Pancake Day (3.1.22)
I'll explain . . . .
My email Inbox has recently turned into a cornucopia of serendipities. Today, two items of note.
First, I was reminded in one newsletter that Shrove Tuesday—today—is also referred to as “Pancake Day.” So named for the tradition of using up ingredients that won’t be appropriate during Lent, when meals should be light and simple. Pancakes, topped with jam and other soon-to-be-forbidden treats, are the perfect solution.
That struck a chord. For several reasons, including the crisis in Ukraine, I’ve been thinking about how best to spend my remaining time on earth. I’m almost perfectly healthy (touch wood), but I am no longer young. And we none of us know when our lives might take a drastic turn.
Some readers may have noticed that I didn’t continue the recently announced Daily Notes series. My idea had been to do some almost-Spring cleaning on my “things to write about” list. And I’m still keen to do that—but as I sat down to finish Saturday’s Daily Note, I found myself wondering how much time I should spend on any of this.
I stopped writing.
Over the next two days, I came to some decisions, which I’ll talk about in the coming week. But as preparation, I want to share that other serendipitous Inbox item.
Mystery and Lore
Recently, someone sent a Tarot question by way of my general website, asking if I knew what deck was used for three cards shown in the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley. I sent back a note about “Tarot del Toro,” with a link to the recent EP post on this topic.
But this morning I learned her question was not about that custom-made movie deck, but the deck that was used in a three-card reading toward the end of the movie.
Here’s a picture:
Obviously a Marseilles variant—but there are so many, both historical and modern, that I can’t even guess which one this might be. If you know, please post a comment.
Though I’d be delighted if EP readers can solve this mystery, that’s really just the start of my serendipity story. It continued as I browsed for clues, and came across these three things in the process.
1 Taking the Yeats/Tarot connection seriously . . .
Dean is a doctoral student at Notre Dame. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate a free copy of his essay, “The ‘Supernatural Artist’ and the Tarot Fool: Transnational Esotericism in W.B. Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand,” which was published in Modern Drama.
But here’s the text of his blog post:
If you have ever visited the Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland, you doubtlessly noticed the glass case containing Tarot cards, ritual notebooks, and a portrait of MacGregor Mathers dressed in his magic regalia.
Myself, I was dumbstruck the first time I walked past this collection of Yeats’s occult paraphernalia. I knew Yeats had been into magic and the occult, but I had no idea how seriously he took it until I was face to face with his annotated Tarot deck. But, as a scholar, I didn’t really know what to do with this aspect of the poet’s life. As one of my advisors once put it, “the man unironically owned a wand.” How does that fit in with the questions of nationalism, decolonization, and modernism which typically dominate any discussion of the poet? I wanted to find out.
I decided to unironically investigate Yeats’s belief in magic. If he seriously believed in these things, I needed to take them seriously as well. Faith is faith after all. No one would be surprised by scholarship that took T.S. Eliot’s conversion seriously or C.S. Lewis’s faith seriously. So, I decided to learn all I could about Yeats’s occult life and one of his central obsessions: the Tarot. I paid for a couple of readings (some were surprisingly accurate—some not), I learned to read for my friends, and I researched the history of the cards. That is how I came to this article.
After learning about how the images on the Tarot are linked to ideas and affects, I delved back into Yeats’s drama to learn how he was deploying those same images. Rather than relegating Yeats’s occult life to a footnote, “The ‘Supernatural Artist’ and the Tarot Fool: Transnational Esotericism in W.B. Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand,” seeks to place it in the forefront.
The occult is, after all, a system of belief that helped shape the life and thought of Ireland’s greatest poet. Whether or not you believe that your future can be read in a deck of cards that originated over five hundred years ago, Yeats did, and to fully come to grips with his art, we must take seriously his system of belief—even if that means unironically reading the Tarot.
2 Picasso, Kafka, James Bond—and Tarot
From Otto Karl Werckmeister’s book Icons of the Left: Benjamin and Eisenstein, Picasso and Kafka After the Fall:
3 And of course, Salvador Dali . . .
Reportedly, Dalí’s sizable asking price for the piece was in excess of $7 million, which for context, was more than the entire budget of the movie the deck was intended to appear in. While they may be a prominent prop, the tarot cards were not pivotal enough to Live and Let Die's plot for the Bond franchise producers to part with the entire production budget. And indeed it may have been a blessing in disguise that the creators did not buy Dalí’s work for the film, as the artist’s deck ended up not being completed and displayed until 1984, a full eleven years after the release of Live and Let Die.
Those three items presented themselves to me in about twenty minutes of browsing for a possible clue to the Nightmare Alley cards. And I say that not to flatter my search skills, but to note how often Tarot is mentioned, in so many different contexts.
That’s another part of my defense for taking Tarot seriously. Tarot lends itself to myriad uses, including poetry and fiction, drama and dance, art and psychology, philosophy and pop culture. We can’t say that about many other things that date back to the 15th century, and may be bought for a few dollars on Amazon or eBay.
As for the pancakes—I’ll be sending them along as they get cooked.
In the meantime, please give what you can to aid Ukraine. One EP reader tells me she found a charity that’s helping animals at risk there. Someone I admire has encouraged support for Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen, which provides food at disaster sites around the world. And from a writer’s perspective, I bring your attention to the GoFundMe page for Kyiv Independent, a news organization that has kept information flowing from Ukraine.
Thank you so much for reading. C