“No object is mysterious. The mystery is your eye” – Elizabeth Bowen
In the dark days of my teenage confusion, I worked at a little hole-in-the-wall retail store that sold a variety of fringy accoutrements including simple magic tricks, costumes, all manner of occult and strange phenomena books, puzzling symbolic jewelry, and tarot cards. We were equally popular among tweens and local biker gangs (consequently, nobody ever dared rob us, since both categories are frightening), and our somewhat difficult to find location gave people the sense that they had either stumbled upon a hidden gem or sent them running for the door. The eclectic and sometimes complex nature of our products required employees to do anything from explain how to create fake scars with liquid latex, demonstrate basic sleight of hand, gauge whether a customer was really interested in Aleister Crowley’s Goetia or simply wanted the latest popular book on love spells, discern ufologists from cryptozoologists, and answer loaded questions like “Are Ouija Boards evil?” I was admittedly young and naïve, but enthusiastic and determined to soak in the business acumen and seemingly boundless knowledge and curiosity of my older and wiser co-workers, some of which I have remained friends with nigh-well on thirty years. Having just entered my maudlin mid-forties, I find myself reflecting on just how formative the experience was in terms of fleshing out a more robust philosophic and psychological appreciation of the question of how we determine what is real, or whether the question in any way matters.
I quickly learned to discuss the latest conspiracy theory, Bigfoot encounter, UFO sighting, the value of psychedelics in expanded consciousness, practical witchcraft, or the best uses of fake blood to achieve a horrifying effect at length with those who cared to indulge. Over the years, the store had become a sort of clubhouse for oddballs and the intellectually disenfranchised, customers often cheerfully loitering for hours as they shot the breeze with staff (we also tried to play cool obscure music before alternative was a sales category). I could even talk at some length about the relationship between tarot cards and Kabbalistic mysticism, yet the one inquiry that invariably tripped me up was the simple, but genuinely curious question, “Do tarot cards really work?” At the tender age of sixteen, I had yet to experience anything truly strange or inexplicable outside of the literature, and thus could not in good conscience confirm or deny with any authority.
Having just started my forays into the writings of John Lilly, Julian Jaynes, and Robert Anton Wilson, and having not yet stumbled into the seminal works of anomalistic philosophy (Charles Fort was daunting, John Keel was largely out of print, and Vallee was not yet on my radar), not to mention that after all I was a teenager and it was the John Hughes-influenced 1980’s and my prime concerns were girls, bad beer, and skipping school to play pick-up games of basketball with my buddies, while simultaneously maintaining a grade point average high enough to keep my parents from inquiring too closely about my other dubious life choices. Imagine my dismay, as a typical young kid, confident as only the young can be, that I was on the verge of figuring out the secret to life, that such a basic question stumped me. Being reasonably well read, relatively articulate, and rapidly discovering that speaking with bold authority was often more important than being right, this constituted something of an existential conundrum.
As my serious efforts were more attuned to finding that weekend’s party or a lovely young lady who was receptive to my fumbling ministrations, I wasn’t likely to embark on any deep soul-searching or join an Ashram. I resolved to consult an expert. In this case, a colleague with whom I had bonded over a shared fascination with B-Horror movies and strange phenomena. He was about a decade older than me with an insatiable curiosity about all things esoteric, which he had researched widely and deeply, a biting, misanthropic sense of humor and a fascinating sense of world-weariness no doubt derived from a complicated, rather sordid biography. In short, he was and remains a brilliant mind, incisively logical without being wedded to any particular ontology or epistemology, an inevitable function of living a truly liminal life. He would no doubt be embarrassed if I called him my anomalistic mentor (I’ll let him remain anonymous, but probably send this little memoir to him so he can be privately mortified and remind him that I appreciate his friendship in that “punch each other in the shoulder” sort of way that guys of my generation maintain simpatico across the years). As my knowledge base slowly caught up to his (or as much as it ever would), our friendly debates about the weirdness of the universe were vociferous, stimulating, and utterly inconclusive, but two fundamental points always emerged – (1) “truth” is always an approximation, and (2) knowing the ultimate source is not essential to understanding the meaning, or as he succinctly put it once –“It’s stupid to insist on learning machine code first if you want to be a good programmer”.
So, I put the question to him. Do tarot cards work? After all, he had dabbled in the occult, explored the world of sympathetic magic, altered his own consciousness in myriad ways, and most importantly to the question at hand, given tarot card readings professionally. After I endured a brief diatribe largely summed up by “Who cares?”, and surrounding the poverty of my genetic inheritance and the abysmal greyness of my grey matter, he became more thoughtful, and gave an answer that has long stuck with me as a remarkably sane and fruitful perspective on all things anomalous or esoteric. He said, “Tarot, or frankly any kind of oracle, doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know”. Then he took a smoke break.
The world is big and scary. We are small and afraid of the dark. But maybe nothing is as frightening to us as the possibility that we are truly unable to comprehend the universe. Yet we play the odds, and nine times out of ten, life obligingly behaves as expected. We call the aberrant tenth time anomalous, or occult, or religion precisely because we cannot grasp it in our hands and make it conform to a paradigm that otherwise serves us so well. Perhaps this is the problem with the earnest seeking for reality behind the strange phenomena of the world. We defensively presume that we don’t already “know” what we are looking at, as admitting that the human mind is capable of grasping the depth and variation of existence, that our individual interpretations of the anomalous, no matter how strange, are meaningful and real, threatens to validate all the frightening and disconcerting experiences of others. Is the world filled with magic, and if it was could we even admit it to ourselves?