The Roaring of Things (A Guest Essay from Sam Kriss)
Adventures in the Tarot
Dear Readers, I ultimately decided against featuring regular guest contributors in this space, in part as a result of your input following my “survey” some weeks ago. But I must make an exception for the London-based writer Sam Kriss, and this for two reasons. First, I confess I can’t help but think that some considerable cachet will flow my way from associating myself with such a distinctive and daring voice as his. Sam writes with his whole being, so fully that sometimes I wonder how he even survives the process of transferring his words out of him and into the world. Yet he keeps doing it. I first read Sam in 2016, when he published a remarkable piece on Silicon Valley apocalypticism in The Atlantic. It was the first time I’d ever considered the fashionable metaphysical speculations of the tech world as a sort of “neo-Gnosticism”. That insight never left my mind, and it has informed much of what I myself have written since, not least in my most recent book. Second, and less selfishly, Sam has recently started a Substack of his own, Numb at the Lodge (if you don’t know that’s a reference to a song from The Fall, well, you’ve got some remedial listening to do), and I want to make sure my readers know about it and subscribe to it. I am your beneficent human algorithm and you must trust me when I give you this “You May Also Like” recommendation. Subscribe to Sam’s Substack!
Sam is writing for us today about tarot — something I’ve never dabbled in, and for a long time would have thought I would want to hold at a considerable distance from myself. But learning is really just widening. Back when I was still writing for the New York Times’s “Stone” section, I was asked to contribute a few words for a forum on the occasion of the death of Michael Dummett. I couldn’t think of much to say, and so began to look into the very well-regarded philosopher’s own interest in tarot, about which he even wrote a book. It is only then that I learned that there are in fact “two tarots”, as Sam also notes — one a divinatory practice like chiromancy, astragalomancy and all those other arts, and the other a trick-taking game like whist or pinochle. Dummett always insisted he cared only about the game, while Sam primarily cares about the ritual practice by which we can sometimes convince ourselves we are catching glimpses of the future — though he always maintains an equilibrating ability to step back and to doubt, and with a range of references so vast as to call to mind Gershom Scholem’s work on the Kabbalah, which, as he explained to Walter Benjamin at one point, was, of necessity in our secular age, a sort of mysticism sublimated through the rigours of scholarship. What has struck me for a while now, in any event, is how untenable the sharp distinction that Dummett wants to maintain really is in the end. The boundary between game and augury is ever porous, and wherever you’ve got a good athlete or gamesperson you’ve almost certainly got someone inhabiting a world of wild superstitions and tics on which the fate of at least his or her world appears to depend. The reasons for this dual nature of games are surely part of the deep anthropological bedrock of what we are. With Sam, anyone who wants to know what we are should be prepared to say, pace Leibniz: “Je ne méprise rien, ni même les arts divinatoires.” —JEHS
When I was younger, a friend and I had a tradition: wherever we went, whichever city we ended up in, we would have our Tarot read. For a while we lived halfway across the world from each other, so we tended to meet up in unfamiliar places. In Prague we had our Tarot read in a Gypsy wagon. In Tokyo we had our Tarot read by an AI waterfall in a holographic forest. In New Orleans we had our Tarot read by a Santería practitioner who incorporated the knuckle bones of a pig into the rite. He told my friend that she was represented by the orisha Iansá, a chaotic female spirit of storms and lightning and madness and change. He told me that I was basically a decent guy but I needed to stop posturing so much. I didn’t like that reading. I wanted to be a spirit of chaos too.
I’m not sure if I believe in the Tarot. To be honest, I’m not really sure what it would mean to believe in a collection of small pieces of cardboard. Still, I can’t help but notice that all my readings were strangely accurate, even if I didn’t always like the conclusions. These days, I sometimes do readings for other people, as a game, mostly, and those are strangely accurate too. There is something there. It has to do with interpretation, and the sense of a universe alive with signs. It has to do with the intricate syntax of a reading, the way the meaning of every card also depends on where it appears in a spread, and the other cards around it; the way you weave them together into a story. It has to do with the way the Tarot forces you to see things from unexpected angles, and consider things in ways you hadn’t before. Walter Benjamin begins his On Language as Such and on the Language of Man with an axiom: “Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language.” The Tarot is a language.
I don’t know if I can fully explain how it all works, so I thought it would be easier simply to show you. So before I started writing this essay, I shuffled a deck and laid out a simple three-card spread. Beginning-middle-end. I wanted to write something expansive and enjoyable about the Tarot, because before anything else the Tarot is fun, in the same way that all forms of storytelling are fun.
And then I turned over my first card, and it told me that I would not be allowed to write the essay I was planning. Everyone knows that one of the cards in the Tarot is Death, and most people know that the Death card really isn’t that bad. It just means transformation: the end of one chapter, yes, but the beginning of the next. The Nine of Swords really is that bad. The card of utter ruin and futility: it says that whatever you are doing, it will not succeed.
I: The Nine of Swords A sleepless woman sits up in bed, head in hands, seemingly in despair. Nine swords hang ominously overhead, the panel under her couch showing a picture of two swordsmen fighting. Her quilt is decorated with the signs of the zodiac. An ecclesiastic, a priest; generally, a card of bad omen, predicting death, miscarriage, delay, deception, disappointment, despair.
Hermann Göring surrendered to the US Seventh Army on the 9th of May, 1945; for the next seventeen months, he and his fellow high-ranking Nazis were the subjects in a brief attempt scientifically to measure human evil. A consortium of American medical institutions had written to the prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, insisting that the war criminals be properly studied; they even asked that if they were executed by firing squad, the soldiers should shoot at the heart, not the head, just in case fascism turned out to be a physical deformation of the human brain. The main method used in these studies was the Rorschach test: those abstract, basically random inkblots that are supposed to look like other things. Göring saw unreal creatures, sea plants, tropical birds, the trolls from Peer Gynt. One was a “night animal, a flying animal, not exactly a bat”. Another was a “funny animal, sea animal, the type you make smoked fish out of”. He enjoyed the game enormously. A world of curious little creatures, storybook fantasies, very far away from the corpses and the rubble outside. Every major city from Stalingrad to the Atlantic had been bombed into ruins: was it all the fault of an imaginary herring?
Well, maybe. Fifty years later, W. G. Sebald, incapable of properly representing the Holocaust, wrote about herring fisheries instead. “A black void, relieved only by the gleam of the white underbellies of the fish, piled high on the deck.” The millions killed every year, the occasional debates over whether the herring suffered anything as they were pulled out of the water and asphyxiated in the open air. He saw something in those shapes that ordinary non-metaphorical language couldn’t quite contain. In Nuremberg, none of the Army psychologists made that association. In fact, most of the Rorschach tests seemed to say very little about anything. One of the testers later wrote that the Nazis were neither particularly unique nor particularly insane; there were millions of personalities just like Alfred Rosenberg or Ernst Kaltenbrunner in every corner of the world, living quiet, unassuming little lives. In Göring’s test, though, there was a flash of something significant.
The former Reichsmarschall was sentenced to death in October, 1946. After the verdict, he returned to the psychologists: broken, miserable, “like a child holding the torn remnants of a balloon”. Now Göring wanted to know what those fun games with shapes had really meant; at last, he wanted to know what kind of a man he was. This time, the psychologists told him. It wasn’t the trolls or the parrots that were meaningful, but one particular inkblot, Card III. The card shows what look like two humanoid figures, and in the middle, a bright red spot. “Morbid neurotics often hesitate over that card and then say there’s blood on it. You hesitated, but you didn’t call it blood. You tried to flick it off with your finger, as though you thought you could wipe away the blood with a little gesture… You are a moral coward.” Two weeks later, nine Nazi leaders were executed in the prison gymnasium. Göring was not one of them. The previous night, he had killed himself in his cell.
The Rorschach is now broadly considered a pseudoscience; a few psychologists still use it, but for general psychiatric testing it’s been replaced by a far more prosaic method in which the therapist simply asks the patients a series of standardised questions about themselves. In a way, it was discredited from the start: Hermann Rorschach never had any success promoting his method, and the psychoanalytic establishment paid it little attention. Rorschach died only a year after completing his system, still in his thirties, and he might have been forgotten entirely if his cards weren’t taken up by the US military. The Army needed a way to weed out psychotics from their recruits, and the inkblot test was an ideal method for a modern military. It’s replicable and it’s cheap, you can mass-produce the inkblot cards like bullets, and it can be administered without much training. All you need to do is note down how many shapes the patient sees —schizophrenics were supposed to see more, depressives fewer— how many of them are sexual in nature, how many relate to food, and so on. A punch-card computer can do the rest. In fact, after the war, former Army psychologists built up an enormous electronic data-set of Rorschach responses: millions of imagined objects, locked away in reels of magnetic tape. That archive is now publicly available, but so far nobody has managed to see anything meaningful in its patterns.
Maybe the best name for the test would not be pseudoscience, but magic. A kind of mid-century witch-doctoring, perfectly compatible with IBM systems and the big faceless bureaucracies of military and corporate life. At its core, it’s an exercise in mythopoesis: the way we take random patterns and fill them with meaning; the symbols by which the world reveals itself. This magic involves a strange game of double interpretations. First, the patient imagines the inkblot into fantastic shapes — often fairytale figures, strong totems, wild animals, dances, cosmic scenes. (Rorschach was, for a while, a follower of Carl Jung.) Then, the therapist turns those figures into a psychological theory. You crave the approval of other people. You have a complicated relationship with your mother. The haruspex, hands greasy with blood, pulling out the truth in an animal’s steaming bowels. When you look at those blobs of colour that could be butterflies or demons, you are really looking into yourself.
There are ways of doing this without the inkblots. You could look at the brief seventeenth-century craze for sentimental cartography, in which various human emotions —curiosity, sorrow, faith— were represented by maps of unreal lands. In Madeleine de Scudéry’s 1654 map of the Country of Tendre, the first of the form, romantic love is shown as a flat alluvial plain, rocky only along its coasts, and split by the river Inclination. The fastest way through that country is down the river, but if your beloved doesn’t love you back you can take the tougher road overland, passing through villages with names like Billet doux or Grands services. Go off the right path, though, and there are dangers. Out in the hinterlands, Lake Indifference looms.
I find these maps slightly vertiginous: their allegorical cities, their mountain ranges for the most inaccessible regions of the soul. I start to imagine what it would be like to walk in those places. I imagine the lonely storks snapping up dead fish from the marshes of Lake Indifference, or the mean crooked streets of the town of Meschanceté. I start to wonder, when I find myself lost in some industrial estate or stuck in a traffic-clogged motorway, if I’m really just trapped in the symbolic landscape of someone else’s life.
The fashion for sentimental cartography was brief, but something like it returned with psychoanalysis. Freud insists that the psyche is like a space: a city built on top of its own ruins, or a house with rooms closed off from each other. Like any space, it’s impossible to perceive all at once. You need a map. There’s one fairly familiar chart in which the mind is represented as an iceberg: the conscious mind above the waterline, the unconscious sprawling underneath. This iceberg is divided into three sections, with the superego on the left, and the ego and id on the right. An almost exact replica of the medieval T and O maps, idealised visions of our earth as a circle divided into three continents, with Jerusalem at the centre. You are something like a world.
Freud’s own charts are stranger and crueller. In The Ego and the Id, he provides a quick sketch of what the human psyche actually looks like, and it’s a lumpy, shapeless blob. Instead of clearly delineated regions separated by rivers or mountains, it has fuzzy, shifting zones. This topography doesn’t look entirely like a place; what it really resembles is a living organism. It even has an orifice, a tract leading from the outside world directly into the depths of the id, marked Repression. A mouth; an anus. What you really are is a kind of slug or jellyfish: a spineless sea-creature blobbing in the deep, one of the fantastic slimes that visited Hermann Göring at Nuremberg.
We do not fully understand ourselves, which is why it’s sometimes necessary to imagine our mental processes as a faraway country, or an iceberg, or a sea cucumber. Some kind of symbolic language that allows you to encounter the things that are clouded to you, or dredges up what you’d rather repress. Like animal totems, or ritual masks, or monsters. Like Baxbakwalanuxsiwae, the cannibal whose skin is covered in great chomping mouths, who first ate man at the north end of the world. Like the Tarot.
When I drew the Nine of Swords, my first instinct was to shuffle it back into the deck and pick another card instead, which is why I didn’t. The most urgent message always comes from the cards you don’t want to see. On turning over a card, you’re supposed to carefully examine the image and, like with the Rorschach, think about what its patterns might represent. The Nine of Swords shows a person alone in a dark room, surrounded by the images and instruments of war. Her head is in her hands. She is hiding from what she is.
II: The Five of Cups A figure in a black cloak sorrows over three spilt cups of wine. Behind him remain two upright cups, but he does not notice them. He can only concentrate on what has been spilled. Transmission, but not conforming to expectations; with some it is a card of marriage, but not without bitterness or frustration.
The problem is that most users do not think of the Tarot as a useful therapeutic tool, or an interesting way of generating symbolic insights about your psychological state. They make a much stronger claim: these cards have supernatural powers. They can tell you hidden truths about the world. They can tell you the future.
Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a cartomancer I know decided to find out what was really going on. You can’t trust the papers and you certainly can’t trust the internet, but there are other ways of getting the news. She asked the deck: “What’s going to happen in the invasion?” She was worried about dying in a nuclear war. Her method was very simple: instead of laying out a spread, she just methodically pulled out cards, one after another, and they told her their story. The Five of Cups, the Hanged Man. The Moon. Lobster-things scuttling out of the sea; dogs howling. Ruins in the background, and an indifferent yellow moon hanging over it all. “These are water cards,” she said. “Something to do with water. Russia is going to capture the coast. Does Ukraine have a coast?” Yes, I said, Ukraine has a coast. “Are we going to get nuked?” She pulled out another card: the Nine of Wands, a thicket of wooden staves that looked like missiles rising into the air, but she visibly relaxed. “No.” The Nine of Wands is not a particularly happy card, but it’s safe. She drew the Six of Pentacles, then the Three of Cups. “We’re going to send help to Ukraine,” she said. The Four of Swords. “But we won’t be part of it. Britain won’t do any fighting.” She pulled out more cards, glanced at them quickly, and threw them on a heap. The war would be long and miserable and bad for everyone involved, but it would not destroy her world. Eventually it would vanish from the front pages of the newspapers and retreat into the general misery of everything else.
By the end, she’d gone through almost the entire deck, and it had answered all her questions exactly as she asked them. The Tarot consists of 78 cards, which means that the number of different ways in which a deck can be shuffled consists of a one followed by 115 zeroes: roughly one quadrillion times larger than the number of subatomic particles in the universe. This precise permutation had never existed before and would never exist again: an answer directed specifically to her. All in all, the reading was very accurate. At the time, the newspaper experts were still saying that Kyiv would fall within days.
Here, I’m sympathetic to the mystics. There is something slightly boring about the idea that all these grand symbols are really just a way of talking about yourself. The human sciences have a habit of doing this sort of thing. People in non-commodity societies explain that they consider themselves to be in some kind of relation to powerful super-human forces, but Émile Durkheim arrives to explain that this is really just a code in which the society is describing itself. Jung plays around with alchemy and Gnosticism, but in the end it’s only a fancy metaphor for your basically ordinary life. You thought those were the stars, but it’s really just the lint in your bellybutton. Today, a version of Jungian terminology has seeped into the everyday language of the self. People talk about their feminine side, or their inner truth, or finding themselves. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that this relentless inward focus has emerged just as we’re starting to understand that all our most fundamental drives can be effortlessly manipulated by online algorithms. We obsess over an interiority that has already disappeared.
So what is the Tarot about, if it’s not just about yourself? As long as people have used the cards, there have been theories. The nineteenth-century French Rosicrucian Éliphas Lévi Zahed noticed that the 22 cards of the Major Arcana could correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He decided that Tarot, like Kabbalah, is a mystical system for recombining the alphabet; a model for the creation of the world. The folklorist Jessie Weston —best known for From Ritual to Romance, her brilliantly deranged Frazerian account of Arthurian myth— argued that the four suits of the Minor Arcana stood for the holy relics of the Grail legend, which themselves mirror the mystic treasures of the Druidic past. Cups represent the Holy Grail, or the coire ansic, the magic cauldron of Dagda that is never emptied; wands stand for the Lance of Longinus, or the Spear of Lug; swords for the sword of King David, or the claíomh solais; pentacles for the plate from which the Last Supper was eaten, or the Stone of Destiny on which the High Kings of Ireland were crowned. Possibly the most influential interpretation is the one given by Antoine Court de Gébelin, briefly a Huguenot priest, then a Freemason, and finally an occultist. In his version, the Tarot was born in the collapse of ancient Egypt: as their society crumbled, the priests encoded an entire civilisation’s worth of mystic knowledge in the cards, so their mysteries would not be lost forever. If the cards can reveal secret knowledge about the future, it’s because they contain the secret to all knowledge. They are a hidden map of the entire world.
The reality is more prosaic. The Tarot is not particularly ancient: it started appearing in Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, although a similar system had existed in China for hundreds of years, and spread through the Middle East. This should not be surprising. Before you can have a standardised deck of cards, you need two other Chinese inventions: paper and the printing press. Benedict Anderson has pointed out that printing was the first technology that allowed for genuine industrial mass production; the first objects to come under fully capitalist relations were books. But when printing first arrived in Europe, most people were illiterate. The printed objects that would have been most familiar were not books or pamphlets, but Tarot cards.
Before it was an oracle, Tarot was a card game: the original card game. In much of continental Europe, it still is. Tarot is a trick-taking game vaguely similar to bridge or whist, with the Major Arcana as a trump suit. People might have privately used Tarot cards in fortune-telling, but they didn’t have any intrinsic mystical association until the eighteenth century — until de Gébelin decided that they had come out of Egypt. This seems like the sort of thing that should be embarrassing for Tarot-readers, but I’m not so sure it is. Instead, I think gambling and divination might be two versions of the same thing.
There are many ways of telling the future, and every human society has its oracles. You know the classical methods already: signs appear in the guts of slaughtered livestock or the flight of birds. In the nggàm system of West Africa, the oracle is a spider, who shuffles cards made from dried leaves. Cromniomancy is the practice of divination by onions: the usual method is to write “yes” and “no” on two bulbs, and see which one sprouts first. Ololygmancy is the vatic interpretation of the howling of dogs at night. Cephalonomancers see the future by boiling a donkey’s head, and tyromancers do it with cheese. The most enduring oracles, though, are almost always objects that are also used for games. Playing cards, dice. The Book of Samuel names the Urim and Thummim as one of the means by which humans can directly learn the will of God. (The other two are prophets and dreams.) These small black and white pebbles formed part of the vestments of the high priests, but they were also used for drawing lots, and quite possibly games of chance. You have encountered a similar oracle yourself: everyone has, at some point in their lives, made a decision by flipping a coin. This can become quite sophisticated; coin-flipping is the most popular way of consulting the I Ching. But you can turn mysticism into vice simply by tweaking the rules: by deciding that the person who calls the flip correctly gets to keep the coin.
Gamblers are, famously, superstitious. I used to play roulette, usually with the same friend who accompanied me to the tarot-readers. Whenever we went gambling, we would always start by betting on red. We would only put our chips down once the wheel was already spinning. We would never make the same bet twice in a row, and if either of us failed to keep to these rules, we’d both have bad luck all night. Our lives were not normally like this; outside the casino, we were basically chaotic and undisciplined. (This was probably how we ended up at the casino in the first place: the only place in central London guaranteed to still be serving drinks at 5 am.) We certainly never sat down one day to decide these laws. Something about the encounter with chance seems spontaneously to generate superstitions in your mind.
In his 1926 paper Mentalité primitive et jeu de hasard, the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl describes a roulette player: “Whether he wins or loses, he attributes the fact either way to a mysterious power that is elusive to him, although he tries to act upon it through measures in which he puts his faith, all the more intensely the more they are unreasonable and superstitious.” For Lévy-Bruhl, the gambler inhabits the same conceptual universe as people in “primitive” societies, in which “winning and losing depend on invisible powers” that throng the world. His lucky talisman is a rite to propitiate the nameless casino gods.
All divination and all gambling seem to depend on situations of random chance. It’s here that the secret powers of the universe express themselves in a way that we can understand — which means that in fact, there is no such thing as chance. Everything that happens in the world is willed, is a message. To throw an object in the air simply suspends all the smaller causes, leaving only the primum movens itself.
Today, we call it wave function collapse. I don’t pretend to understand physics, but according to people who do, an electron is not a point in space, but a probability wave simultaneously describing all the places in which it might be found. That is, until it interacts with another particle: then, it suddenly condenses into a single state. Only – who decides which state? The most widely accepted account, the Copenhagen Interpretation, says that it’s random. The Many-Worlds Interpretation says that all possible outcomes occur, but in separate universes. The theologian Karl Heim had another answer: God chooses. God is the one who turns possibilities into outcomes, who lovingly tends to each eigenvector. And maybe you could ask Him questions, if you set up a laser-gun in front of a metal plate, with two slits marked yes or no.
I think this principle still works even if you don’t believe in God or the spirits, if you think things really are random and meaningless, if you think, like Mallarmé, that “a throw of the dice will never abolish chance.” The great atheistic philosopher Lucretius described the world as a void, through which the primordia rerum continually plummet. But these atoms do not fall straight down; if they did, they “would never have once combined and given a birth to aught.” There must be what he calls the clinamen, the random and unpredictable swerve which causes atoms to collide with each other as they descend. “Vexed by blow on blow,” they produce the things of our world. Lucretius’s universe is a world made of falling dice. Whenever you flip a coin, or leave two onions on a shelf, or pick a card, any card, you’re breaking through the static world to commune directly with the clinamen, the turbulence of all things.
Three cups have fallen; two cups are standing. Flip a coin five times: two heads; three tails. The Five of Cups, like the Nine of Swords, shows a figure who is refusing to look. He is wrapped up in himself, his little collection of fallen cups. But between these two cards, something is opening up. This time, there is a fullness of being that we have ignored. Wine falls out of the fallen cups, falls into the river in the background, and falls on into the world.
III: The Knight of Wands A handsome knight on a fine steed gallops across desert-like terrain. This young man holds the reins of his horse casually in one hand and a wand, symbol of creative energy, in the other. He has a fine sense of adventure, although he is unpredictable and hasty in judgement. Departure, absence, flight; a hopeful journey; but according to some readings, it signifies rupture, division, interruption, discord.
In the Phaedrus, Plato tells a story. “At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Thoth; the bird which is called the ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and dice and divination, but his great discovery was the use of letters.”
Not so. Now we know that writing was not invented in Egypt, but Iraq, and the first written documents do not contain any great knowledge. They say things like “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” Bills and receipts, tax records, deeds of ownership, paperwork. If you write a poem and publish it, the invoice you send your publisher is closer to the original spirit of the written word than the poem itself.
But the Tarot did not emerge out of that world. It comes from China, and the first form of Chinese writing was the Oracle Bone Script. In Yinxu in Henan province, there are huge piles of oracle bones, ox scapulae or turtle shells, buried in deep circular pits three thousand years old. Each token would be inscribed with a question and then heated until it cracked; the cracks, properly interpreted, were the answer. A script made up of two equal parts: one human language made of words, and one non-human language, a language of things, made of breaks in bone. Could we say these were a kind of playing card? Why not. These were a kind of playing card. The point where intelligible symbols touch something stranger, beyond.
Walter Benjamin describes a divine language:
Language communicates the linguistic being of things. The clearest manifestation of this being, however, is language itself. The answer to the question ‘What does language communicate?’ is therefore ‘All language communicates itself’. The language of this lamp, for example, communicates not the lamp (for the mental being of the lamp, insofar as it is communicable, is by no means the lamp itself) but the language-lamp, the lamp in communication, the lamp in expression.
And later: “The whole of nature is imbued with a nameless, unspoken language.”
Can you hear the roaring of things? In the gravel scree the scream? Have you been to the wastes at the furthest ends of the world, where newly calving icebergs chant I, I, I?
Benjamin kept index cards. Already, he said, the book had become “an outdated mediation between two different filing systems.” All the important ideas are collected in the author’s deck of cards, and then end up in the reader’s. The Arcades Project, his masterpiece, was less a book than a mass of index cards, shuffled and reshuffled. These fragments only stopped moving when he died.
Wittgenstein also used cards. So did Claude Lévi-Strauss: his method of myth-interpretation was to break each story down into its raw narrative elements, write each on a separate index card, and shuffle them around on a desk. The cards themselves speak a certain language not entirely assimilable to the messages on their surface. They speak the flux, the tearing-apart and change. Roland Barthes had them too: when he died in 1980, he’d collected over twelve thousand. A tornado in neat boxes.
Many of the oracle bones are still being deciphered. Five thousand characters have been identified, and only three thousand are understood. But of the inscriptions we can read, quite a lot of them seem to be about human sacrifice. “Should we offer ancestor Ta-chia and Tsu-i ten beheaded men?” Another: “Should a man be burned at the stake? Will rain follow?” Oracle pits tend to be sited near mass graves.
One theory of schizophrenia. What has happened to the schizo is that they have lost the ability to distinguish meaningful signs from ordinary objects. Some things need to be interpreted: a stranger smiling at you from across the room; a twig snapping in a quiet forest; a solar eclipse. Other things do not: rain. For the schizo, everything is intensely important, full of meanings that are addressed specifically to you. What is God trying to tell me by making it rain today? I looked at the clock, and it was eleven minutes past eleven: what does it mean? The schizo needs to invent increasingly baroque and deranged theories to explain why everything keeps making so much sense. This is the extreme case of language, but all language is to some degree schizoid. Divination is more schizo than poetry, poetry is more schizo than the novel, the novel is more schizo than the newspaper. Some researchers believe that schizophrenia and autism form a single spectrum; the most profoundly autistic individuals are incapable of speech. To live within language you must first be mad.
In South Africa, Chinese gangs operate an illicit lottery known as fafi, mostly played in Zulu townships. Twice a day, a number between 1 and 36 is drawn; the fafi men arrive in cars with bulletproof windows, packed with cash, to announce the winning number. In fafi, each number corresponds to a specific object. 1 is a king. 2 is a monkey. 3 is the ocean. 4 is a corpse. Some of these seem to echo images from the Tarot; others do not. 34, shit. 35, a cunt. 36, a penis. Here, the numbers themselves take an active role, and only half of the lottery takes place in the sunlit world. Players always know which number to bet on: the corresponding object will appear to them in their dreams.
In my dream, I am standing in an airport in China, trying to buy a plane ticket from an automated kiosk. In my dream, Chinese currency comes in small square coins, each stamped with a different character. Every transaction is also a message. When you pay for something, you’re supposed to hand over the coins in a particular order, to compose a nice poem with your money. It’s especially polite to pay with a few lines praising the object you’ve just bought. In my dream, I keep searching through my pockets, but all my coins mean things like war or strife, and anyway, I can’t read Chinese. When I feed my coins into the terminal, an error message pops up onscreen. Apparently I have threatened to assassinate a local official. Armed police are on their way.
Police radios identify emergencies with numbers. 132 for armed robbery, 138 for a bomb. I wonder if anyone has ever sat up late at night with a police scanner and divined secret knowledge out of the churning field of crime.
Benjamin distinguishes between bourgeois and mystical linguistics. In bourgeois linguistics, which is Saussure’s theory, “the word has an accidental relation to its object.” Names are determined by convention. You could say that in semiotics the relation between word and thing is like the relation between money and commodities; they can be exchanged for one another. In mystical linguistics, meanwhile, “the word is simply the essence of the thing.” This is an aristocratic linguistics: everything is fixed and timeless and in its proper place. But Benjamin’s linguistics are proletarian; productive and insurrectionary. Each word recalls the creation of the universe; the highest form of language is the giving of a name. “The proper name is
the communion of man with the creative word of God.” This is why the first act of Adam was to name every living creature in Eden.
A Tarot reader was murdered by one of her customers in New York. She had given the man a reading, and the cards told him that bad things would happen in his life. They did, so he decided that the Tarot reader had put a curse on him. “I am supposed to be dead already,” he told the police. “That’s all I know.”
The powers of the earth have revealed to me that the card that led to this killing was the World, the last of the Major Arcana, the sign of fullness and plenitude, the end of the cycle where it begins again. Everything has already been achieved. Nothing remains. “I am supposed to be dead.” In the card, a naked woman floats in the centre of a wreath, surrounded by the heads of a man, an eagle, an ox, and a lion. The faces of the beings witnessed by Ezekiel. “Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like burnished bronze.” These creatures are the cherubim: the terrible angels that guard an empty Eden with their flaming swords. They forbid us from entering the place where all things were once unnamed.
The World is the point beyond which the Tarot can no longer speak.
Do you like what you’re reading? Then please go and subscribe to Sam Kriss’s new Substack!
And while you’re at it you may as well also subscribe to this here Hinternet, if you have not done so already.
Fantastic article. Long time admirer of Kriss. Pleased to see him out and about again.
Forgive my inability with maths; to be sure, the following from the article is a massive exaggeration, right?
“The Tarot consists of 78 cards, which means that the number of different ways in which a deck can be shuffled consists of a one followed by 115 zeroes: roughly one quadrillion times larger than the number of subatomic particles in the universe.”
This is brilliant. This shouldn't be floating around on the Net or something - This is powerful stuff. & now I really want to pick your brains