The Daily Note (12.28)
From China to Scotland, by way of ancient Persia . . .
I promised a Note about divination in post-Mao China—but that seemed a little dry all by itself, so I ended up going (very) far afield.
The starting point was Emily Baum’s article “Enchantment in an Age of Reform: Fortune-Telling Fever in Post-Mao China, 1980s–1990s.” Although abstracts don’t usually serve very well as summaries, this one actually does:
Soon after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China experienced a ‘fortune-telling fever’. After having been suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party for the previous three decades, fortune tellers re-emerged in the 1980s to publish extensively on the topic and ply their trade in public. Yet despite the general relaxation of state policies toward folk beliefs, fortune telling was still considered a ‘superstition’ and therefore remained against the law. To bypass ongoing proscriptions against divinatory practices and publications, fortune tellers began to frame their undertakings in a language that closely mirrored two priorities of the post-Mao state: the advancement of scientific research and the reclamation of traditional culture. . . . Rather than combating the government’s accusation that their practices were superstitious, fortune tellers instead positioned themselves as allies of the state by appealing to its rhetoric of science and cultural nationalism. Downplaying the mystical qualities of their craft, they framed divination as an academic and economic endeavour, one that was both compatible with secular modernity and in keeping with the Chinese Communist Party’s demands for entrepreneurial activity.
I added the emphasis to highlight a passage that strikes me as an early version of today’s commercialized Tarot. I’m not sure how much of a real parallel there might be—but it’s an intriguing comparison.
I’m also struck by how neatly the timeline of this divinatory resurgence in China connects with the “Tarot revolution” taking place in California in the 1980s. Tarot wasn’t practiced by Chinese “fortune tellers” at the time (as far as I can find out), but it seems they applied a similar level of energy to reimagining geomancy, shamanism, witchcraft, and the I Ching.
I take that as a reminder that Tarot has become part of a larger divinatory tradition, spanning both time and geography. Whether or not it was once “just a game,” it’s much more than that now.
And for another view of how disparate traditions overlap and converge—I’ll take you to Iranian artist Guity Novin’s online textbook A History of Graphic Design. Chapter 8—“Mithaism and the Tarot Cards”—offers an intriguing discussion of parallels between the ancient Mithraic rites and the imagery of Tarot.
There are many illustrations, featuring a variety of Tarot decks along with images of the vaulted subterranean chambers where adherents gathered for ceremonies that reenacted the spiritual journey of Mithra.
Novin suggests a number of parallels between Tarot and Mithraic imagery, and also points out references to Mithraism in the works of Eliphas Levi and A.E. Waite.
The idea of a Tarot/Mithra connection has been around for a while, but I don’t know enough to comment—except to say that I enjoyed exploring Novin’s presentation.
I also can’t explain how I got from China and Persia to David Keenan’s recent novel The Monument Maker. It makes sense in a way, though, since this Note has something to do with divination in various times and places, and as a review in The Spectator describes The Monument Maker:
Most of the sections are stories within stories: memoir, biography, translation, supernatural tale, diary, letter and so on. This allows Keenan to keep moving, stylistically, geographically and temporally: a summer in the South of France in a house once occupied by the composer Frederick Delius; the Siege of Khartoum, Sudan, 1884; Crete during the second world war; the surface of the moon in the not too distant future.
And that’s just the slightest hint of how complex the novel is. Since it’s 807 pages long, there’s no chance of my reading it—but I’d like to. I’ve browsed a little, and found several passages that engaged my imagination. Here are two:
My studies in magic and experimental psychology and of course alchemy suggested that the goal of magical practice, which had become the goal of art practice, was a reuniting of fractured selves across time… This feeling of union, of union with the past, the present and the future, in a place that was outside of time, well, it was palpable, to say the least.
and . . .
[W]ith his horror-show face that looked more like the Tarot of Mr Potato Head, dealing the cards and talking about The Devil and his father and how The Tower was the whole edifice of personality when it becomes like a suit of armour that protects you from reality, from the fullness of experience of the world, from speaking your secret name, which The Devil can help with, for sure, and a card like The (Lovely) Star, it is me with my calipers on and wearing a mask of stars that I can’t even see clear out of and putting a single toe in this wave that is lapping against the shore and knowing that all it requires is a first simple toe-in-the-water and allow it to sweep me away.
Tarot appears frequently in The Monument Maker—which is not surprising, given that Keenan is also the co-creator of the Autonomic Tarot deck, and a companion book, To Run Wild In It, which purports to be an instruction manual, a novella, and a channeled text. All compressed into 30 pages!
So we end up in Scotland, where David Keenan might be working on the next volume of his mammoth, award-winning literary cycle. Or might be reading Tarot.
Thanks for opening today’s Note! See you tomorrow for a “film noir” take on Tarot, with a side trip to Narnia. C