Vol. 2 No. 20 · 16 October 1980

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Tarot Triumph

SIR: The trouble with Michael Dummett’s book on the Tarot, to which William Empson referred in a recent letter (Letters, 18 September), is that while it leaves us dispossessed of some of our favourite myths it does not go far enough in explaining (or attempting to explain) the origin of these cards.

Professor Dummett flails the 18th century and later occultists mercilessly for their duplicity in propounding an antique. Egyptian origin for the Tarot and for their belief that the Tarot trumps embodied the secrets of an ancient wisdom. My own view is that the delights which they have produced (and who dare say these are not creations?) are a sufficient reward and recompense for their naughtinesses. The occultist’s viewpoint is well-comprehended and expressed by Kathleen Raine in Yeats, the Tarot and The Golden Dawn. She sees the occultist movements in terms of an imaginative creativity, and this is arguably at least as important as the social intercourse, intellectual exercise or sheer escapism of card-playing.

That card-playing was of pre-eminent importance in relation to the history of the Tarot Michael Dummett leaves us in no doubt. Indeed, it is his contention that the Tarot was invented as a new card game embodying a hitherto unknown feature, the principle of trumps, and he stresses that it was not until the late 18th century (when occult revelation pronounced the cards to be of near-diluvian antiquity) that the Tarot was used for any purpose other than card-playing. Now, the invention of trumps must rank as the most significant development in the history of card-playing since the introduction of playing-cards to the West in the mid-14th century. It is not strange that someone should have conceived of the use of master cards in a trick-taking game, but what I do find strange is the form in which the invention is embodied and the fact that the inventor is not known. On Dummett’s theory the inventor of this new game produced a whole new pack of cards incorporating four suits of 14 (corresponding to the existing playing-cards but with an additional court card in each suit) and a set of 22 picture cards, the trumps, trionfi or atouts, known to occultists as the Major Arcana. The pictures, says Dummett, are standard Renaissance subjects: The Emperor, The Pope, The Last Judgment, Temperance, Fortune etc. (It would burden the argument here to mention the inclusion of such non-standard subjects as The Hanged Man and The Tower.)

His theory is based, not only on surviving cards from the 15th century, and on written testimony in the sermons (dated 1450-1480) of a Dominican friar, but on the lack of any comparable cards outside Italy from the same or an earlier period. But lack of evidence cannot be used to support a theory, and all Michael Dummett has really proved is that the earliest known location for the game of Tarot was Italy (1442, possibly even a little earlier). Thus, while the theory of an Italian invention is in accord with the known facts, it cannot be regarded as proven and may well be wrong. I think it is, primarily because the subjects and hierarchy of the trionfi appear to have been standardised from the beginning. The list of trumps which appears in the Dominican’s sermon would serve as an adequate inventory for a standard pack of the present day; apart from occasional (often politic) variations, the subjects and order of the Tarot trumps have remained unchanged since their introduction. This argues a high stage of development of the Tarot pack when it occurred in Italy, and it is just this condition in respect of playing-cards which Dummett uses to adduce that these were not a Western European invention but a foreign introduction.

But if the Tarot is not an Italian invention, where did it come from? I would suggest a sorely beleaguered Byzantium, which was to afford many a refugee and many a manuscript in the decade or so following Dummett’s 1442. Survivals of an Eastern Imperial tradition are said to persist on some packs in the details of the papal vestments and regalia and in the head-gear of the Emperor.

A more telling anomaly (for Michael Dummett’s thesis) is the number of the trumps: 22 (or better, 21 + 1, since the 22nd trump, The Fool, is usually unnumbered and has a specific role in play). Dummett hedges the question of why such a large number of trumps should be necessary. I have looked carefully into the play of the games represented in his book and can find no cogent reason why there should be 22 trumps. It has been suggested that this number was chosen so that the ratio of trumps to any suit should be 3:2; other investigators have suggested that the number 78 was important; but considered dispassionately, neither of these reasons makes sense. Playing with Tarot cards is very tiresome because of the cumbrously large hands involved (25 cards in the three-handed games). If we consider the difficulty of playing with a pack which had no indices and in which the trumps were not numbered, we must revere all the more the mnemonic powers of the peoples of the Renaissance.

I think there are 22 Tarot trumps because the subjects already existed as a set of 22, that this set was adopted by a card-player used to a 56-card pack and that the idea of trumps was born from the cards rather than that the cards were an implementation subsequent to an invention of the principle of trumps. Michael Dummett is adamant that the trumps are not to be separated from the rest of the pack – the Tarot pack is a whole, he says, and was invented as a whole. Once again he is rescued by lack of evidence. I like to believe in the pre-Tarot existence of a set of 22 designs because, unlike Michael Dummett, I have a weakness for occultists. It is axiomatic for them that each card of the Tarot is associated with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and hence with one of the 22 paths joining the ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. The cards may thus be used in meditative cabalism as mandalas for traversing the paths of the Tree.

The basis for the present cabalist tradition is undoubtedly Eliphas Lévi (late 19th-century) and since his time the designs of the cards have incorporated the shapes of some Hebrew letters; others have been interpreted as being present where they obviously are not. But quite apart from this late adoption of the Tarot into occultism, I consider that two of the trumps (The Tower, trump XVI, and The Moon, trump XVIII) have, from at least the 16th century, and throughout changes in design, persistently shown an iconographic association with the Hebrew letters ayin and tzaddi respectively (the 16th and 18th letters of the Hebrew alphabet).

This may, of course, he coincidence allied to wishful thinking. Even if there were a proven correspondence between the Tarot trumps and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet I should hesitate to suggest that this indicated that the cards were ever used for cabalistic purposes, but a set of playing-cards that could afford secret communication between cognoscenti in public must have had their use. If this letter/card association is well-founded, it is strongly supportive of the notion of a fixed set.

John Henry Jones
London NW3


SIR: All his biographers agree that Juliet Herbert was important in Flaubert’s life, if only because the relationship endured so long. It therefore did not seem a pointless exercise to try to discover who she was. Your reviewer says (LRB, 18 September) ‘it is possible’ that she met Flaubert during short holidays she took in France. It is certain that she did so in 1872 and 1874 (see the evidence given on pages 115-17 and 120), and on the second occasion he took exactly the same steps to conceal this visit from ‘everyone’ as he took in later years to conceal visits to someone not named but ipso facto not a woman he could have been meeting openly. Admittedly, it cannot be proved who this woman was. All I have attempted to do is to Indicate some pointers to Juliet – in particular, the significant request in 1876 that Caroline should send her letters to Juliet to Flaubert, Juliet not knowing where she would be. The implication can only be that Flaubert would be in touch with her when Caroline was not.

As for the phrase ‘It is by now impossible to doubt the emotional nature of their relationship,’ it rests 1. on the ‘battement de coeur’ noted at the outset of the 1865 journey to London; 2. on Flaubert’s statement to Caroline in 1870 that now he had no one but her and Juliet; 3. on these numerous visits and on Flaubert’s own character; and 4. on the destruction of the letters.

Hermia Oliver
East Molesey, Surrey

Darkly facetious

SIR: I am bemused by two sentences in Tim Hilton’s review of Kathryn Heleniak’s William Mulready (LRB, 18 September). Mr Hilton is discussing Lady Dilke: ‘She lacks a biographer. God be praised for His mercy, the George Eliot admirers (they are also the admirers of English water-colours) have so far left her alone.’ On general grounds, it is, I suppose, likely enough that some admirers of George Eliot (does Mr Hilton mean the woman, the books, or both?) are also admirers of some English water-colours, but I do not see that an admiration for the one necessarily entails an admiration for the other. Nor do I see that, even where an admiration for both exists, the reasons for admiration need be (as Mr Hilton would seem to imply) identical, or even very closely related. I am, furthermore, unconvinced that to admire either George Eliot or English water-colours (or both) is (as Mr Hilton again implies) a sign of menial debility, depraved taste or moral turpitude. And anyway, what water-colours does Mr Hilton have in mind? Those of Turner? Or Rowlandson? Or Girtin? Or Dr William Crotch?

I must confess, then, that the second of the two sentences remains obscure to me. The first, however, appears to mean exactly what it says. Lady Dilke ‘lacks a biographer’. Betty Askwith, whose Lady Dilke: A Biography was published, with no attempt at concealment, in 1969, will be surprised to hear it. But perhaps I am being too literal in my interpretation of Mr Hilton’s remark. Perhaps it is of a piece with his darkly facetious observation about admirers of English water-colours and George Eliot, and should be taken to mean that Betty Askwith’s book is beneath Mr Hilton’s notice or contempt. This reading may, possibly, seem over-subtle, but I should be reluctant to adopt the alternative and simpler one, which would convict Mr Hilton of ignorance.

R.J. Dingley
Christ Church, Oxford

SIR: It was Dorothea’s husband in Middlemarch, Casaubon, who was supposed to be modelled on Mark Pattison, not Dorothea on Francis, Mark Pattison’s wife, as Mr Hilton claims. Dorothea was a simpleton, Mrs Pattison an adventuress. What is curious is that the first woman who ruined Dilke, Mrs Crawfurd, also took to art and good works, like Francis.

Rosalie Mander
London SW1

BBC Music

SIR: I hate to correct somebody with whom it was always a pleasure to work, but Hans Keller it wrong to suggest that there is no liaison between BBC radio and television music departments (LRB, 7 August). As a matter of fact, there is more consultation now than ever before, particularly in the field of opera, where last year over a dozen works were broadcast simultaneously by radio and television. We in television attend quarterly planning meetings with our radio colleagues and generally do our best both to avoid clashes and to encourage joint ventures. Mr Keller’s specific complaint in his article is of separate radio and television broadcasts of the same performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of Bruckner’s Seventh. This is correct and yet misleading. Mr Keller is referring to repeat broadcasts on radio and television. The first television screening was in BBC 1’s Sunday Prom series a few days after the live concert broadcast, and it was well trailed as such at the time.

Mr Keller knows well that scheduling and programme-building are complicated processes. Unlike Radio 3, where music is the prime ingredient, both the BBC television services provide a full range of programmes, including news, drama, entertainment, sport, documentary programmes and films, and so simultaneous broadcasts are extremely difficult to achieve, particularly on BBC 1. Nevertheless we televise the Proms on BBC 1 (The Sunday Prom) because audiences are double or treble those normally achieved on BBC 2. The disadvantage is the absence of stereo: it would not be realistic policy to televise a work like Bruckner’s Seventh on BBC 1 at 8.30 p.m. Later in the 1980s the problem will go away: television will have its own stereo sound-signal – as the Japanese do already and as the Germans will in September 1981.

Humphrey Burton
Head of Music and Arts Television, BBC Television, London W14

Anthony Blunt and the British Academy

SIR: Both Sir Dennis Proctor (Letters, 18 September) and Michael Mason (LRB, 20 March) are led by their enthusiasm for Anthony Blunt into grossly overstating their case. It is simply not true that all the ‘good guys’ were pro-Communist in the 1930s, and that the appalling character of Stalin’s dictatorship was only discovered later. And to gloss over the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the bland remark that it did not make Russia an enemy of ours is, to put it politely, disingenuous. Just who, between September 1939 and June 1941, was actually opposing the evils of Fascism, in arms? Not Stalin, not Russia, not communists anywhere, not Blunt, but millions of ordinary people who, it seems, are now regarded by Blunt’s apologists as having thereby shown themselves lacking in the more refined moral sensibilities. Finally, we are invited to admire the moral rectitude of his actions after the war, in aid of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and their Soviet masters, as showing how loyal he was to his friends. If that is all, why was it so clandestine? Could and should he not have trumpeted forth to the world his faith in them and their cause? I am not sure that loyalty to one’s friends is such a great virtue if one is so ashamed of them that it has to be kept secret.

The fact is that Blunt has shown himself to have been a silly, vain man with an utterly unjustified confidence in his own intellectual grasp and understanding of the world in which he lives, and the sort of inflated egotism that enabled him to act upon his beliefs despite everything.

David Kew
Horam, Sussex


SIR: What admirable discipline on the part of Jon Elster (LRB, 21 August) to manage 5,000 words on irrational politics without once mentioning the word ‘power’. That was his best joke, for if you once start speculating about ‘The Force’ you’re up the blue ray with the gypsies of Eleusis, Jesus Christ, Nostradamus and the Mad Mullah. I was sorry, however, that only by very remote implication did he exhort humanity to stick to the issues.

Roland Morgan
Uzès, France

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