Emergence, Beauty, and Tarot

I remember the day I learned the word “concatenation”. It was a Friday, and I was in my eighth-grade* Gothic literature class. We were talking about the numinous experience of the narrator in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

That day changed my life.

The definition that I learned on that Friday turns out to have been perhaps, maybe, possiblytechnically not quite exactly يعني the official dictionary definition of the word,** but it has deeply affected my thinking nonetheless. A concatenation, as I learned it when I was 13 years old, is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In other words, a concatenation is irreducible. In order to understand it, you need to look at the big picture; you can’t break it down into constituent parts. (Unlike, for example, a clock, which you can understand pretty damn well by taking it apart and looking at how the cogs all fit together.) It has emergent properties that arise out of the complex interactions of those constituent parts, but which are not attributable to any part in particular.


The idea of emergent properties is an important philosophical concept (or a scientific one, depending on whether you’re a philosopher or a scientist). It allows us to understand complex facets of the universe that otherwise appear unexplainable. For example, the way that life can arise out of simple carbon-based cell structures.*** Or the way that a hundred billion neurons firing on each other can somehow create a whole conscious human mind with complex thoughts, emotions, memories, and the like. Or the way that a Monet painting can be a wash of meaningless brushstrokes from up close and a beautiful garden scene from afar.

When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty damned impressive stuff.

In philosophy, this idea is most clearly seen in Aristotelian substance theory: the idea that a thing’s essence (say, a dog) is determined not just by the matter of its parts (so many liters of blood, so many kilograms of fur, a ribcage with such-and-such volume), but also by a form that animates that matter and gives it purpose and life. A mad scientist in a lab can stitch together a bunch of dog-parts, but unless he somehow magically finds a way to animate those parts with the Spirit of Dog®, he still hasn’t really made a dog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about emergent properties lately, mostly as they apply to a whole host of non-Tarot philosophical issues. But this is a Tarot blog, so we’ll set those issues aside for now, and I can play with them on my own time.

I think of Tarot, in many ways, as a concatenation of 78 archetypal cards. When people ask me to explain why I read Tarot, or what Tarot is, I’m often at a loss, because I just can’t break it down into small, easily digestible parts. I’m so used to looking at the big picture with Tarot that I don’t know anymore if the small picture even really exists. I mean, sure, I can go through the whole rigamarole of “four suits plus the Major Arcana, Fool through World, Ace through King, neo-Platonic elemental symbolism, slight peppering of Kabbalah and astrology”, but that doesn’t really explain Tarot to an outsider. If I show you the structure of the Tarot deck, if I explain the various complex layers of symbolism, I haven’t actually told you what Tarot is. I have showed you its skeleton, its ligaments, and its tendons, but not the animating spirit that makes all those things work together. I’ve given you a Tarot Franken-dog.

For the love of God, Disney, don’t sue me for copyright infringement.

Some Tarot readers speak of their cards as if the cards were sentient. I’ve heard readers say things like “Oh, this deck is so mischievous” or “The cards want me to live an authentic life”. Personally, I find this habit rather distasteful,**** but I think this language (thoughtless though it often is) betrays something important about the way we understand Tarot: a sense that something animates it, unifies it, and makes it more than just a pile of 78 pieces of cardstock with pretty pictures on them. There is some emergent property to Tarot that brings together those 78 cards, makes them a cohesive whole, and gives them a spirit that simply cannot be quantified or explained.

This is part of what makes Tarot special. There’s an anima to it, something that I can perceive but can’t express. And while that emergent gobbledygook may not be quite as astounding or impactful as, say, the emergence of LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, it still fills me with wonder every time I pick up a deck. I’m astounded and inspired by the idea that complex, personal stories can emerge out of these silly printed cards. There is something painfully beautiful about the way a couple of cards, assigned arbitrary meanings and drawn at random, can tell stories of love, of triumph, of failure and redemption.

You don’t have to believe in magic to believe in this emergent property. You don’t have to believe that Tarot communicates messages from the spirit realm or that it forecasts the future. For me, it’s enough to say that the cards can tell stories, beautiful stories, building simple atomic parts into magnificent wholes the same way that we put sounds together to form language, or that protons and electrons form all of the material universe. My breath is taken away every time I see the architectural wonder of something so grand that isn’t consciously designed, but that just… Happens.

To me, the emergent anima of Tarot is a thing of beauty. And as any frequenter of my blog will know, beauty matters to me. (Oh, what a Platonist I am at heart.) When I try to explain Tarot to non-readers, I always ultimately fail, because I can’t capture that beauty. I’ll talk about the Tree of Life, I’ll give an hour-long lecture on the Christian numerological significance of the number 7, but when my interlocutor’s eyes glaze over, all I can do to convey the source of my passion for Tarot is to draw a few cards, lay them out, and show the story that they tell.

Ask me to explain to you why puppies are amazing, and I will fail if I stitch together the various components of a dog carcass. Ask me to explain why I love Tarot, and I will fall short if I lecture you on the influence that Etteila had on Western occultism. But if I buy you a puppy–or if I give you a Tarot reading–then maybe you’ll be able to see it for yourself.

*Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws, amirite?

**The real definition of “concatenation” is basically just “linkage” or “series”. Ah, well. I like my definition better.

***A great (and super simplified) example of the amazing things that emergence can do is John Conway’s Game of Life.

****I’m all for interacting with archetypal figures from Tarot as if they were sentient, but I find rather silly the idea of saying that my specific copy of the Anna K Tarot is conscious and has its own personality and intentions.

3 thoughts on “Emergence, Beauty, and Tarot

  1. I felt such relief that I am not the only one who cringes when someone says “This deck is doing things, it’s creepy, I have to get it out of the house!!” Yeah, that bloody Hanson Roberts deck is a mad killer.

    Ah, the story aspect. Sigh, my favourite thing. Stories and poems and little drawings and pictures, lots of different pictures, and colours, lots of colours.

    I once said to someone who was horrified that spooky-old-me (guffaw) had such a huge collection of tarot cards, that I told her I liked the cards because it was like buying 78 pieces of art, multiplied over countless artists. They made the sign for the evil eye and walked backwards away from me. Maybe they were being taken over by that blood-thirsty Hanson Roberts deck? It does that you know, the only way to stop it is to burn it in the backyard fire pit and then sprinkle the soil with lime.

    We should talk some time Jack about the contributions to Logical Positivism by the Phantasmagoric Theater Tarot and in particular, Dr. Lock.


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