Tarot Dreams


The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource

Wheel of Fortune and Time, from a set of Tarot cards designed by Bembo Bonifacio and Antonio Cicognara for the Visconti-Sforza family in the mid-fifteenth century

I suppose it is submerged memories that give to our dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulfur in the blood is a volcanic inferno.
                    —W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

In early November, just after my sixtieth birthday, I recorded in my journal what I came to think of as the Dream of the Four Dimes:

I had arranged a study group in math and poetry. One other student was involved, a woman about my age who had produced, in time for the first meeting, a page of impressive equations with squirrely symbols (such as ∫) and numerals. I myself had nothing to show. The woman looked over my bookshelves, well stocked, but noted that one book, The Ages of Man, was conspicuously missing. The teacher arrived, O’Shea, though also somehow Seamus Heaney, in a sort of dressing gown. I looked at the floor and noticed a dime there. I reached down, seeing more dimes, four in all. There were other coins, too, but it was the dimes that caught my eye. “Four equidistant dimes,” I announced to the study group, as though I had made a significant finding, though feeling a bit sheepish about it, as though I were a fraud, bluffing.

As with many dreams, there were elements of fact in this one. About four years ago, when my friend O’Shea, a geometer, was serving as Dean of Faculty at our college, we had planned to teach a seminar together on poetry and mathematics. We thought that stanza shapes, or numerical variations in meter and rhyme, might reveal unsuspected mathematical complexities, that sort of thing. Then, abruptly, O’Shea was named president of a small college in Florida, I replaced him as Dean of Faculty, and our plan for the seminar was shelved, I assumed forever.

It made sense that a mathematician and a poet (linked by the syllable “shay” in O’Shea and Seamus) presided over a seminar that combined the two disciplines. The dream also seemed, pretty unambiguously, to express anxiety about aging: the woman “about my age” and the missing book about the ages of man. The four dimes seemed to be symbolic of something, but of what exactly?

Then, on February 10, I had another dream:

I was reading Seamus Heaney’s memoirs and came across several pages, at the end of part two, about his deep involvement with the Tarot, including illustrations.

Nobody fact-checks dreams, of course. Heaney never wrote his memoirs, nor was he ever keen on Tarot cards, as far as I know, though other, more earthly kinds of divination, such as dousing, do enter his poetry, as in the early poem “The Diviner.”

W. B. Yeats was the Irish poet with the deep involvement with the Tarot, not Heaney. As a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his “few and treasured possessions.” In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, “to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.” The twenty-two trump cards of the Tarot deck were aligned with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, certain cards were linked to the zodiac, and so on. Yeats’s vow of secrecy means that we don’t know much about the seven years he spent in the society, though Raine suggests that the imagery of the Tarot (the Tower, the Fool, and so on) infiltrated Yeats’s later poetry.

Such occult associations came late to the Tarot pack, which originated in Italian courts around the middle of the fifteenth century, possibly (as the philosopher Michael Dummett has suggested) in the imaginative d’Este court of Ferrara, and was used in games in which players took tricks by high cards in four numbered suits, roughly corresponding to our own poker pack, or by playing trionfi (trumps), elaborately decorated cards representing chariots and towers in flame, or figures such as the emperor or the hanged man or the fool. No mention of the occult powers of the Tarot appears in Renaissance Italy, not even among such passionate syncretizers as Giordano Bruno, as Frances Yates pointed out in an interesting 1981 article on Tarot, her last for The New York Review.


It was only in the eighteenth century that Tarot cards acquired, among progressive thinkers in pre-Revolutionary France, the faux-Egyptian and Cabalistic motifs that we now associate with them, probably (as Yates suggests) derived from the same ideas of Egypt as an enlightened and freedom-loving land that undergird the Egyptian motifs on the American dollar bill. The use of the cards for divination, or cartomancy, followed later; by 1890, when Yeats had acquired his Tarot deck, the practice had spread across Europe, and an esoteric cult of the Tarot came into existence, with fanciful claims about how the Tarot had originated among priests in ancient Egypt (like the mythical Hermes Trismegistus) and migrated to Europe through fortune-telling gypsies.

Heaney, contrary to the enthusiasm he showed in my dream, was dismissive of this occult side of Yeats’ work, systematized in what Heaney called the “do-it-yourself religion” of Yeats’s A Vision. The feverish view of the phases of human history expressed in A Vision, with Byzantium achieving the perfect balance of the sensual and spiritual, undergirds some of Yeats’s best-known poems, such as “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” In Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney that comprise Stepping Stones (2008), Heaney writes of his own more down-to-earth stance: “My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace; and, in a hollowed-out part of the floor, there was a cat licking up the starlit milk.”


W. B. Yeats in a “spirit photo” taken at a seance in Paris, circa 1914

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that Yeats used poetry primarily as a vehicle to express his esoteric philosophy; the opposite is more accurate. When, four days after his marriage in 1917, his wife experimented with automatic writing in a self-induced trance, the results—which inspired A Vision—were so exciting that Yeats, as he put it, “offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences.” “No,” came the oracular answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

It is not surprising that the images on Tarot cards, so vivid and mysterious, appeal to poets as a means of providing metaphors. Intrigued by Jessie Weston’s suggestion, in From Ritual to Romance, that the Tarot was related to fertility cults, T. S. Eliot inserted “Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,” and her “wicked pack of cards” into The Waste Land. Eliot, who claimed that he was “not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards” (he could have looked it up!), was not content with the actual cards mentioned in the poem, such as the Hanged Man and the Man with the Three Staves, but invented fanciful cards such as the drowned Phoenician Sailor and Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.

The metaphor-generating properties of the Tarot have inspired novelists as well. “I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories,” Italo Calvino remarks in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which a group of travelers out of Boccaccio or Chaucer, rendered mute by their passage through a dark forest, tell their stories by displaying a sequence of Tarot cards. “I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck,” Calvino recalled.

I drew hundreds of patterns, in a square, a rhomboid, a star design; but some essential cards were always left out, and some superfluous ones were always there in the midst. The patterns became so complicated (they took on a third dimension, becoming cubes, polyhedrons) that I myself was lost in them.

“Symmetries and arithmetics have always tempted Italo Calvino’s imagination to grow flirtatious and to begin its fantastic displays,” Seamus Heaney wrote in The New York Times in 1985, mentioning “the cat’s cradle narrations of ‘The Castle of Crossed Destinies,’ regulated but not determined by the inner relations of the cards in the tarot deck.”

Calvino’s narrative nightmare, like something out of Piranesi, reminded me, in its geometrical profusion, of my two dreams. I could now see a possible connection between them, beyond the presence of Heaney. Coins are one of the four suits of the Tarot deck, so perhaps my Four Dimes were the Four of Coins, with its divinatory meaning (according to A. E. Waite) of “the surety of possessions, cleaving to that which one has”—a pardonable instinct for a man turning sixty. The dressing gown in the dream could have been a wizard’s robe, like the robe worn by the Magician in the Tarot, who, in the popular Rider-Waite deck of cards, has the mathematical symbol of infinity (a recumbent eight) hovering like a halo above his head.


And yet, my own engagement with Tarot—which I first encountered, at a hippie boarding school in Vermont circa 1969, among the varied phantasmagoria of the counter culture—is superficial at best. While my dream about Heaney and the Tarot did spur some haphazard research on the topic, including the nature of suits and trumps, I’m neither a practitioner nor a true believer. Nonetheless, I do have a longstanding curiosity about how ideas of the occult, as explicated by Frances Yates and Gershom Scholem, have influenced literature, and how divination can enter into literary creation, as in James Merrill’s use of the Ouija Board or John Cage’s deployment of the coins of the I Ching.

It was only recently that I had my first Tarot reading, in the Quaker retirement home where my father, a former chemistry professor, meets with other math-minded residents in what they playfully call their salon mathémathique. A retired astronomy professor regaled me with explanations about why the days of the week are ordered as they are, why February has so few days, and the like. I asked him if he knew anything about Tarot; he certainly did, and offered to do a reading for me. I shuffled the cards and we began. What struck me as we consulted the cards—the Tower showed up and the Magician—was how closely the ensuing conversation resembled a therapy session. “This could mean your family is expecting something, the birth of a child? You seem a bit anxious about it. Or—wait—are you by any chance writing a new book?”

It occurred to me that the images in Tarot function much the way dreams do in psychoanalysis, by providing a symbolic and interpretable language for the elusive shape of our lives. We want our daily experiences, so disappointingly ordinary and frequently chaotic, to be magnified, as Sebald says they are in dreams. We want them to have a dramatic narrative, a coherent shape, a palpable vividness, which the Tarot can provide.

I remembered how, in my Dream of the Four Dimes, “There were other coins, too, but it was the dimes that caught my eye.” To see patterns in our lives, like the “ages of man” for a man over sixty, we have to overlook other competing patterns. (Our fear is that any pattern is imposed, not inherent, that our claims of finding patterns are fraudulent, that we’re bluffing, as in a game of cards.) Here, then, I could glimpse a tentative (if perhaps suspiciously upbeat and hortatory) interpretation of the Dream of the Four Dimes. To understand the shape of things more intensely—especially as we get older—we have to learn to overlook the insignificant, even if we end up feeling sheepish about the results.

Such creative subtraction might be a subject for my next Tarot reading, or for that seminar, so long postponed, with O’Shea.

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