The ultimate authority in the meaning and interpretation of the cards is in the reading itself. All the interpretations in all the little white books, in all the courses, from all the deeply felt intuition, only become relevant in the moment that someone is sitting down to read the cards, whether for themselves or for another.
I don’t want to discredit all those interpretations however, whatever their source may be- visual analysis akin to art criticism, historical study, old esoteric teachings, intuition, guides and guardians of spirit, etc. I don’t even want to discredit the notion of the cards as nothing but a stack of card stock and “the tarot” being nothing more than a trick of psychology.
The aim is not the “correct” interpretation of the tarot. I am trying to find how the tarot is able to seamlessly combine all the different modes of interpretation into itself, and for that my starting place, and the test I must always pass is in the reading itself, where it is the differences in interpretation that are highlighted and exposed, where a slight change in meaning in one card, alters the total meaning of the reading.
This is what I mean by, “tarot on its own terms,” understanding and approaching tarot in such a way that all of its different possible interpretations are affirmed, including granting a possible interpretation, if only by way of its exclusion in the reading itself. That piece, saying “yes” to the possibility of an interpretation, by excluding it from the actual reading, deserves some further explanation.
How does the tarot “work” in the most general sense?
My own limitation, that I have to accept every interpretation as a potential, shuts off an easy answer. Both the deeply metaphysical, “entities and consciousness greater than myself communicate to me through the cards” and the cuttingly skeptical, “it’s a stack of card stock and I read whatever contextual meaning I want into it.” I limited myself this way intentionally, out of deference to the ultimate authority, the moment of the tarot reading itself.
All of these possible interpretations take place in the tarot reading. Saying one is the “true” reading, one is the “false” reading, isn’t paying attention to what actually happens in tarot readings, which is that all of these interpretations do coexist, as possibilities. It is also clear that while every interpretation exists as a potential those that actually find their way into the concrete experience of the reading are much more limited. So the question turns to this limiting power, the filter between what the cards could mean, including “nothing at all,” and what the cards do mean in the reading.
The tarot is a set of images, with depictions of figures, entities, and objects, composed of lines, shape, and color. The tarot deck, the physical cards, contain a context of things and their relationships to one another through these images. The physical cards, and everything they contain, exist in a context of things, the querent who may or may not be separate from the reader, and the space and duration of the reading, filled to the brim with its own objects and entities, an environment.
Tarot on its own terms is recursive. This recursion goes both ways, too. The figures, entities, and objects in the cards that exist in their context, when drawn, become part of the environmental context, including the querent and the reader, at the same time as the environmental context becomes part of the context of the objects printed on the cards. Standing in between two mirrors facing each other produces the same effect.
Deck designers and creators who have included in their designs a lemniscate “∞”, I could say have introduced the same recursion, moving in two directions, into the visual imagery of their cards. However, if I find the lemniscate to be appropriate for inclusion in the tarot’s visual imagery, it is only because the act of reading and interpreting the cards is the action of this motion.
I could at this moment stop and say, “this dualistic recursion is the same dualistic recursion that exists in all of our experiences in our lives, and thus the tarot ‘works’ because it is an analogue of the same process we use to make sense of and participate in our world,” but doing so would be dishonest, placing the ultimate authority for the tarot reading on the reader’s ability to connect the objects of the tarot to the objects of everyday life, when I have explicitly denied that there is any authority to the tarot outside of the reading itself.
The reader’s ability to connect the things of the tarot to the things of everyday life is wholly dependent on the objects of the tarot that appear in the actual reading, which become part of the context of the environment of the reading, which becomes part of the context for the objects on the cards. While the contribution given to the reading by the reader is certainly unique, that uniqueness doesn’t give it a privileged place in the reading, especially not an authoritative one.
Reading for those with their own understanding and impression of the tarot is only challenging if the reader expects their uniqueness, their addition to the contextual, conditioned environment of the reading, to be the authority, but when the tarot is approached on its own terms, no such authority is to be found. Reading for those with their own preexisting understanding of the tarot can be an opening however to see tarot on its own terms. In these kinds of readings, the same limitations I outlined for myself at the beginning, that ultimate authority rests in the reading and that all possible interpretations have to be accepted as potential are clearly demonstrated.
The things in the cards, the things in the conditioned environment of the reading in which the things in the cards are a recursive part, including the reader and querent, are unified in the reading by their aim to become the experience reading, which is to say, to be the potential for all possible interpretations of the reading. A tarot reading is ignorant of any argument or debate of being against becoming; it’s aim to become the reading is the being of all possible interpretations of the reading.
This aim is one of trust. Whether this act of trust is that the spirits present will communicate their meaning, or that with the next absurd statement the charlatan playing at magical thinking will finally reveal themselves, there is the fundamental trust that the reading will become what it is; a wholly agnostic trust. This trust is a product of the total environment of the reading, of which it itself is part of the construction.
This aim, towards the creation of the reading itself that all of the things, whether on the cards, in the environment, or in the minds of the observers, like a weathervane pointing in the wind, is what combines the all of the recursive environmental parts of the reading, and all potential interpretations of the reading, while giving the direction by which any interpretations may be included, or excluded, in so far as they serve the aim of the construction of the reading. Every reading, upon its conclusion, the silencing of its voice of authority for itself, becomes a part of the environment of things and conditioned contexts of the next reading, as the stuff of memory, recognition, and repetition.
Every reading, produced by its conditioned environment, takes its full environmental condition into account, and through its direction towards becoming itself creates its own specific reading, entirely dependent on the possibility of all interpretations, but directed towards its interpretation by the aim to create the reading as what it is. The reading then fades, until as a memory, it returns as part of the conditioned environment of the next reading, which again takes its full environmental condition and through the line of becoming itself becomes a specific reading.
The dual recursion of the lemniscate has transformed into a mobius strip. Pick a side: declarations of faith, that spirits and gods communicate through the cards, or denouncement, it’s all just card stock and everything is an act of psychological projection. Walk far enough, you’re standing on the same side, the side of an experience that is made up of its environment, aiming to become itself, before perishing and becoming the environment for the next reading and the term I use, taken from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, for this strange, beautiful, and marvelous thing, is “organism,” though he himself was only borrowing it from biology.
Reading tarot on its own terms is reading the tarot of the organism, reading that thing we call, “life”. The skeptic’s knowledge of the absurdity of the whole damn thing is confirmed by the absurdity of the whole damn thing, or the devout conviction of the communication of the spirits is confirmed by the communications of the spirits, both are lives of the tarot, finding their aim in the trust that the reading will be what it is.
My intuition in reading the tarot tells me that my job as a reader is not to tell the tarot what it is, and what it means. Much less is it to tell my querent, including myself when that happens to be the case what it means, but to create something analogous to a biological diagram of the relationships of trust, whether trust in affirmation, or trust in disappointment, that constitutes the creative aim of the “organism” of the tarot reading.
Yes, the tarot does know what it is, and my job is, to the best of my ability, present my querent with what the reading itself knows itself to be.