Dragon Smoke

Mankind owns four things

that are no good at sea:

rudder, anchor, oars,

and the fear of going down.

– Antonio Machado (trans. R. Bly)

I attended college at the State University of New York located in the village of Brockport.  In many ways, it was the ideal place for me.  The classes were small; I liked my professors; but most of all, the location was perfect: I was able to save money by living at home and commuting with my brother, who was in my year.  We lived in Hilton, about 12 miles away – 16 or so minutes by car along sparsely traveled roads, which is how I gauged distance in those days (and still do).  We drove that route every day, and I thought I knew it until one day I decided to walk home.  I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but for whatever reason, that day I only had one or two classes in the morning, and my brother was going to be at Brockport until evening; taking the car and coming back for him hours later was not an option since we kept our lunches and books, etc. in it.  I enjoyed walking around Brockport, and since it was a particularly fine day, I left my brother a note and started out, thinking I would have a pleasant jaunt and be home in an hour and a half at most.  Two hours later, I realized I had made a grave miscalculation; I arrived at my doorstep nearly four hours after I had started, tired, footsore, but with a much better understanding of the distance between Hilton and Brockport!

We live in a world of convenience; we like it when things are easy.  We like it when the hard work is done for us.  If we are hungry, we can take a frozen dinner out of the freezer, pop it into the microwave, and be eating in under ten minutes.  We haven’t cooked the dinner, haven’t prepared it, so we don’t really know what it is.  Of course, life is too short to do everything for ourselves.  We have to rely on others to do some of the prep work; otherwise we would have time for nothing else.  But this reality also means we don’t genuinely appreciate the world in which we live.  We understand through shortcuts.

More than one hundred years ago, A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith devised a tarot deck which became (and continues to be) the most popular ever fabricated; this remarkable popularity is due in large measure to the innovative lesser arcana.  Waite-Smith was not the first deck to illustrate the number cards of the four minor suits – the Sola Busca did that centuries earlier, and a few of the Waite-Smith images derived from it – but the pictures are more relatable; they require less work.  For instance, in the Sola Busca Five of Coins we see a human figure – we cannot be certain whether it is a man or woman – who is engaged in some activity that is not quite clear, dressed in a cloak that almost makes him/her look from the back like part bird.  We also see five coins strung together oddly.  The depiction is akin to something that might come out of a dream.  I imagine ten individuals writing about this illustration would provide ten distinct interpretations: it is difficult to imagine a consensus, even after five hundred years of existence!  On the other hand, the corresponding card from the Waite-Smith Tarot is far more straightforward: we do not even have to leave the comfort of the upper mind.  We can crack right into it talking about juxtaposition, the unfairness of life, the hypocrisy of the Church – whatever we want.  We can dwell upon the misery of the unfortunates struggling through the snow while the very symbol of inequality – in the form of five star-centered coins/pentacles in a shape reminiscent of Jesus on the cross – decorates the stained-glass window of what ought to be a refuge for the needy.  There is no need to dive below the surface; and the image even gives the self-pitying querent an opening to expound upon how he is mistreated in his life when others get all the breaks, etc.

In his anthology Leaping Poetry, Robert Bly writes “In ancient times, in the ‘time of inspiration,’ the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said.  Isaiah rode on those dragons, so did Li Po and Pindar.  They dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke. . . .   Dragon smoke means that a leap has taken place in the poem. . . .  That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” 

The creators of the Sola Busca made a few small leaps, leaving faint wisps of dragon smoke behind; many of the images are baffling to us and defy the concise, superficial summaries which would allow us to convince ourselves we have them all figured out and can confidently move onto the next thing.    In the Waite-Smith tarot we find no dragon smoke whatsoever.  Rather, we get the impression that each image is the result of careful planning, and this is the affliction that undermines so many modern decks.  The concept of individual cards might have derived from inspiration, but then the conscious mind took hold and made it its own, so that every detail is meticulously considered for optimum effect.  If we drew the Nine of Cups from the Sola Busca in a spread, we might have to book extra time for our reading, as it requires that we devote far more effort to come to terms with the image; however, we feel like we know everything there is to know in the corresponding Waite-Smith card in five minutes.  We can epitomize it quickly, efficiently: there is abundance now and in the future.  The card contains no depths to plumb.  “The picture offers the material side only, but there are other aspects,” writes Waite, though even he does not seem particularly interested in enumerating them: “a picture is worth a thousand words,” runs the old adage, but it really depends upon the picture.

Karen Hamaker-Zondag writes in her book Tarot as a Way of Life that of all the decks on the market, Waite-Smith “has rightly become the tarot of today.”  I cannot argue against her statement, for it is the dominant deck of our day, and it is for this reason that I have set it up as the standard to which I will continually compare and contrast the Tarot de Marseille (as well as other decks when I need to make points).  Hamaker-Zondag, like many other tarot writers, is very high on the Waite-Smith tarot; I see it as a symptom of a much greater problem.

The impact of Waite-Smith is most obvious in the imagery of myriad modern decks on the market (with more coming out each year), but what is more intriguing to me is the influence it has had on the way we read and interpret the cards of the minor arcana, for with Waite-Smith, each card carries within its off-white boundaries the totality of its context: we do not require anything outside of the illustration to illuminate its substance.  The importance of the suit as an associative structure is marginalized to the point of irrelevance. 

Hamaker-Zondag, for instance, writes of the Swords suit, “Swords represent the power of discrimination as expressed in thinking and logic.”  All the ace cards, she goes on to say, “represent the whole potential of their suit,” and when the Ace of Swords shows up in a spread, the querent is ready to impose a disciplined and organized structure upon an anarchic plight, particularly through “intellect and understanding.”  Rachel Pollack, in her Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom states in the commentary for the Ace of Swords that “the true essence of the suit” is “intellect”; and in her New Tarot Handbook “The element for Swords, Air, refers to the mind and clear thought that can cut through confusion.”  These statements pretty accurately sum up the opinion that we find in most books, yet when we examine the images from this suit in the Waite-Smith tarot, we do not find a single illustration, including the ace, even remotely suggestive of logic or rational thought; nor do the cards cohere to form a thematic composition (aside from a perverse fascination with morbid imagery).  

The Waite-Smith Ace of Swords is really a lackluster counterpart to the Ace from the Tarot de Marseille (which I will spend more time discussing in a later post).  We see a white hand coming out of a cloud grasping the hilt of a sword which pokes up through a crown; victory laurels hang down from the crown, suggesting triumph on the battlefield.  It is a positive image, “excessive degree in everything, conquest, triumph of force,” according to A. E. Waite in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot.

The Two of Swords features a “hoodwinked” (blindfolded) woman sitting very rigidly upon a stone bench (mounted upon a desolate gray stone platform) with her arms crossed over her chest at something like a 75-80° angle, holding in each hand a sword several feet in length.  Behind her is a turbulent body of water, and over her left shoulder is a waxing crescent moon, which should symbolize a fresh beginning; however, the overall impression of the card is cold and forbidding.

Next comes the:

Three of Swords: three swords impale a heart against a backdrop of clouds and rain, an illustration inspired by the Sola Busca.

Four of Swords: in a mausoleum, “the effigy of a knight” lies in peaceful repose upon the lid of a casket, hands folded in prayer.  Three swords are mounted upon the wall, but with the two-dimensional perspective, they also seem to be suspended, threateningly, above him; a fourth sword is fastened to the coffin, corresponding to the attitude of his body: pommel and grip below his head, cross guard for his shoulders, and blade following the length of his body.  The card is done in lifeless dreary colors, except for the stained glass window in the upper left-hand corner, so the likeness of the knight might contemplate its imagery.

Five of Swords: under a stormy sky, a red-haired man holds three swords and watches in contemptuous satisfaction as two other men, drawn smaller, heads bowed in defeat, withdraw, leaving their swords on the ground behind them.  They retreat toward the agitated waters of a lake, but it is unclear where they will go as there is no vessel waiting for them.

Six of Swords: a ferryman transports two people, possibly a mother and child, across a body of water.  All three figures are turned away from us, the larger of the passengers bundled with head down in an attitude consistent with dejection.  Behind them, the water is turbulent, but ahead it is calm.  Six swords pierce the hull of the punt, standing upright, always directly before them, so whatever land they are brought to, however idyllic, in order to step foot upon it, they must first pass through this barrier of sharpened steel.

Seven of Swords: a man appears to be sneaking out of an armed camp with five of seven swords.  The soldiers who should be guarding the camp are gathered together in the distance engaged in some other activity.  The two swords the thief leaves behind are standing straight up, blades plunged into the earth.  This is another illustration that appears to have been influenced by the Sola Busca.

Eight of Swords: a woman is blindfolded and bound amidst a forest of swords plunged into the ground.

Nine of Swords: a woman sits up in her bed weeping; her face is buried in her hands.  Nine swords float against a pitch black backdrop.  Waite calls this “a card of utter desolation.”

Ten of Swords: the most iconic image from the suit, featuring a corpse with ten swords plunged into its back; the face is turned into the dirt.

No one encountering these images for the first time (and with no prior knowledge of Tarot theory) would possibly connect these cards with logical thought or the potential of bringing order out of chaos.  They are, instead, designed to elicit powerful (and negative) emotions.  It is a suit of horrors. 

This does not, in itself, invalidate Waite-Smith’s fabrication; however, I would suggest that its range is curtailed by the specificity of the imagery.  Thus, the aspect of the deck which makes it so popular is responsible for its stifling limitations.

As an aid to facilitate a dialogue allowing us greater insight into ourselves and the psychological processes which govern our behaviors (often without our conscious awareness), the tarot is most effective when it maintains a degree of ambiguity, something like the Rorschach or inkblot test, which consists of a series of amorphous images designed to elicit spontaneous and individual associations from test subjects: the more indefinite the image, the more individualized the subject’s response; the more explicit the illustration, the more conventional the assessment. 

The Waite-Smith tarot is “user-friendly” because so much of the work has already been done.  The problem is that the cards channel us through a labyrinth of A. E. Waite’s and Pamela Colman-Smith’s personal neuroses, and this is going to be the drawback for any deck created by a specific individual.  But more than this, the number cards are all one-offs: they are really just a collection of unrelated images, and this is how we have been conditioned to think of them.  Thus, the commentaries on the Waite-Smith lesser arcana do not suggest either an Arachne or Ariadne thread: the whole is not only less than the sum of its parts, it is precisely equal to zero, and this thinking has even infected the commentaries on the Tarot de Marseille, despite the fact that the opposite is true: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (which is negligible at best).  We cannot understand any of the Tarot de Marseille number cards without taking into account the entire suit.

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31 Comments

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