Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Towers

Now and again you can just get lucky. It happened to me when on a second-hand bookstall in my local market I discovered a first edition (at a decidedly non-first edition price) of Paul Foster Case's book on the Tarot. First published in 1947, this volume has since become a classic of its kind. It contains illustrations by the author with accompanying commentaries on the twenty two so-called Major Arcana cards which comprise the core of a complete seventy-eight card Tarot deck. These Major Arcana cards feature powerful archetypes which have - with variations - endured since their inception in the 15th century, and continue to be redesigned and re-visioned by artists today (the Tarot cards by Salvador Dali, below).

Now, whether you view the Tarot as a powerful tool for divination and personal insight, or as a distracting and dubious 'Devil's picture book', the archetypes exist. And to consider whether or not their power is real enough, and still potent, we can have a look at Case's drawing for Arcanum 16: The Tower (below left). Case's image, which has endured in its essential features for five centuries, shows us a fate-struck edifice. The building is clearly afire: flames shoot from the casements and lick upwards as a man and a woman helplessly plunge headlong to the ground below. Clouds of smoke continue to billow away into a dark sky, and one feels that once the events have run their course, the destruction portrayed in the scene will be complete.

Adjacent to Case's drawing is a terrible and familiar image from our own times. Five hundred years after its first appearance, the archetype of the Arcanum tower intruded its way into our reality in a traumatic and shocking way. Since the events of eight years ago, the world has changed. It is not better, just different. Desired or not, the perpetrators of those events have ensured that, for many, their religious beliefs and creeds have become synonymous with intolerant and uncaring acts of monstrous inhumanity. But archetypes are more powerful and more potent than the human minds which contemplate them. Neither are those same human minds in control of them, no, not even when they seek to reproduce them. And when such elemental symbols appear in our world for real, the full consequences are not to be foreseen.

Artist: Paul Foster Case
Work: Arcanum 16 - The Tower, 1947
Medium: Pen and ink
Location: Unknown

'The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages', by Paul Foster Case.
Macoy Publishing Company, 1947. Reissued by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006
'The Art of Tarot', by Christina Olsen. Abbeville Press, 1995

Dali Universal Tarot published by U.S. Games Systems.

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