“Painting Testimonial Pictures” — Problem Cards and Pataphysics

I think we can all agree that the tarot excels at throwing us curve-balls during the practice of prediction. Usually it’s in the form of a card in a reading that just won’t fit the puzzle no matter how we turn it. Often it’s a major — or “trump” card — that lands in the middle of a mundane narrative and connects with nothing that came before or after it. Almost as often it can be a court card that implies the intervention of another person when no such probability exists within the context of the question. Unraveling these knots can be the ultimate challenge in any interpretation. As Charley might have said in an alternate-universe production of Death of a Salesman if he had been talking about cartomancy instead of Willy Loman’s hopeless dream: “It comes with the territory.”

I was thinking about the Paul McCartney song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and its mention of “painting testimonial pictures” and practicing “pataphysical science.” Tarot divination is fundamentally a metaphysical art-form, equal parts mystical, philosophical and intellectual in nature. But when something emerges that just doesn’t fit the model, we have to step beyond the usual paradigm and into the rarefied space of Alfred Jarry’s mock-science, “pataphysics.”

“Pataphysics is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics, whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics. . . . ‘Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.”

If we opt to use it as diviners, a minor twist on Jarry’s definition should suffice: rather than the “science of imaginary solutions,” it becomes one of “imaginative explanations.” We must rev up our intuition to deal with the baffling “exceptions to the rule” that crop up with distressing frequency in our readings. Some readers dodge the hard thinking inherent in this confrontation by simply pulling more cards, naively called “clarifiers” when the effect is often just the opposite. Others resort to complex supplemental techniques like Elemental Dignities or the “quintessence” calculation to create esoteric insights that may lead them far afield from the simple wisdom that the Universe intended us to receive. These layered observations aren’t necessarily incorrect but they may be entirely superfluous to the objective.

Take a step back and consider why your cards won’t talk to you in plain language:

Sometimes you aren’t supposed to know the answer.

Sometimes you ask the wrong question.

Sometimes the meaning isn’t clear yet, even to the Universe, because there are just too many uncertainties in the situation.

Sometimes you don’t know (or are ignoring) the information you need to be able to understand the answer.

And sometimes you aren’t listening because you don’t like what the cards are saying.

The one-word solution favored by neophytes (and often by their mentors) for all of these is “clarifiers.” Keep pulling cards until you get something you like or can deal with. They save you from having to think too deeply about the message buried in the original draw. If Douglas Adams had been a tarot reader, he would have said you need 42 of them to get it right.

I’ve also enlisted an Adams quote from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in my one-man crusade to discourage the use of clarifiers as a substitute for critical thinking. Here I present the unofficial “Douglas Adams Theory of Clarifiers:”

“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.”

In other words, pulling clarifiers is futile, since the Universe is a moving target. If you wait long enough, it will circle back around to where it was when you pulled the original card. By then you will be older and wiser, and can figure out what it means.

In the final analysis, we have to “think harder as well as smarter” about these riddles, boiling them down to their essence and seeing them as opportunities for cognitive growth rather than obstacles to understanding. My personal preference is to fall back on cultural, social, literary or historical metaphors and analogies as a creative way to penetrate the “soft underbelly” of such obstinate adversaries and extract the meat. But any method that takes us outside the box of our conventional assumptions about specific card meanings and offers a fresh perspective can be brought to bear. The key point is that there are no reliable shortcuts for having to render them into coherent terms through contemplation and ratiocination (the “process of exact thinking”); I’m also partial to James Ricklef’s advice: let them “simmer in your consciousness; they will eventually make sense, they always do.”

Anything less profound is just a “Band-aid fix.”

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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