since those efforts. I’ll plan to include some of that new material in the revision process, as I make my way through re/creating History, Mystery and Methods, Mastery.
One other note: At Stuart Kaplan’s request, I wrote a book to accompany The Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg—the unique and beautiful deck he’d commissioned from famed miniaturist Yuri Shakov. I used that opportunity to look beyond one specific deck and explore more generally the relationship between Tarot and cultural aesthetics.
The book also offered a concise introduction to Russian art and history, which I found fascinating. But the RTSP audience has been limited (for the most part) to those who have the deck itself. So I look forward to sharing some excerpts that I think will be of broader interest.
Aura CuriAtlas was founded in 2013 to “find magic in ordinary situations, presented in unusual ways.” Blending dance, theatre, and acrobatics to tell stories, the company takes its unusual name from the combined qualities of lightness (Aura), strength (Atlas), and play (Curiosity).
Given the adventurous spirit of Aura CuriAtlas, it’s not surprising that in 2019 they decided to translate the 22 Major Arcana cards of the Tarot into a work of performance art—bringing to life the essential symbolism of the cards, through acrobatics and dance.
The show begins with The Deck, a performance of all 22 cards in their traditional order. Here are three sample photos to give you a flavor of the presentation:
In the next part of the show, The Readings, one or more audience members was invited to draw a set of cards on behalf of the whole group. The company then performed those particular cards in a new order and context, specific to that audience.
The creative principals of Auri CuriAtlas are faculty members at William & Mary University. Dance professor Joan Gavaler choreographed The Fool and The World, which was performed to original piano music composed by music professor Sophia Serghi. And it’s worth noting that this was not their first Tarot-related collaboration.
In fact . . . “you can think of these as branches on a tree,” Gavaler said of their ongoing projects. Gaveler and Serghi take a Jungian view, focusing on symbolism and the awakening of unconscious material.
Visit here for more about their approach—and further insight into the wide range of creative ideas that can be generated by Tarot.
Thanks so much for reading! Warmest regards, Cynthia