MJ Hurst wrote,
On a more general note, starting with the known (like Emperor and Pope in a ranks-of-man motif) and working toward the unknown (the subtle, ambiguous, obscure, or novel, like the Fool or Popess) is a recognized rationalist methodology for making sense of both texts and challenging works of antique art.
Certainly it is necessary to work from the known to the unknown. But there is more to it. For example,let us take a picture of a young man with a hunter's bow standing to one side of a pool in the woods, looking over at a naked lady standing on the other side. What is it? I think of Acteon and Diana, and that in the next moment he will be transformed to a stag and killed by his own dogs. But then I see three nymphs also in the pool, with their arms around one another in a manner characteristic of the Graces: something known. So it is Cupid and Venus that I saw, not Acteon and Diana.
But it is not clear that the other interpretation, Acteon and Diana, thereby goes away (just as in "Get thee to a nunnery," the Elizabethan slang "nunnery" = "whorehouse," does not go away when Hamlet adds "thou wouldst not be a breeder of sinners"). If in our picture we hold both meanings, the scene becomes one of the the apparent self-destructiveness of love, putting everything at risk at the sight of the beloved. If the beloved is God, it is a metaphor for the abandonment of the world for the sake of the spirit.
I get this reading from somewhere in Bruno. But my authority for this type
of reading is Alberti's essay "Rings," written in the early 1430s well known starting 1438, when it became especially fashionable for nobles to choose personal devices and put them on medals. Alberti put his own "winged eye" on a medal in 1450. (For historical context, see http://books.google.com/books?id=hOs2zX ... ye&f=false
). Here is Alberti's explanation, in "Rings." He is imagining a series of rings, each with a different image on it:
On the first ring is engraved a crown, the center of which is occupied by an eye adorned with an eagle's wing. Do you understand?...
The crown is an emblem of gladness and glory. There is nothing more powerful, swift, or worthy than the eye. In short, it is the foremost of the body's members, a sort of king or god. Didn't the ancients regard God as similar to the eye, since he surveys all things an dreckons them singly? On the one hand, we are enjoined to give glory for all things to God, to rejoice in him, to embrace him with all our mind and vigorous virtue, and to consider him as an ever-present witness to all our thoughts and deeds. On the other hand, we are enjoined to be as vigilant and circumspect as we can, seeking everything which leads to the glory of virtue, and rejoicing whenever by our labor and industry we achieve something noble or divine. Have you understood this? In describing this first ring, I have chosen to be brief, for it would take too long to discuss all the aspects of a matter so rich in lessons. Besides, since you are wise, you will be able to appreciate their value clearly and plainly if you reflect on them. (Dinner Pieces, Marsh translation, p. 213f).
So from the physical eye we go to the eye of God, and from there to the soul's eye that swiftly discerns the path of virtue. And we are enjoined not to stop there; he has not discussed all the aspects of the image. Others, and their combinations, will be recognized by the wise, he says.
Alberti's method was not new. The same would apply, in a perhaps more limited way, to the image that Petrarch suggested to Giangaleazzo Visconti, of the radiant dove/turtledove with the motto "a bon droyt", which also has multiple meanings.
From the side of the Middle Ages, a problem with the Bagatella and Matto is that they don't have medieval artistic correlates; their first appearance as images is in the PMB. From the standpoint of the 16th century and the Rosenwald, they are simple enough, known from representations in the "Children of the Planets" series and other popular illustrations. That's why I started there. And it doesn't take a detailed analysis of the later cards to know that they are the lowest trumps and the beginning of the sequence. From the perspective of the Middle Ages, however, it makes sense to start with the Pope and, Emperor.We can go from the known to the unknown, from 5 and 4, back to 1 and 0. The 5 to 0 sequence gives us a structure, a framework: 0 and 1 are at the low end, which is also the beginning. From that, and the content of the 5 and 4, we have a basis for looking at the earlier cards.
But we also have to bear in mind the Albertian multuiplicity of interpretations for each image, including the 5 and 4. That is clear even in Petrarch's discussion of popes and emperors in De Remediis
: Pope and Emperor have both very negative and very positive significations. The popes used to be martyrs, but now they are greedy, vicious charlatans, ruling an institution as corrupt as they. A few of the Roman emperors were virtuous. But most weren't; and today those bearing the Roman eagle are simply pretenders (neither Holy, nor Roman, nor ruling over an Empire, as someone said), holding sway over a hierarchy of illusions. The tarot images of Pope and Emperor, allegorically, are from this perspective ambivalent images, in an extreme way: evil temptations and models of virtue. (For specific quotes from Petrarch, see my post at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=937&start=30#p13791
So let us take such a perspective on 5 and 4 and apply it to 1 and 0. What is very positive about the Bagatella, what is very positive about the Matto? That is, what is positive about them besides the fact that the Bagatella is entertaining and skillful, and the Matto perhaps good-hearted if he is a Natural Fool, or, if he is a professional, clever and funny in his parodies of others? From the perspective of the ambivalence of Emperor and Pope, we can see the lowest cards from another perspective, yet very much within the Renaissance, as containing opposites and also going from the below to the above as Alberti does: they become images of the divine at the beginning of creation, recalling us to our own origins, and how we may attain to the divine (through the sacraments) as well.
MJ Hurst wrote
I usually recommend The Open Work and Interpretation and Overinterpretation, but Foucault's Pendulum is especially illustrative -- and damning, if understood. These methods are divergent rather than convergent, because they offer no criteria for selection or distinction between good ideas and bad. They lead to what I have termed kitchen-sink syncretism, the magpie-miscellany school of Tarot history.
Or, to put a happy face on it, the "It's All Good" school of Tarot history.
Not all interpretations are good. Some interpretations don't fit the images, in the context of the sequence; also,when we are doing tarot history, some interpretations don't have verified historical correlates in the thought or imagery of the specific period in which they are meant to apply.
But Michael's pre-Renaissance and post-Reformation approach to tarot history is simply too narrow. It oversimplifies the very period in which the tarot arose. The Renaissance was a complex time, in which Aristotelians contended with Platonists, and Thomists with Neoplatonists. And these people were all Catholics! It wasn't that the Platonists denied Aristotle or Thomas, but that they said that there was more, and the other side said there wasn't, that the Renaissance Platonists and Neoplatonists were just wrong. The former is what I say about Michael's theory of the tarot: I don't deny that it applies to some audiences in the Renaissance. But in the humanist milieu there was more.
Especially there was more in the context in which the tarot is first known to have been used: the humanistic culture of not just Dante and Petrarch, but also Guarino (in Ferrara), Filelfo (in Milan), Plethon (in Florence and Mistra), Poggio (in Florence), Cyriaco (everywhere), Bessarion (in Florence, Bologna, and Rome), Alberti (Ferrara, Florence, Rome, Mantua, Rimini), Cusa, etc., followed quickly by Ficino, Pico, and Boiardo, among others. If you want to understand something, you have to look first to the ideas of its own milieu, in the context of which some, at least, of the early decks were made.
I am happy to read more Eco. Perhaps Michael will offer some guidance, at least in the proper understanding of Foucault's Pendulum
. I did read Interpretation and Overinterpretation
. The book includes responses by a few others, including Richard Rorty and Jonathan Culler, Rorty, who reflected also on Foucault's Pendulum
and "Intentio lectoris", is probably the pre-eminent American philosopher of his generation. Neither was persuaded by Eco. Nor am I.
I recommend reading books like Wind's Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance
, Cumont's Surivival of the Pagan Gods
, Hankins' Plato in the Italian Renaissance
, as well as primary sources such as Alberti's writings, Plethon's edition of the Chaldean Oracles (translated in Woodhouse's Plethon
), Ficino's Three books on life
, Pico's Oration
and 900 Theses
, the Hypnerotomachia
, and Reuchlin's Art of the Kabbalah
, as well as the Greco-Roman texts newly read or newly appreciated at that time: Plutarch, Diodorus, Lucan, Apuleius, "Horapollo," Pausanias, Proclus, Plotinus, Philostratus, much of Plato, etc.
Added later: On Michael's suggestion, I did read Foucault's Pendulum
, a book I had tried to read when it first came out but found too tedious to stay with. I wasn't very interested in Templar Secrets. But this time I managed to plow my way through.
The two main characters in the novel are charlatans taking advantage of gullible authors, whom they consider fools. As part of their work they read books they consider either foolish or deliberate deceptions, although gullible people do buy them in large quantities. So they construct, on the same principles as the books they read, inclusive of all of them, an imaginary but absurd decoding of the Secret of the Templars.
Indeed, I have myself read such books as those Eco is satirizing, including ones that seem to me intentionally deceptive (e.g. Christian's History of Magic
, Mathers' "translation" of the Sefer Yetsirah), while others seem just foolish (e.g. a lot of what is in Etteilla's Cahiers
, such as his absurd numerology that comes out of nowhere and justifies little).
How well Eco has parodied Western Esotericism I don't know. Have his characters mastered the genre? It is difficult to tell, without footnotes to specific works. As far as presenting methods for distinguishing valid from invalid interpretations, I don't think he has said anything he has not said in "Interpretation and Overinterpretation" or "Intentio lectoris."
There are a few sections in Foucault's Pendulum
that lead me to think that Eco is not entirely negative about esotericism. One is the "numerology of the body" that the narrator's wife Lia delivers to him at the end of the "Gevurah" section (Eco divides his novel, I don't think satirically, into sections corresponding to the sefiroth). Not only is it written with genuine feeling (as opposed to most of the book, which is intellectual gamesmanship), but it is straight Neopythagoreanism, as in the 4th century Theologumena Arithmeticae
, in its materialist/microcosmic aspect, something Nichomachus himself could have written.
Another (the narrator even calls it his "key text") is the chapter where his friend Belbo volunteers to play taps at the funeral of some dead partisans.(This is the culmination of a subplot dealing with Belbo's recall of his childhood.) The narrator describes Belbo's feelings in explicitly Gnostic and Kabbalist terms, as though these systems' metaphors really meant something after all, and they had been too facile in playing with them. Since the narrator also says things in support of Catholic imagery (the passage about the simple, non-secret nature of the Christian message), I take him to be seeing, and feeling, how orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah all express something genuinely important and meaningful, in which the latter two supplement the first.
If so, I resonate with such passages. I do not spend time interpreting tarot imagery simply for intellectual entertainment. I think that they capture something important, fundamental enough that it cannot be said in any one verbal framework or ideology. It takes mutually exclusive verbalisms to get a feeling for them. The Renaissance was very much aware of this need and saw ancient esoteric frameworks (in the sense of not known by many, but not secret codes) as valuable supplements to medieval Christianity. So do I. And the tarot doesn't stop there. Each age can redo and reinterpret its images, without deception or, hopefully, foolishness, in so doing making them live again,