Two years ago, when it was made available to Amazon Prime members, I finally caught up to Tarology: The Art of Tarot, the 2013 documentary film that chronicles the idiosyncratic tarot vision of Enrique Enriquez. This blurb from online movie database IMDb is both concise and informative: “Enrique Enriquez is a controversial thinker in the tarot world; he does not believe in spirits, the supernatural or in anything mystical. Enrique’s approach to tarot cards is purely visual and poetic yet within this framework he creates beautiful and inspired readings. His work with the Marseilles Tarot breaks new ground both intellectually and artistically. This film explores Enrique’s unique philosophy and approach toward the ancient craft of tarot reading.”
I’ve decided that — although I’m probably a decade or two older than he is — I want to be Enrique Enriquez when I grow up. He finally gave me a sound rationale for why I’ve instinctively resisted applying esoteric symbols from Qabala and astrology to my study and practice of the Tarot de Marseille, despite the exhortations of those post-modernists who say “just do whatever works for you.” I’ve gotten on well enough with such symbolism for too long with decks that were designed around it to categorically dismiss it as “nonsense” and “rubbish” (although, if we’re being honest, many such decks might justifiably be labeled excessively abstruse), but I’m perfectly agreeable to considering it irrelevant in this one instance. Enriquez has a simplicity and directness in his approach to reading the images in the TdM as visual poetry with “rhyming” elements between the cards that is so sensible I can’t believe I didn’t see it this clearly before. His way of piecing together stories from posture, gesture and gaze and mining the emotional content seems like nothing short of genius to those of us who inhabit what is by most accounts a sparsely-furnished interpretive landscape. It would not be going too far to say that the film is something of a watershed event in my struggle to “get serious” with learning the TdM, and a logical step beyond what I’ve found in the few English-language books on the subject.
I never had much use for parsing all of the decorative embellishments (flowers, leaves, tendrils and such) into discrete tidbits of meaning, so I can see how the art of finding inspiration in the organic form and structure of the figures and their surroundings is going to be a valuable key for me. Saying that the Tarot de Marseille wants us to be “dumb” in order to appreciate its spare elegance, and demonstrating how mimicking the posture of the figures on the trump cards in a theatrical way can open up their meaning for us, were two examples of his unique viewpoint that speak volumes to me. “Just read the pictures and pay attention” is good advice that seems entirely too obvious to need elaboration, but apparently it’s a rare skill. (In one of his admirable Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle had Holmes say to Watson “You see but you don’t observe,” while Shakespeare quipped in Troilus and Cressida “purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight;” such might be said of those trying to come to grips with the austere TdM after years of being spoon-fed by decks with extravagantly scenic minor cards.)
His approach is almost totally visual: the Batons are living things, the Cups are there to be filled, the Swords are sharp and combative and the Coins are an expression of wealth. As Dan Pelletier, co-owner of the Tarot Garden website, said in the video: a single Sword spells trouble, a card with several Swords brings “massive trouble.” An increasing number of Cups describes a party that is getting livelier and louder until, in the Ten, one of the party-goers falls down drunk and the party is over. The lion in Fortitude and the dog in the Fool are the same beast: the former is in front of the woman, blocking her progress until she masters it, while the latter is being left behind by the Fool as he sets out on his trek. Simple, really. I like to think that, through my creative use of metaphor and analogy in my reading, I’ve already made it part-way there.
Although I find that Pythagorean number theory still has a place in my TdM practice since geometric significance (the Point, the Line, the Trigon or Triangle, the Square, etc.) is universal and predates the tarot by centuries, Enriquez strips it down to its visual basics by showing how the juxtaposition of the figures and suit symbols — both within and across card boundaries — adequately defines their meaning without getting into the metaphysics. This is refreshing and immensely appealing. He makes Alejandro Jodorowsky — who also had the stated objective of steering away from esotericism with his book The Way of Tarot and his collaborative deck with Philippe Camoin — seem positively Baroque.
By way of full disclosure, I should add that although my (admittedly limited) prior exposure to his ideas had me prepared to be critical of Enriquez, I wound up admiring him. I watched the film twice and had a few more random thoughts to offer the second time around. His word-play at first seems incidental to the main thrust of the film, but it makes perfect sense when he talks about the Marseille tarot speaking the “language of the birds” (which Rachel Pollock equates to the language of prophecy). Through some clever transposition of letters he comes up with “Birds are beautiful thoughts,” which vividly captures the kind of inspiration that can be found in the cards. He also mentions that constantly “looking down” on the cards during the course of a reading seems almost disrespectful; we should raise our sights to the wider world and find the images repeated there. The reason for his wandering around the streets of New York City placing tarot cards on doors and walls finally clicked for me.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of la langue des oiseaux, here is a wikipedia article I found useful:
Approximately a year after writing the above, I recorded a few more observations about this imaginative approach that aims to turn the cards into “visual poetry,” apparently without the intervention of inductive reasoning. (I believe it’s intended to be more inventive and inspiring than ordinary free-association, which works rather poorly with the TdM anyway.) It seems to me that, although this a much more natural, “feeling” way to appreciate the cards than relying on knowledge-based synthesis of their traditional keyword meanings or the application of esoteric correspondences, it still involves an active mental conversion of suggestive images into symbolic ideas and thus is not seamlessly organic. My personal objective is to “crawl inside them and make myself at home,” to the point that using them is as unremarkable as putting on a suit of clothes that fits me like a second skin. I want to be able to immerse myself in their fundamental nature to the point that understanding rises spontaneously and effortlessly to the surface when I contemplate them even casually. Aleister Crowley called it relating to the cards as “living beings,” and that it must include residing with them on intimate terms day-in and day-out.
Crowley also said that the most effective way to do this for those not initiated in the art of meditation is through the practice of divination. What I’ve found in my own divinatory practice is that I still need a minimal framework — I once called it a “storyboard” — to bring a random group of cards to life as a fully-functional organism possessing the means of locomotion and a sense of direction. Throwing a handful of cards haphazardly onto the table and then trying to fashion a coherent narrative out of them is like trying to make sense out of an epic poem when only allowed to view a single verse. You’re confronted with an octopus or jellyfish rather than a vertebrate with a defining skeletal structure, or perhaps an elephant as experienced by a group of puzzled blind men. Some readers thrive in this open-ended environment; I don’t.
This is why I’ve put so much effort over the last few years into creating spreads, the vast majority of which are positional in design. If I’m going to tell a story, I want it to have a point of entry and and a well-marked exit, as well as some kind of step-wise path from one end to the other. They don’t always have to be built on the Hegelian “thesis/antithesis/synthesis” model but they should provide a satisfying sense of movement and closure. For me it’s purely a matter of getting straight to the point with as little thrashing about (aka “intuitive guesswork”) as possible. My clients don’t need to be told who they are and where they stand at the time of the reading, but rather whom they’re going to become and how they’re going to get there. My tool of choice in pursuing this distinctly non-mystical avenue of inquiry is slowly but inexorably becoming the Tarot de Marseille.
Where Enriquez seeks “poetry,” I look for “music” in my interaction with the cards; I’m more of a “music of the spheres” kind of guy. As a storyteller I want the images to “sing” to me with their shapes and colors in ways that are intensely non-verbal, although I must still provide lyrics in order to make their message communicable (ideally in as poetic a way as possible). This is why I’ve turned so emphatically toward the TdM, but also why I get so little value out of the dry statistical approach to deconstructing the pips. Counting up the flower buds and trying to decipher their condition and the purpose of their location and orientation is about as far from where I want to go as one can get. I’m a graphic designer by inclination and training, and believe that any work of visual art is invested with symbolism. For that matter, anything we process with our brain is a matter of symbolic association; it’s how we learn from the day we’re born. (When my granddaughter was not quite two she initially encountered an image of a “red car” in a picture-book as only a vague symbol until she saw one going down the road and connected the likeness to objective reality.)
If we can eat it or drink something, the experience is obviously more visceral than abstractly associative (all of you self-styled gourmets and wine snobs can stop squawking), but even then our choices give us away. I don’t eat beef or drink cheap beer, blended scotch or inferior coffee; what does that say about me? I’ve moved away from drinking my coffee with cream and sugar to taking it black and strong, and I find that a perfectly apt analogy for my evolution with the tarot. I’m less interested than ever in the scenic “wrapper” and more preoccupied with the metaphorical “filling,” and once liberated from the “canned” narrative vignettes and the trappings of esoterica, I’m finding that “less is more” from an interpretive standpoint. The simplest melodies are the most compelling and the uncluttered crescendos can be truly breathtaking.