Looking Outward, Looking Inward

Today, I want to talk about the relationship between the Hermit and the Moon. Like other Tarot pairings I’ve discussed on this blog, these two cards sit opposite each other on the Zodiac, at Virgo and Pisces, respectively, and they serve as a nice counterbalance to each other. The Hermit is reserved and analytical; the Moon is a tidal wave of intuition. The Hermit is a retreat from civilization into the wild; the Moon is an invasion of wildness (“lunacy”) into the soul of civilization. There are a lot of ways these two cards can be interpreted together.

The way I want to talk about them today is as the embodiment of two different notions of personal identity.

Identity is a funny thing. The word itself is slippery and hard to define. In a philosophical sense, the “identity conditions” of a thing are the criteria that distinguish that thing from another thing; that is to say, they are the criteria by which we tell whether two things are identical. Not just identical in the sense that they look alike, but in the sense that the two things are actually just one thing. For example, Superman and Clark Kent are identical. Mary Kate and Ashley Olson are not.

lead_960In more conventional usage, we talk about identity as the sort of thing that defines an individual’s place in and perspective on the world. Things like race, class, religion, and gender are all considered identities, and they regulate the way we function in society. As a cis white dude from a comfortably upper-middle-class family, my perspective on the world is fundamentally different from that of a poor trans woman of color. There are other things, as well, that can be considered identities: Nationality, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and so on. Even things like being a mother, or being a college student, are often used to categorize people by into myriad identities.

But talking about identity is tricky, because there are really two different things that people can mean when they use the word “identity” in this conventional sense. Identity can refer either to the way a person is defined from the outside (i.e. the identity imposed by societal norms) or to the way a person is defined from the inside (i.e. the things that an individual considers essential to her personhood).

By the first definition, something like race is undeniably identity-forming, while something like vocation is probably not. True, the world does treat doctors differently than it treats auto mechanics, but being a doctor or a mechanic isn’t really considered an intrinsic part of someone’s being. It’s generally assumed (rightly or wrongly) that a mechanic could become a doctor if she wanted to, and vice versa.* However, that same auto mechanic could not change her race. Race is a category that is imposed on us from the outside, without our choosing, and is static. Nothing we do will ever change the way society labels us by race.

For the purposes of this post, I will call this kind of identity “outward” identity. In Tarot, I associate it with the Moon. The Moon is a tricksome card, and one with which I personally have a tangled relationship. It’s a card about intuition, emotion, and psychic awakening. It’s also a card about deception, dishonesty, and duplicity. Astronomically, the moon does not produce its own light. The light we see from the moon is actually reflected light from the sun. Translating this into symbolic Tarot-ish terms, the Moon represents a sort of psychic dependence. It represents who we are in light of [pun totally intended] the way were are seen by other people.

To put it another way: I often think of the Moon as the Seven of Cups on steroids. When this card shows up, everything is not as it seems. In a discussion of identity, the Moon represents the performative aspect of identity. It is the way that we change ourselves, or present ourselves, in response to what is expected of us. The Moon is the person we become when we know we are being seen.

If a person grew up in a social vacuum, social categories like race or gender would be meaningless–and certainly wouldn’t be identity-forming. But as soon as other people are introduced into the mix and we start to have a society that distinguishes based on these categories, they (the categories) become inescapable. The identity that gets built up in response to those categories–either as submission to them or rebellion against them–is, to my mind, the essence of the Moon. It is the mask we wear to accompany the role that the external world has given us to play. It is Superman dressing himself up as Clark Kent.

The second definition of identity is significantly looser. When people use “identity” in this sense, they’re usually talking about things that are important to them personally, communities in which they feel a sense of belonging, hobbies or activities or interests that they consider core to who they are. I’ve heard people talk about “my identity as an artist” or “my identity as a Democrat”. These identities may even be the sort of thing that seem silly or trivial to other people, but that are deeply important to the way that an individual defines herself. For myself, a couple of identity-forming points:

  1. I am really fucking smart
  2. I adhere to the late 19th-century school of Aestheticism and the belief that art should exist for its own sake
  3. I am a Tarot reader
  4. I am a runner and a mountain climber
  5. I am a Witch

None of these things would be considered identities under the first definition, but they are all core to who I am. These are things without which I would not consider myself the same person that I am today. If I were to lose even one of these, I would be a fundamentally different person. (See the initial “philosophical” definition of identity at the top of this post. If I stopped being Clark Kent, I would also stop being Superman. If I stopped being a Tarot reader, I would also stop being me.)

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Holy crap, did you know this show ran for ten seasons?

Some people won’t like this “inward” definition of identity, and will find it flippant to describe being intelligent** with the same term that would be used for major social constructs like race and class. But both the outward and inward understandings of identity aim at answering the same question: What defines a person? Outward identity tells us what society thinks is important about a person. Inward identity tells us what the person thinks is important for herself.

And of course, there can be overlap.*** The conditions that form a person’s inward sense of identity can be the same conditions that determine her outward identity. Someone may feel that her gender, race, and social class are all core to who she is, and that she would not be the same person if those features of herself were changed.

However, there can also be disparity. Things may factor into someone’s inward-oriented identity that don’t belong on the list of Great Social Categories. And, conversely, a person may belong to categories that are part of her outward-oriented identity but that she does not actually consider essential to who she is.

fortress_of_solitude_action_comics_vol_1_977I associate inward identity with the Hermit; after all, this card is all about looking within oneself. The core message of the Hermit card is about getting away from society, removing ourselves from the perception of the Other**** to see what we look like beneath the mask of the Moon. Where the light of the Moon is reflected light, the Hermit sees by the light of his own lantern. He discovers (or creates) the truth for himself, but he can only do this once he is away from the altering gaze of the rest of the world. Superman can only really be himself in his Fortress of Solitude, where he can drop the Clark Kent disguise.

Each of us navigates both conceptions of identity. Each of us walks both by the light of the Moon and by the Hermit’s lamp. Each of us is both Clark Kent and Superman. Ultimately, the best way to understand someone’s identity is as a concatenation of the outward and inward factors that make her who she is.

As with any dichotomy in Tarot, the key is finding the balance between the two–not neglecting one at the expense of the other. A person is more than a list of social demographics, and if we understand ourselves simply through an outward notion of identity, our individuality (individualities?) will suffer for it. But similarly, we are never without those demographics, not really. Even if we disappear into our own Fortresses of Solitude and hide ourselves away from society for a time, we must always return. Humans are ultimately social creatures, and if we deny ourselves that social identity in the pursuit of individual autonomy, we lose an important part of what it means to be human. We become half-crazed, unwashed hermits hiding away in remote mountain cabins, dressing in rags and muttering to ourselves.

The Hermit cannot walk by the light of his lantern alone. Sometimes he needs the Moon to guide him, as well. Our outward and inward identities depend on each other. Superman can’t spend eternity in his Fortress of Solitude; Clark Kent can’t encounter distress in Metropolis without ducking into a conspicuous phone booth.

Because ultimately, even though Superman looks inward and Clark Kent looks outward, the person behind them is one and the same.


*There’s also a question of socioeconomic class involved here. Doctors are usually rich. Mechanics are usually not. So in that sense, vocation is tangled up with certain conditions that are considered identity-forming in this “outward” sense.

**And humble. So very humble.

***I originally typed this word as “overalp”. Now is not the time to discuss Hannibal, thank you very much.

****Damn it. I was really hoping to get through this post without recourse to Hegel.

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