INTUITING TAROT AND JUNG: Card IX (the Hermit)

20 August 2013

Abstract

Overbearing prophet of self-aggrandizement or a genuine seeker after an understanding for the betterment of our social world.

Introduction & Disclaimer[1]

The tenth post in a series that adds commentary to Nichols’ (1980)[2] Jungian commentary on the major arcana of the Tarot, here I engage with card 9: the Hermit.

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[3] and will continue to do so,[4] in part not only because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience but also because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that seems interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[5] when my friend in college introduced them to me, and have even worked “professionally” as one.

So it proved very on-point and kind of my friend to think of me when she saw a copy of Nichols’ (1980) Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey. This series, then, embodies my reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries, &c, and will work through the major arcana (the trumps) of the Tarot deck chapter by chapter as Nichol’s book does in order from 0 to 21.

The Hermit: Is There Anybody There?[6]

Some days have elapsed since I read Nichols’ text, so I write primarily from  memory of the dominant points she raised.

To address the probably less significant one first, she discusses some the numerological element of 9, and especially its self-recurrence, i.e., for a number divisible by 9, if you add the digits of that number together they too will divide by 9. Since we typically deal in base 10, 9 represents the last digit before a “new cycle” begins as well. Consequently, 9 can have a sense of bloated everythingness (and not necessarily something so tidy as a whole “completion”), and it still retains a sense of the number of planets in the solar system, despite the demotion of Pluto as a planet, but we might take this quite precisely as pointing to the kind of contingent messiness that 9 carries.

That said, it only represents the last digit because we use base 10. We have little reason to treat it as “inevitably” carrying that value. In German, one counts with uniquely distinguished terms up to twelve before one starts saying things like “three and ten, four and ten” and so forth.[7] On those grounds one might insist that 12 represents the “fully loaded” number, &c. The point seems rather that, wherever one marks the return to the beginning of a cycle, some digit, whether “nine” or “twelve” will occupy that position by default.

This needn’t comprise a non-issue. Nichols arranges the Major Arcana (excluding the Fool) in three groups of seven cards, which puts the “9” as the second card in the second sequence; not exactly an “end” position. If we take the Fool (card 0) and the Universe (card 21) as “bookends,” then we may further understand the remaining twenty cards in two groups of ten (cards 1–10 and cards 11–20), in which case the Hermit occupies a position much closer to the end of the first sequence. One way to read the relationship of the Hermit (card 9) to the Wheel of Fortune (card 10) recapitulates the relationship between card 9 as the atman (the personal soul) and card 10 as Brahman (world-soul).[8] Or again, if we arrange the cards in five groups of four, then the Hermit represents the first card in the third series; if arranged in four groups of five, then the Hermit again occupies a next-to-last position in that series. Nothing demands necessarily that we pick one configuration to the exclusion of any other; this simply illustrates that what denotes a “final card” or a “hinge card” depends on how one parses the Major Arcana in the first place.

The larger point from Nichols’ text concerns her association of the archetypal Wise Old Man with the Hermit.

In traditional reading, the Hermit represents the quintessential “seeker within”—the seer whose iconic lantern shines a light in the darkness. Nichols alludes to this some—if memory serves—but this emphasis plays second fiddle to construing the Hermit as the archetypal wise Old Man. If, at other points in her book so far, it seems as if she sometimes reaches to incorporate Jungian material but still manages to make it seem relevant to the card at hand,[9] the match here seems strikingly unmotivated. Having read Jung’s Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, maybe I simply failed to grasp the vast significance that I should have ascribed to the figure of the Wise Old Man, or perhaps my hostility to old bearded males who claim to know the truth makes me push such material away.

Nichols for her own part makes the Hermit far less of any kind of thundering prophet type.[10] For her, the Wise Old Man shines a little light from his lantern and you can take it or leave it. At one of the climaxes of Satchidananda’s (1988)[11] Bhagavad-Gītā, Kṛṣṇa, who definitely offers no image of an Old Man, declares, “Now I have given you the most precious and profound knowledge, he secret of secrets. Reflect on it fully; then do so you wish” (XVIII.63). Satchidananda’s commentary expands this,

Either by one or two, or all of [the methods mentioned, Kṛṣṇa] says, “You will come to me. I’m not simply saying this lightly. It is a promise. There is no doubt about it. You shall come to me. I am making this promise because you are my beloved” (295).

Here we see an image of wisdom imparted but not demanded adherence to, which resembles the sort of image Nichols provides for the Wise Old Man. Archetypal or not, she largely strips this figure of the super-human characteristics of previous cards; she reads a lot of humility into the figure, insofar as he comprises a “merely” human figure. Perhaps he shrugs a lot, smiles, and says, “Maybe, maybe not.”

This chapter (like the previous one on card 8, Justice), has a pointed question as its subtitle, which seems to link the two. If the previous chapter asked if one may even say such a  thing as Justice exists, along with the rather stern calls Nichols makes for personal responsibility, here the question involves whether anybody, i.e., a real human personality, exists in each person. Insofar as our souls—eons ago in the primordial soup—arose out of the ocean of unconsciousness, we will have always held all along the way that we possessed self-awareness—if only because we have an “I” that refers to itself—but does that self-awareness yet rise to the level of self-consciousness? If, from the murk of the previous eight cards, we may readily locates forces and something we would call our personality, this does not mean we will yet have begun to individuate—we have differentiated (from other human beings that resemble us) but we will not yet have “taking the reins” (not included on the Chariot card, we might remember) to begin deliberately crafting our lives and actively individuating.

Hence the germaneness of the question “is there anybody there?” Hence also, I suppose, the appearance of the Old Man who, like our mother or father or guardian has grown up but who unlike those people has no obligation to care for us regardless, may more blithely or glibly make observations about the world and how it intersects with our life. Or a figure may, like Kṛṣṇa, insist, “I know it may seem impossible, but I promise you: you will return to me. There is no doubt of this.” Which shows, I think, that we should not for a moment imagine that the “Wise Old Man” must be old or a man. To the extent that witches, in their old form, might readily get mistaken for men—or, more precisely, given how the very old veer toward the same kind of androgyny as the very young—once again, the desire to put a gendered meaning on these figures seems to lead us astray.

The wisdom part matters, not the “old” or the “man” though by saying this I do not deny at all the differences in effectiveness of an image depending on how we construct it. For instance, if “only” Satchidananda had said, ““You will come to me. I’m not simply saying this lightly. It is a promise. There is no doubt about it” (295), this has nothing of the sort of deep resonance that the same words have for me if I imagine them coming from (the entirely fictional figure of) Kṛṣṇa. Precisely and only by occupying an impossible point of view—the non-actual universe where Kṛṣṇa actually exists—does the sentiment, “Look, don’t worry; your salvation, your eternal enlightenment, is inevitable” actually take on the characteristic of dispelling worry or so-called “convincing” me. I don’t plan on reincarnating, ever; we rot in the ground, but this does not change having the experience of reassurance that the sentence imparts.

Nor does the sentence promise a lie, because the point does not hinge on whether I ever actually achieve enlightenment or not but that right now, in this moment right here, I do not experience any sense of dispiritedness that makes continuing seem pointless. Satchidananda cannot say that sentence to me and have it work (in all likelihood); it needs embodying in the voice of Kṛṣṇa.[12]

Because the wisdom part matters, the “old” and “man” part may give some the oomph that adds persuasiveness to the statement, but with that admirable capaciousness of imagination, it seems Indian philosophy understands that “old” does not provide the only adequate metaphor for “knowledgeable”—even seemingly young, Kṛṣṇa has already lived innumerable lifetimes, as has some eleven-year-old saint, who might equally utter wisdom. A grandfather or grandmother may very well embody such knowledge, especially in a wholly mortal human domain, but we also see (as children) that our elders have woefully fucked up the world, so we might also need someone other than “an old man” (or even an old woman) to persuasively espouse “wisdom”.

By saying this, I do not only implicate elders in the First World. Spencer and Gillen (1904)[13] note that all but one of the various social norms enforced amongst the aboriginal people they studied; “In general, prohibitions function to give the best foods to old men; younger men are under food restrictions that gradually lift as they age, women are under yet stricter prohibitions (which presumably do not lift as they age)” (615). Errington an Gewertz (1987),[14] writing about the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, insist that:

Chambri men and women experience the world through a set of non-Western cultural premises concerning the nature of indebtedness and the nature of power. The primary debt is for physical and social existence itself: individuals are indebted to those who have engendered them and to those who have lost ancestral power to give them viability and social position” (17).

This primary ontological debt of children toward adults, the same debt that informs the famous fifth biblical commandment, [15] points to a preemptive strike against any criticism directed toward elders for 91) fucking up the world or (2) ringing the one making the complaint into the world. This preemptive strikes marks a fundamental branding, like the branding of slaves or cattle; it frames the whole discourse; it even creates the very subjectivity (of the one making the complaint) who will one day lodge the complaint.

In Smith’s (2013) The Problem with ‘Privilege’ (from here) and her analysis of the politics of (white) confessional, it becomes clearer (as also from other readings I’ve done lately[16]) that perhaps the preeminent aspect of power involves controlling—better still, initially framing—a discourse, the terms of discussion, and nowhere does this power get deployed with absolute non-contradiction (until very far too late in the game) than in the adult-child domain. And since this operates at a level that seems even deeper than invisibility or unconsciousness, and for which the entire premise of becoming adult entails not rejecting but adopting the very arrogation of context-framing in the first place, then it seems fairly hopeless to expect that the figure of the wise old anything will seem anything but wise except for those who have already assented to the prevailing social order.

Many do, of course, even if grumblingly—the Devil’s bargain being, “when you have adult status, then you can enforce whatever however you like” (subject to mediation from one’s own peers, of course). This doesn’t mean no one responds favorably to the “Wise Old Man”; his popularity, in fact, makes for a point of despair amongst those who do not, will not, cannot acculturate—all the more so, the more a culture construes itself (1) monoculturally, and (2) provides no non-conformist alternatives—usually this means moving away, which often constitutes a non-options realistically speaking.

Meanwhile, in the same way that the Hierophant (card 5) might on the one hand get taken as the culmination of the first four cards (Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor) as another kind of “charlatan” who we impart all the magic to or (on the other hand) as a legitimate social force that has real power in the public domain, the Hermit functions in a similar kind of way. As the “quintessence” of the second set of four cards (Scientist/Priest, Synergy/Cooperation, Technology/Magic, Justice/Culture) that all center on power, then the Hermit occupies the preeminent position of Power because he points to Information (or, more precisely, the flow of it). For cards 5–8, each offers a specific application of information: either in science/ritual, through cooperative social action with others, via technology or magic, an through the disposition of force (Justice). But only the Hermit, as information per se, actually frames or defines the terms of those projects, and so represents the superordinate or underlying principle at work in each.[17]

In all of these cases, a power-over prevails, whether that stands “for the good” or not. We find this, necessarily, least pronounced in card 6 (Synergy), but one has only to think of the phrase “cooperative venture” to know that hierarchy an domination get easily and/or quickly into the mix.[18] Thus the Hermit signifies the Knower over and above the Know-nots. But in its capacity as the first card of the next sequence (dedicated to dharma), this points essentially an fundamentally to know Power serves rather than dominates, how it gets put to use for the social good.

In a strictly human sense, the Hermit as Knower-Over-All appears in public as the haranguing prophet, or simply the Wise Old Man who ensures that all prohibitions meet his needs first and foremost. The Hermit as Seeker, by contrast, serves the human project generally by his or her karma yoga. Meditation may prompt a retreat for a time, but then, like a Buddhist nun, she appears in public so that the metaphysical, ontological “truths” of perennial philosophy (or Buddhism itself) get applied in the social world.

Because this generally take the form of individual activity, this appears to have the smallest social footprint. At times, it encourages martyrdom and generates saints; Power per se loves to make calls for (noble) self-sacrifice, always exempting itself when it goes. &c. The main distinction overall concerns the socio-moral good that the Hermit’s meditations have yielded. In the form of the Wise Old man, this does not mean the hierophantic nepotism and self-interest of Power itself—like Moses’ declaration that his brother gets 10% of all sacrifices—but an actual wisdom (or something in the direction of it) that has more than ritual, habit, or the word of someone else when it comes to articulating patterns of behavior in the social world. Whereas the Hierophant never innovates, except accidentally and through error, the Hermit may actually add to the repertoire of culture by beginning to understand why the Hierophant’ “magic” (or science) works.

As an investigator of frameworks, rather than someone only familiar with a discourse, this begins to suggest the power to reframe discourses and thus change minds in a way that the Hierophant cannot. This may underscore the primary distinction between the Seeker (who follows Dharma, who serves the good of the world) versus the Prophet (who seeks or attains Power by his various pronouncements).


[1] As a general context, I do not believe Tarot cards are in any way inherently magical; I’m not someone who becomes psychically disturbed if you touch my deck or someone who claims you’ve ruined the vibe if you do. Personally, doing Tarot readings for people is one place in my life where my intuitive and intellectual sides work in tandem, rather than being at odds with one another—and that sense of co-operation is a pleasure to experience. For others—for the “us” that exists during the duration of the Tarot reading—it is a chance to have a conversation; as an example, I’ve had a radio show where I did Tarot card readings on the air with formerly incarcerated individuals in order to let the world listening hear the reality of incarceration, &c, but the conversation is also for the other person, to examine the forces, the patterns, the trends in her or his life, and to have the opportunity to change them. I continually ask questions when doing Tarot card readings; I don’t pretend to be or act psychic. And having said all that, to the extent that the imagery in the Tarot operates archetypally (as Nichols claims), to the extent that it can inspire images and dislodge psychic impressions in those using and viewing the cards, then I agree that the Jungian approach Nichols brings to the Tarot stands to be helpful, insightful, and useful—hence this commentary on her commentary.

[2] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

[3] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[4] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970), Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973) lined up next, and need still to find affordable copy of The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works 8, 1970).

[5] I began with the Crowley-Harris (1972) Thoth Tarot, which I used for many years, acquired but didn’t find myself inspired by Dali’s (1955) Universal Tarot, owned, found myself inspired by, but did not use Tavaglione’s (1979) Stairs of Gold Tarot, used Brian William’s (1988) Renaissance Tarot during my professional phase, in part because the trumps readily leant themselves to that kind of setting, Gerhardt & Zeeuwen’s (1996) Terrestrial Tarot, which one reviewer describes as very unsettling yet still possessing a “strange magnetism,” and finally, Sergio Toppi’s (2000) Tarot of the Origins—Toppi being, as it turns out, one of my favorite illustrators of all time (see here and here, for my reviews of two of his books). I recently acquired the Mary-El deck as well.

[6] The title used for this header comes from the title of the chapter in Nichol’s book.

[7] As  Germanic language, English of course does this as well. By contrast (and one might name many) Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese immediately say “ten one” for “eleven” an so on.

[8] More precisely, here the relationship remains sunk in maya, the illusion of distinction; precisely the non-identity of the atman and Brahman in this context shows the effects of maya.

[9] Especially in the way she introduces Jung’s psychological typology.

[10] Which seems somewhat disingenuous, but let it stand.

[11] Satchidananda (1988). The living Gita: the complete Bhagavad Gita, Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.

[12] Or some other super-human, divine figure.

[13] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here

[14] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press

[15] Not the one about murder, as construed by the Augustinian division of the commandments according to Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

[16] Parts of Canetti’s Crowds and Power an discussions about discourse occurring at Transracialeyes (e.g., here).

[17] In the actual operations of culture, of course the domains of scientist, synergy, magic, and Justice all variously have mechanisms for controlling, protecting, and articulating their discourses, of course.

[18] Or one could simply think about relationships in general.

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