October 1, 2023
Language + information + Tarot . . .
A warm welcome to new readers! On the first of each month, I usually send everyone an essay, plus some thoughts on a particular Tarot deck.
This time it’s a bit different, as I’ll explain. But let’s get started with . . .
If you happened to read my first book (The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore), you might recall that one chapter of the Mystery section was called “Tarot in the Light of Science.” As far as I know, it didn’t become a reader favorite—and one memorable review called it “wooly-minded.” But I’ve always thought that chapter at least suggested a serious inquiry into the concept of divination.
Over the years, I’ve dipped in and out of reading about science and math, and I’ve gradually developed a little more ability to understand some fundamental ideas. Every once in a while, I thought about writing a revised version of that long-ago chapter, which I planned to call “Tarot in the New Light of Science.”
I never did it, though—mainly because I didn’t want to realize how wrong (or at least naive) I was in whatever I wrote the first time.
However! In recent months I’ve had some revelations that changed my viewpoint. Won’t go into all of that now, but here are some bullet points:
Much of what seemed so certain to most scientists in the 1980s has since been tossed into the proverbial dustbin of history. So whatever I said was not necessarily more “wrong” than the assumptions of experts.
There are so many competing theories and interpretations of everything (from the proton to the universe to human evolution) that the highest levels of scientific endeavor seem like choose-your-own-adventure rides.
“Science” as a discipline is fragmented into so many areas of research and speculation that it would be hard to define any uniting principles. But on the upside, there’s a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization going on. (Are evolutionary DNA mutations a product of quantum tunneling? Maybe . . . )
If you know some very basic stuff about contemporary controversies in science, you can have a lot of fun listening to various theorists debate—or squabble, depending on who’s involved. Plus, there are entertaining audio/video resources for further exploration.
So I’ll be throwing caution to the winds from now on. And I’ll start with the topic of information, as inspired by Jim Al-Khalili’s BBC documentary Order and Disorder: Information.
In the vid, Al-Khalili (a physicist with a knack for accessible explanations) talks about various aspects of how order becomes increasingly complex in the human world. At one point he discusses the invention of the alphabet, which enabled us to communicate ideas at ever-higher levels of meaning.
I’m certain others have thought/talked about this idea—and possibly with brilliant insight. But somehow I hadn’t really focused on Tarot as a language system. Like ideographic languages (Chinese or Egyptian, for example), it uses pictures to represent ideas/objects. Which undoubtedly contributed to the notion that Tarot was a record of ancient Egyptian knowledge.
On the other hand, it’s also like an alphabetic language. An alphabet uses abstract shapes (letters) to represent sounds. Until they are assembled into words, the letter-shapes have no meaning at all.
I’m sure you see where this is headed. Tarot cards have some properties of “logographic” writing, as each picture has meaning in itself. But they also function like a “phonetic” writing system, since they can take on additional or different meanings when assembled in groups.
Another set of comparisons:
Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs (for example) can be written in various directions, including vertically and horizontally. So texts are formed spatially, as in a Tarot spread.
However logographic languages have hundreds of picture-units, while phonetic alphabets typically have about two dozen. So the Tarot deck itself—with at most 78 units—is more like a phonetic system.
One more thing. Ideograms are reduced to a very small number of lines, just sufficient to give a hint of what’s being pictured. The pips of a Tarot deck (if not illustrated) function much the same way, using suit plus number for a basic level of signification.
Trump images, on the other hand, are complex. In this comparison, a Tarot trump would be more like a Chinese painting than an ideogram.
There’s another parallel here. In traditional terms, a Chinese (or Japanese or Tibetan, and so on) painting is imbued with symbolic meaning. Every element of the painting symbolizes something, and the painting as a whole represents something. So it has a complex resonance for viewers.
Similarly, even the earliest Tarot trumps resonated with social, psychological, and philosophical meanings—all of which have been greatly enhanced in the centuries since. Yet all that symbolic resonance has been compressed into a very small number of images.
Which brings us to an additional parallel. Al-Khalili’s documentary talks about the slow progress from picture languages to alphabetic languages. And then, almost overnight (in historical terms), the enormous leap to binary code and the age of information technology.
Consider that the power of combining just two symbols—zero and one (off and on)—in nearly infinite configurations has transformed human civilization.
The potential combinations of 78 Tarot cards would not be infinite, but they do go very far beyond our natural abilities of thought. So it’s an interesting experiment to think of Tarot spreads as code-like instructions.
Instructions for what? I’ll speculate soon.
I’d planned for this post to begin a two-part series on the work of Tarot artist, publisher and guide Arnell Ando. But I’m out of time for now—and I don’t want to short-change this important exploration.
So look for an extra Notebook Page on Tuesday.
I don’t want to leave off without a relevant image, though, so here’s a snapshot from Dan Horn’s Tarot of Physics:
Thanks so much for reading. C