11.24.2009

The Two of Swords

I love my tarot deck - let me tell you why.

There is something beautiful about randomness. When one considers it, this seems silly of course. At some level, a card game like War is entirely pointless. I could write a computer program that could analyze the cards you drew at the beginning of the game, and immediately tell you whether you've won or lost. The playing of the actual game is an exercise in futility, by any mathematical measure, like playing a game with dice where whoever roles the bigger number wins.

But when I was little, it was fun, because it told a story - we played that Deuces were the lowest, but that they could beat face cards, for instance, so whenever I drew a Deuce over a King, it gave the momentary thrill of an underdog victorious. Shuffling a deck of cards infuses an otherness into our actions. At some level, of course, this otherness is still just the shuffler. Those who do card tricks can manipulate this seeming randomness in fact (in fact the inexistence of true randomness in the universe is, if you think about it, as mind boggling as the idea of infinity).But, nonetheless, I as a shuffler have no control over my shuffling. Randomness is a way of simulating an incomprehensible god, of accessing the sublime.

The particular power of randomness is particularly lovely, then, when you combine with the Tarot, because the Tarot is, in itself, a sort of hodgepodge of symbolism. Like the best of frauds, the Tarot has the ability to tell you whatever you are looking for it to say. Sufficeth to say, I don't generally hold to the theory that the Tarot is god's sneaky way of talking to me. But that's the wonderful thing about the tarot - it's kind of a formalized, subtle way of talking to oneself. It's the randomness that makes it magical. It's something like writing in your journal, only your journal has an unpredictable, vague way of prompting you: 'You've drawn the 10 of Cups upside down - now you have to think about how what you've been thinking about affects your family, instead of just yourself.' or 'You've drawn the Hanged Man. Consider whether what you've been trying to do would be better left undone, to work itself out.'

Because of the complex abstractness of the symbology in the tarot, I'm actually a really awful Tarot reader, from a classical perspective. I know, abstractly, that there are certain meaning I imply from cards that are 'wrong'. I know that certain configurations of cards are meant to imply things - meeting a stranger, or a dark man in your life, or whatever. I can even remember what some of these are supposed to be, if I think really hard. But these things don't mean much to me (I've never had my tarot read by anyone but myself, so it's difficult to say how I'd react to a real reading). Rather, I think of the Tarot like reading poetry, and I read it accordingly, without a sense of right or wrong interpretation, but rather as a little whisper in my ear that points me to MY interpretation. So, when I tell you now what the two of swords means, keep in mind that that meaning is not necessarily 'correct'.

Of all the suits of the Tarot, the swords tell the clearest story to me. The Two of swords is the beginning of that story (the Ace is more like the title page), and it's the sort of story that begins with a precarious balance, or as Arthur Edward Waite calls it, an equipoise. There are two kinds of peace in the world. There is the classical kind of peace, the sort that lasts and is deeply felt, the peace of doves and cherubs. I can conceive that such a peace exists, but have absolutely no personal experience of it. I have no thoughts that I'll ever attain it, in fact, because such a peace would involve being at peace and contentment with myself, and I do not have the capacity to be a good enough person to not be a bad person in the net gain, and I cannot feel at peace with myself if I'm not doing more good than ill in the world. It's that simple, cards that talk about this kind of peace are beautiful, but utterly distant, like Dante looking into Paradise. The other kind of peace is the sort we actually see - moments of rest, moments of stasis, when all the forces inside have been, for just a second, precariously balanced against each other. This is the two of swords. The lady holds two painful,destructive forces in her hand, and sits on the edge of the precipice, but for just a moment, for just one transcendent second, she has put those uglinesses (a sword, like any instrument of war, is intrinsically ugly)up as counter weights, and for a moment, she can feel what it is to be still.

Those are my dearest moments, the moments when all the demons are balanced against each other, the moment just before another demon comes and the balance is lost - and it's the moment where I can choose, my little moment where I can decide to be good or ill. The precipice is always there, and I always fall, but I can regress, or I can journey on to the next card in teh swords: the Three of Swords, another of my favorite cards, the circumcision of the heart.

EDIT: BTW, since I know a number of folks have talked about wanting to learn about the tarot, I can recommend this page, which is a good introduction to how to read tarot cards. Additionally, if you just want to play with the idea without actually buying a deck, this page will draw you a spread, and links back to the descriptions of the cards and positions from Arthur Edward Waite.

4 comments:

Emily said...

What a lovely little essay! My partner David views astrology in a similar way - as less a predictor or set of Truths imposed from without, but as a lens through which to view and think about himself and the people around him. I agree that randomness and the lack thereof are kind of mind-boggling things to think about!

Jason Gignac said...

I don't know very much about astrology, but conceptually I can understand the idea. I think the problem with most forms of divination is that they masquerade as science. Magic, in life, plays a different role at science. It's horrible at doing what science does. And vice versa.

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