Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Jean Paulhan: On the Proper Usage of the Tarot: Preface to Le Tarot de Marseille by Paul Marteau

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Translator’s Introduction

Jean Paulhan (1884–1968) was an influential French writer, literary critic and publisher, one who played a major role in French writing during the 20th century. In addition to numerous novels, translations of poetry, and studies on art, Paulhan was also interested in the study of language, and the following essay on the Tarot falls into this last category, as we shall see. Effectively, Paulhan provided a thought-provoking and pioneering preface, « Touchant le Bon Usage des Tarots », for the classic work on the Tarot of Marseilles, Le Tarot de Marseille, published by his exact contemporary Paul Marteau (1885-1966), heir and director of the Grimaud cardmaking firm and creator of the eponymous deck, in 1949.

In spite of its relative density and brevity, practically every review of Marteau’s book singles out Paulhan’s preface for special praise; “Paulhan at his finest,” says the Mercure de France (1 October 1949); the noted art critic Charles-Henri Estienne calls it “a malicious and profound preface,” (Combat, September 1949), while the reviews and articles penned by Marcel Lecomte, Théophile Briant and Paul Arnold are available in full on this website. This preface, above all, marks one of the key stages in the evolution of the study of the Tarot, since it heralds an entire seam of what may be properly called Tarology – the study of the Tarot as a language – an optical language, and one devoid of occultist or mystical speculation. The writings of Paulhan’s precursors in this endeavour – notably Joseph Maxwell, and even Paul Marteau himself – are not devoid of concessions towards these modes of thought. Yet nowhere is this signal contribution acknowledged in the literature, with the exception of the reviews published here and here by Marcel Lecomte, an acquaintance of Paulhan, in passing. The publication of this piece aims, therefore, to correct this glaring omission, and to enable the reader to gain some insight on how to approach the Tarot as a language on its own terms. Certainly, this piece is dense and could do with being further “unpacked,” but for the exigencies of the moment, we shall limit ourselves to these preliminary remarks. The choice of the word ‘usage’ in the title in English where ‘use’ might have been expected, is an attempt to capture the dual sense present in the French, namely, the actual application of the Tarot as well as the linguistic meaning of the term.

Shortly after the publication of Marteau’s book, Paulhan published the piece separately as « L’usage des Tarots », in the monthly bulletin [bulletin mensuel] of the Swiss Guilde du Livre [n° 6, June 1949, pp. 130-134]. Although the comprehensive article by G. Beuchet on Paul Marteau (‘Paul Marteau, auteur et éditeur de l’Ancien Tarot de Marseille (1930),’ in Le Vieux Papier n° 358 (October 2000), pp. 31-40) states that the article was published before Marteau’s book, the bibliography of Paulhan’s works here suggests otherwise (see pp. 157-159). This text was also later compiled in vol. 4 of Paulhan’s Collected Works, Sade et Autres Primitifs in 1969.

An English translation of this preface (or an excerpt, we have been unable to check) was apparently included with the Film Noir Tarot by Dore Mullen, according to this source. Paulhan does not appear to have written anything else about the Tarot, which is somewhat surprising, given the breadth of knowledge shown in this piece and his prolific output. A planned second edition of his anthology La Paille et le Grain, which was to contain an article, « À Propos des Tarots » – in all likelihood, this one – never appeared. Incidentally, Paulhan was not the only man of letters to take an interest in the Tarot to extent of prefacing a book on the subject: his contemporary and acquaintance Roger Caillois did likewise for the 1966 republication of Oswald Wirth’s classic work, Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge, a preface which was unfortunately excised from the recent English translation. Those interested in learning more about Paulhan’s take on language will wish to read his classic work The Flowers of Tarbes: or, Terror in Literature as well as the volume On Poetry and Politics.

Portrait of Jean Paulhan by Jean Dubuffet (source)

On the Proper Usage of the Tarot

Jean Paulhan

On the nature of the Tarot, there are those who can find no agreement, and there are those who agree all too readily. Sometimes the learned see therein a perpetual almanac, and sometimes a lesson in morality; metaphysics and alchemy; a game, the simple fantasy of a cardmaker, a treatise of occultism, a mantic art. Their commentaries, both gratuitous and violent at the same time, give one, finally, a great desire to speak of the Tarot, were it only a few lines, with rigour.

But the simple amateur of the Tarot, but (if I may say) the user, for his part, does not hesitate. While he wields his cards, twirls them and turns them, he thinks he is witnessing the true unfolding of things, of which he saw up until then but an appearance. As though he had placed a grid upon the world, any event whatsoever reveals to him its secret face, its fantasies, its peculiar reasons. The Tarot acts, according to the period, as the augur and the sybil, as the tripod of the sensitive and vaguely somnambulist young girl  – sometimes the servant girl – who, at the time of Mesmer, informed the whole family on the origins of Evil, on the scenery of Hell, and on the treatment of rheumatism.

I. The Arcana, and the Law of Specialty

The Tarot is a language of which the alphabet alone is given us. This alphabet consists of seventy-eight letters which resemble pictograms or hieroglyphs, I want to say that, at first glance, they appear both obvious as well as mysterious; naïve yet subtle. We see a pope, a crayfish, the sun and the moon, a juggler, a hanged man. It is an alphabet of which each letter (as we also wish, sometimes, often in vain, for our own) seems to already bear a meaning. Yet the literary works and monuments of this language dissipate as soon as they are formed: at most we may distinguish various genres, which are called the Great Game, the Little Game, the Medium Draw, the Great Draw, the Accomplishment, and all the rest.

Moreover, the Tarot is nothing but the deck of ordinary playing cards – exactly in the way in which French is a somewhat more evolved Latin; or Malay a primitive form of Malagasy. Which came first is a matter of dispute, without any great evidence. The fact is that both serve the same ends: sometimes a game, pure and simple, for the honour or for the spoils – here the Lombard deck or Tarocchino, there the piquet or imperial deck. Sometimes for the querying of destiny. And from the game to the query, every kind of mixture one can imagine. The player of belote in the café, shaking in front of his cards, throwing a sideways glance, and later, shouting out: “Only the scoundrels have any luck!” (the scoundrel being his adversary), or else: “Decidedly, the Good Lord himself is against me!” is concerned with winning a round of drinks! He questions the gods, and seeks to shame them.

As the usage is the same, the figures are analogous: same court cards, kings, queens (or dames), valets (flanked, in the Tarot, by the knights). Same numeral cards: ace, two, three, four, and so on up to ten. And here, the suits are simply clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. But there: staffs, coins, cups, swords. There is a more notable difference. It is the twenty-two major arcana – also known as the trumps or triumphs – of the Tarot, which win a round over any other card, and which, in divination, mark the major intentions of fate.

This is not an abnormal or surprising difference. Linguists are used to distinguishing between synthetic and analytic languages. They note that it is common to see an analytic language turn towards synthesis; or a synthetic one, following the law of specialty, towards analysis. In this way, French has more pure where Latin has purior; to love where Latin says amori, and of the tree instead of arboris. Of, to, more, are called ‘exposants’.* For the most part they are ancient substantives, adjectives or adverbs, which have been taken from the common lot and bestowed with an active force.

The same goes for the Arcana. In the ordinary deck, each suit can become a trump. It is enough, according to the case, for the random draw of a card or the decision of a player (who wagers, at the price of this concession, to play an exceptional hand). But in the Tarot, the trumps are a separate group. They are no longer part of a suit. They bear names and numbers. In brief, they have become exposants, of which each now marks – as it happens with prepositions – its particular nuance; and the whole set, a common intention.

II. Disorder and Metamorphosis

What intention? If I patiently look at these singular pictograms, it is first of all their diversity that surprises me. It is as though all peoples were called upon to collaborate to its construction, and all mythologies. (How could they reach an understanding?) That devil flanked by two imps, that last Judgment – with his resounding trumpet and the resurrection of the dead – come directly from Christ, true. But the popess? This seems more like blasphemy. Furthermore, she looks like Isis: on her lap, the great book of nature (which she is not reading); behind her, a drawn veil. The Wheel of Fortune, too, with its sphinx, its monkey and its dog, points us in the direction of Egypt. However, Cupid, Fortune, the triumphal Chariot evoke the Greeks or the Romans instead. There are more precise allusions. The crayfish (or Cancer), Gemini, the Pleiades, obviously pertain to astrology. The pope between the pillars of Jachin and Boaz, to the Masonic initiation. The transmutation of metals, to medieval alchemy.

Other cards seem simply to evoke proverbs: Temperance is putting water in her wine; the Star (but why the Star?) is bringing water to the river. The dogs are barking at the moon. In brief, there are no religions or sciences which are not to be found here nor there. As though the unknown author of the Tarot had attained to some knowledge through which he discerned their profound unity, and encompassed them all in the same view. Or, if one prefers, for his collection of images, he haphazardly drew from the hotchpotch of beliefs and myths in which we are all immersed. One must examine things more closely.

Now, every card, in its own way, presents the same disorder, in depth. Is it really a pope, this old man wearing a red cloak and a blue robe and a yellow tiara? (They ought to be white, as everyone knows.) And why is Death reaping heads and hands which are already buried (or does it refer to the second death?). That hanged man, where does his triumphant smile, this festival outfit, and if we turn the card upside-down – he is hung by one foot! – the look of a dancer, come from? Why is the devil a hermaphrodite? And the juggler then! Why has he set up on a deserted mountain, it is not the custom for these mountebanks. Whence the exalted look, this lemniscate-shaped hat in the form of infinity? (Is he the Tarot itself, at the same time player and soothsayer? Is he God?) Why does the Mate (or the Fool) alone of all the arcana, not bear a number (as though madness threatened the player – or the initiate – at every moment)? Nor Death a name? Why do certain names deceive us? Is the subject of the eighteenth arcanum (as we are told) really the Moon – or would it rather not be the mysterious crayfish which imperceptibly appears, blue in the blue water, but from which our eyes cannot detach themselves? The same again, in the seventeenth arcanum, the star gives way to the young woman with two vases; the sun, in the nineteenth card, to the twins. Why are the two boys thrust from their tower showing signs of joy upon touching the earth? Why does Fortune on its wheel, which is in the last arcanum, become, on closer examination, this androgyne arising into heaven (is it the finally liberated soul?), equipped with a magic wand? There is no end to it.

I wish to explain no arcana at all. I am attempting only to reach their common arrangement, their insistence. If I have naïvely rendered this insistence, this happens: it is first of all that there exists an occult trait, common to all human events (whether it be reflection, legend, or faith which reveals it to us). Then, were we to bring this trait into the light of day, it would stray away and dissolve. In brief, each card has its secret, and that secret, as soon as it is spotted, ruins it.

III. On the Treatment of Occult Matters

To whomsoever takes into account matters secret or occult – apparitions, bewitchments, premonitory dreams, lucky charms, telepathy, telekinesis, ghosts – two points are first of all obvious.

Here is the first: observed (or practiced) in all places and at all times by decent people – not necessarily those of whimsical or chimerical mind, as most writers (and even the learned) are, no, but for the most part solid and practical and down-to-earth people: hunters and fishermen, farmers, soldiers – their entire falsity would be an even more unbelievable (and, if you wish, occult) phenomenon than their apparition. It would pose still more difficult questions yet. For it would remain to be explained how so many people, moreover, honest and commonsensical and of a fairly distrustful mind, could have, without the least in the world having asked themselves, commit an identical error millions and millions of times over. The savants make a great deal, in their method, out of the principle of economy, which consists in sorting out the questions, and not agitating more problems than is necessary. Well, economy here consists simply of accepting once and for all that there exist phenomena which escape the measure of reason as well as that of science: secret phenomena, neither vain nor gratuitous – but through which we participate in (short of knowing) the secrets of the world: the origins of evil, the scenery of hell (perhaps even the treatment of rheumatism). From which the best proof, the most irrefutable, would be, if one wishes, this: it is that one does not become, one is not, a savant by knowledge, nor reasonable through reason. But through a choice which is rather of the order of mystery or of faith: by a precisely occult choice. A second point, if we think about it, is no less evident.

There has never been a shortage of men at any time to become attached to apparitions, bewitchments and the like, nor to have attempted to articulate their laws or rules, and to divert for their own good any beneficial effects, while avoiding the baleful ones. Now, the sciences and technics which have stemmed from their efforts have a curious trait in common: it is that they quickly go awry. No matter how plausible their beginning, how accurate their raw material, they take off and more often than not end up in an extremely pretentious palaver, in sum, all empty and in vain. Despite our tiresome, our moving efforts, we know little more on these apparitions and miracles than a Chinese of the 10th century BC did. Like him, we simply we know that “they are there.”

The least that can be said of the specialists of occultism is that they also go awry, even more quickly than their sciences. I dare not even think of those who wind up in misery, or vile disease: neither Court de Gébelin, nor Éliphas Lévi – nor the Gypsies either, whose mysterious function, it would appear, was to spread the Tarot throughout the world, derived any profit from the riches they kindly promise us. There is worse, and the occultists best-known to us – those of the Enlightenment: Saint Germain, Cagliostro, Mesmer, Casanova, Etteilla a little later – end up in general by living at the expense of naïve elderly ladies seeking immortality. In brief, as happens one day, sooner or later, for the famous mediums, they cheat. When they do not adopt the trade that resembles most that of soothsayer: secret agents, informers; or else spies, turning for the benefit of the State which pays them the trenches they have dug out of the laudable concern of finding hidden treasure.

Thus, there exist occult facts. And the least that can be said is that these facts do not allow themselves to be dominated, nor allow themselves to be wholly known, nor to become science. To dissolve or to go astray as soon as they are led into the light of day. In sum, they are, neither by encounter, but doubly so, but essentially occult.

Such is precisely the common meaning of the arcana, and their insistence.


Did we need so much care and attention to remind ourselves what the words themselves mean? No doubt. Let it suffice to evoke the hotchpotch which reigns above among us, and whose common tenor is, more or less, that the occult demands to be explained, revealed, communicated; let it stand, without losing its virtue, the light of day. There is more asinine (or more repugnant): let it aspire to serve our interests. Against which the amateur of the Tarot maintains that the secret is neither a random chance, nor an accident; that it is not a mere absence. No. But very precisely a thing, and akin to a nature.

Whence, for the following work, a particular method of reading: it would be imprudent to treat it as a handbook of physics or of geometry. On the contrary. It must not be learned by heart. Nor shown – despite being, in my mind, very accurate and very beautiful – to all one’s friends. It must be read, of course, but to be immediately forgotten, and later read once more (without ever being reread). In brief, to relegate it to that secret part of ourselves, to which the Tarot as a whole is but a constant allusion.

Jean Paulhan

* According to the lexicographer Littré, an exposant shows relations, and is a term given by some grammarians to certain prepositions, erroneously so, since prepositions express but do not show the relations between the words of a phrase. – Translator

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