Sunday, March 20, 2011

The oppression of habit

Slowly, slowly, i've been starting to apply all of my Tarot studies to practical readings. I've been using the Medieval Scapini deck, which interested me originally because of Ronald Decker's delightful little review of Tarot history, "Art and Arcana." Scapini's Minor Arcana differ quite a bit from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck's, which came up in particular with two cards from last night's reading: the 8 of Swords and the 8 of Wands. When i started writing this post, i caught myself conflating versions of those two cards from different decks; i'll explain this below.

For the 8 of Swords, the RWS deck depicts (according to Rachel Pollack, a student of that deck) "oppression," but not in the form of naked violence. (The fortification looms in the background, but no one holds up the swords or guards the prisoner.) It refers instead to "mystification" in the Marxist sense, where the oppressed "oppress themselves" by their own assumptions (reinforced by misinformation from above). (Why else would people on the edge of poverty staple tea bags to their hats and protest government handouts?) Scapini's 8 of Wands shows instead what seems a more pleasant scene in a vineyard (the wands cleverly woven into sakes for the vines). A couple appears in three stages of romantic development: youthful games, courting, and squabbling.

It took me a while to realize that Scapini's 8 of Wands illustrates a darker phenomenon, namely the oppression of instinct, custom, or habit. The couple in that card acts only according to biological and social expectation, not according to Will (to which Wands ultimately refer). This too is Will, but only the dark will of the blood and the unfolding of the mother's and father's example. The similarity with the RWS 8 of Swords is that the self imposes bondage: to a position in the RWS 8 of Swords, or to a scheme of human relations in Scapini's 8 of Wands.

This pair of cards speaks to two different views on moral enlightenment, which amount to the same thing. A Marxist might say that proletarians must see through the false assumptions and misinformation in order to attain the social order they desire. A traditional mystic might say instead that the patterns of the blood (biological or familial) must be discarded when they hinder the desired development of the spiritual life. Both the mystic and the Marxist speak of the triumph of True Will over lesser wills. Wands and Swords offer two complementary techniques for achieving this: "seizing the Wand" (taking the first step, overcoming lethargy, daring) and "cutting through the veil" (discernment, Scheidekunst in the good sense).

Lent is a good season to attack lethargy, habit, and misinformation. May i use it fruitfully for this purpose, and through grace attain that perfect correspondence of Divine and human Will, Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


In what spare free time I can grab here and there, I've been reading Dan Simmons' Endymion and Rise of Endymion -- the last two volumes in the four-part series begun with Hyperion. I've heard these novels described as "science fiction through theophany," and they certainly have a lot to say about human evolution and the fundamental nature of reality while romping through the galaxy (and a neighboring one). I was reminded of Frater Acher's recent posts on whether magic is the search for truth, and on three approaches to reality, which in turn reminded me of Meister Eckhart's 19th sermon, about which I wrote previously.

Frater Acher rightfully criticizes the approach to magic that is just badly done physics or chemistry, that wants to define reality by dissecting it into its constituent components that can be understood and manipulated. Indeed, the old German word for chemistry was "Scheidekunst" -- the "art of separation" -- which presumes that identifying the constituent elements of a compound would reveal all its properties of interest. Novalis' scorn for this art found its vindication in modern biochemistry, where the proportions of elements in a protein mean almost nothing next to its global geometry -- the order in which the elements appear, how they bond, and how the subtle interplay of electronic interactions makes the giant molecule fold up, exposing or concealing active regions as the molecule's environment changes. Dissection is the beginning of insight, but only the beginning.

Frater Acher's post suggests that what we find after investigating the fundamental nature of reality is mere subjective experience -- in other words, "nothing." I can imagine two identical answers with different (yet complementary) meanings to the question, "What is the fundamental nature or origin of reality?" A plausible Zen Buddhist response might be "Nothing!", which would mean something like "That's an absurd question; the essence of nature is beyond categorization." The Kabbalist might answer in reference to Ayin and negative theology in general: Our efforts to carve up reality ultimately fail, because we eventually reach "something" that is NO-THING and therefore we cannot describe it. Nevertheless, Kabbalists seem to like writing about Ayin! The Hyperion series even has its "Void Which Binds," which is this sort of Nothing more in name than in substance, as grand as it is.

I can only conclude by returning to the first of Meister Eckhart's four interpretations of the quote from Acts: "...when he rose up from the ground with open eyes he saw Nothing, and that Nothing was God..." Investigations into the fundamental nature of reality only find Nothing, but Paul was not investigating; he was perceiving, not even willingly! Finding that God is Nothing can be a great revelation, even a great wonder and joy. Paul had been constructing a god of intolerance; what a joy to find that the real God is "Nothing," is the opposite of all of the constructions, indeed even swallows them up in grand Nothingness and replaces them with innocent child-like wonder. Perhaps, though, it's necessary to begin with all those constructions in order that one understands the meaning of their destruction.