Notebook: Page 11
Okay--now I am surprised . . .
I wrote yesterday that I am no longer surprised to discover that early 20th-century women like Ithell Colquhoun and Leonora Carrington explored esoteric concepts—including Tarot—in their art work. Today I’d planned a fast-forward to Arnell Ando’s work with other women artists.
But serendipity has struck. And I’ve decided there must be a reason that every time I start writing about Arnell’s accomplishments, something kidnaps my attention.
I’m thinking it’s the spirit of feminine creativity, which runs very deeply in the root system of Tarot—but has not always been evident in the foliage that shows up above ground. The best-known example, of course, is attribution of the most popular and influential Tarot deck ever, to A. E. Waite and the Rider publishing company. It took sustained effort and most of a century to bring acknowledgement of Pamela Colman Smith’s pivotal role in creation of the deck—not just as an artist, but as a co-creator.
But if we look back over the earlier history of esoteric and divinatory Tarot, it’s all men: Court de Gebelin, Etteila, Papus, so on. (Start here for related EP stories.)
Until today, I’d never heard of Lady Mary Wroth, an English noblewoman who was born into a famous family around 1587, became (it’s now thought) the first women to write a novel, and died in relative obscurity in 1651. There’s a very readable and not too long biography here.
But even if I’d known about Lady Mary before, I probably would not have learned much about her less famous work, Love’s Victory—a pastoral play in which the characters consult a so-called “book of fortunes” to find out about their romantic futures.
I only know now because I was searching for some extra information related to a deck published by Arnell, and a link appeared in my search results that took me to this page in Re-Reading Mary Wroth:
No, I don’t know what the algorithmic connection could have been. But from there I discovered that Wroth was also the first woman to write a complete sonnet sequence—and according to one commentary I found, it contains references to alchemy, magic, and . . . tarot.
I haven’t been able to track this down further, but I’m fascinated by the possibility that a noblewoman writing in the time of Shakespeare not only had knowledge of esoteric ideas and practices, but incorporated them into literary works. And from what I did read of her work briefly, it’s compelling.
There’s more, of course. While looking for further information about Lady Mary and Tarot, I was presented with this item, from a Turkish literary journal:
Only the abstract is available in English—but here it is!
Storytelling and its most common emblem weaving have a significant place in the history of ideas and literature, and women weaving stories on their web is a recurrent image in mythology, fairy tale and folklore. According to Foucault, weaving stories also has the role of repressing desire and cancelling death. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” and Angela Carter’s short story “The Lady of the House of Love,” the female figures repress desire and cancel death by habitual conciliatory actions emblematic of storytelling, which are weaving in Tennyson’s poem and the Tarot play in Carter’s story that has the same function as weaving. In both works abandoning this action, that is, giving up spinning shadows/stories of life, and deciding to get involved in actual human experience results in self-annihilation and death. The present article handles weaving in “The Lady of Shalott” and the Tarot in “The Lady of the House of Love” as two similar forms of repressing desire and studies in these works the repression of desire and fulfilment of desire and the consequential death of the female characters. The article bases its theoretical framework on a synthesis of Foucault’s idea that narrative is a form of cancelling death with Nietzsche’s idea of the binary opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian states in the human soul, identifying desire and death with the Dionysian and the repressive mechanisms of narrative with the Apollonian.
Angela Carter was a well-known British writer whose works often fall into the category of magical realism. I had no idea she had written a story featuring Tarot, but yes she did. And you can read it here.
It’s quite dark, as you might gather from this passage:
Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.
The story was included in her acclaimed 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber.
As you’ve gathered by now, this is nothing I intended to write about—but when serendipity invites me, I follow. And I always appreciate finding out more about how Tarot reaches into the creative imagination. The connection between Lady Mary and Angela Carter, writing almost five hundred years apart, seems quite remarkable.
To say nothing of finding Tarot in the literary scholarship of contemporary Turkey . . .
I will try very hard to get back on “schedule” tomorrow. And as always, thanks for reading. C