I’ve recently dusted off a tarot deck and started shuffling through it all over again. I realise I invite ridicule in reporting that – a lot of it probably deserved – but stick with me because Russell Brand turns up in a bit. There’s a bit with a dog too. The celebrity angle should be enough to keep you reading if the big white pooch is not.
Charlatans and mockery
The word Tarot, for most people, conjures images of gypsy fortune tellers and hokum snake oils. It’s associated with charlatanism in the main, meaning the charlatans distract the majority from its actual meaning, allowing it to remain occult, or hidden. It’s obscured through the general misunderstanding that the cards somehow predict the future, which has led to it being the subject of wholesale mockery. The majority think the cards are solely tools used by shysters to fleece the naive. They are precisely that quite often, unfortunately. But the cards aren’t only that.
There’s a rich history to the many decks, from the celebrated Rider Waite to the impossibly but enjoyably twee Morrisson Greer, all the way to the seriously weighty Thoth deck developed by Crowley. There’s a diversity in representation that’s quite mesmerising if you allow it to seep into your head. Those who dedicate a small part of their lives to tarot are usually those who initially got hooked on this visual relationship. The ones hoping for a lottery win tend to lose interest.
Does it ‘work’?
The idea that a randomly dealt spread will tell you or a stranger that you’ve just met exactly what life-events are around the corner is pretty absurd, but that’s the modern perception of how the process works. For my part, trying to get my head around the attraction, I found that if you buy a deck and work your way through them, reading about their history card by card and swotting up on how our ancestors interpreted them through the ages, there’s more going on with these odd little tableaus than meets the cynic’s eye. I spent 78 days with the 78 cards and came out the other side part-bewildered and slightly spaced out. Mostly this was in a good, even strangely nourishing way.
The general misunderstanding arises from the problem that surfaces whenever a materialist and rational approach is taken towards anything mystical, or anything that deals with the unconscious rather than the rational mind. Taking the images and symbols on the cards as literal renders them useless. The tarot seems to deal in an unconscious language that we can’t put into words adequately, only describing our experience of it as though describing a dream. Our creative imagination is what causes the cards to come alive. The paraphernalia itself isn’t the magical thing. We bring the magic to the paraphernalia.
Bringing the magic to the paraphernalia
The cards are interesting to me for two main reasons. Firstly, they provide a point of focus for meditation, contemplation or self-examination. Closing the eyes and concentrating on breath to achieve a hurried bliss is not always practical given the many ballaches of life, so an aid to focusing on archetypes is useful.
Secondly, (and this is where you’ll have to take my word for it unless you’re willing to experiment yourself) meditation on the cards seems to cause small waves of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences that feel profound in the abstract. Small moments of magic seem to occur in the external world, as though an image on a card appears to come to life in external reality. Usually only for a moment but delivering a feeling of other-worldly poignancy.
It makes sense that this happens, so there’s no suggestion that it’s proof of any prophecy coming true. The cards are said to refer to the basic currents of emotion, energy and sentiment that propel us through the day. The unconscious is receptive to patterns and symbols. The cards represent universal principles and their iconography will manifest in daily life just as the same kinds of characters turn up in soaps and the same kinds of plot-lines are used in films. They feature motifs that live large in the freakish cartoon of life. The inevitability of death, the ever-presence of The Sun, the bondage of this bedevilled world and the hurtling pace of modern life’s chariot… We experience aspects of these every day. Some days one aspect will override the others and that will govern our mood. The tarot, for me, is handy for pointing out the different dynamics that silently rule over us, those hidden forces dictating our behaviour. They’re not going to help us win the lottery, but sometimes the cards give us an interesting way of looking at the world we find ourselves in. Being based on such simple principles as judgement and temperance, they can make us focus on our interactions out there in the world, giving rise to funny thoughts and experiences, stemming from the turning of a card.
I’d been thinking about the one card many consider the most important in the entire tarot deck – the fool which is numbered zero – a couple of weeks ago. I turned it over and became interested in why it was without a number. I came to see that the fool represented a kind of wilful, childish naivety, the number-free existence showing that he hasn’t yet fallen into order, though he is about to possibly descend.
His foolishness is foolish in the sense that he is considered a fool by the intellectual, but this lowly image conceals a forceful innocence and intuitive intelligence, free from rationale and outside of codes of conduct. There’s a different level to his spirit of adventure and refusal to look for danger than we’re used to seeing in ourselves or in others. As the card shows, the fool is in danger of tumbling over the edge of the mountain he’s climbing, being so absorbed in the moment. The dog snapping around his heels is more aware of his precarious position than he is. You have to question what the dog represents.
The Holy Fool
The wandering fool on the card leads us to religious notions of this archetype, with characters from history – including the Christian church – displaying a kind of divine nuttiness to reach a spiritual truth. It’s been there since man started writing things down. Throwing nuts at emperors and generally annoying the establishment, these men were living the fool archetype, with many of their observers recognising what was going on. Despite their wild behaviour and tendency to upset those around them, it could be discerned by their peers that there was an integrity to their refusal to take part in the pantomime of life. “Be ye as little children” said Jesus of Nazareth and Holy fools lived that model of existence.
In the East, this tradition lives on, undiluted in the ascetic Siddhus devoted to Shiva, wandering stoned into the wilderness naked, covered in ash, displaying what the rational mind might suggest is a foolish approach to their own mortality. The mystic argues that the holy man is showing devotion to the worlds beyond the material and a worthy devotion to the amazing thing that exists outside of dualistic existence. The fool, they say, can see the cogs in the machinery. Somewhere between a monk and a shaman, but with no dignity whatsoever, they shed their pride and are highly visible symbols of inspired madness.
Returning to that duality, when we pick up a gambling deck we can see that there are clear correspondences to the tarot. Diamonds are pentacles. Cups are hearts. Swords are spades and wands are clubs. We have our kings, queens and jacks. The Major arcanum, those heavy hitting archetypes, have all been lost, but the Fool remains in his guise as the Joker.
It makes sense that the numberless Joker lives outside of the system of most games and is used only to change the flow of a hand, provide an escape or trick an opponent. With the potential to change the game for a spell, he is portrayed as a fool. Without a number he can act as the troublemaker in the deck. It’s an archetype inhabited by icons across popular culture, many of them taking the darker element of the persona to the very edge. The fool can be a trouble-maker in the extreme.
The Wise Fool
Sometimes a fool’s mischief can be stirred up, however, simply through pointing at the inflated elephant in the room and ignoring the constraints on mentioning it. Minor embarrassment and sheepish laughter is the result, but things carry on the way they were. The role of the court jester, we’re told, was to entertain the court with truthful parodies and reflections on their masters, many of their outbursts being truthful but unkind. Because of their role – that of the idiot with an outsider position – they were allowed to speak honestly as long as they made people laugh and allowed themselves to be the focus of laughter and catharsis. Because they were loose with their delivery and buffoons by appearance, they were chuckled or groaned at and still they were allowed to be brutal. Because they were dressed foolishly, their content was tempered and allowed to pass.
Momentarily rattling the establishment – or at least getting them fleetingly in a tizzy – Russell Brand appeared on Newsnight in the same week that these age old ideas had been crossing my mind. Brand’s conversation with Jeremy Paxman seemed to set the internet and talk radio alight, albeit briefly, that evening and the next day. In their discussion, Brand made the case for opting not to vote in elections and, pointing out the dualistic, either/or limitations of the current beast we call democracy these days, criticised the way in which government is tied to corporations and the truly vulnerable are ignored in favour of assisting the wealthy in continuing to monopolise.
This is the kind of territory rarely broached on mainstream current affairs programmes, so the fact a very visible mouthpiece was being fairly eloquent in voicing what we’re made to feel is a minority view caused it to be intriguing viewing. Whether his conclusion – the not voting thing – is agreeable or not, it was a rare case of a celebrity provoking the public into dialogue on a puzzling idea.
The dialogue was short but furious and soon wandered into the constricting corridors of social media and talk radio where it naturally mutated into argument. How, in those kinds of conditions, could it not? Commenters split swiftly into two camps. Pro Brand or Anti Brand was the order of that day. The focus was lost speedily, but this is the way these things tend to work.
I’d speculate social media probably started bickering about Brand’s piece as he’d reintroduced the notion that the voter is complicit in the state of things, as bad as they are, by dint of the fact that they’d voted in such a corrupt machinery in the first place.
This is not a revolutionary idea, it’s just one that doesn’t get aired much. George Carlin would joke about the same topic regularly but, certainly in the UK, the path most comedians choose is picking a political team and making jokes on their behalf, ridiculing the other side in order to bring them down and elevate their own. Many acted as though Brand’s disengagement from that order of things in Paxman’s court heralded revolution (not aided by the fact Brand used the word frequently in the piece).
We should probably hope his ‘revolution’ was hyperbole – or the ‘revolution in the head’ we’ve heard about before. New ways of thinking rather than some literal, socialist collectivist ideal that would, in practice, turn into a dystopian nightmare in a matter of hours. Given the company he keeps – David Lynch, Graham Hancock and the Reality Sandwich people – there is hope. But it would be nice to have clarification. Seeing Brand lead an actual military revolution would be horrifying, taking the whole idea of celebrities going into politics into a grotesque and scarcely believable turn-up.
A week or so after this mini television event and its Twitter / Facebook aftermath, on Monday this week, I was on the top deck of a 242 traveling along Broad Street, towards Liverpool Street station when I noticed, walking alongside the bus, a large white dog. We remarked on it because we’d just seen what might’ve been a Samoyed but could’ve been a Spitz, another white doggy, and within minutes there was now an Akita sized white wolf of a dog wandering through the City streets on a slack lead. I noticed quickly that its walker was Russell Brand of Newsnight fame, the West Ham scarf identifying him, along with his general gait, beard and shockingly tight trousers. A couple of days later, I googled ‘Russell Brand white dog ‘ and gladly found that I wasn’t going mad. I had seen this man walking a big white dog in EC1.
All of the above clicked in the strange way synchronicity tends to strike. It’s clear that it’s all explainable through pattern-spotting, psychological theories and means, but somehow it feels otherworldly and outside of reality. Not so much a message, more a signpost, or a cog in the machinery.
Perhaps Russell Brand is annoying so many people whilst saying things I agree with for the sole purpose of agitating my madness, or maybe he’s a wizard using mystical means to promote his Messiah Complex tour. Or maybe it’s both at once, but at the same time neither. It gave me pause for thought, and I’m still not sure what the white dog means.
A reader suggests that the dog is a deliberately placed psychopomp, which is a very interesting idea.
Very interesting indeed.