“All this may seem to you a meaningless farrago,” resumed Van Deyssel. “But it is a part of the wisdom of the tarot cards that they do not predict our future in precise terms. Think of the dismay if they did! They do no more than afford us, at the best, an intimation. My brief lecture is in some sort a coded message, and the key to the cipher is your future itself. Each forthcoming event in your life will in its occurrence reveal the truth of one or other of my predictions. Prophecy of this kind is not so illusory as it may at first appear.” – Friday or The Other Island
One of the few recent authors to have earned both popular appeal and critical praise, Michel Tournier‘s works are well known and appreciated in France, and in consequence, are well represented in translation. His creative and personal retellings of myths, legends and old stories, including those of Robinson Crusoe, the Erl King, Tom Thumb, Bluebeard, among many others, have become staples of contemporary French fiction.
Tournier’s first novel, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday or The Other Island), won the prestigious Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1967. In the beginning of this reworking of the story of Robinson Crusoe, Tournier includes what is perhaps the classic example of a Tarot reading “telegraphing” the narrative twists and turns as the novel unfolds in ways unexpected but wholly consonant with this initial Œdipal prediction.
Tournier’s use of the Tarot for narrative purposes has been extensively documented in studies such as Robinson et le tarot : étude sur la signification de Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique de Michel Tournier by Mikko Kuusimäki (cf. book summary), Michel Tournier – la séduction du jeu by Lynn Salkin Sbiroli, and “Michel Tournier et l’accent grave du jeu” by Jonathan F. Krell. English readers may consult the section “Textual Metaphors: The Tarot and the Bible”, in Michel Tournier and the Metaphor of Fiction by David Platten. Another of Tournier’s novels, Les Météores (Gemini), is also Tarot-inflected and has been the subject of a couple of studies in French.
To paraphrase the man himself, it is not surprising that the author of Friday or The Other Island, The Erl-King, Gemini, etc., should have become fascinated by the undertaking dominated by combinatoric intelligence and a taste for emblematic figures that is Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies. Once again, far from being a mere book review of Calvino’s inevitable booklet, Tournier’s piece bears witness to the multiplicity of manners in which the Tarot may be used as a creative tool, and its timeless appeal as the ferment of the imagination.
“La Magie des tarots” was first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 21 December, 1974.
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The Magic of the Tarot
One of the preferred occupations of the mind consists in making waffle-makers destined to dry out and harden, and above all, to bestow a precise and immutable shape to the flaccid and swarming matter of immediate experience. The ten categories of Aristotle, the twelve of Kant, the fifteen of Hamelin, thus relate to this categorial activity of the intelligence concerned with realising itself in the marshes of unshaped experience.
But the net of logical categories may itself seem too abstract. Characterology offers a more palpable table with its human types, and above all, it opens up the way to a sort of combinatorics for the first time. For after having distinguished the primaries and the secondaries, the actives and the non-actives, the emotives and the non-emotives, it ends up, for instance, with the choleric character which defines itself as an emotive-active-primary (Danton), or with the apathetic character which is a non-emotive-inactive-secondary (Louis XVI).
It is to an undertaking of this type that the Tarot cards respond, in any case, such as Italo Calvino deals with them in the very handsome book which Franco Maria Ricci proposes to us in this holiday season, with the exception that each character is not only surrounded by characteristic attributes but moreover finds himself placed in a situation which may be complex and dramatic. And there is magic. For the seventy-eight figures of the Tarot cards – whose sources trace back beyond the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the Arab or even Chinese origins of cartomancy – possess a mysterious charm and a gift of eternal youth.
Aside from their incomparable beauty, these miniatures observe us with familiar gazes. The juggler, the man hung by his feet, the madman with the triple goitre, love brandishing the purple mask of the sun, the popess with the triregnal tiara, the twin guardians of the celestial Jerusalem, all these enigmatic and royal beings speak to us in an immemorial language which our heart understands. These cards may provide each of us with a commentary on our past and a prediction of our future which raise our destiny to the level of the golden legend. Italo Calvino, for his part, ushers us into the Castle of Crossed Destinies.
A mysterious citadel lost in the forest night. Wanderers gone astray – ladies, knights, couriers, pilgrims – encounter each other therein. Yet this disparate assembly gathered round a table is struck with mutism, and if each guest tells his story in turn, it is simply by arranging Tarot cards on the table… and of which everyone immediately understands the signification. When the second guest begins to narrate his adventures in turn, he does not disperse the cards of the first; he articulates his story on a part of the preceding combination by giving to understand that the reading must no longer be effected from top to bottom, but horizontally, from left to right, each card taking its signification from the one which precedes it and the one which follows, like the letters of a crossword grid. In this way, Italo Calvino turns the Tarot cards into a sort of narrative machine, combining characters and situations into a great, but not infinite, number of destinies.
It is not surprising that the author of the Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics, t Zero, etc., should have become fascinated by this undertaking dominated by combinatoric intelligence and a taste for emblematic figures. Like that of Jean Giraudoux, the work of Italo Calvino is also short on personal confidences as it is revelatory of a certain psychology by its symbols and bizarre logic. What all categorial thought – from Aristotle to the Tarot – has in common is the concern to advance in the discovery of things only by holding strongly to the railings of the rational method, the taste for complete enumerations, the fear of losing oneself in the infinite. We are here in the antipodes of empiricism and naturalism, always eager to plunge into the quagmire of experience, without return. The most famous of Italo Calvino’s heros is a Lombard aristocrat who had decided to spend his entire life in the trees. To never touch earth. Such seems to be the first principle of Italo-calvinism. His “Tarots” provide us with the most sumptuously illuminated illustration.
– Michel Tournier
of the Académie Goncourt