Tarot Triumph

Edmund Leach

  • The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City by Michael Dummett
    Duckworth, 600 pp, £45.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1014 7
  • Twelve Tarot Games by Michael Dummett
    Duckworth, 242 pp, £5.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1488 6

During recent decades a variety of very distinguished academics have taken time off from their learned pursuits to write imitation Agatha Christie detective stories, so when I first learned that Michael Dummett, widely regarded as the most formidable philosopher of his generation, was about to publish a book about Tarot cards, I rather naturally assumed that it must be an exercise of this same recreational sort. In a certain very off-centre sense, my assumption was correct. The Preface to The Game of Tarot explains the origins of Dummett’s project roughly as follows.

In 1968, he spent three months in the United States. It was a year of political disaster. Nixon became President; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. But for Dummett things were even worse at home. He was ‘deeply involved in work to combat that racism which has, over the past fifteen years, disfigured our national life and dishonoured our country’, and in 1967 the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (CARD) had disintegrated. Dummett was in deep personal distress. ‘I found it almost impossible to do any more work on philosophy or logic than my teaching duties made essential ... But when one is engaged in what produces constant emotional anxiety, there is need for some kind of refuge, and my new hobby became for me a refuge.’

The new hobby concerned cards of a different denomination. It seems to have been sparked off partly by the fact that when Dummett’s son Andrew came across a book of rules relating to a French version of Tarot, father and son had together learned how to play the game and found that it was a very good one, and partly by the fact that his present collaborator, Sylvia Mann, who is the foremost collector of playing-cards in Britain, had recently published a book on her subject.

The resulting product is altogether astonishing: encyclopedic in its scope; monumental in its learning. Indeed, were it not for the lucidity and elegance of Dummett’s style, one would inevitably describe the general manner as teutonic. The 600 pages of The Game of Tarot are printed two columns to the page with learned footnotes by the hundred, some of them over a column in length.

Let me emphasise from the start that the book is a history of the game of Tarot; it is not a history or analysis of the designs of the Tarot cards, a quite different topic which might turn out to be more interesting than Dummett himself considers at all likely. It should also be stressed that Dummett is the sole author: Mann’s main role was to suggest literary sources which might prove worth investigating and to put Dummett in touch with other playing-card experts throughout the world. The fact that, at the end of the day, a whole galaxy of scholars of the most diverse sorts should have collaborated in the enterprise speaks volumes for Dummett’s powers of persuasion and for his capacity to arouse interest in unlikely lines of argument.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary entry for Tarot reads:‘Also Taroc. 1598. [F., ad. It. tarocco (pl. tarocchi), of unkn. origin.] a. One of a set of playing-cards, first used in Italy in the 14th c. Also used in fortune-telling. b. pl. The game played with these’. The general effect of Dummett’s study is to show, first, that while the game of Tarot (initially called trionfi (Triumphs – hence ‘trumps’) did in fact originate in Italy in the 15th century, it later developed many different forms in many different countries, some of which are still played, and, secondly, that, insofar as the Tarot cards have any connection with fortune-telling, this is only a recent (and largely British) development.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in