Of the many works of fiction which, in one way or another, incorporate the Tarot into their plot, none has done so as thoroughly, or as fundamentally, as Italo Calvino’s seminal Castle of Crossed Destinies. Not only is the structure of the narrative of the book based on the interpretation of the interweaving stories told by laying out the cards of the Tarot deck, but the work itself is illustrated with the cards themselves, providing an immediate visual signifier and point of reference.
Naturally, Calvino’s meta-fictions have attracted a great deal of critical commentary from academic authors. One such example is presented here, The Animated Tarots of Calvino, by Jean-Michel Gardair. Gardair (1942-2013) was a French Italianist and semiotician.
Quotations have been taken from the English translation by William Weaver, with one exception. It should be noted that the Author’s Note which accompanied the French and Italian editions is rather different to that which appeared in the English edition: it is more extensive and, effectively, Calvino explicitly references the academic literature on the subject and alludes to the vast body of symbolic and occultist work on the Tarot. He states that: “As to the vast literature on cartomancy and the symbolic interpretation of the Tarot, even though I obviously delved into it, I do not think it had had much of an influence on my work. Above all, I endeavoured to look at the Tarot cards with attention, like someone who does not know what they represent, and to draw out suggestions and associations, to interpret according to an imaginary iconology.”
The Animated Tarots of Calvino
Reader, beware, this book is a trap. Its pages distill insomnia. Madness stalks you in the heart of its labyrinth. The author himself admits having only published it to escape his own trap and to sleep the sleep denied to his reader. A truly diabolical trap, if it is true that the writer has made a deal with the devil: “is not the raw material of writing all a rising to the surface of hairy claws, cur-like scratching, goat’s goring, repressed violences that grope in the darkness?”
And yet it is but a game: one lines up the Tarot cards and one invents stories at random based on the illustrated sequences composed by the cards spread out on the table. The “comic book” side advantageously balances out its old-fashioned side, without considering that the semioticians have recently decked out the combinations of the Tarot cards in the combined glamour of science and fashion. Calvino, fittingly, is not unaware of these learned works, which have for him especially a value of excitation and of incitation; similarly, he has delved into the “vast literature on cartomancy and the symbolic interpretation of the Tarot.” But his business is neither theory nor divination, but to tell stories, and what first of all fascinated him in the Tarot is the “narrative machine.”
The stricter and more constrictive the rules, and the more the art of the story is child’s play. Calvino proves this in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, to wit, in the first (*) of the two texts which make up this volume published by Le Seuil, the second being called The Tavern of Crossed Destinies. It is a topical work commissioned by Franco Maria Ricci in 1969 to accompany a sumptuous edition of the Visconti Tarot, one of the masterpieces of Italian miniatures, painted by Bonifacio Bembo towards the middle of the 15th century, reproduced by Ricci in their original colours and dimensions. Having given himself the rule to borrow his intrigues from the sole repertoire of Orlando Furioso, whose chivalric universe, even though posterior by about a century to the work of the painter, takes part in the same imaginary, Calvino makes a wager to “saturate” the grid of his Tarot cards, laid out flat according to a regular figure, with the help of “interlocking stories” whose interweaving is even more ingenious than that of crosswords since they may not only be read vertically and horizontally, but also from left to right and from right to left, from top to bottom or from bottom to top.
Now, this tour de force, he tells us, only took him a week, but he does not count the sleepless nights that the sequel cost him; and almost at a pure loss: The Tavern of Crossed Destinies is but a bunch of driftwood salvaged from the shipwreck his mind almost succumbed to.
What happened? What spell dispossessed him of his mastery? By abandoning the miniatures of Bonifacio Bembo for the Tarot of Marseille, had Calvino not chosen to invert to his advantage the preceding hierarchy which subordinated writing to the image? No longer a matter of writing the caption to an illustration or to embellish it with stories, but to relegate the figures to the margins of his text, or even to integrate their images into the arabesques of his own writing. To question, on the other hand, these modern hieroglyphs, Calvino could hope to extract some stories concerning him (us) closer than the chivalric fables.
Modernity, undoubtedly: there lies the trap. The closer one approaches it and the less we are assured of the rules on which the (literary) game is based as such. Modernity is neither an ideology nor a rhetoric, but the point of intersection of all languages and all codes, the utopian place where all systems exchange, dovetail, and amount to the same; in sum, a pure principle of disorder. Transformed into a machine to simultaneously read all the stories of the world (every story being in every other story, and vice versa), the “narrative machine” quickly goes awry, and its operator along with it. We can understand the dizziness which made him prefer failure to madness, and which made him leave that accursed Tavern just in time. Leaving those mad enough free to venture into the futuristic hell Calvino contents himself with imagining: The Motel of Crossed Destinies:
“Some people who have survived a mysterious catastrophe find refuge in a half-destroyed motel, where only a scorched newspaper page is left, the comics page. The survivors, who have become dumb in their fright, tell their stories by pointing to the drawings, but without following the order of each strip, moving from one strip to another in vertical or diagonal rows. I went no further than the formulation of the idea as I have just described it. My theoretical and expressive interests had moved off in other directions. I always feel the need to alternate one type of writing with another, completely different, to begin writing again as if I had never written anything before.”
Having given up on rules, Calvino, as to him, regains his balance – literally – out of play [i.e. away from the card game]. Tired of wandering from card to card (which he has speak, in turn, the language of Hamlet and of Parsifal, of Lucrece and of Stendhal, and of Freud and de Sade), he asks himself over the course of a meandering meditation on the very vocation of scribe and of interpreter. If he still allows himself to be fascinated by fabulous unseen Tarots: the painted canvasses which make up his imaginary museum (Carpaccio, Dürer, Rembrandt, Altdorfer, Botticelli, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Pisanello, Uccello, Antonello da Messina, and yet again Carpaccio), it is less to draw out new stories than perhaps the moral of the story. The one which, from painting to painting, is suggested to him by his two favourite heroes, Saint Jerome and Saint George, the one flanked by a lion (peacock, wolf cub, or small Maltese dog), and the other by his dragon. Superposing not only these two figures but the entire space arranged around them, we obtain Calvino’s self-portrait, the imaginary figure of his mental space:
“Along the walls of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, in Venice, the stories of Saint George and Saint Jerome follow one another, as if they were a single story. And perhaps they really are one story, the life of the same man: youth, maturity, old age, and death. I have only to find the thread that links the chivalrous enterprise with the conquest of wisdom. But just now, had I not managed to turn Saint Jerome toward the outside and Saint George toward the inside? […]
The dragon menaces the city; the lion, solitude. We can consider them a single animal: the fierce beast we encounter both outside and inside ourselves, in public and in private. There is a guilty way of inhabiting the city: accepting the conditions of the fierce beast, giving him our children to eat. There is a guilty way of inhabiting solitude: believing we are serene because the fierce beast has been made harmless by a thorn in his paw. The hero of the story is he who in the city aims the point of his lance at the dragon’s throat, and in solitude keeps the lion with him in all its strength, accepting it as guard and domestic genie, but without hiding from himself its animal nature.”
– Jean-Michel Gardair
‘Les tarots animés de Calvino’, Critique, n° 355, 1976.