Robert Anton Wilson and Tarot

Maybe Logic The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson

For the first time, I will write a post in e-prime. Not that I haven’t tried to do it, mind you. I had and I still struggle to do it. However, no matter how much I would like to do it, I always end up struggling to find the right word or better yet, the right combination of words to translate precisely what I intend to say. In the end, I take the easy way out and just write in normal, plain english.

For those of you that don’t know, e-prime stands for “English Prime”, a variant of english which excludes every single form of the verb “to be”. You can find out more about it here.

I first came upon this form of English in the books of american author Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). Born on the 18th of January, he would complete today his 83rd birthday, had he not died seven years ago.

I first got exposed to his ideas quite accidentally, through a comic book called Arkham Asylum: A Serious House in a Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. Needless to say, it made an impact on my adolescent psyche:

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As a side note, this comic marked also my first ever exposure to the Toth deck, through the Tower card, although at the time I didn’t knew that it actually existed and just assumed the artist made the image up. Silly me…

Fast forward a few years. I had discovered Philip K. Dick and held him in such high appreciation, that when I saw a quote of him on one of RAW’s books, I decided to give this guy a try. I started with Prometheus Rising, followed by Quantum Psychology. Two books that would significantly alter my way of thinking. Both books function pretty much as two halves of the same coin, although tarot readers who want to significantly better their reading skills should probably start with Quantum Psychology.

The books argue how we got imprinted with a set of Aristotelian values that made us see the world through the lenses of a binary code: Black or White; Right or Wrong; Left or Right; Yes or No. In Prometheus, we then get toured through each of Leary’s 8 Circuit Model of Consciousness and how we can break free of this code by reaching higher levels of consciousness, much like our perceptions of the world evolve as we go up the Cabbalistic Tree of Life. In Quantum Psychology, we have a different approach.

Again, we start with a two-value set and how it enforces our view of the world. Wilson then goes and expands this notion by introducing a third value: “Maybe”. And then a forth value, “Meaningless”. And so on. As he does this he starts to show us how can we expand our world view, our reality tunnel. So that we no longer see a world in Black and White, but start to see it in shades of Grey. As the book progresses and we become increasingly more comfortable with relativism, he goes even further, mixing ideas from fields such as Quantum Physics, Psychology, Magick or Yoga and the likes of Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs, Gurdjieff, Timothy Leary, Einstein and James Joyce.

Starting with thought-provoking ideas like “Whatever the thinker thinks, the prover proves” – an interesting concept that basically says that if we can come up with something (an idea, a concept, an opinion), then we will also come up with a way to validate said idea – he then sets out to systematically deconstruct our view of reality by simply showing us that  if we can prove everything we think of and our view of reality results from perceptions gathered by our senses and transformed into electrical signals to be transmitted to the brain, we do live in our own version of the world and all discussion of it ends up pointless because we can always think a way around the conundrums that other people throw at us.

This also means that statements like “Andrew is rich” do not have any kind of meaning at all, because other people might not see Andrew quite that way. In fact, for the sentence “Andrew is rich” to have any value, people would first have to agree on the definition of the word “rich”. And how can we define a simple four letter word such as “rich”? Do we even agree on the definition of said word? Or do each of us has its own definition of richness, which may or may not approach other people’s definition, but none the less remains unique; personal. So, instead, maybe we should say something along the lines of  “I sure find Andrew rich”, or even “In my opinion, Andrew has so much money, I see him as a a rich person”. Notice the difference in the latter sentences with the first one. In the first, we simply state “Andrew is rich”, whilst in the latter, we say something along the lines of Andrew possessing so much wealth that he meets OUR definition of richness. Our definition. Not some nameless, absolute, quantified definition. Remember, we always talk about and we can only talk about our perceptions; our way of seeing the world. By inserting a referential in the sentence, we not only acknowledge that we see only according to our own views, but we also acknowledge that anyone else might have a different opinion…

And what does any of this have to do with tarot?

Early on, we get taught that we shouldn’t see the cards as either positive or negative, but instead as existing in a type of quantum state that when accessed can become either positive or negative or even both. An idea first put forth by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in what became known as the Schödinger’s Cat paradox.

We then get a table of meanings for each card; a table with hundreds of meanings that supposedly we can assign to each card, only to get warned not to take them at face value. “You should only use them as a guideline”, we get told. “Try to find out your own meaning for the cards; your own attributions”.

The difficulties increase if we pause to think that if a certain card can have multiple meanings, then perhaps none of then actually describes the card. And instead, we all just wander around its edges, trying to pinpoint its exact meaning. By stating something along the lines of “I see the card in this perspective” or “in this reading, I assign this and that value to the card” we can inform others of the subjectivity of the reading, as well as invite them to offer their own views. Their own perspectives. Notice how when applied to a reading this changes the focus from the deterministic “this and this shall happen” to the more softer “I see this card translating this and that effect”, which can then shift the purpose of the reading from a simple Q/A session to a more self-awareness direction and a more significant type of work.

Then we have the never-ending debate of reversals. Should we or shouldn’t we use reversals? As we have already covered that in Shelley’s wonderful post, lets instead consider the following:

  1. the question arises because some but not all (somebunal, as RAW would say) methods of card shuffling invert the position of the cards.
  2. If most methods of shuffling result in 1-2 different card positions, some methods of shuffling that can produce an infinite number of positions, thereby raising the questions “If we use these types of methods when can we consider a card reversed?” and “If our way of shuffling can produce 2 card orientations, which I will follow in my reading, if I use a method of shuffling that produces “n” possible card orientation, should I also use the final orientation of a card as an indication into what type of meaning I can extract from the card?”
  3. considering the reversal as an inversion or decrease in terms of intensity of the meaning of the card can, in fact, help us assign meaning to the card, and might lead to a quicker reading, since you don’t have to consider so many alternatives.

Independently of the answer you might arrive, you end up with a personal system. Something that functions for you because it mirrors your own personal views regarding tarot reading. And your personal views only. Another person might very well reach a different conclusion. Because “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”, both ways remain valid.

Another interesting point regards the use of language. We put way too much faith in the objectivity of language. But if we can’t even agree on the definition of simple concepts as “richness”, how can we accurately transmit an idea? Or, better yet, should we really concern ourselves with this? Enrique Enriquez, picking up on a tradition that goes all the way back to the surrealists, and even before them, has produced some wonderful work regarding “the hidden meanings of words” or, to put it in another way, to show us just how flexible our own communication system can become once we let go of the rigid parameters of “this means that and only that”. In a sense, when we say that a certain image in a card reminds us of something completely different, we end up doing the same. We associate two different images and establish a connection between them. A connection that might only have surfaced because at that particular moment we became aware of the second image. No doubt aroused by something deeply rooted into our own perceptions, in our brain chemistry and in the particular way our brain functions.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea… If you want to explore this type of approach in more detail, I strongly urge you to take some time and study his work. In the meantime, I leave you with a few exercises where you can actually test these notions.

EXERCISES:

1. Make a table where you only assign a single meaning to each card of the tarot deck. In the end, you will have 78 meanings, which you will use in every reading you make for a considerable amount of time (at least 2 weeks). How do your readings change by this restriction? Do they loose any of its accuracy?

2. Make a second table where you assign a different meaning to each card. So, for example, if you went with “Guide” for the High Priestess, consider now the word “Passive”. The more different, the better. Again, use this table for a reasonable amount of time, not less than the previous one and again, in every reading you make. Take notice of any changes in your reading ability or accuracy that might happen.

3. If you do reversals, stop using them. If you don’t use reversals, start using them. Does your reading suffer or do you notice any improvement by using them? What changed in your ability to read and translate the cards?

4. Pick a card from your deck and study it, writing down every single element you notice and an image it suggests. Then, try to reproduce the card you saw, but by replacing the symbols you just saw with the ones that popped into your head. Compare the results. Do you still have the same card?

Have fun and…

Happy birthday Mr. Wilson from all of us here at Maelstromtarot!!! 😀

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Life as an Escape Artist

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There’s something strangely appealing about an escape artist. Even though the premise remains the same for more than 100 years – a guy puts himself in a situation from which escape seems impossible, only to get out a few moments later – we still get carried away with this type of presentation. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to figure out how will the escape artist manage to escape its condition. Or maybe it’s the “will he make it in time?” question. We know he will, as he obviously would not present an act that wasn’t properly rehearsed. But even so, there’s always this little thought in the back of our heads asking “What if he doesn’t do it?”

That’s the thrill of it… To see someone against impossible odds and actually succeed. That’s also the thrill to many of our stories. Where the “hero” is faced with an impossible task. Something that only he can do, even if, at first glance, it does seem impossible. A position that, for better or for worse, he cannot simply not choose to do it. Whether he likes it or not.

This type of situation can be represented by a tarot card. It’s called The Hanged Man and it speaks about being put in a position where you know you have to do something regardless of anything else you might want or wish or desire. It even has the same type of imagery. When it appears in a reading, it normally means something like “Sacrifice”; “Changing views/perspectives/opinions”; “Waiting”; “Loss”; “Redemption”; “Saved by the bell”…

There is, however, an aspect of the card which is seldom addressed. The part of the hero. I recently came over this as I was reading Grant Morrison’s “Seven Soldiers of Victory”, a two-volume set about seven heroes, who must combine their efforts in order to save the world, even though they can’t be together (you can find them here and here). In it there’s one sequence where one of the seven heroes, Zatanna, questions herself about what should a hero do:

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Zatanna #4, by Grant Morrison and Ryan Sook. Part of The Seven Soldiers of Victory collection.

So, the typical “Hangman” situation, but seen by the eyes of a hero. And… what would the hero do?? Sure enough, he/she would go straight ahead and walk into hell if need be in order to get it done. He/she would confront whatever it is that needed to be confronted, whatever the personal cost would be.
Just like in real life, when faced with The Hagman, we have to confront whatever ails us and be done with it. And here’s the interesting part: In the Hangman card, we’re chained. Chained by our dreams; our misconceptions; our prejudices. Chained to people and things we don’t want to loose. Chained to points of view that no longer favor us. And it is the dream of every person who sees itself in that situation to escape it. To find a solution where he/she can still keep all of hir luggage and still get out of hir predicament. By dealing with these types of situations, and while we’re not ready to let go of that excessive luggage, where testing the waters to see what we can expect. We’re trying some solutions. And we’re developing ourselves as a person. We’re expanding our limits. We’re putting ourselves to the test. When we reach a “Hangman” situation, we’re also putting ourselves against impossible odds and trying to figure out a way to beat them. In our own private little story, we’re actually taking the role of the hero.

Of course, when facing the impossible we have to adapt. To develop new skills in order to effectively handle the problem we have in front of us. As Steve Englehart has put in his novel “The Point Man”,

“in order to become someone else, you first have to be somebody else.”

As every tarot reader knows, we resolve the Hangman card by breaking the bonds. By dealing with the subject in matter in a way that allows us to move on. But do we really deal with the issue at hand, or do we just find an escape route that allows us to keep the same luggage and sort of “move on”? Or even, something in between?

Life is an expert at building us traps. And we’re also experts at falling into them. An escape artist knows what to do and gets it done. There’s no harm there. He just moved from trap to trap, from one impossible situation to another and makes his living. A hero, does deal with the situation at hand, many times if necessary, and always with some personal cost. But, as everyone knows, in either situation, there’s always a door open and sometime in the future, this same situation can and will rise again.

As if there isn’t a definite solution to the problem at hand.

In real life, we’re always training ourselves to dodge bullets. To deal with whatever situation life throws at us and to leave it behind as soon as possible. We are dealing with it. But it can also be seen as escaping its dangers. Its consequences. Is it, then, unexpected that the next card turns out (in traditional decks) to feature someone on a horse riding (escaping?) in a direction that suggests movement from the past to the future (left to right)?

The Death card is supposed to be all about “personal or voluntary transformation”. Of  “killing a part of yourself, so that you can create something new”. It’s about resolution and leaving behind what’s supposed to stay behind, so that the new can come in. New situations. New challenges. New developments and, ultimately, new escapes.