Confession time: I love existentialist literature.
The term “existential” has gained a negative connotation over the years. Jean-Paul Sartre himself had an anecdote about meeting a woman at a dinner party who swore profusely and, realizing that her language was not exactly à propos, excused herself by saying “I must be becoming an existentialist”. The word is now associated with the kind of self-absorbed, nobody-understands-or-cares-about-me angst to which it seems that all teenagers are condemned.*
But in actuality, existential theory is much more subtle and (I’m willing to claim) valuable than that. The two main figures in existential literature were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, although the latter actually rejected the title “existentialist” and called himself an “absurdist”. For this post, I’ll focus on Sartre, and maybe at some point in the future there will be a Camusian followup.
Existence before essence
The key to Sartre’s thinking is the idea that any thing’s (or person’s) existence must necessarily precede its essence. Sartre rejected the Catholic theological model in which man was created by an omniscient God and in which his nature and the trajectory of his life were predestined. Rather, Sartre said, man when he comes into this world is a blank slate. He has the potential to become anything and to do anything, but the essence of what he is has not yet been determined. Man must discover–or create–his own essence, through the choices he makes over the course of his life.
This means incredible freedom for human beings, because it means that we can become whatever we choose.** However, it also means incredible responsibility, because we alone are responsible for the consequences of our actions. Sartre stripped away a man’s ability to excuse his behavior by saying “That’s just the way I am,” because according to Sartre, there is no such thing as a fundamental, unchangeable human nature. Man determines his own essence through the way he chooses to shape his existence, and that means that man is ultimately and inescapably burdened with the knowledge that he alone is to blame for whatever he is or does.
To me, this duality of innocence and responsibility is captured by the pairing of the Fool and the World, the opening and closing cards of the Major Arcana. The Fool is unadulterated potential, man as he comes into existence and before he has determined his essence. Meanwhile, the World is the summum bonum of man’s potential, the greatest that he could ever make himself, but there’s a certain degree of weight to the card. (Astrologically, this card is linked to Saturn, the heaviest and slowest planet, and for good reason.) Liberating ourselves enough to claim the success and abundance of Key 21 means that we must also learn to carry the weight of the world all on our own, and that can be a difficult burden to bear.
The realization of that burden–the understanding of what, exactly, it means to be responsible for the creation of one’s own essence and purpose in life–brings us to the second of Sartre’s ideas that I want to touch upon in this post: l’angoisse, a tricky French word that translates roughly as “anguish” or “anxiety”. This is the messier part of Sartre’s thought, and is probably the greatest culprit for existentialism’s aforementioned bad reputation.
L’angoisse is the anxiety that hits us when we finally begin to comprehend what that whole “existence precedes essence” thing really implies. When we understand that there might not be a divine plan for our lives,*** and that if we want to live in an ordered universe, we have to create that order for ourselves.
It’s a scary thought.
The card that has always been linked to the concept of angoisse in my mind is the Nine of Swords, to which many people refer as the “nightmare card”. It captures the sleeplessness, doubt, and–here’s the buzzword–anxiety that can sit in a human heart, the mess of negative emotions that have earned the label “existential crisis”. In my first-ever Tarot journal, I wrote one keyword for each of the seventy-eight cards, and I also chose one person (real or fictional) who I felt represented what that card meant to me. For the Nine of Swords, my keyword was (you guessed it) angoisse, and my person was Roquentin, the anxiety-stricken protagonist of Sartre’s novel Nausea.
If you wanted to choose a card from the Major Arcana to represent this concept (the Majors being representative of the larger, more impactful themes of human life), I think the Hanged Man is an excellent choice. It not only represents suffering, but also a sense of disorientation (what with the figure in the card being upside down, and all), confusion, and–although this is less evident–responsibility. The Hanged Man is alone in the card image, and no one is coming to help him. If he wants to be free of his suffering, he must take action and put the world to rights for himself, but that much responsibility is a frightening prospect, and–for the moment, at least–he prefers to dangle in doubt.
This is the last concept I’ll treat in this post, although Sartre’s thinking is much more nuanced and delicate than I’m making it out to be. Like angoisse, the idea of “engagement” is difficult to express concisely, but it is essentially an individual’s choice to embrace his role as the creator of his own nature. This is the moment where we accept our anguish, overcome it and decide to continue with our lives despite our fears and doubts. It is the acceptance of the responsibility that Sartre has offered to us and the decision to actively engage in the existence-before-essence paradigm.
There are several cards that could be linked to this concept, but to me, the essential one is the Nine of Wands. I hear this card often described as the “failure is not an option” card, and that maxim is never more true than in existential thought. In a Sartrian world, we choose engagement in our lives simply because there is no other choice to be had. We are burdened with the responsibilities of self-creation whether we like it or not, and we don’t get the option to abandon that responsibility.
This sounds depressing, I know. That’s just sort of the way Sartre is. But, while it is depressing, it’s simultaneously liberating, because this philosophy is one in which responsibility and freedom are always found together. With the Nine of Wands, we don’t get to quit the journey that shapes our lives, but nothing ever tells us which direction we have to go. That is a choice entirely left to us. We can do anything we choose–and become anything we choose–with the Nine of Wands, so long as we accept the responsibility of the choosing.
That’s all for now. I enjoyed writing this post, so I’ll come back at some point and write about Camus, and maybe a bit more on existentialism and Tarot in general. This is by no means a complete webbing of existential theory onto Tarot (although I would love to see a deck that did that; publishers, give me a call), but existentialism is one of the many ways that I interpret and relate to Tarot cards, and hopefully this post has shown a bit of the thought process behind that. Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch up with you next time.
*Although thankfully, I started reading Sartre before I hit adolescence, and I was spared this particular bout of hormonal unpleasantness.
**Within the limits of our physical environments, of course. We determine who we become by the choices we make, but those choices are, themselves, determined by the opportunities that are presented to us. Someone living in dire poverty will probably never have the chance to become a philanthropist. Similarly, there are external consequences for all of our actions. I may well choose to be a rapscallion and a thief, but if I do so, I must accept that I’ll probably end up in jail. In Sartre’s thought, man is always responsible for his own actions, both in a larger philosophical sense and in a more mundane legal sense.
***Sartre was an atheist, as am I, but existential theory is by no means confined to areligious thought. I refer you to Wikipedia’s excellent article on Christian existentialism. If you do believe in a divine plan that orders the universe, you can still understand this idea of angoisse as a (flawed) human soul’s fundamental inability to grasp all of that plan. Ignorance and doubt of divine justice can be horribly painful and anguish-inducing; consider Saint Augustine’s definition of evil as separation from God.