Existentialism and Tarot, Part 2: Camus and the Nine of Cups

A while ago (too long ago; my blog is starting to rot) I did a post on the way I view Tarot through the existential theory of Jean-Paul Sartre. And in that post, I promised a follow-up where I would discuss Sartre’s contemporary, Albert Camus. This is that promised post.

But the reason it’s been almost a month in the making is that I’ve found this post surprisingly difficult to write. Don’t get me wrong, my Tarot reading style is definitely heavily influenced by Camus–perhaps even more so than by Sartre–but the problem is, there’s a lot of overlap. Camus and Sartre had very similar ideas, and the cards I associate the most strongly with Camus are the same ones I mentioned in my Sartre post. I think about them slightly differently, for sure, but the nuances are subtle enough that I don’t think anyone would enjoy another post about how the Nine of Wands represents the unshirkable responsibility to take charge of our existence.

So instead, we’re going to put all of those previous Sartre cards to the side, and we’re going to focus on one single card, which I feel represents the main difference between Sartre and Camus: the Nine of Cups.

In order to understand the significance of the Nine of Cups in this context, you need to know a bit about Albert Camus. He was a fun man. His most well-known book, The Stranger, has been seized upon by postcolonial literary theorists, and has forever besmirched his legacy with a political agenda that makes everyone forget his metaphysics, but (in my opinion) the real value of his work lies outside of politics. It’s true that Camus was very politically active–he was from Algeria and was one of the loudest voices calling for the liberation of his country from French rule–but some of his greatest works have absolutely nothing to do with worldly issues.

At his best, Camus was a philosopher in the abstract. And his greatest works, the abstract ones, are the ones that have been left in the dust by The Stranger‘s popularity, which is a pity. The Fall is a beautiful novella about the loss of innocence; The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus are philosophical treatises on the ethical questions surrounding murder and suicide, respectively.

Camus is almost always lumped in with Sartre under the existential umbrella, because the two men had very similar ideas built upon near-identical foundations. The premise of Camus’s thinking (as with Sartre’s) was that man’s nature and the meaning of life could not be predetermined, and that humanity had to shoulder the burden of creating its own direction in the world. But despite this similarity, Camus was not an existentialist,* and explicitly rejected the term. Instead, he called himself an Absurdist.

Just look at that sly bastard.
Just look at that sly bastard.

Here’s where the difference between Camus and Sartre comes into play. Camus is, well, much happier than Sartre. Much more life-affirming.

If you read my first post on existentialism and Tarot, you may remember the concept of angoisse in Sartre’s thinking: the anguish that comes from an individual’s realization that he is entirely responsible for his own life. There’s a similar thought chez Camus, but he calls it the notion of the Absurd. In his view, the Absurd is the realization that life is, in and of itself, completely devoid of meaning. It’s the moment when we understand that everything we do is inconsequential, that nothing is permanent, and that all of the joy and pain we experience over the course of our lives will all be completely forgotten after our death. In short, it’s the moment when we really start to appreciate that nothing in our lives matters. That life is absurdity.

This is a scary notion, a Nine of Swords moment as profound as Sartre’s angoisse. But the way that Camus handles the absurd is a far cry from Sartre’s model of “engagement” (à la Nine of Wands). Rather than telling us to shoulder the responsibility of shaping our lives because we have no other choice (all very somber and depressive), Camus tells us to laugh in the face of the Absurd.

For example, in his masterpiece The Myth of Sisyphus, he asks a simple question: If life is without inherent meaning, then why not commit suicide? Man, after all, has no predetermined reason to live, and his life is fleeting and inconsequential anyways, so why shouldn’t he just end it? Sartre’s answer to this question would be that each man is charged with creating his own meaning in life and that he has no choice not to do so (very Nine of Wands). But Camus’s answer is much simpler and, in my opinion, much more life-affirming.

The reasoning (over the course of several hundred pages, so forgive me if I condense) is something like the following: Life is inherently meaningless, true. For this, there is no reason not to commit suicide. However, my the same measure, there is also no reason to commit suicide. Doing so won’t make life any more meaningful. And given the choice between two equally meaningless possibilities, Camus points out that living is much more enjoyable than not living, and for that it is the better option.

It’s a subtle argument, but I think a beautiful one. Instead of offering us meaning, as Sartre did, Camus encourages us to accept the meaninglessness of life–and then to laugh at it and find mirth in the absurdity of our existence. There’s a sense of joy and humor at the heart of what would otherwise be a torturous philosophical question, and finding that joy is what allows man to keep living.

For this, I see Camus as intrinsically linked to the Nine of Cups, perhaps as a substitution for Sartre’s Nine of Wands. Both men give us the responsibility for the creation of our own lives, but Camus does so with a light heart and a sense of happiness. And sometimes, that happiness is what people need from Tarot: not the Nine of Wands and its determination to keep going no matter what, but the Nine of Cups. The ability to see the absurdity of a situation–or of life–and to throw one’s head back and laugh.


*”Not an existentialist?” you exclaim, “But then, Jack, why on Earth would you talk about him in a post titled Existentialism and Tarot?” To that, dear reader, I have no reply.

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