Tarot Newspeak: The Vocabulary of Affirmation, Appeasement and Empowerment

This essay is a condensation of several previous articles on the subject of the sometimes dishonest (or at least ambiguous and potentially misleading) vocabulary of tarot-card interpretation. Most tarot readers are deft in the ways of inspiring and encouraging their clients with the “good news” but they often wrestle with how to “dress up” any uncomfortable insights to make them seem less threatening (or at least more manageable). They often attempt to do an “end run” on the dilemma by resorting to the fuzzy tropes of affirmation and empowerment when what they’re actually offering may be little more than artful deflection masquerading as positive reinforcement. In such cases, the niceties of delivery can take precedence over the content of the message to the detriment of candor. This crafty circumlocution goes by many names (one of which is “weasel words”) but can be summed up in the vague generality “It’s all good.”

On the tarot forums and Facebook pages we’re fond of throwing words around loosely with the assumption that everyone agrees on their inherent meaning and usage, so critical debate about them is scarce. One of those is “empowerment.” We are reluctant to present harsh judgments to our sitters even when the cards deliver them in no uncertain terms; rather than beating them over the head with it, we want to give seekers something they can work with to surmount the difficulty, a noble objective to be sure. Unfortunately, too often this translates into wanting to leave them feeling good about the situation when what we really should do is make sure they understand the nature of the challenge and position themselves accordingly. Downplaying the projected consequences by speaking only in upbeat terms is doing a disservice to our clients, who really need to hear the cautionary side of the tale. This isn’t empowerment, it’s enabling an unrealistic optimism by recasting ominous presentiments in the credulous language of affirmation, and it often amounts to what Aleister Crowley called appeasement. A bit of prudent worry is not necessarily a bad thing if it promotes vigilance.

Another common ploy is the dissembling synonym. We choke on the word “Death” and flinch at the Devil, so we assuage our discomfort with innocuous substitutes like “transformation” and “materialism.” We’re afraid of the Tower so we transmute its terrible promise into “enlightenment” or “epiphany.” The Hanged Man is not suffering, he is meditating, while the Moon’s tenuous light is not shifty and treacherous, it’s emotionally nurturing. (Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and scream “Gaaah!”) These interpretations are not necessarily wrong in every case, but they can miss the point. The “psychologizing” of tarot is to blame for much of this soft-hearted (dare we say “soft-headed?”) evasiveness. There are few absolutes in Jungian space, in which almost anything can be rendered in shades of gray. It’s way too easy to slip into psychological double-talk rather than sticking with the pragmatic agenda of situational awareness and developmental insight of the “action-and-event-oriented” kind.

By far my favorite whipping-boy is the indiscriminate use of intuitive free-association as a stand-in for knowledge: “I don’t know what this symbolism means so I’ll just wing it.” It’s right up there with New Age mystical gibberish as having the “squishiness” to mean anything to anybody. I’ve written about it many times in the past, but it’s like a persistent itch that needs scratching. When it doesn’t reflect simple laziness in the face of an intimidating mass of accumulated wisdom that requires serious study to assimilate, purely intuitive reading of the cards can come across more as starry-eyed self-hypnosis than as a mainline to Spirit; we assume with little hard evidence that we’re channeling a higher state of consciousness, often presumed to be Divine so it can’t possibly be wrong, when in fact we may just be adrift in our own heads. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re pristine vessels for a greater Truth, which may even be true to a point but probably not to the degree that some of the more self-congratulatory types assume.

My long-held opinion is that the superiority of intuitive divination as claimed by book-shunning tarot readers isn’t really based on the “genuine article” (which in the scholarly estimation of tarot historian Robert Place seems to have been shamanistic and more akin to subjective self-reflection of the “Hanged Man” type than a true gauge of external phenomena). I see its modern counterpart as a form of “guided suggestion,” since it uses the images on the cards as a springboard to stimulate visionary assumptions about their significance in objective reality. I’ve shied away from furtherance of the overworked term “intuition” because it smacks too much of free-floating guesswork when in fact its use is unavoidably tethered to the interpretive model encoded in the pictures. It’s not so much mining the symbolism in the cards as it is evoking certain “feelings” about the import of the narrative scenes within the context of the querent’s circumstances. The mantra seems to be “If it feels right, it must be correct.” Unfortunately, there is a contingent of tarot writers, teachers and mentors who push this approach to the exclusion of trying to master the core knowledge embedded in the divinatory tradition.

I really don’t think the Universe stoops to speak with us in such cozy personal terms, its testimony is usually more cryptic and elusive; rather than receiving it on a platter, we must try to waylay it like a hobo running after a departing freight train. “Through a glass darkly” is a humbler and more apt paradigm to explain the nature of subconscious perception. Throwing open our hearts and minds with the naive expectation that they will automatically be filled with enlightenment (a common denominator of most mainstream religions) is presumptuous as well as unrealistic. Better to dig for that wisdom than to naively hold out our hand to receive it. If we blindly trust our instincts we might just be slipped a turd, one that we will cheerfully pass on to our client with a hefty dose of tarot “Newspeak.”

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