BOOK REVIEWS (2014) – Sallie Nichol’s (1980) Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey

4 January 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

By taking up the theme of “transformation” as fundamental to the notion of the Tarot, even when this theme appears in a (seemingly) dogmatic form, it may still “set the cauldron bubbling” in an individual (and his or her life) and bring about transformation nontheless.Because so many of us feel so stuck today, the prospect of something that may help to spur us to change seems welcome, even necessary.

Framing/Background for Replies

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[0] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Sallie Nichol’s (1980)[1] Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey

Over the past three or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[2] and will continue to do so,[3] 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—and recently life-changing. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[4] 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. For some time now, I have posted reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries in this book and, “symbolically” enough, I finished the last one so that it posted on 1 January 2014. This reply itself seems a touch anachronistic, as I wrote it on 7 December 2013 but only published it in 2014; so it makes for the first book replied to this year.

Much of commentary took issue with the gendered identification of symbolic material that Nichols asserted in the cards. For all that I benefit from Jung’s writings so far, I rankle most and quickly when he starts waxing beatific bout the anima or (worse still) his typically problematic expostulations on the nature of woman’s psychology.  In a useful summary of Jung’s notion of the shadow, which nonetheless seems analytically very suspect to me, Dehing (2002)[5] begins by quoting a female analysand: “I used to think that Carl Jung was a very wise man, that he didn’t even need to be reborn. Now I think that he definitely has to be reborn – as a girl, in Ethiopia.” (a woman – in Jungian analysis)” (¶1).

The spirit of this patient’s sentiment amounts to saying that Jung needs to really experience what women’s experience embodies, but this does not erase the otherizing the patient’s statement exhibits and even less that Dehing exploits it to provide an epitaph for his paper. As the feminist critique demonstrated so ably in some many fields, everything of any genuine cultural value needed revisitation through that lens.

But the problem or specific character of sexism embedded in Jung’s writing aside, and how it gets taken up or elaborated by Nichols in her book, my engagement with the habit of gendered identification in symbols certainly provided a major plus in my reading. For all that I might have seemed grumpy—and for all that I did become grumpy—I benefited from that engagement toward understanding male and female characters in the tarot as variously indicating, for example, radiant and reflective modes of consciousness. The temptation arises to identify these with male or female characters, but that precisely involves my avoidance. I would construe what I call radiant and reflective modes of consciousness as analogous to (if not identical to) extraverted an introverted modes of consciousness. And over the course of many such encounters with these gendered figures in the Tarot (as well as the overtly non-gendered or androgynous figures, pointing not simply to the alchemical hermaphrodite but also to the asexual persona as well as non-cis-gendered identities), my appreciation for the symbolism depend.

Some time ago, I realized that the archetype of the “mother” provides one of the most thoroughgoing and widespread metaphors for “the Source” (that out of which all things emerge). With that paradigm shift, that moved away from a sort of literalism about the archetype of the mother in maternal terms and more toward an imagery of the ground of emergence, if you will, this also brought about an understanding of card 13, Death, and the image of Death, s again a most thoroughgoing and popular image of “that which one does not wish to integrate”. In one sense, we might call this change. Thus, the Source and Change come to occupy the past and future respectively.

In light of this kind of paradigm shift regarding the metaphorical embodiment of archetypal content—particularly when it gets construed in  humanly universal sort of way—I found the dis-association of male and female emsymbolization very helpful. Much as, simply for descriptive purposes when writing, I want to say something like “we might link the Emperor card to extraversion, to the radiant mode of consciousness,” I now find a strong resistance to this, because even this “mere description” too much invokes the authoritative sexism and patriarchy of my culture. To allow the radiant mode of consciousness (extraversion) to rest, even for a moment, in the Emperor card seems to obliterate the possibility that we might associate the radiant mode of consciousness (extraversion) with the empress instead—or vice versa. The intense “gravity well” of this symbolism impresses me and shows, at root, how ultrafundamental the gender distinction remains in patriarchal culture, how deep, how necessary, how deeply necessary I find it to resist and strive to change.

The other most memorable consequence of this book—at least because this effect occurred recently and dramatically—involves its role in a literally transformative direction change in my life. I noted some of this here and should likely describe it in more detail elsewhere. For the commentary, this specifically involved revisiting the meanings of the Star, Moon, Sun, and Judgment—opening up to me not only a route to my own (involuntary) transformation, but perhaps also a means for enabling similar transformations in others. Of course, Jungian analysis (perhaps analysis in general) aims for such fruitful transformation, but this, more or less by definition, requires another person to help make it happen. In part, this prevails because our complexes do not allow u to see directly what we need to see in order to change:

Jung notes in his (1905) “Association, Dream, and Hysterical Symptom,” that people who have experienced trauma “have access to their psychic material only in so far as it refers to insignificant ideas; but where the complex is involved they are powerless” (¶846).

As such, the repressed content of the trauma becomes visible only indirectly (through the insignificant ideas), and so dreams and word associations can get at them. Of course, this would apply to all people, not just those traumatized (or, alternatively, in so far as we all have some trauma, our traumas only come out indirectly as well).

What seems important to me in this: it points to a limit on self-reflection. Even if I witness my own dreams, where presumably the repressed content becomes more directly visible (though still encoded in symbolic form), the domination of the complex will prevent me from analyzing that indirect content in its “true light”.

This points then not simply to the necessity of “community” (because others do not have, usually, the same complex domination we do and can see our symbolism for what it represents), but also to a critique of hyperindividualism, which disconnects us from any sense of obligation to others, meaning that someone else’s opinion about “my” symbolism gets de-authorized and accorded little, if not no, significance.

It allows the operations of capitalism, racism, and catastrophic global climate change to become more invisible to itself. Jung’s notion points to why “facts’ change no minds and why the right-wing strategy of telling stories (lies, or speaking to values) works better, because through those “insignificant gesture” (rather than going head on at it with the facts), such lies or stories touch the constellation of ides underlying the repressed content, and thus change or activate that content (maybe for better, maybe for worse, but it causes a change of state).

This points again to the importance of art, in so far as it indirectly touches on the complexes and consciousness’s of the audience; as  moment of intervention, it portends to create a change in the dynamics of the listener.

This points as well to the necessity of other people in general, an emphasis I’d like to think one needn’t make, but our hyperindividualistic culture—and a premise or promise of capitalism generally, which involves the idea that humans my detach themselves from social interdependency—makes this necessity disappear into the background.

We have this notion of contrasts: one can’t experience happiness, for instance, without also knowing sadness—but I don’t believe this: an orgasm does not feel good because I broke my leg once, &c. Similar, my identity as a self does not occur merely because an Other exists. Just because you stand there, seemingly and factually distinct from me, provides grist only for an internal monologue with myself. In point of fact, I do not encounter you but only my idea of you (my mental representation of you). So any contrast I experience involves one already and only in whatever terms I carry around in my head.

In this way we see how Jung’s notions about women’s psychology become so groundless. Or, more precisely, why whenever he speaks of the anima one must do him the courtesy, while wish he had done so himself, of emphasizing in every sentence that the anima denotes the figure of “woman” as the given individual man (or the male collective generally) conceives of it.

Just as an extravert typically has a caricatured understanding of “introversion,”[6] so males have a typically caricatured version of “female.”[7] We can use quotation marks in these sentences to indicate the caricatured-in-light-of character of these notions. In both of these cases, what the individual (or collective) understands as the positive term in the pair (extravert, male) provides the framework and terms for the distinction of the pejorative term of the pair (introvert, female). This should seem pretty obvious. Thus, if males describe males as rational, then “females” become irrational; if extraverts describe extraverts as outgoing, then “introverts” become anti-social, &c.

What must remain clear in this: this process requires no “other”. The “dialogue” or the “contrast” going on here remains wholly in the mind of one person. So that when a (rational) male encounters an actual female who exhibits rationality, if he dislikes her in general, he may accuse her of “mannishness” (or other like comparisons) or if he likes her (particularly if romantically) he may describe her as “level-headed” or “sensible” (or other like comparisons). Females, of course, may take this mantle upon themselves.  The author of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche referred to Margaret Thatcher on a talk show once as a real man, and it often happens that women who seek political office will perceive or encounter an actual demand (from men) to act even more masculine than men, &c.

All of this involves a caricatured monologue, so that even the presence of an Other may become gratuitous. So if extraverts imagine “introverts” and males imagine “females,” then we may generalize this to: selves imagine “others”. But what we need for transformation (usually), what Jung’s statement above makes clear the necessity of, involves the voice of the Other—not just the presence, but the point of view of an Other. The other may see what we cannot, &c. And this other point of view, which can speak for itself (at least in some cases) can specifically speak against the caricaturing monologue. The male who dismisses a woman as irrational or who praises her rationality as (masculinely) sensible may find himself challenged an improved when the woman speaks her own position and turns the caricaturing monologue into a constructive dialogue.

I don’t hold such romantic views as to insist that all human experience must involve learning—that might constitute a pretty story to tell, but I doubt it always applies. People say they want someone to love them, and then complain about someone stalking them: they failed to more precisely express what they desired. People say that change “is” good; if I then immediately break their leg when they say so, I doubt they will show much enthusiasm for the change.

To leave aside these garish examples, if wisdom involves having a knowledge for how to navigate adroitly through life (whatever that means), then part of this must include knowing when not to learn as much as knowing when to learn (and having the wisdom to know the difference, in an infinite regress). But even disregarding this abstract assertion, anyone who remains self-honest can recognize in any day how often the opportunity arises “to learn” that they simply decline, even resist. Very often, it seems that people to advocate eternal learning for everyone mean this more for others and less for themselves, it seems; after all, why have they been pitching the same message for thirty years without any meaningful variation? That sounds like the opposite of the practice of learning. &c.

In the world of cybernetics (as also in the world of living systems) we regularly may identify positive and negative feedback loops; the former amplify signals, often toward some variety of transformation, the latter dampen signals in order to maintain (homeostatically) the current state of affairs, to keep the living system operating within the needed ranges of functioning. Learning, in the sense that seems normally meant, involves a kind of positive feedback loop, whereas we spend most of our time (biologically and cognitively) in negative loop mode. I could invoke an objection to this biological and cognitive inertia in favor of learning (i.e., a greater emphasis on positive feedback loops),[8] but this would not change that I see in the world—and frequently enough in myself—a desire to “stay the course” rather than “witch horses”. If my “inaction” contributes to the reproduction of patriarchy, I have no trouble advocating for change, but if my “inaction” preserves a resistance to cultural patriarchy, then the demand that I “learn” (change) becomes suspect and may even become reactionary. The only “change” I want to enact in the latter case would involve broadening my capacities to resist cultural patriarchy in its ever proliferating manifestations, and particularly in the way it attempts to manifest in light of the resistances I create in myself and the world.

In sum, thank you to Sallie Nichols, to Carl Jung, and to my friend Sarah for making this book available to me.


[0] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[1] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser, pp. i–xv, 1–392.

[2] 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), and Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970),

[3] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), 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).

[4] 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.

[5] Dehing, J. (2002). Jung’s shadow [online]. Accessed 7 December 2013 from here.

[6] And just as the introvert typically has a caricatured sense of extraversion.

[7] And females have a typically caricatured sense of “male”.

[8] I might also say we may often misperceive negative feedback for positive and vice versa, but that involves a different line of argument.


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