Seat of Perception

Extra-cultural reviews by synaesthetes, symbolists, and strangers.

A snake’s hand, a moonrise, a glimpsed horizon

Yvonne Gilbert’s cover art for John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

A slightly “off” one-of-a-kind Tarot-like deck of cards stands at the center of John Crowley’s novel Little, Big –- or perhaps it would be better to say those cards fan out from one end of the novel to the other, though there is nothing random or happenstantial in their fall. Samuel R. Delany’s Nova also makes extensive use of Tarot lore. Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I haven’t read, is built explicitly around a Tarot deck, whose cards are reproduced as part of the text; what I don’t know is whether Calvino built his tale from casting those cards, as Crowley and Delany surely did not for theirs. Philip K. Dick famously cast the I Ching at every major plot-point in The Man in the High Castle, and wove what he skried into his story’s further unfolding.

I recently watched the first several episodes of the superb but short-lived HBO series Carnivale. Its opening credit sequence uses Tarot cards as so many doors, and the camera’s eye soars through them, entering other realms through some, backing out through others. What is painted and what is seen transmogrify into one another; neither is originary. The effect is ravishing.

Alexa D’Avalon read my cards in 1988 and recorded the session, which I later transcribed, and damned if her insights don’t still apply today. Her cards, or rather her words about their once-upon-a-time fall, are still doorways, or jambs anyway, frames that, the twice-a-decade I revisit her reading, allow me to see the changing changeless landscape of my life and soul in a uniquely revealing light. Amazing.

I think what Tarot, like I Ching or any sophisticated, highly nuanced divination system, “reads” is the insatiable fractal complexity of the present moment — the present moment in motion, a now short or long. But that complexity is not capturable on a level of one-to-one correspondence, and so the divinatory signs become pale — if highly suggestive — reflections of both its arrangement (vis a vis the diviner or divinee) and trajectory. Certain elements of that complexity are changing faster than any eye could follow, others are measurable only in aeons, while most fall — or rise — between.

And perhaps that’s all storytelling is as well, however different the instrumentality: an engine, and we the fuel, and the quality of each together makes all the difference as to the nature of the resulting combustion. “Unlimited mythopoesis”, perhaps? Or “unlimited semiosis”, as Delany would have it? “Only in the intertwine / with others of unlike mind.”

Two great novels of story-as-engine are John Crowley’s Engine Summer and Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryona, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities. Elsewhere, in Section 9.82 of his short novel The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, Delany disembowels storytelling’s monsters – and yet still they roam, demons packed tightly into every dark. Crowley recently said to me that storytelling is the only magic there is. Dare we hope it’s true? Or should we fear it’s so? I wonder.

Ron Drummond


4 comments on “A snake’s hand, a moonrise, a glimpsed horizon

  1. John Crowley
    December 14, 2012

    Thanks, Ron — apt and beautifully put. If you ever decide you want to expand this, you might consider also The Deep, my first novel, which also turns in part on a deck of cards with a surprising provenance. And look into Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps, a Tarot fantasy unlike others. The Prediction Paradox of course has a special force for novelists and makers of narratives, since they can look into the seeds of time and tell which grain will grow and which will not. I’ve always thought that prediction (Macbeth, Oedipus) turns ungoverned life into governed fiction: a novel always has an end, you just haven’t reached it, and it can’t be changed; in effect that end produces all the events that precede it, and the prophecy is only a sign of it.

    • daogaia
      December 15, 2012

      Thank you, John. I’ve been meaning to reread The Deep and Beasts since I first read them in 1984 — I loved Beasts, but didn’t really get The Deep at all; maybe I would now.

      I briefly thought “The Prediction Paradox” was the title of a highly influential book I’d never heard of and must immediately read, and only upon rereading your comment did I realize you were simply ennobling the phrase, which suggests the interweaving processes of misprision and correction — constant perceptual and interpretive companions that they are — must play out in any divinatory enactment. It might be interesting to reread Macbeth and the Oedipus plays with an eye to the trajectories of the characters’ misprisions and mutual misunderstandings, and their attempts at, or failures to attempt, correcting them.

      As for turning “ungoverned life into governed fiction”, which you can only mean figuratively, can that process as ossified in finished works teach us something new about the living, unfinished potential of ungoverned life? Might some of the possible or probable outcomes to the life of a given human actor exert a gravitational pull on that person, such that through the power of choice and sustained action she can tip the balance towards one outcome over another and succeed precisely because she does so in concert with that outcome’s own gravitational pull, in conjunction with the ongoing changeful blend of forces at play all around her and all around it? Recently Faye Ringel wrote of you in a comment to a quote from Little, Big I posted on Facebook (from 6.3’s “Only pretending”): “I think that John is like T.H. White’s Merlin: He is living backwards.” Perhaps we all do, and whilst alive all remains malleable and changeful, including the final end, however delimited by the gravities of all about us, and all within us too, the mutual actions that endlessly intertwine the two.

      Ron Drummond

  2. Stephen Frug
    January 2, 2013


    Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies is interesting, and probably worth reading, but it’s not nearly as good as Calvino’s best (e.g. Invisible Cities, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the Baron in the Trees). So don’t raise your expectations too high.

    Stephen Frug

    • daogaia
      January 2, 2013

      Thanks, Stephen, good to know. Invisible Cities is among my favorite books, but I’ve read little of Calvino’s other work. RD

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