the skeptic, the witch, and the tarot: in search of narrativium

I turn the cards. The Moon – writing, dreams, foreshadowing. The Five of Swords – depression, defeat. The Knave of Pentacles – obstinacy, but financial smarts. I’m connecting the images, trying to pull out the thread linking them. My friend is watching me, trying not to let emotions play across her face. She’s not doing well. I turn another card. The Three of Wands – sucess through hard work. Story time.

Here are some facts: tarot is cold-reading in the vein of psychics. It’s beautiful symbolism, but it’s all an act.

Some other, less obvious facts: I read tarot. I learned from a friend several years ago. I adore tarot art, and the meanings behind the cards. I love surprising people with it.

I’m an endlessly thwarted writer of fiction, and a fairly scrappy writer of non-fiction, but there’s something in the idea of bringing together links, symbols, and art to produce a narrative that I find irresistable. Add in the cold-reading and you keep yourself on the hop, but that’s not the point. The point is the story.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, Narrativium is a natural element in the vein of earth and fire. It ensures that the world works as a story. It lies where choice turns into inevitability; lies counter to free will even as those inside the narrative imagine themselves to be acting freely. Narrativium enters both deep magic and prosaic human interactions.

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

Isn’t that a marvellous concept? Free-flowing story. Story in the air, in the ground, in ourselves. Story functioning alone, with no purpose other than its own completion. Impassable, like evolution and the earth’s rotation.

Philip Pullman uses a similar concept in his His Dark Materials trilogy, with an elementary particle called Dust that appears when lifeforms become sentient, and inspires knowledge and consciousness. Dust we have, and unto Dust we return the lifegiving force of thought. Sentient beings inspired by the universe, and needed by that same universe. It’s a beautiful idea which taps into the intense desire our species has to feel a connection to our physical and mental places.

We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…

We do. We can see streaks of victory and loss in the results of a coin toss; we cheer for the gazelle or the leopard in an Attenborough documentary. Even the Higgs Boson stories from last year were written as if the universe somehow worked to produce us. We don’t like to believe we’re a blip on the record, and to stop ourselves falling into the Total Perspective Vortex of the infinite, we tell each other stories about a big man who lives in, and yet not in, the sky, or twins raised by wolves who founded a city, or cycles of reincarnation that mean our own story will go on after this life ends.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who co-write the Science of Discworld books, refer to humans as Pan narrans – the story-telling ape. Far from the ‘wise man’ label of Homo sapiens, it is not our intelligence that marks us as different from the other branches of our evolutionary tree. It’s our imagination.

And so back to the tarot. Tarot deals with the big questions – life, love, people. There are different layouts used for various purposes, ranging from a simple one-/two-card draw on an immediate dilemma, to a full spread of past-present-future including influences and inner thoughts. You learn the meanings, you deal the cards, you watch your questioner very carefully, and you start to talk. Talking around the topic is the easiest thing to do – so you get, say, a Knave card, and you mention something about a young man. Get a Swords card next to him, and you ask if they’ve had a problem or a bad experience with a young man. Speak in generalities, and then when you see something register on your questioner’s behaviour, grab that thread and run with it.

The story is open-ended. Oh, we have banal things in common (find me someone who hasn’t had trouble with or about a young man), but we each have our incredibly disparate paths to walk. Story guides us. We live in a pattern of stories, led and gently pushed into place by the part of our brains that’s absorbed the patterns of narrative in the media we’ve consumed. The brain wants stories, wants order. The brain would dearly love to encounter some narrativium instead of just feeling like it should be there. We build ourselves castles of happily-ever-after, or models of justice in which good guys are vindicated and bad guys are punished. In a world so unpredictable, we crave certainty.

We are so curious, too. We want to know what lies ahead for us, and what’s currently going on in the minds of our peers. We consume the lives of others, real or fictional, in a voracious desire for insight. Then we play the game with ourselves: will I ever know what’s going to happen to me? Small wonder that so many people end up consulting fake fortune-tellers for a window into the future.

In another Discworld book, the old witch Granny Weatherwax disapproves of displays of magic and occult paraphernalia as being ‘myffic’. The myffic, in Granny’s estimation, includes any airy-fairy claims to, and ways of practicing, magic. Granny knows that magic exists – she is a witch, after all – but she understands that most of what people think of as magic is really ‘headology’. The trappings of magic don’t matter as much as belief.

The human brain is an amazing machine. Our need for belief and creativity (and either and both) is a deeply-rooted part of our consciousness. We’re drawn to expressions of those traits, and when we reach a point where knowledge is impossible – like predicting the future – we turn to each other to provide answers. Tarot cards are a visual language with symbolic meaning, but they’re not where the power lies. The power is in the human connection between reader and listener.

It always is.

Some interesting links about storytelling and the brain out of this article on Lifehacker.

Quotes are from The Science of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. I recommend His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman as well. Granny Weatherwax appears as herself. SHE ATEN’T DEAD.