Tarot in Culture ~ An Interview with Emily E. Auger

Today in celebration of Canada Day I’m thrilled to welcome Emily E. Auger to my website. Emily is a Tarot scholar from Canada and the editor of the 2-volume book Tarot in Culture, the most ambitious compilation on the subject since Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot. Tarot in Culture is a collection of papers by Tarot experts delving into every aspect of the subject, not only about the history of Tarot but about Tarot in art. Volume One centers around history and Volume Two focuses on the literary and artistic aspects.

My novel, The Fortune Teller, is a fantastical take on Tarot and the story is purely fiction. But I thought my readers might be interested to hear more about the nonfiction side of Tarot from an academic and scholar’s perspective. Fortunately for us, Emily agreed to share with us her thoughts.

Welcome Emily!

Tarot in Culture is just an incredible wealth of information. I’m curious what first got you interested in researching Tarot cards? And what was the inspiration to embark on such a massive endeavor as Tarot in Culture?

I don’t remember when I first became aware of Tarot, but my interest was piqued when I received two decks from different people as unexpected gifts, one about ten years after the other. Other people have given me decks since then, but those were the first. I didn’t really consider Tarot as a viable thesis or dissertation topic, but after I started teaching I became intrigued by re-envisioned Tarot as an art form. Subsequently, my research and writing about Tarot evolved fairly closely with my studies of popular genres and I presented many of my ideas in papers at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference and others. I started the Tarot/Divination area at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference around the same time that Tarot and Other Meditation Decks was published. Many, though not all, of the contributors to Tarot in Culture first presented their work at the PCA/ACA conference, so I tend to consider the contributors themselves as the inspiration for the anthology.

Looking at your books before Tarot in Culture, I see that previously you researched Inuit Art and also studied shamanism. You mention in the CV on your website that your first study in Tarot for your book Tarot and Other Meditation Decks originally stemmed from your interest in shamanism. I found that connection fascinating. Could you elaborate on that a bit more?

Prior to Euroamerican-contact, the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic carved these extraordinary ivory miniatures of animals, birds, and people that may have served shamanistic purposes. Tarot is a relatively modern portable art form that many people now use in modernized shamanistic or spiritual practices, in spite of its frequent identification as a “collectable.” I wouldn’t call Tarot readers shamans, but in their professional form, both may offer future-telling performances that, ideally, are in the best interests of community members.

Mary K. Greer’s Tarot timeline in the back of Volume 1 is just incredible to read through and track all the books and materials that have come out through the years.  My jaw dropped when she mentioned at the end she has a collection of 1,200 decks and 900 books. Do you remember what books and/or decks first made an impact for you?

 My favorite deck and the deck that has had the greatest impact on me is the Rider-Waite Tarot, starting with a 1961 Merrimack edition. After Tarot and Other Meditation Decks was published, a close friend gave me a Rider-Waite-style World’s Tiniest Tarot Card Set. A few years ago, I started working on a revised edition of a long paper by Nancy-Lou Patterson, a former professor at the University of Waterloo, about Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps (1932). Her family gave me part of her Tarot collection, including a miniature Albano-Waite Tarot, as well as the standard U.S. Games version. I keep the U.S. Games deck in a gold bag Mary Greer gave me when she participated in the Tarot area of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference.

My Tarot library was quite small up until about 1980 or so. After that I started reading and sometimes buying books on the subject. I don’t really remember any particular order of discovery or acquisition, but there are quite a few authors on my Tarot bookshelves: Mary Greer, Rachel Pollack, Paul Huson, Robert Place, Richard Kaczinsky, Marcus Katz, and more. Stuart Kaplan’s four volume Encyclopedia of Tarot (1978–2005), which includes an extraordinary number of illustrations and many fabulous essays about the history of Tarot, has been an invaluable resource over the years, and I couldn’t have done without A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot (1996) by Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker, and Thierry Depaulis and A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870–1970 (2002) by Dummett and Decker.

What was the most interesting thing, perhaps even an eye-opener, that you learned about Tarot while working on Tarot in Culture?

There was something in every Tarot in Culture contribution that was new to me in some way, so it’s hard to single out one author or paper in that regard. However, I enjoyed much of the work associated with the card illustrations: collecting, organizing, and arranging. It was a bit like creating dual and multiple projection slide arrangements for an art history class. Art history classes are very demanding for both instructors and students in that they require active engagement by looking at and analyzing complex images, listening to the lecture or discussion about them, contributing to that discussion, and also writing notes. (Many instructors in different academic disciplines have added PowerPoint to their course delivery methods over the past two decades, but the content of those presentations is invariably illustrative or technical in nature.) Preparing Tarot images for the Tarot and Other Meditation Decks manuscript and again for Tarot in Culture enhanced the Tarot-based thinking-with-the-eyes experience that, like a few art history classes I’ve been in and a few that I’ve taught, certainly qualifies as “eye-opening.”

As well as writing books and publishing in journals, you also chair talks for Tarot & Other Methods of Divination at the Popular Culture  / American Culture Association conference, which sounds so interesting! Can you give us a snapshot of some of the discussions that happen there and specific topics you explore?

The topics of the presentations and the discussions vary a lot from year to year as there are usually both returning and new presenters. Generally, however, participants talk about their work and that of others, about locations of interest in the city where the conference is held, and their experience of the conference in general. Sometimes the participants are also diviners and, when the sessions are over, they do readings for each other—cards, palms, or whatever. Sometimes we have a film screening session. One year, a presenter volunteered to offer free card readings in the registration area for a couple of hours—a lot of people lined up to take advantage of her services. For the last several years, I have run a free lottery for donated divination-related books. A couple of years ago, I added a roundtable called “the Divination Review” to the area sessions. Anyone presenting a paper can be formally added to the list of contributors, but session attendees are also welcome to participate. Each person talks for a few minutes about a relevant book, deck, app, exhibitions, etc., preferably one that is fairly recent. It seems to be a useful and popular forum for pooling information about resources and materials of common interest.

One of the most memorable moments in the Tarot/Divination area of the PCA/ACA conference didn’t happen during the sessions. It took place the year that quite a few people came to find out more about submitting to the Tarot in Culture anthology. The papers were great, the discussions were insightful and interesting, and at one point many of the area participants were sitting together in the hotel lobby just talking and talking and talking. One of the hotel employees, came over to express his delight in seeing us all doing just that—talking. We looked around and suddenly realized that everyone else in the lobby was engaged with their electronic devices. That occasion sums up the best of the area.

Can you share your thoughts on where Tarot in culture might be headed in the future? Do you feel there is a new wave of interest happening in Tarot? And how do you think the internet is playing a part?

There has definitely has been a growth of interest in Tarot since about 1970, possibly related to the release of the U.S. Games edition of the Rider-Waite Tarot around that time. In my study of Tarot in film (Cartomancy and Tarot in Film 1940–2010, 2016), I found that the representations of Tarot have changed over the decades since then. There is a distinct trend away from the carnival-style cartomancer toward a more normalized character and from “spooky” to almost mundane card readings. Instead of outrageous costumes, heavy make-up, and darkened rooms, the cards are often laid by people wearing unremarkable clothing—seriously or for “fun”—for their friends or relatives and the card meanings are discussed in a conversational manner. It’s hard to co-relate that shift exactly with real-life practice, but I think it is generally indicative of changing attitudes. This normalization isn’t good or bad in itself, but Tarot and other divination systems do pose a certain danger to those who are too ready to forfeit responsibility for their own decisions to the lay of a few cards.

The internet, including Google and other search tools, Facebook, personal websites, business websites, etc., certainly makes information about Tarot and new decks, as well as cartomancers, more accessible. Unfortunately, the internet also opens up a certain potential for fraud and misleading advertising.

As an art form that contemporary artists working in a wide variety of mediums are engaged with, Tarot has a lot of potential to become even more familiar and its images even more recognizable than they are already. Tarot has also found its way into different university classroom contexts, primarily for creative writing exercises, although I believe a few short-lived courses on Tarot itself have been offered over the years at a variety of post-secondary institutions. Such projects are exciting but I think the real future of Tarot is in the realm of popular culture; that is, as a fortune-telling tool or oracle (every culture has them), and as an approach to meditation on time (past, present, and future) and matters of ultimate concern (love, health, and wealth).

In the artistic realm of Tarot, one of the wonderful things about Tarot cards is there are so many different stylistic and symbolic variations for basically the same set of 78 cards. What is your favorite deck from an esthetic standpoint? Also if you had to choose a single Tarot card to frame as a work of art, what card from which deck would it be?

My favorite deck is, of course, the Rider-Waite, but I also like The Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot, the 1JJ Swiss Tarot, the William Blake Tarot of the Imagination, and quite a few others. I don’t really have a favorite card exactly, but there are cards that I am fascinated by, often because of the resonance created by their treatment in a film or book or in a new deck. I have an ongoing fascination with the treatment of the Strength card in different historical decks and the treatment of the Hanged Man in film. The Book of Thoth Moon card is forever linked in my mind with The Wolfman (2010) and the Magician card from the same deck creates a very gothic doppelganger effect. I like most Sun and Moon cards, especially those in Robert Place’s Facsimile Renaissance Woodcut Tarocchi. Whenever I see the Rider-Waite 10 of Swords I think of the readings in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) (thanks to Catherine Waitinas’s paper in Tarot in Culture) and in the films Lord of Illusions (1995) and A Walk on the Moon (1999). I also like the World card in older decks and the version described in Samuel Delany’s Nova (1968) (thanks to Brian Johnson’s discussion in Tarot in Culture). To me, the Tower card is Stephen King’s Dark Tower—I like both the Rider-Waite version and the Estensi Tarot version of that particular card.

As for framing a card as a work of art. … one card image enlarged and framed could easily dominate the atmosphere of a room, so I’d probably choose a card from a highly-stylized deck like Courtney Davis and Helena Paterson’s Celtic Tarot (1990), maybe Strength, or something that evokes a classic narrative, such as the King of Cups / The Fisher King from Anna-Marie Ferguson’s Legend The Arthurian Tarot (1995).

If I were going to go all out on a Tarot wall, I’d create four frames of Star, Moon, Sun, and World cards, enlarged slightly or perhaps not at all: one with the Facsimile Renaissance Woodcut Tarocchi, one with the Visconti-Sforza, one with a classic Marseilles, and one with the Rider-Waite. Other decks come to mind here, but I don’t know if I’d want to have them hanging up in my home.

And in closing, what are you working on now and do you have any plans for more studies of Tarot?

Over the past few years I’ve been working with Janet Brennan Croft (ed. Mythlore) on a multi-volume anthology of papers by Nancy-Lou Patterson on Inklings and Inklings-related authors. We released Ransoming the Waste Land: Papers on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Chronicles of Narnia and Other Works, Volume I and II early in 2016 and Detecting Wimsey: Papers on Dorothy L. Sayers’s Detective Fiction a few months ago. The next volume, Divining Tarot: Papers on Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps and Other Works, should be available later this year.

I have the call out for submissions to the “Tarot & Other Methods of Divination” area at next year’s PCA/ACA conference posted. http://pcaaca.org/tarot-in-culture/  There is also a call out for papers for a divination-theme issue of Mythlore; if there is enough good material, I’ll be the guest-editor.

As for my own writing, I’m currently finishing one short paper and developing another, both about Tarot in specific literary works.

Thank you so much for the interview! For readers who are interested in learning more about Emily Auger and her work, please visit her website at http://emilyeauger.weebly.com and find links for all her books.

Biography. Emily E. Auger (PhD) is the author of several books, including Cartomancy and Tarot in Film 1940–2010 (Intellect 2016) and the companion A Filmography of Cartomancy and Tarot in Film 1940–2010 (Valleyhome Books 2016), Tech-Noir Film A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres (Intellect 2011), The Way of Inuit Art: Aesthetics and History In and Beyond the Arctic (McFarland 2005), and Tarot and Other Meditation Decks (McFarland 2004). She has published numerous papers in journals such as Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Mythlore, and others. Her “Arthurian Legend in Tarot” may be found in the multi-author anthology King Arthur in Popular Culture (McFarland 2002). She is also the editor of the two-volume multi-author anthology Tarot in Culture (2014) and co-editor with Janet Brennan Croft of a multi-volume anthology of papers by Nancy-Lou Patterson on Inklings and Inklings-related authors and their fiction, which includes a volume on Charles Williams, particularly his Tarot novel The Greater Trumps (forthcoming). She is the area chair for Tarot & Other Methods of Divination at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference.



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