An Additional Degree of Freedom

Musical street art...

In music, you have someone, a composer, who writes a certain combination of sounds on paper. In this paper, he will also include information about tempo (the speed at which this combination has to be reproduced), rhythm (used to differentiate the strong and weak elements), how sounds and silence combine and an assorted number of information regarding how each sound should be played and its connection with the previous sound (or silence) and the next. When it is finished, he obtains something which can be seen as an instruction manual (for lack of a better expression) on how to reproduce this particular composition; this particular piece of work. He has written a music and he has left us the means to reproduce it, should we so desire.

But there is something interesting about music. No matter how detailed this instruction book is, everyone who addresses it and plays what is written, will play it in a different way. It is still recognizable, but there are subtle nuances that makes each iteration, each version different from all the others. This is particularly true with classical music, where there are hundreds of different versions from the favorite works of the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Debussy, Schummann, Haydn, Händel, Tchaikovsky, Mahler,  and countless others. More to the point, not only there exist countless recordings of the same work (a brief search on Amazon on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons gives back more than 10 000 results!!!!), but there are still people interested in recording their own version. To bring forth a new point of view, no matter how similar it might be to the already existing ones.

And if you’re wondering how can this be, the answer is quite simple. The composer, in his strict guidebook, which every musician knows should be followed very very closely, didn’t account for one thing and one thing only: how the reading and the consequent reproduction of the musical score is made. In other words, how the specific reality-tunnel of the musician (his likes and dislikes; his particular sensitivity, its physical proneness to execute what its written; his own feelings, …) shape the music into something familiar, but slightly different.

In Jazz, the musician has an additional degree of freedom when addressing a musical score: after the theme is played, which is to say, after the written score is played, the musician can then improvise upon the theme. He can play whatever he wants, as long as he follows a set of specific harmonic rules and he connects his improvisation with what was written. In the end, as if to reinforce the importance of the theme, the musician will reprise the same score he initially played.

But what does any of this to do with tarot?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that even though we see different representations of the same card from deck to deck that most people would insist in applying a general set of meanings that they’ve learned and disregard everything else. Here’s the thing: just like there are uncountable versions of the same music, there probably exists the same number of tarot decks. And even though most decks bear quite proudly its influences to the Holy Trinity of Decks, each deck presents a personal view of what that particular image should show.

As an example, here’s the images for the Devil Card from a few decks. In the first image, we have the cards from Marseille, Rider Waite Smith and the Toth Decks. In the second, the Hanson-Roberts, Tarot of the Crone, Peanuts Tarot, Tarot de St. Croix, William Blake Tarot and the Swiss 1JJ Decks.

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In these nine cards, and it could be any other card depicted there, you can find some similar images (Marseille, RWS, St. Croix, Hanson-Roberts and… let’s include the Peanuts card) and some images which portray different aspects of the card. Even in the images with the same elements, you can see differences in colors, in shapes, in the positions of the characters, in the secondary elements that compose the card. All in all, even though we have some images with similar views, it is probably safe to admit that these nine examples transmit different feelings and different sensations.

As a test, I took the three devil representations from Marseille, RWS and Toth to the streets and asked people their opinion of the images. Was there an image that was particularly frightening? Or appealing? Or did they respond equally to the same images?

Most people responded in a more negative way to the RWS card, and one can see why: there’s a black background, the devil has some very “ugly” features, like the prominent bat wings, the long beard, the huge horns; the chains are very visible, the fire of the torch is pointing down, as if the devil wanted to burn something, etc, etc. There probably isn’t a positive element in this card. But the most interesting results came after: The Marseille card had a neutral to positive reaction even though it is basically the same representation. Factors pointed out include a greater variety of colors (some people even considered it a psychedelic version of the RWS card), a white background and a lighter expression of all the characters when compared with the RWS. And, not surprising, the Crowley card came as the most appealing card, with its pink background, its non-aggressive elements and the dancing figures all equally contributing to the overall effect.

When I asked the same type of questions over at Tarot Professionals (a Facebook group of… you guessed it!!) most all the answers I got were in the sense of acknowledging the differences between the cards, but not taking that as an important influence in the reading. There might be some tendency towards a specific response to one or the other, but people would respond that that didn’t consciously influence their reading. The thread then evolved into a left hand/right hand discussion, which didn’t say much beyond personal opinions are personal and should be left at that.

Aesthetics aside, working with a particular tarot deck should mean working with that particular point of view and the way that point of view interacts with our own reality-tunnel. This means that even though different decks might have the same images, the same keywords, there are different nuances, different shades to each card that should make a difference. In returning to the three Devil Cards of the questionnaire, I would read the RWS in a more gloomy/negative way than the others. Or the Toth Devil more as an expression of  a primal energy than the RWS or the Marseille. I would then adapt this impression into the keywords, if appropriate, to devise the meaning in a reading. On a similar note, even though the 1JJ and the St. Croix decks portray the same feeling of hopelessness, the simple fact that in the 1JJ Deck the Demon is standing and seems to be walking around tantalizing the hopeless woman makes, for me, a more negative impression than the St. Croix card, which portrays the demon as sitting on a pillar/bench.

In fact, one could argue that one of the most interesting things about all the different decks  is the fact that they provide different points of view; different perspectives on the same matter. Why then don’t we take then into account when reading the cards? Routine obviously plays a part in this. As do our own thought processes, already wired into a particular mind set. Obviously, working with different decks would imply to alter our own mind-set, to not have it crystallized and used regardless of what we see. One could also argue that each and every reading is personal and, as such, already dependent of the reality-tunnel the reader is at the moment. So, why not allow an extra degree of freedom and actually let the image influence the reading? Why not allow these little differences to actually make the difference between a standardized reading and a personal one? Even if we get back to the standard, like a good jazz musician would do, we already did something different. Something unique. Something personal. And our reading came much the better for it.

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