“A Walk Through H” is one of Peter Greenaway’s first movies, dating back to the seventies and probably, one of my favorites. It details the journey of a deceased ornithologist, Tulse Luper, an alter-ego of Greenaway, through the after-life, by presenting 92 special maps (all drawn and painted by Greenaway) on exhibition in a gallery.
According to Peter Greenaway,
“The film is on the journey a soul takes at the moment of death, to whatever other place it ends up – H being either Heaven or Hell. I devised 92 maps to help this particular character get there. The whole film was divided into five sections that represented movement from a very urban landscape to a wilderness landscape, and there were references and cross-references to all sorts of systems.”
What’s particularly interesting to tarot readers is the way the maps are handled. Even though the paintings at the beginning do resemble the idea we have of maps, as the movies advances, the paintings start to deviate from our common notion of map. As if any figure with a set of lines could be read as a map. As a journey from one place to another. As Greenaway says,
“I’ve always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going – in a sense it’s three tenses in one. It’s also an amazing ideogram of information that is very useful and, perhaps most pertinently, also not at all useful.”
And if further proof is needed, just take a look at the following “maps”:
An image that functions as a map, a guide. Something that could, at the same time, provide an infinite amount of information, but also be quite meaningless. That’s about as good a description of a Tarot card, as I’ve even seen. We take a deck and we infuse any image there with meaning. We give substante to pictures of men and women either seated or standing doing whatever they feel like doing. And we use them to narrate events. To bring forth information about our subject. We look at those images, with the same intention as we would look at some map.
In the movie, these maps are also complimented by a narrative. Since the very first drawing and right until the last one, the narrator bombards us with an absurd stream of information, presenting anecdotes, observations and all kinds of things amongst the ostensibly details of the narrator’s journey through “H”. The maps soon stop being a visual description of the journey. Or better, they still function as a description of the journey, but also as a description of the narrator’s odyssey. A journey through endless loops and detours; filled with impossible characters like thieving radiologists, conniving owl-keepers and obsessive naturalists. A journey through such places as Astergarth, Azkidin and Dormas. But they also function as an afterthought. An impression of the moment. A gateway to the story about to be told. A kind of tarot card.
The movie can then be seen as an enormous oracular reading. Sure, we don’t get the archetypes in all its glory and power. Nor do we get the common images associated with both the Major and the Minor Arcana. But we do get an experience which is very similar to what we get with tarot cards. Images that sparkle in us an idea, a thought, which then gets carried on unto the next image. Stories unfold because we’re looking at those particular images or, on the other hand, these are the maps emerge because there is a story to tell. A story which can only be told by this particular combination of maps and drawings, because these are the ones that correspond to the ornithologist’s experience.
Images sparkling stories, sparkling more images which then ask for more stories. A journey through the mindset of a dead ornithologist, told by a bunch of cards hanging from a gallery wall. A set of Irrelevant and relevant information, all of it necessary to better understand our dead narrator, Tulse Luper, as he walks through “H”. Which Greenaway wanted to be Heaven. Or maybe Hell. But, in one way or another, a walk through Tulse’s life. A walk, which can be seen here.