Note: This article– original published in January of 2017 –is a bit tedious at times, but it accurately reflects several aspects of my thinking about The Hanged Man and The Soul’s Choice as it has developed, here, over the last few years.
One of my fantasies is to open a little brick and mortar meeting place called The TeenyTinyTarot © Cafe and Community Center with a study area devoted to Tarot Hermeneutics. With regard to the Tarot Hermeneutics study area, I would designate it by that name for couple of reasons–partly in honor of my friend, Paul Nagy, who happens to host a website by that name…
…and partly because the expression so brilliantly captures (what our anonymous author refers to on page 7 as) the game of tarot, while at the same time subtly suggesting how much light an understanding of the history and usage of the Tarot can shed on the subject of hermeneutics in general!
But this post is not really about my (imagined) TeenyTinyTarot © Cafe and Community Center with its (imagined) Tarot Hermeneutics study area– nor is it about the kind of light which an understanding of the Tarot can shed on our understanding of hermeneutics in general –rather, it is about a concrete example of tarot hermeneutics involving myself, Paul Nagy, and my little booklet, A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits.
Paul hosts a weekly teleconference on MOTT (which, unfortunately, I am unable to regularly attend due to a scheduling conflict with a local philosophy group which happens to meet at the same time). But recently, he was kind enough to share a draft of A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits with several members of that group and then to open it up for discussion during one of their teleconferences. While no one gave me the blow by blow from the teleconference, I did manage to squeeze one or two observations out of Paul, after the fact. The most significant of these, from where I stand, was his suggestion concerning the following image from page #4 in the booklet–namely, that the positions of Le Monde and Le Pendu (The World and The Hanged Man) should really be reversed:
Paul saw this arrangement of cards as a pair of mandalas and rightly pointed out the elegant symmetry that would be effected by positioning The World at the center of the mandala on the right, while leaving The Wheel as the center of the mandala on the left. While we did not discuss it explicitly, I am assuming he would agree that The Lover represents our freedom to choose– indeed, the necessity of choosing –between these two gestalts or ways of life. In any event, I think his suggestion is brilliant:
Why didn’t I think of that!? It seems so obvious… And the new position of The Hanged Man, on the far right, nicely balances and sublates the general impression conveyed by the upside down men falling out of The Tower, on the far left. Indeed, I decided then and there that I should probably revise the little booklet (at some point) in light of Paul’s suggestion [see revised booklet here]. But, as I reflect on it further, I also realize (the obviousness of Paul suggestion notwithstanding) that my arrangement of the cards is also very reasonable and perhaps equally worthy of attention (as I will attempt to demonstrate, below).
The initial idea for the image came from this five-card spread which (as explained elsewhere) I had shared with a group of undergraduates in an introductory philosophy class:
A student’s question and the discussion that followed, resulted my first little booklet on the Tarot: Christianity, Platonism and the Tarot of Marseille. In that booklet, I explain the five-card spread, above, as follows:
Remember that, for Plotinus, we reside in two worlds. On the one hand, we appear on the horizon of space and time as one entity among a world full of entities competing for finite resources and eventually being overcome by some power greater than our (apparently separate) selves . This is illustrated by the two cards on the left in this series of images: The Wheel of Fortune and The Tower of Destruction. On the other hand, in our higher aspect, we reside in the intelligible realm (aka Nous – more loosely referred to as Spirit) where eternity and mutual inclusiveness replace time and space and separation (see Plotinus’ Enneads V.9.10) . The possibility of becoming aware of our higher aspect is illustrated by the two cards on the right (more on this, below).
Perhaps you have heard our conventional existence in time and space referred to as the horizontal dimension (or plane) — in contrast to the vertical dimension which is accessible to us if and only if our hearts are open to it. This distinction is key to understanding the universal symbolism of “The Lover” who is pulled in two directions (reminiscent of the myth of the soul in Plato’s Phaedrus). Those who choose the route of separation (seeking to secure their personal power, pleasure, and prestige on the horizontal plane) encounter mixed success, at best, and then face death and destruction; while those who “die before they die”— those who become attuned to deeper/higher levels of reality — realize their eternal life NOW (i.e. the vertical dimension).
Now, as indicated above, I think Paul Nagy’s point is well taken–there are, indeed, important points of contrast and comparison between The Wheel of Fortune, on the left, and The World, on the right. Moreover, if we construe each of these two sides as a mandala, we can easily imagine the mandala on the left superimposed over the mandala on the right (note, in the image to the left, that I have further reversed The Moon and The Tower so that they can be superimposed over The Sun and The Hanged Man, respectively). Indeed, as we shall see, superimposing one over the other in this way will further enrich our meditation.
The left-hand mandala, as I see it, represents (in Christian terms) the kingdoms of this world (with The Wheel of Fortune at its center) while at the same time suggesting (to my mind) the Buddhist concepts of maya and samsara (i.e. the illusory nature of our lives along with the cycle of suffering and death). As for the right-hand mandala, I see it as representing the kingdom of heaven (with The World at its center) while also suggesting the Buddhist concept of nirvana (loosely construed).
NOTE: If it grates on anyone’s Christian sensibilities to correlate “The Kingdom of Heaven” with “The World” card, remember that the world, in New Testament Greek, is the cosmos and that, in addition, we are promised a new heaven and a new earth:
Revelation 11:15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
While all this is usually understood (exoterically) as a future (quasi-historical) hope, it can also be understood (esoterically) in terms of a present (transcendental/mystical) realization. Thus, with regard to the superimposition of one of these worlds over the other, we should remember Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Thomas:
“[The kingdom] will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it” (Gospel of Thomas 113).
Similarly, in some Buddhist traditions, it is suggested that the seeker must eventually come to recognize that samsara is nirvana.
NOTE: While we should beware of cavalierly conflating Buddhist and Christian concepts– and our anonymous author, especially, would not want us to confuse the Buddhist nirvana with the Christian notion of salvation or the kingdom of heaven –a loose comparison between the two seems justified to me in this case–at least by way of analogy.
Be that as it may, let me repeat that Paul Nagy’s point is certainly well taken and I am inclined to agree that we would do well (generally speaking) to reverse the two images in question so as to reflect his more comprehensive, mandalic gestalt. But when we consider the position of individual seekers (i.e. those who are not yet seers) it might also be good, in some instances, to use the original arrangement to help such seekers recognize that their plight is, in part, a result of an erroneous self image–i.e. they continue to think of themselves as separate (from God, from nature, and from other human beings) and continue to struggle in an effort (as Alan Watts puts it) to “get one up on the universe” (and/or other human beings). So doing, they continue to invest their time and talents in The Wheel of Fortune, not realizing that they are not what they think and that life is much different than they imagine it to be! On the other hand, there is another sense in which they are (or at least very palpably seem to be) what they think–a sense alluded to both in the Bible and Shakespeare:
“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he…” (Proverbs 23:7).
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…” (Hamlet).
Our imaginations are very powerful, indeed! But if anyone thinks they will ever finally arrive— that they can every finally secure their position at the top of The Wheel of Fortune, once and for all –then all I can say is, they have another think coming…
Alas, here too we may run into trouble with Paul Nagy who sometimes suggests that the sphinx (setting atop The Wheel of Fortune) may be understood as having stepped off the wheel–singing perhaps, like John Lennon, I no longer play the game… (!!!???) Imagine that!
While that is, indeed, one way of imagining it, I have also heard Paul refer to the sphinx as the one who is setting in the catbird seat. I like that metaphor better–since the catbird seat (to my mind) clearly suggests an egoic achievement which was gained in competition with the others and which will necessarily be lost, at some point, as the wheel continues to turn. And since there is no universal principle of tarot hermeneutics that requires us to adopt any single interpretation (in dogmatic fashion) as the only correct one, it is in this latter way– that of being in the catbird seat –that I prefer to understand the sphinx in this context. Moreover, I would suggest, with yet another of Paul’s interpretations, that the proper movement for those who have become trapped in this game is away from the periphery of The Wheel (with its competition for the catbird seat) and toward its center–since, as we know from the gospels, that the kingdom of heaven is within or among us (Luke 17:20-21); and from the Tao Te Ching that:
The empty hub at center
Allows a wheel to roll
The vacancy within defines
The function of a bowl
The openness within a house
Provides the places to reside
The open space that is the heart
Is where ten thousand things abide
~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Now I think Paul would agree that The World aptly illustrates the nature of life lived from the center– especially if we recall the definition of God as ‘an infinite circle, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’–and I would suggest that The Hanged Man provides the clue as to how to we are to make our way from the periphery of The Wheel to the center, at which point we can say with the Apostle Paul, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20–more on this, below).
The point is that while Paul’s suggested arrangement of these cards does indeed facilitate a more objective understanding of these two ways of life (offering a beautiful, dual mandalic symmetry, from side to side), my initial arrangement (nonetheless) aptly portrays what is necessary in the life of the seeker if he or she is to step off the broad way (portrayed by The Wheel) and avoid the death and destruction to which it naturally leads (portrayed by The Tower). It is simply a matter of exchanging the hamster-like comportment of one’s life on The Wheel of Fortune for the Christlike comportment of The Hanged Man. This is the same alternative that was more simply represented in the (aforementioned) five card spread which is worth another look:
To repeat, those who would step onto the narrow way that leads to life (the eternal life represented by The World) must die before they die — an idea which is very graphically portrayed by The Hanged Man. Indeed, the way of transition from the curse of sin, death, and destruction to the way of obedience, life, and creativity is very aptly described as the way of the cross:
Mark 8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Perhaps the most essential characteristic of The Hanged Man is his very different center of gravity. But that different center of gravity is only accessible to one who, like the Apostle Paul, has been crucified with Christ and is, thus described (by our anonymous author) as both a benefaction and a martyrdom:
“…the one who lives under the sway of the gravitation of “heaven” is the “spiritual man”. . . . The Hanged Man represents the condition of one in the life of whom gravitation from above has replaced that from below. . . . This is at one and the same time a benefaction and a martyrdom; both are very real” (MOTT, Letter 12, page 307).
Compare that to St. Paul:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:19-20).
In this way, the Apostle Paul became a living example of The Hanged Man— the man with an upright heart who, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, truly lives in the presence of the Lord –the same kind of man alluded to in these Psalms:
“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!” (Psalm 36:9-10).
“Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence” (Psalms 140:13)
Paul Nagy and I did not really discuss the role of The Moon and The Sun in this image–or, for that matter, the role of the four Aces (at least not in much detail). But Lord willing, those cards will provide the subject matter for new adventures in Tarot Hermeneutics as we continue our Meditations on the Tarot. In the meantime, readers are encouraged to check out the two aforementioned booklets: Christianity, Platonism, and the Tarot of Marseille and A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits.
–> See also: The Lover