Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Major Arcana #10: WHEEL OF FORTUNE - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


WHEEL OF FORTUNE: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Along with Proust, his adjacent Arcanum, Dostoyevsky is well-regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the history of the medium. Like Proust, he is considered one of the most subtle philosophical novelists, dealing as he does with the real-world consequences of abstract moral and psychological ideas. However, unlike Proust, Dostoyevsky is also known for writing brilliant suspense... in Crime and Punishment, his best-known novel, he explores the unhinged psychology of guilt and PTSD in the context of a manhunt, reeling and lurking through the streets of Moscow.

The Wheel of Fortune is the Arcana of happenstance, a symbol of fate in its Janus-faced duality, as randomness and absolute necessity. It represents the turning-point in a journey, as well as the inevitable chain of events that follows, the juncture ruled by absolute choice and the unknowable sequence of consequences ruled by physics and the subconscious.

Nobody works through these kinds of issues -- choice, necessity -- quite like Raskolnikov, who makes a fateful decision at the outset of Crime and Punishment, and then spends the rest of the novel coming to terms with it. His guilt is an unbreakable thread of destiny, chaining him to the murder, which was originally carried out as a symbolic act to prove his superiority in the face of misfortune and impotence.

It looks like a whim... the reader has no decisive insight into the motive at the time of the murder... but it's actually an act of radical choice, like Mersault's shooting of the Arab in The Stranger. Raskolnikov is spinning the Wheel of Fortune and accepting its judgment.

It's telling that Raskolnikov seems so entirely out of control for so much of the novel. He spends expansive passages in a feverish blur, swinging between mania and despair, wandering the streets of the city. When he isn't simply hesitating, teetering on the abyss, he is generally reacting to outside situations: his sister's impending marriage, the arrival of a detective or a mysterious witness. Even in these situations, his actions seem outside the reach of rationality, as if he is caught up in the whims of a greater spiritual force... the force unleashed by his capricious decision to commit a mortal sin.

This decision was not itself unreasonable... or it wasn't entirely outside reason's frame of reference, at least. It was a spontaneous overcommitment to the idea that a radical act of agency could realign the moral universe around the actor. Perhaps Raskolnikov was trying to change the terms, to rewrite the Wheel's possible outcomes. Dostoyevsky teaches him a hard lesson, as Raskolnikov spends the whole novel being carried along uncontrollably by the very decision that was supposed to free him from constraint.

In trying to control the wheel, Raskolnikov only found himself caught in its spinning.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Major Arcana #9: THE HERMIT - Marcel Proust

This is the tenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE HERMIT: Marcel Proust

It feels strange to associate the Hermit card with Proust, who wrote so much about Paris social life and high society. Yet, there's also something beautifully logical about the paradox... Proust's massive multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, framed that Paris social scene in a way that only a ruminative introvert could have managed. He had caught a glimpse of the superficial, drama-driven world of the aristocracy, but for him, it became a mere stage for the unraveling of profound inner mysteries.

The Hermit is a wanderer and a guide, an embodiment of The Fool at a later stage in life: he has circulated through the waking world, and finally returned to isolation to reflect on what he's seen. When the Hermit is ready, he draws his insights up from his inner sanctum and parades them forth to benefit the rest of the world.

Proust's insights were innumerable. Starting with Swann's Way, his generational saga was a flood of thematic play and introspection: the power of memory, the divergence of paths both literal and figurative, the unknowable echoes of choice in the uncertain field of personal history, the thin and fragile line between what we keep secret of ourselves and what we present to the world. These themes were all embodied in the lives and trials of his socialite Parisians, whose privileges did little to relieve their anxieties and interpersonal melodramas.

Of course, Proust also works as The Hermit because of his own biography. He spent some time in the Paris salons, and some time in the army, and some time studying literature, and some time as a literary outcast, but his troubled constitution prevented him from being a capricious world traveler and bon vivant, the occupations of so many infamous literary personalities. His most recognizable setting, the town of Combray, was modeled after a town where Proust was secluded for the sake of his health. His physical condition kept him from having to waste his time in mundane employment, but it also kept him isolated.

Proust's isolation was further exacerbated by his closeted homosexuality, which led him to write so brilliantly about the gap between one's public and private life. He was one of the first novelists in Western literature to openly acknowledge homosexuals, which the narrator of his books referred to as "inverts."

All of these factors, as well as Proust's own genius and disposition, led him to be one of history's greatest inward-gazing prose poets. His introspection, his meditations on expression, self-awareness, and memory, led him to a profound, quiet wisdom, which he threaded into the pages of his great novel. Of course, like a true Hermit, he died nearly penniless, with the majority of his recognition still lingering in the unforseeable future.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Major Arcana #8: STRENGTH - John Steinbeck

This is the ninth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


STRENGTH: John Steinbeck

I haven't read Steinbeck's whole bibliography, but even among those I have read, I only really need to cite one of his novels -- and a lesser one, at that -- to assign him to the Strength card. This is his 1937 novel of friendship and loyalty among migrant American workers, Of Mice and Men.

Not that the rest of Steinbeck's work doesn't fit. His preoccupation with male loyalty and bonding, his repeated use of traveling workers as his milieu... there is a certain quiet strength to all of his work. Strength, the tarot card, is not simply about power, after all. It contrasts sharply with the previous card, The Chariot, in that the Chariot represents a warrior's brashness and posturing. Strength is more about harmony of body and spirit, the physical strength of the lion being tamed by -- and reflected in -- the patience and spiritual strength of the handler.

Steinbeck's view of the American experience is that it is built upon hardship, independence, loyalty, patience, and sacrifice. He was well-known as a New Deal progressive who had issues with capitalism and harbored sympathy for the laboring class. At the same time, Steinbeck's feet were firmly planted in demonstrative masculinity, almost to the point of chauvinism. His sensitivity toward minorities -- as shown with Lee, the Chinese servant in East of Eden -- was not necessarily echoed in his attitude towards women. Too often, his female characters turned out to be sirens or harpies, with the true dramatic relationships always playing out between his male characters.

Nonetheless, it is the compassionate, patient image of Strength which prevails as a virtue in Steinbeck's writing. Males may be overwhelmingly dominant, but their masculinity is not violent, nor mired in a simpleton's Manicheanism. Of Mice and Men maps neatly to the Strength tarot card: Lenny is the lion, a loving, naive physical specimen of power and innocent impulse, Strength in its most literal form. George takes on the symbolic role, the image of Strength as loyalty, self-sacrifice, and service to family and community. The finale of the tragic story is George's final, irreversible taming of the lion.

In the Tarot, Strength is part of a triad of virtues, along with Temperance and Justice. Steinbeck takes his place as Strength, the first of the three, and the only writer among the three representatives. His Strength is the loyalty and compassion, which, situated as it is in the imperfect world, must sometimes act against its own strongest convictions to bring the world back into balance.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Major Arcana #7: THE CHARIOT - Cormac McCarthy, Guy Ritchie

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE CHARIOT: Cormac McCarthy, Guy Ritchie

Among the Major Arcana, The Chariot represents the peculiar single-minded character of military strength. It  is the conquering warrior, the disciplined regiment, and the raging berserker. It is the vanguard of nationalism and narcissism, where man takes his animal nature and releases it from its bondage, but channels its energy through tactics, into methodical, orchestrated dominance and self-assertion.

Cormac McCarthy is the modern author of this kind of domineering masculine character. He is related to the Emperor, perhaps being one of his appendages, but he represents a fundamentally different, more naive spirit. McCarthy uses the tropes of the Western, and more recently the post-apocalyptic survival saga, to enmesh his characters in irresolvable conflict: not simply with other powerful men, but with whole worlds and ways of life, which they must overcome, both for their material prosperity and for their very survival.

In McCarthy's austerity, there is also a necessary naivety, especially toward the implications of his own fascination with violent retribution. It is the soldier's innocence, the ability to shut off such higher functions as panic, self-doubt, and empathy, so that only the animal id remains. There are only the slightest glimpses of love in McCarthy's work -- such fleeting examples as Llewellyn Moss's love for his young wife, and the Man's protectiveness of his son -- but these seem like brute physical connections, more primal, eliding the rigorous work of bridging differences and sacrificing one's self-interest (both are important in truly complex, compromised characters). Meanwhile, these weary warriors know no solace or harmony... they are entirely the products of violence, architects of moral reckonings in which the strong always prevails, regardless of moral position.

On one hand, this is how the world often works. On the other hand, as my friend Evan once said, McCarthy seems dangerously close to inventing depraved monsters (Anton Chigurh, Judge Holden), and then giving them his gruff approval.

If the poets of violence were cast as circus clowns, Guy Ritchie would be the auguste to Cormac McCarthy's whiteface.

Guy Ritchie is a mirror image of McCarthy: instead of discipline and austerity, he is an irrepressible conductor of revelry and mayhem. I said, above, that there's a certain troubling naivety in McCarthy's violence... Guy Ritchie's films are just as naive, but their artificiality is a vaudeville flourish, rather than a ritualistic pretense of seriousness. Thus, though Guy Ritche paints the screen with more blood spatter and murders more meaningless extras, his violence is also less troubling, having less of a sentimental claim on the viewer.

Ritchie is no longer a cult director... I've argued that Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows had an obscure brilliance, but it was not an obscure film. But among those who feel a special affection for Ritchie as an auteur, he will always have two signature films. His first, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, staked out the tonal territory that Ritchie would forever call home. His next, Snatch, is probably the apotheosis of the Guy Ritchie gesture, a British crime film about hustling and extortion in the world of underground boxing. Its most important development? The Trickster protagonist, played by Brad Pitt, who would reappear, as an archetype, in many of Ritchie's successive movies.

In these two directors -- in particular, in the space between them, the tension that their contrast defines -- we find the Chariot, the engine of conquest, in its discipline and release, its catharsis and its brutal innocence. They are an odd couple, but like every Major Arcana, they belong together in their unbridgeable difference.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Berfrois: The Death of Romance in The Shadow of the Colossus

A piece I wrote on the video game The Shadow of the Colossus has appeared on Berfrois, one of my favorite online magazine for lovers of criticism and literature, in all its digital and analog forms. I should probably be embarrassed about how much time and investment I put into this essay, which ended up being about 5,000 words; it took a lot of reading and a lot of craftwork to get it into its current state. Needless to say, I learned a great deal, and every time I think about it, I love the game I was writing about a little more.

Here's a quick excerpt from the meat of it:
Shadow of the Colossus is not the only story to draw on the Promethean myth. It has been repeated many times, by many authors, its metaphor relevant to many circumstances. Among them, Albert Camus and Lewis Hyde, both of whom I'll get to later. We should take note right now, though, that the myth of Prometheus undergoes drastic revisions in Shadow of the Colossus, which only contains a few traces of its original spirit. These Promethean Colossi may be chained to their territories, but they aren't being punished for stealing fire. Here, they are protectors, guardians of some kind of dark essence, which enters Wander's body each time he slays one. They are not the enemies of order, but its enforcers, and Wander is the true transgressor, destroying the matrix of stability that keeps the Forbidden Land in check.

-- The Death of Romance in the Shadow of the Colossus, on

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Major Arcana #6: THE LOVERS - Vladimir Nabokov & Baz Luhrmann

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE LOVERS: Vladimir Nabokov, Baz Luhrmann

There are two personalities who fit the role of The Lovers in this list of archetypes. The simple fact is, I just couldn't decide between them, so I decided to indulge myself and use both of them, focusing on their divergent aspects.

Nabokov is best known for his novel Lolita, and this is certainly a lover's tome, though an unconventional one. Humbert Humbert's obsession with an underage girl, and his illicit relationship with her following the death of her mother, is one of the more depraved love stories among the various romances of the literary world. If this is your only encounter with the Russian's works, you could be forgiven for thinking he's a crime writer, or an ironist of predatory neuroses.

But ultimately, as you wander outward into his oeuvre, it's love that binds all of Nabokov's greatest books together. Nabokov knows every stroke, but love is the water he swims in, exploring all its joyous and corrupting power in the lives of its victims. Laughter in the Dark is a crushingly frustrating novel of a manipulative female seizing ultimate power over a hapless male admirer; Pale Fire, Nabokov's most daring formal experiment, is a narrative framework wrapped around an unrequited, sublimated preoccupation of one man with another. Ada, or Ardor, Nabokov's last novel, is his most ambitious ode to misguided attachment, the pastoral romance of a brother and sister in defiance of their families, their cultures, their professions, and their social positions.

Nabokov's a uniter of opposites, like any love-starved Romantic must be. In particular, he unites a biting cynicism with a wily sentimentalism, straddling a line in his novels between irony and absolute commitment. In applying this wildly uneven craft, he reliably returns to a few themes, all of which the Lover must keep in mind: temptation, obsession, the futile chase of an idealized object; transgression, self-sabotage, the power of desire in the face of the monstrous banality of convention and the social contract.

Luhrmann addresses many of the same themes as Nabokov, but he regards them from an opposing vantage point. Where Nabokov is always cut with cynicism and skepticism, Luhrmann reaches unapologetically for the stars, placing complete faith in his Lovers to redeem any situation, morally and spiritually if not pragmatically. Without the truth of Romeo and Juliet's love, what would their story be but a chronicle of a bitter, meaningless feud? And without the true love between Christian and Satine, what would their story be except for the manipulation and self-destruction of a consumptive cabaret performer?

If Nabokov's writing is shot through with tension between Nabokov the cynic and Nabokov the Romantic, then Luhrmann's films are spectacles of pure sentiment, singular performances of the gasping exhilaration of a first sexual or romantic encounter. Hypnotic, manic, drenched in luxurious colors and textures, they exemplify the rush that lingers in all our memories, the visceral remnants of our wildest love affairs.

And yet, Baz Luhrmann's films so often end in tragedy; for someone so deeply involved in the joyous romances of his characters, he is certainly committed to showing the crushing, melancholy side of the currency of love and loss. If nothing else, this allows the love in his films to behave like a flame, or even a flare: they ignite suddenly and give shape and color to the whole narrative, but they're always doomed to burn out at the bottom of the wick.

What unites these two storytellers is their insistence that love struggles against all obstacles, whether it's destined to win or to lose... that in the face of the insurmountable and the undeniable, lovers will find a way to defy and deconstruct whatever boundaries and impossibilities threaten, naively, to hold them apart.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Major Arcana #5: THE HIEROPHANT - PT Anderson

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.



Paul Thomas Anderson always seems to want to lead us somewhere, and when we finish his films, we always feel like we've arrived, but we're generally not sure where, or why we were headed that way in the first place. Sometimes, to see the shape of a journey, you have to return to its beginning. This is especially true of the auteurist career of someone like Anderson, who summed up his directorial mission in the plot of his very first film, for anyone who had the patience to perceive it at the time.

That's the anatomy of revelation... you seek some sort of benevolent outcome, or some spiritual validation... the where and the why. But ultimately, the revelation is buried deep in the process, which works its obscure influence upon the pilgrim in ways initially unforseen. The Hierophant is the shepherd of this process, the bridge between the human and the divine. He is a force of conservatism and duality, of knowledge and insight, but sometimes of deception.

Anderson's films have been more and more about the how: the process, the events themselves. In There Will Be Blood, the finale was harrowing, a sort of zen of evil (find God by destroying the one held over your head). In The Master, the climax is so understated as to be counterclimactic; the only way to see the film without frustrating yourself is to find some meaning in the events themselves. Freddie's journey is an endless fight against his own nature, which he perpetually loses, failing to dominate his own impulses; if he is led to any God, it is by sabotaging his relationship with his savior and accepting his own depravity and perversion. In making this journey, of course, Freddie unmasks his own hierophant, Lancaster, as an opportunist whose cause is but a pretense.

Each of Anderson's films, in turn, can all be read as a series of trials, a succession of destructions and rebirths of the protagonist. They don't build evenly, and they aren't anticipated by some formula of timing; each exacts its own particular changes in the main character. Each protagonist eventually passes their series of tests and becomes a sort of patron saint of their own destiny: the corrupt oilman, the wild wandering neutoric, or the porn star.

As I said before, it's that last one that gives the clearest blueprint of Anderson's vision. Boogie Nights, PT Anderson's first major film, was another story of trials and deaths and rebirths, but its stage was pornography, and its conclusion was much more explicit (har har): the tale of a pilgrim who finally found his God, the cock, in a dressing room mirror.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Major Arcana #4: THE EMPEROR - James Cameron

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


 THE EMPEROR: James Cameron

James Cameron stands atop an incredible legacy of innovation and execution, a proven patriarch of popular cinema. He exhibits a persistent boldness and a hearty liberal idealism, a paternal spirit, whose familiarity settles into a sort of conservatism, at least in its respect and expectation for the status quo. This makes him the Emperor, whose merits are stability and strength of character -- who wields authority and commands respect, even from his detractors.

This is all built on an early bedrock of fantastic successes, a miraculous sequence of great film projects that propelled Cameron into the ranks of Hollywood royalty. He capitalized ruthlessly on his mixed experience directing Piranha II: The Spawning, finding a studio to produce and distribute The Terminator, and from that springboard, he vaulted into big-budget cinema, directing the military sci-fi-horror Aliens and the maritime science fiction saga The Abyss. Finally, like a conqueror expanding his capital city into the surrounding countryside, he directed Terminator 2, the boundary-pushing sequel to his breakout film.

I will maintain to my dying day that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was not only one of the better science-fiction films since Star Wars, but one of the greatest action films that has ever been produced, or will ever be. It was dizzyingly ambitious... whereas many blockbuster films have zero compelling characters, T2 had three compelling main characters, a terrifying villain, and even its side-characters (Miles Dyson and Dr. Silberman, for instance) were engaging and memorable. John Connor's search for a mother figure in the militant survivalist Sarah Connor... Arnold as a cyborg Judas, enlisted by human rebels to destroy the very technology that would eventually create it... Sarah as the tortured prophet, endlessly reliving the pain of a apocalypse that hasn't happened yet... the mythic and the timeless were woven deeply into the fabric of Terminator 2, and then the whole construction was disguised as a story about fucking robots shooting at each other.

Cameron has done all the necessary lifting to earn his place as an Emperor. His reputation is built on the sci-fi action film, a credit to his masculinity, and he's proven adept at directing militaristic action and suspense. At the same time, he's faithfully represented the demographics that are traditionally marginalized by his genre: with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, he's given women an unparalleled place alongside men in his films. He has contributed to the infrastructure of Hollywood by championing its emerging technologies... CGI in T2, 3D in Avatar. Finally, having demonstrated both his authority and his sensitivity, he's taken on a certain idealism in his later films... Avatar is unmistakably anti-corporatist and environmentalist, even to the point of being paternalistic (a fault that history will forgive, though many audience members will not).

So yes, Cameron is the reigning Emperor of Blockbuster Cinema, and he has a great deal left to give us. As his fans and critics, we will get to see whether he drifts out of date with his medium, or goes mad with power and goes out with a bang of absurd passion projects. Either way, we will remain thankful, and his name will be inscribed in the undying ledger of Hollywood.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Major Arcana #3: THE EMPRESS - Sofia Coppola

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE EMPRESS: Sofia Coppola

Glamour, that elusive quality found in the brightest lights of masscult, can only be attained in two ways. The first is that you can fake it. This is how so many young women have come to be known by the Hollywood press: from the great Marilyn to the aloof Katherine, the actresses who rose from civilian ranks have been forced to cultivate their paradoxically confident, accessible personas, to project and perform their glamour until the audience allowed itself to be convinced. They were some of the greatest actors of our time, and their greatest roles were their public personas.

The second way to glamour, practiced by many of our era's great public figures of art and entertainment, is to inherit it. It passes sporadically, like a recessive gene, but if it expresses itself, it feels real, innate, and fully authentic. Paris Hilton got a kind of defective, deformed version, and it came out insipid and underwhelming. Sofia Coppola, on the other hand, one of many heirs to the Coppola showbiz dynasty, got it in just the right measure, and has spent her whole extended young adulthood making it work wonders for her (and for the rest of us, I might add).

When I say she's making the glamour work, I don't mean to suggest that she's overplaying it. Sofia Coppola has capitalized on her aura of showbiz royalty through subtle machinations, alternately leveraging it and critiquing it, letting it drift off her disaffected characters like wisps of smoke, but giving them enough of a voice that they can speak from within it. All of her privileged, troubled protagonists -- Charlotte, Marie Antoinette, Johnny Marco -- wear their glamour effortlessly, and in these wayward adolescents, we find the shadow of Sofia herself.

The Empress is about power, sexual magnetism, material prosperity, and good fortune, but the position is not without its detriments. Boredom, degeneracy, stagnation, and disillusionment are its natural by-products. She stands beside the High Priestess, who is grounded and interconnected, but the Empress is a vastly different creature... remote and alluring, but not warm or receptive. She has a kingdom to protect, and a reputation to uphold. She holds the royal bloodline in her hands.

This has always been one of Sofia Coppola's reliable preoccupations: the turmoil of youth and freedom as it comes to terms with its family ties and responsibilities. Charlotte's hallucinatory jaunt through Tokyo, her emotional fling with an older man, are her ways of testing and defying her role as a wife. Marie Antoinette is the same, but more so: first a wife to a king, and then mother to an heir, and finally, mother to a whole kingdom that alternately idolizes and despises her.

And so the Empress sees herself -- dominant, entitled, but adrift beneath her superficial claims -- and so we see her: with awe at one moment, a creature of authority and wisdom, and then as a cheap figurehead, worthy only of our jealousy and contempt.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Major Arcana #2: THE HIGH PRIESTESS - Octavia Butler

This is the third in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.



The High Priestess is not who you go to for validation or arbitration or dating advice. She's not Dear Abbey or Car Talk; she doesn't give practical solutions to simple problems. She is above and beyond all that -- she speaks with a clarity that sounds like befuddlement to normal ears. She is the voice of the Earth, echoing through the sky; she balances the terrestrial with the astrological, the intuition of the body with the wisdom of many footsteps and the fertility of the womb.

In particular, she is above any naive distinction between right and wrong, or between sanction and censure. Take Doro in Octavia Butler's brilliant novel Wild Seed... he is clearly a destructive force, an oppressor and a monster of wild proportions, using his immortality -- based on an innate ability to inhabit new bodies -- to dominate and harvest whole tribes and societies, engineering superior races from human stock. And yet, for all the oppressive, chauvinistic power he represents, Doro is never relegated to the status of a pure antagonist. He is a parasite, but like any termite or e. coli bacteria, he is a child of the Earth, and Wild Seed is as much his story as it is the story of Anyanwe, his lover and complimentary opposite.

Octavia Butler's first published novel, Patternmaster, became the fourth novel (chronologically) in her Patternist series, a magnetic science fiction saga spanning many generations and multiple continents. Wild Seed is the series' first chapter, and like all of them, it's captivating and unsettling and full of vitality. In it, a creature of control and destruction meets a creature of healing and creation, and their fates quickly intertwine, setting the stage for the future evolution of the human race.

In Wild Seed, and even moreso in Mind of My Mind, the second novel in the progression, Octavia Butler gives a vibrant account of intuition and the wisdom of the body below the mere logic of the conscious mind. Doro and Anyanwe and their children are constantly drawn to one another, always caught in currents of attraction and alarm; they play out grand, sprawling conflicts within the purely subjective space of their psychic interface.

This kind of extrasensory psychic interaction may sound like the stuff of science fiction (ESP, Scanners) or it may sound like the first steps into the occult (telepathy as a gift of the Goddess). In fact, Butler is uniquely equipped to address both; one of the many contradictions she resolves in her Patternist novels is the subtle continuum between science and mysticism. Doro and Anyanwe exist in our world, but they understand it according to their own measures, applying craftsmanship and technical mechanisms to forces that science still hasn't accounted for. Doro is certainly a technician of evolution, making use of breeding techniques to craft a subspecies for his own use; and Anyanwe has an intuitive knowledge of infection and bacteria and antibodies, which she applies in her healing arts. Even so, through the obscure mechanisms of evolution and emergence, these characters reach deep into the realm of mysticism, creating communities of psychics and shape-changers and telekinetics that connect with their powers through innate wisdom, rather than calculated technique.

It takes the powers and experience and grounded affinities of the High Priestess to bridge these many gaps, to resolve these tensions: the body and the spirit, the healer and the parasite, the naturalistic and the occult. We are all caught within these juxtapositions, and when we need to take a step beyond them, just long enough to get a glimpse of the bigger picture, we need to look to people like Octavia Butler, one of the most brilliant science fiction authors of her, or any, generation.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Major Arcana #1: THE MAGICIAN - Christopher Nolan

This is the second in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE MAGICIAN: Christopher Nolan

"Magician" is a beautifully ambivalent term, weaving together two contradictory and correlated roles. Like the greatest of those craftsman, Christopher Nolan straddles the line between them: to his fans, and to the general public at his most captivating moments, he is the conjurer, tapping into the supernatural netherworld of the auteur creative genius. To his critics, and even to his fans at certain junctures, he becomes the stage magician playing parlor tricks, manipulating the audience with distraction and sleight of hand.

The Magician of the Tarot embodies both of these aspects: in the older 15th to 18 century decks descended from the Renaissance, he was the performer, weaving a spectacle for incredulous onlookers. When the Tarot was adapted by occultists into a tool strictly for divination, he was recast as a true mystic, drawing on the obscure power of arcane symbols to exert supernatural influence.

David Bordwell does the best job of describing the method behind Christopher Nolan's madness. In his essay Nolan versus Nolan, he breaks down Nolan's tendencies as a filmmaker, including his frenetic editing, his intentionally ambiguous treatment of topical themes, and his thematic concerns with subjectivity. Bordwell concludes that it is in the structural layer that Nolan is most innovative: particularly, in his use of cross-cutting to fracture: chronologies (Memento), intersubjective personal histories (The Prestige), and nested pockets of experience (Inception). Bordwell ends his essay by suggesting that Nolan's experimentation is too simplistic and palatable ("midcult"), but then thoughtfully recanting the accusation.

What Bordwell may have missed is how Nolan makes magic out of these methods, even when they constitute cheap tricks. The frenetic editing in Insomnia, the weighty exposition in Inception, the hand-waving at political vagaries in the Dark Knight films... these are not stylistic lapses. They are techniques of misdirection, like the stage patter that frames and cushions a great magician's illusion: they may be clumsy, overdone, and even sloppy (as Jim Emerson harps on), but the point is to distract his audience from those jarring formal machinations -- the reversed subjectivity, the baroque architecture of the subconscious -- until they can be fully revealed in all their glory. This is Nolan, giving his audience a rare chance see the impossible, to absorb the formally unfamiliar, and to intuit its otherworldly power.

So Nolan may seem to the jaded like a cheap trickster, but his real trick is in getting so many people to embrace his elaborate conceptual choreographies. That's more than a con game... it's the work of a man with great ambition, and the will to channel it into an impossible result.

It's almost too good that one of Nolan's best, most ambitious films is a gothic drama of competition between two magicians. The Prestige is a little microcosm of Christopher Nolan's soul, putting all his tensions on display: the formal ambition, the manipulative editing and showman's trickery, the fraught relationship between mere illusion and the supernatural.

As Cutter says in The Prestige: "You're a magician, not a wizard."

As Christopher Nolan and Rider-Waite-Smith both know, the line between those two is as firm as a wisp of smoke.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Major Arcana #0: THE FOOL - Franz Kafka

This is the first in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE FOOL: Franz Kafka

"This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool's help is real help."

- Walter Benjamin, Some Reflections on Kafka (Illuminations)

Walter Benjamin sees Kafka as the earliest writer to abandon the search for truth in the fading light of tradition, the first modern man to disavow wisdom and embrace folly in its place. Kafka's world was a place where failure had already taken hold, and tranquility in submission was man's only sensible recourse. All of Europe was standing on a precipice; Kafka was the only one willing to stare over the edge.

Kafka's encounter with a world of failure and futility ruled out redemptive endings to his stories. There's never a light at the end of the tunnel; not for Gregor, not for Georg of The Judgment, and not for the officer in In the Penal Colony. Doom is not just behind them, rushing along in pursuit; nor is it waiting for them at the end of a chain of unfortunate events. Doom is all around them, the absurdity of the world at every moment. The only virtue these characters have left is to take some kind of ownership, to thrash in the throes their own irresolvable entanglements.

In these doomed characters, the reader finds the deepest wellspring of agency and responsibility: decisions made in the face of the radical unknown, without the guiding lights of conscience or logic or self-preservation. In the forest of contingency, the Fool searches for a way forward, accepting that every step is a non-sequitur, that every breath inhaled is a leap of faith. The Fool has been condemned by his father, betrayed by the comforts of religion and sexuality, abandoned by the literary establishment and the legal system. All that's left is the labyrinth, and the Fool himself, the figure shuddering against its background.

The Fool card is folly, a dialectical balancing act between volition and paralyzing uncertainty. It is the protagonist of a nonsensical story, the Zero as opposed to the One. According to a common interpretation, the rest of the cards represent the journey of this primary Arcana through his life. It's particularly Kafkaesque that the Tarot spread is basically the Fool's act of looking himself in the eye, and seeing only an empty space.

And yet the Fool, like Kafka and all his characters, is condemned to stand up and say, "I am here, at the mercy of your absurd convulsions. Take me and do with me what you will."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Major Arcana: Introductory Post and TOC

I have a prediction about the future: February is going to be a very verbose month on Benefit of the Doubt.

This is more than simply a word from an Oracle; as a guess, it's fairly educated. For the last couple weeks, I've been following a very random impulse, prompted by a random visit to Notions-N-Potions, an Occult Stuff store in Beacon, NY. Whilst browsing there, my wife and I browsed a stack of Tarot cards. What memories they brought back!

I went through my own Tarot phase, of course, like many of us fantasy/literature/eclecticism nerds do. I had a bunch of decks, and I tried doing a couple readings, and browsing through some very interesting New-Agey books on the subject, before it all disappeared into a box on my shelf to make way for a Warhammer Fantasy phase. But this visit to this Occult/Biker store brought back the memories, invoking those hazy semantic resonances, reminding me how interesting I've always found these methodical, archetypal obscurities and ambiguities in the world of mysticism.

So I treated this resurgence of memories as a writing prompt... from the humming disarray in my brain, I started plucking famous names of literary figures who I could associated with the various Trumps of the traditional Tarot deck. And I figured, why not pen mini-essays on these figures, using the cards as a guide?

Right now, I'm just calling it "The Major Arcana," though it would be just as appropriate to call them "People Jesse Likes, Loosely Connected by Tarot Card Wikipedia Entries." Maybe I'll just call them "The Trumps," or "The Majors." I don't know.

As of this writing, I've completed almost all of them. With February starting, I think it's a good time to start publishing them on this blog.

As I publish them, I'll link to them on this initial entry, so you have a gradually-expanding Table of Contents of my musings.

Number one is Franz Kafka as The Fool, to be posted on Monday.

2/4/2013 - THE FOOL: Franz Kafka
2/6/2013 - THE MAGICIAN: Christopher Nolan
2/8/2013 - THE HIGH PRIESTESS: Octavia Butler
2/11/2013 - THE EMPRESS: Sofia Coppola
2/13/2013 - THE EMPEROR: James Cameron
2/15/2013 - THE HIEROPHANT: PT Anderson
2/18/2013 - THE LOVERS: Vladimir Nabokov, Baz Luhrmann
2/20/2013 - THE CHARIOT: Cormac McCarthy, Guy Ritchie
2/22/2013 - STRENGTH: John Steinbeck
2/25/2013 - THE HERMIT: Marcel Proust
2/27/2013 - WHEEL OF FORTUNE: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3/1/2013 - JUSTICE: Werner Herzog
3/4/2013 - THE HANGED MAN: Andrei Tarkovsky
3/6/2013 - DEATH: Darren Aronofsky
3/8/2013 - TEMPERANCE: Terrence Malick