Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility by Arthur Rosengarten, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Eric Ganther

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Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility

by Arthur Rosengarten, Ph.D. Paragon House, pb, $17.95


To most of us, our journey through the volatile psychic flow is largely obscured by darkness. We get bumped around and knocked over and rarely ever know why. Often it seems that the flow of life is just a trail of mysterious bruises. When we are lucky, we encounter a navigational tool that gives us a perspective on the volatile psychic flow. With it, we learn to distinguish between the warm pools and the white water rapids. We get fewer bruises.

A good guidance system is composed of a number of effective navigational tools. A good guidance system was provided for humans within the unconscious context of the tribe. Shamans and healers and local priests helped us figure out the various psychic influences by calling them spirit animals or ghosts or gods. Those playing the role of gatekeeper had experience navigating the volatile psychic flow and used their experience to show us the way. Ritual enactment of myth was a highly effective navigational tool. In ritual, humans could access the vast non-rational realms, see their own part in the bigger drama, and behave accordingly.

But the great cosmic serpent had more in store for us. The volatile psychic flow smashed the old shamanic order and replaced it first with fanatic monotheism and then with the cult of reason. Now reason is the guidance system and science its navigational tool. And for many centuries reason has reigned dictatorially, brooking no influence from the unconscious realms: no superstition, no voodoo, no fortune telling. With a scientific mindset, we examined everything, splitting and cleaving, trying to get to the essence of why the hell we're here. When we examined the old stories, however, we discovered something strange. It turns out that everywhere the old myths were the same, or nearly so. . . uncannily so. How is it that Australian aborigines and Amazonian Indians and Scandinavian reindeer herders could all have the same stories? Something very much bigger or very much smaller was clearly at work. Maybe it's god. Maybe it's DNA. Whatever it is the world suddenly became a lot more interesting than clean and sober science would have us think.

From this new perspective, we read books like Arthur Rosengarten's Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility. Dr. Rosengarten proposes to reopen the dusty boxes housing the old navigational tools that functioned under the old non-rational guidance systems and see how they can help us deal with contemporary psychic problems. His trail takes us back to the wisdom wired in to the human, and effective for tens of thousands of years, and combines it with the more recent discoveries of scientific psychology.

Most of us know more about psychology than we do about tarot. Psychology has become a mainstream institution in the last one hundred years. Armies of therapists and counselors and psychologists and psychiatrists have marched inland from the coasts seeking to cure the sick and comfort the afflicted. I myself have been to several therapists trying to figure out why I get sad and lonely, or what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, or why I should bother bothering. Not so long ago I would have gone to a religious institution with these questions. But religion became corrupted by the concept of sin and screwed people up more than it helped them. By the 20th century, most western cultural elites were shifting their allegiance from the church to psychology. For psychologists, mis-navigating in the volatile psychic flow was not about sin and virtue, it was about sickness and normalcy.

Psychology offers two methods for curing the sick and returning them to normalcy: the story and the pill. The story faction has its roots in religion (and therefore sin). For the story to cure you, you have to change your personal story in order to not feel sad and lonely (or addicted, or ashamed, or vengeful etc.). And, in order to change the story, you have to go back to some point in your personal history when you first started feeling badly and release those feelings so you can begin to heal that unhealed wound and therefore begin in the here and now to feel less sad and lonely, etc. The story is therefore very linear, very confessional and tends to elevate the individual ego above all other psychic forces.

The pill faction consists of those who rely on psychology's links to medicine for scientifically verifiable validation. Instead of changing the story, medical psychology seeks to change the functioning of the story telling machine. Those who are depressed or manic or addicted or compulsive or "normal neurotics" can be normalized through the use of pharmaceuticals or shock therapy or some other physical adjustment. This is even more linear, very cause and effect, and very materialistic in the philosophical sense.

For much of the last fifty years, the story has been in the doghouse. Discoveries using the story method paled in comparison to discoveries made by the pill method. Fancy new pills dazzled more than the same tired old stories. And just as the story was putting together a convincing case for itself in the late 20th century, the insurance industry, owned by the same people who own the pharmaceutical industry, decided that stories were too expensive. Therefore anyone with insurance and time constraints was encouraged to take a pill.

Arthur Rosengarten was trained in some combination of the story and pill traditions. As a licensed clinical psychologist, he probably has arrangements with a doctor to dispense pills. My guess, however, is that Arthur only prescribes pills when he has to or when his clients, having read Time magazine, demand them. But just handing out pretty pills is boring, and boredom is a scientifically measurable sign that something is wrong. So Dr. Rosengarten uses story too.

The story, however, has not only suffered the attacks of the psycho-pharmacological insurance industry (a.k.a. Mr. Pill), it has also witnessed its one time powerful ally, religion, devolve into madness. Reeling from the losses, story has groped in the darkness for secret weapons or magic spells or anything that will keep Mr. Pill and the psychotic religious monolith from turning humans into robots. Enter once again the Tarot.

I am an experienced tarot reader. For me, the Tarot is a time-tested navigational tool. It functions like a pair of night vision glasses. It allows me to "see" through the darkness and the foggy anxieties that obscure my ability to navigate the volatile psychic flow. With a deeper understanding of Tarot, I can see the sharp objects and the cavernous pits within psyche. I can maneuver around my own fears and prejudices and work with them like Zen monks in the rock garden of the unconscious. I can see what other forces, besides my own ego story, are influencing me in the here and now. With Tarot in my navigational toolkit, I can go beyond merely witnessing and actually participate in the volatile psychic flow. I can learn the secrets of the old shamans and live gracefully without having to rely on Mr. Pill or psychotic fundamentalism.

The conventional wisdom about Tarot is that it's a freak show perpetrated by lowlifes to cheat people out of money. Part of why it's distrusted is because it's on the extreme edge of story. And story, as noted, has been under attack for some time. Tarot is often used to tap into "energies" and extra-ego influences and different realms of knowing and all manner of "hocus pocus" that science and monotheism have spent the last 2000 years trying to dispel. Energies are utterly un-measurable, according to science, and therefore can have no influence.

So, for Arthur Rosengarten, a licensed clinical psychologist, to come out with a book on Tarot is the equivalent of a respected academic coming out with a book on homosexuality before the 1960s. Which is to say that his book is at once bold and defensive. Bold in that a licensed pill pusher and beneficiary of the psycho-pharmaceutical insurance industrial complex would write about the most scandalously loose form of storytelling. Defensive because he wants to retain the respect (and income) paid to him by Mr. Pill.

It's a good book. Arthur has amazing powers of description. He is well-read and familiar with all the tarot stories. Being of European descent, he understands the european king and castle imagery instinctively. The book is strongest when it tells the story of the cards. In the Fool's Journey, Chapter VIII, Arthur spins the tales of the major arcana in a way that weaves their energies together: "Through his seductive forces The Devil now makes his diabolical mischief; he tempts the pale Empress pining and forlorn in The Tower to spin Fate's Wheel of Fortune (in the light of the full Moon and the zeal of the Lovers) to thus steal away to the handsome Hermit, sitting alone beyond the Tower's gate, contemplating Hermit matters beneath his lucky Star. Trouble beckons."

This is first rate story weaving. And it's what the Tarot is all about. Our supposedly individual problems are really shared, archetypally, by the whole culture. Our need for control is the Emperor. Our need for solitude the Hermit; our need to have new adventures the Chariot, etc. It's all a big story and each of us plays it out in our lives, subject on some level to fate, here represented by the Wheel of Fortune.

As someone already out of the Tarot closet, however, I do see signs of internalized tarotphobia. I see too many attempts at rationalization and quantification as means to achieve validation. I see lots of "tarot content analysis" and "empirical studies." Why would one want to cleave the turd into so many fine slices? Answer: if your audience was primarily psychologists or people who think like psychologists.

Psychologically oriented people think in a certain way. For them, the concept of a spectrum of possibilities beyond the ego is radical. That there might be influences on the psyche that are non-measurable is titillating if not downright heretical. Rosengarten is saying that what meets the eye is only one possibility. What you are thinking right now is only one possibility out of a spectrum of possibilities. I agree.

I believe Arthur Rosengarten is writing this book for Mr. Pill, an objectively scientific member of the psycho-pharmacological insurance industry, who will probably pick up the book, superstitiously note that Arthur is from San Diego, and dismiss it as flaky anyway.

And in the process deprive Arthur of the validation he needs. And do those of us subject to Mr. Pill's cultural power a disservice. Mr. Pill isolates and vivisects the ego to find out the material cause and effect of its physical components. He then discovers a chemical that when added to the brain changes the behavior towards some imaginary normalcy. He then declares victory. The patient is better because the brain chemistry is changed. End of story.

But the story doesn't really end there. The culture is being blindly manipulated. In order for the pill to work, everyone needs to play the isolated "hero" quixotically searching for the one god. (See Ayn Rand or Joseph Campbell or John Wayne for the alienated hero story.) Heroes don't accept fate. They don't go with the psychic flow. They try to overcome fate. They battle fate. They spend all of their energies going against the grain. And, according to American individualism, everybody is supposed to do this. Of course we don't all do this. We can't. It's not realistic for every human in the tribe to be the hero. Some of us have to be mothers or fools or damsels in distress. The hero drive is represented by only a few of the archetypal cards. It is only one color along the spectrums of possibility And it's a lonely and alienating drive. It's the color blue. So, as we attempt to be heroes and fail, we are crushed against the rocks and thrown over the cliffs of the volatile psychic flow. We are bruised repeatedly without ever knowing why. To make matters worse, there is no room in the culture for admission of failure. And precious little room for any of the other archetypal energies either. So we bum out. We get manic. We get addicted. Enter the advertising industry, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry and voila, Mr. Pill. And for the moment he appears to work. He appears to work because he allows us, finally, to let go of the drive to be heroes. We get to rest and, it seems, let Mr. Pill be the hero for us.

But Mr. Pill is the beginning of the great compromise. When we need pills to make us heroes, we deprive future generations of a non-industrialized, non-commercialized natural substrate. We sow the seeds of future psychological damage. We will then have to use the story method to go back in time and heal the wounds we are now papering over with pills. Don't do it. Take a risk and try something that will help you feel connected without reliance on the psycho-pharmacological insurance industry. Try the Tarot. Read Arthur's book and see how.

If you like to look at the human experience as something which can be improved upon by use of psychology's navigational tools, the pill and the story, you will appreciate Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility. It gives, in social science language, an adequate description of the non-rational, non-ego realms that mainstream psychology tends to shun.

If you are someone who already believes in the spectrums of possibility, and don't need to be convinced that there is something bigger than ego at work in the universe, you may still find Arthur's book useful. It is full of highly descriptive, if complicated, language that you can use to defend your belief in the non-rational.

To close, I would like to pull a card from Stevee Postman's beautifully illustrated and queer friendly Cosmic Tribe Tarot to see what it thinks is the meaning of Arthur's book. I have kept the cards and my copy of the book together for about a week.

I am now lighting a candle and inviting the spirits in . . . I am now letting the hand of fate choose a card . . . It's the Lovers &endash;the union of opposites, twins of separate gender brought together under the watchful eyes of the universe. The Tarot seems to be saying that this book unites the significant powers of the rational mind with the awesome powers of the universal mind. What seems separate is actually one. Yet what seems one is actually separate. Energy flows in and out of form. Form evolves and evolves and evolves. Energy and form. Tarot and Psychology. Between tarot and psychology there is an infinite spectrum of possibilities. Your book, Arthur, brings color and therefore light. It is a useful tool to navigate the volatile psychic flow.

Eric Ganther is author of the text which accompanies The Cosmic Tribe Tarot (Destiny Books, $32.00). Art Rosengarten, a non-gay man but sensitive to our issues, was a grad school buddy of Toby Johnson's at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, back in the 1970s.

Last update Sept 21 2000