on 16 December 2009
There are so few books in English about the Marseilles tarot that I was thrilled to learn that Alejandro Jodorowsky's "La Voie du Tarot" had been translated into English. My excitement quickly turned to confusion, then disappointment. This book is probably the most illogical, uninformed, arrogant, and inept book on the subject that I've ever read.
A few years ago, Jodorowsky embarked on a project to "restore" the Marseilles-style tarot. "...we observed that some Tarots have identical and superimposable drawings, and yet each contains symbols that do not appear on the others. We deduced that they had been copied from the same Tarot, an older version that is now missing. It is this original missing Tarot that we wanted to restore." He criticizes, quite rightly, Waite, Dali, Crowley, and others who have re-interpreted the tarot over the years. "Each new deck of cards contains the subjectivity of its authors, their vision of the world, their moral prejudices, their limited level of awareness... every occultist alters the original structure."
After reading this book (actually, about 50 pages in or before) it becomes apparent that Jodorowsky and Philippe Camoin (his partner is this project) have done exactly what he has criticized the occlutists for. He has essentially created his own personal Marseilles tarot, and imposed upon it his own "esoteric" system of belief, without offering any documentation or substance in the way of proof or explanation. "The Way of Tarot" is over 500 pages long, yet has only 10 "notes" (which actually aren't notes, but bibliographic entries). This book, then, is not really about the Marseilles tarot, but the supposed "restored" cards done by the author and Camoin.
Details on their process and methods would have been welcome. For example, which details came from which decks? Why were some details chosen over others? Camoin claims to be the direct descendant of Nicholas Conver, but no proof is offered. Also, reference is made to a mysterious, "very old" tarot found in a shoebox belonging to a dead friend -- which supposedly provided the authors with important clues toward a rectified color scheme -- though no effort is made to identify the deck or explain why it was considered important. Also, no proof. Photographs of some of the cards should have been included.
This book is a frustrating read, often due to Jodorowsky's habit of making broad statements, and then completely contradicting them, like in the examples below. He usually seems unaware he is doing this. Breaches of logic, reason and perception occur, nay, abound, on nearly every page. At one point he writes, ludicrously, that he believed (before the completion of his own deck) the most authentic Marseilles tarot to be Paul Marteau's 1930 version (Grimaud), and that the 17th and 18th century versions could not be trusted because they had become corrupt over time. And although Jodorowsky chooses to call the cards "arcanum", hypocritically adopting the pretentious term coined by the occultists he despises, he never satisfactorily explains why this terminology is acceptable to him. Those of us who use the Marseilles deck are generally quite content with "trumps" and "pips".
Even though he's made his position clear on the "occult" tarot of Waite, The Golden Dawn and others, he more often than not adopts their ideas (errors and all) about the cards. For example, he uses their elemental attributions of the suits -- and never once questions it. He simply says something along the lines of "Why not? Makes sense to me.". At least a discussion of why a weapon forged in fire is attributed to air, or why Sticks (excuse me, Wands) is attributed to an element that consumes it, would have made this section more interesting. Unfortunately, Jodorowsky is neither a scholar or an intellectual; he's an artist, and he's simply not equipped to deal with problems such as these.
Some of the cracks in the foundation may be due to the translation by Jon E. Graham. The suits are translated as Swords, Cups, Wands(!) and Pentagrams(!) -- and I can't really believe the Jodorowsky would use these terms as the French names would be clear to his French readers. I question why the translator chose to use Rider-Waite terminology when the author spent the better part of the introduction criticizing Waite and other occultists' alterations to the "original" tarot. Again, we who use the Marseilles tarot call the suits what they are: Swords, Cups, Sticks and Coins.
The Rider-Waite titles are used for the trumps as well: The Magician, The High Priestess, The Tower, etc. The only trump that is not called by its traditional name is Death, which Jodorowsky absurdly calls "The Nameless Arcanum". While it's true that in most Marseilles decks Death is not titled, the author fails to note (probably due to his ignorance of historical matters) that in the earliest tarots, all of the trumps were untitled. He explains that the term "death" is too simplistic to convey the real meaning of the card -- and then goes on to give a basic and traditional interpretation of card XIII. I am at a loss to see how "the Nameless Arcanum" is more precise and descriptive than "Death".
Many sentences make no sense in their English translation:
"Simply creating new versions of the Tarot of Marseilles, anonymous like all sacred monuments, by imagining it is enough to change the drawings or the names of the cards to achieve a great work, is pure vanity."
Yes, you can pick out the meaning. It could have been written more clearly, and there are numerous examples of this sort of thing throughout the book. One wonders if an editor even saw it before it went to the proofreader.
Here's an example of the author's style, from the chapter on "The Magician":
"Although represented by a male figure, The Magician is an androgynous individual working with light and shadow, juggling from the unconscious to the superconscious. He is holding an active wand in his left hand, while in his right he hold a receptive pentacle. This yellow coin, a miniature sun, symbolizes perfection and truth, but it also tells us that The Magician does not overlook the daily necessities. The blue wand in his other hand is seeking to capture the cosmic force. We can also see an extra flesh-colored object there, like a sixth finger, that will find an echo in the second decimal series, in the sixth toe of Strength..."
That's enough. Needless to say, he never explains why he believes any of this to be true -- he simply states it as fact, and assumes we are willing to accept what he says without question. Male, yet androgynous? Also, the Magician does not have a sixth finger -- either in Jodorowsky's deck, or any other Marseilles that I could find. Strength's "sixth toe" is a detail that was probably added by Jodorowsky as I can't find one in any of the Marseilles decks that I own. It's clear that the details of this "restoration" were incorporated (or invented) not because of any sort of in-depth research or study, but from the author's own mystical ramblings. Another indication that this deck is not a restoration, but a personal reinterpretation of the traditional Tarot de Marseilles.
At this point I should mention that most of the various details that Jodorowsky points out in the cards appear to be in his deck only, and therefore are probably his own creation. On "The Magician" he makes a great deal about the three dice and the knife that looks like a serpent's tail. Also, "orange balls" in the Magician's hair. A fingernail painted red on Strength. A secret "egg" hidden in the wreath on The World. All of these tiny details appear only in the "restored" deck. I've not been able to find precedence for any of this -- and the author's list of secret symbols and hidden meanings is endless. Of course, he doesn't offer to fill us in either. Instead we are given page after page of opinion and subjective observations stated as fact.
Jodorowsky also sees things that simply do not exist, and often writes at length about them: plants that supposedly look like vaginas, hidden planets in hair, extra fingers and toes, etc. Somehow he is able to identify eagle feathers in Strength's hat. Truth be told, there is simply not enough detail in the original woodcut prints to allow us to identify the bird from which the feathers came, or even if they are feathers at all. Nevertheless, our Author builds a whole argument around them.
If the book has anything to recommend it, the sections on numerology and the pips (oh, excuse me, the Minor Arcana) are interesting and engaging -- after all, numbers don't lie. The interpretation of this numerological data is not entirely free of the sorts of flaws that pervade the rest of the book, however.
Jodorowsky's conclusion, titled "The Tarotic Philosophy" (one wonders why the translator shied away from "Popess" yet uses a made-up word like "tarotic") contains this amusing and self-damning statement:
"The bad tarologist, who mistakes thinking for believing, delivers whimsical interpretations and then searches in the Arcana for those symbols that can confirm his conclusions. For him, truth is a priori, followed a posteriori by the quest for the truth."
Officially and without a clue Jodorowsky has qualified himself as a "bad tarologist". He goes a step further. When he cannot find a symbol that confirms his conclusions, he either has had Camoin draw the symbol on the card for him, or he simply chooses to see something that isn't there (extra fingers and teeth usually, and also vaginas).
I rarely feel this way about books I have purchased, but I honestly wish I hadn't spent $26.95 for this. It's just poor all around -- poor scholarship (actually, no scholarship), bad translation, no index, hardly any notes or bibliography. "The Way of Tarot" doesn't satisify on any level. What a disappointment.