Basking in the ignorance of the symbol: T. S. Eliot and the Tarot cards…
In his notes to the Waste Land, that seminal (oh, how people love inflated words!), monstrously intellectual piece of poetry that would have never come out in such a compact form without Ezra Pound‘s input and disinterested devotion, T. S. Eliot plays with a long string of symbols grabbed at random from books he was reading at the time, struggling under the influence of the occult, exclusive club the Golden Dawn (of which Yeats had been the chairman).
Eliot uses in the Waste Land the imagery of the Tarot deck of cards, introducing thus some of the cards, among which the character of the Hanged Man (Le Pendu, arcana XII) :
“A wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. “
Then, Eliot (whom Pound was calling, Osiris knows why, “old Possum“) throws in this pitiful footnote :
” I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the ‘crowds of people’, and Death by Water. The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King.”
This is an amazingly ignorant, arrogant and self-centred confession (not counting that he uses “associate” three times in only three lines of text): “because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus.” and: “I associate all this, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King”!…
Needless to say that there is nothing of his lazy metaphors in the traditional symbolism of the deck of Tarot.
Everything Eliot invents, everything he puts in the poem about the symbolism of the cards is not only wrong, but he himself candidly acknowledges that he doesn’t care about their traditional meaning and value.
Shame to Eliot. You don’t play with symbols!… He himself wouldn’t have bothered going through the lyrics of some, let’s say, Ainu poet totally ignorant of the basic symbols of the Christian faith, but who would shamelessly write :
” I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Christian pantheon, faith and symbols…, but hey! – here is what they suggest to me”… apart from having a good laugh.
Symbols are not Lego bricks to be switched around. Symbols are powerful tools. They are always part of a coherent system and become totally empty and valueless when taken out of that system and combined at random.
Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound, had at least always systematically tried to get his symbols and cultural blueprints right, whenever he tackled an alien culture, be it Japanese poetry or the lyrics of the Troubadours.
But then again, Pound wasn’t awarded the Nobel prize in literature. Eliot was, in 1948… for the Waste Land among other things.