Tag Archives: work

Tarot and the shaky rationalist

I’ve been reading/messing about with/collecting Tarot cards for some 30 odd years now, on and off. They live mostly wrapped in colourful silk scarves, in a stylishly minimal black wooden box at the side of my bed.

The fascination began when I was reading up on Yeats and the Golden Dawn in Sixth Form. Yeats, aside from being a poet, playwright, Senator of the Irish Free State and manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was a very serious occultist. No less than Alistair Crowley referred to him as “that dishevelled demonologist” (in return, Yeats loathed Crowley and later expelled him from the occult order they both belonged to, the Golden Dawn).

I picked up two or three decks over the next few years, learning to read in a relatively haphazard way. Every now and then I’d use them to make ends meet. When I met supermum, in fact, I was reading Tarot cards in an odd little indoor market somewhere in the East of England. Then I abandoned them altogether for ten years or so until the urgent need came up to make a living during a gap in employment. Supermum was pregnant, we had our first mortgage, job offers weren’t exactly knocking at the door and a badly managed period of freelancing had left me deeply in debt to the taxman. A friend hooked me up with a London members’ club and I did an evening’s work there. It was interesting and I felt the pull and the draw all over again. The following day, I was offered a ‘respectable’ job and put them down.

And that was that for eight years until two years ago, I began to read Dante in depth, followed by quantities of material on Northern Myth and paganism. It was probably influenced by the novel I’d begun to write, Shaper. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be drawn back to what is, for me, the motherlode of myth, mysticism and imagery in the West, the Tarot but this time with – I hope – a humbler attitude. It started again with an impulse purchase from Treadwell’s of the Tarot art deck, the Spill Tarot, and continued when I encountered Suzanne Treister’s extraordinary HEXEN 2.0 deck created for an installation at the Science Museum. HEXEN 2.0 is a genuine transposition of the Renaissance tradition of the tarot as a treasure house of obscurely interconnected symbols and archetypes into the 21st century. But for her, the archetypes are ARPANET, Timothy Leary, the CIA, wide area networks, the Situationalists, transhumanism and much else existing on the shadowy borders between technology and new age superstition. I found it to be a deck that directly related to my own work in managing, networking, websites, marketing and other dark arts. This led to trying a few readings as a substitute for conventional mind-mapping or brainstorming exercises when I was working on new product ideas or strategies. I also I have a very understanding boss who let me use them in my appraisal!

All this drew me back to the Frieda Harris and Crowley’s Thoth deck (Crowley was an appalling human being but he knew a thing or two about Tarot and Harris’ artwork is amazing). Using it, I’ve been working through Rachel Pollack’s excellent Tarot Wisdom and rethinking the way I approach them.

Which brings me, at last, to my position as a ‘shaky rationalist’. I’m an atheist, someone who believes in empirical evidence, scientific process and the strong possibility that we’re all descended from apes and amoebas (for some of us, more of one than the other). What on earth am I doing playing around with a pack of dodgy occult cards?

I suppose the answer is “I don’t really know.” I mix them up, think about the images and the interactions between them and how that relates to the meanings assigned to them over the centuries and I see what happens. In the process, I learn something about myself and about the people I occasionally read for. It’s a kind of weather forecasting in some ways.

The thing Tarot is doing for me is provide a lens for thinking about a kind of spirituality and way of relating to the “images of eternity” we’ve inherited from our ancestors that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m suspicious of the kind of instant shamanism peddled in so many contexts but one concept well-founded in anthropological research is the shaman’s capacity to accept both concrete material fact and the experience of the altered ‘shamanic’ state of mind as real – real in the post-modern sense if you like. Tarot is a formidable tool for experiencing this.

And besides, the cards are very beautiful. Isn’t that enough in its own right?

A few books:

Rachel Pollack, Tarot Wisdom and Seventy Eight Degrees Of Wisdom

A.E. Waite – The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (an old classic and the essential guide to the Rider-Waite Deck so many people start with)

Alistair Crowley – The Book of Thoth (not for beginners!)

Sallie Nichols – Jung And Tarot – An Archetypal Journey (I’m no Jungian but, as with so much else, his idea of the Archetype is a useful tool for thinking about oneself and ones relationship to a larger whole)


Yes, it’s a bit quiet

I’ve a stack of things I want to write about…

…little elf’s best friend a week

…dudelet’s James Bond habit and the perils of GameCube meltdowns

…the new Broooooce album (though I did tweet a song by song as-it-happens review earlier

…a large pile of books

…my struggle to translate and re-structure draft 3.5 of the work-in-progress via index cards

and so on and on.

But I have this ‘anti-job’ interview to get through and its swallowing up my processing capacity like a black hole swallows light and gravity (or a really beastly mixed metaphor swallows one’s will to live, come to think of it. Sorry about that).

Anyway, it’ll all be over by Thursday evening and normal service will be resumed.


Being 50

I’m not actually 50 but I’m practising. Doris Lessing reckons that “For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.” Henry Rollins contemplates the tree line, always getting further away. Leonard Cohen just looks it in the eye and laughs from the bottom of the well, covered in the “filth of the butcher”.

At 50, my father was contemplating retirement. I now wonder whether he admitted a kind of defeat – certainly one might argue that his life ended a year later and he simply drifted pointlessly on for the following 30 years. I think that would be wrong in many ways but his, well, settling for nothing in particular still baffles me. Retirement is never likely to be an option for me. Supermum’s father worked up to almost the day of the his death and it seems like a better option. I’d written ‘noble’ but that seems unfair to my own father, for all the difficulties between us.

He might have pointed out that there are many different kinds of work.

There are days when I tell myself that I’m tired but I remember tired days at the age of 10, 15, 20, 25…days when I wanted to lie down and stop. At fifty (or approaching fifty) one is grateful for the chance to get up again and start.

I’m lucky. Getting up and starting is still a blessing for me. I look forward across hopefully many years and copy down the words of an old Chinese poet, again thinking of supermum’s father and a last afternoon surrounded by his wife, daughters, grandchildren. I suppose what I’m saying is that I hope for the same and to not be ready for “the long journey” until a few days beforehand but to then be as ready as any man can be.

In yesterday’s winds I was happy to begin my long journey,
But today in all this sunlit warmth of spring I feel better.

And now that I’m packed and ready for that distant voyage,
What does it matter if I linger here a few days longer?

(Po Chû-i (CE772-846), translated by David Hinton)