2+3=1 : Communicative Tension

I recently watched a YouTube video on the history of writing. Near the end, it summed up the dichotomous tension faced by all written expressions of language — and indeed spoken language as well — the balance between sound and meaning, reader and writer, information and recognition, flexibility and consistency.

These dichotomies, and the tension between them, is often the source of misunderstanding and miscommunication no matter how well we try to balance these polarities. In tarot, we are communicating through our spoken and written words to interpret a language of image and symbol, filtered through our knowledge, experience, and beliefs. Though we like to think of symbol as being universal, it is also incredibly subjective, and the challenge of communicating our interpretations clearly through this subjective language of symbol can be quite challenging at times.

Often, it seems we want to ally ourselves with one side of each dichotomy or the other — but why must we choose? Why can we not live within the tension between aims? What is our discomfort with this tension?

This, in many ways, is the fault of language — as simply by describing something, we are also making omissions. These omissions are necessary of course, in creating clarity — we want to be clear, we want to be understood, and often, we want to be right… and this is the problem revealed by tension between opposites: our definition of self is often so uncomfortable with being “wrong” that even being somewhere between “right” and “wrong” is unacceptable.

If we can drop our desire to be right and our aversion to being wrong; if we can separate our personal investment in right and wrong and our discomfort with the tensions in between, then we can really have fun!

These tensions in language allow us to play, to be mysterious and obscure, or to pack layers of meaning into tiny components… where what is “right” at one level is no longer right at another, and what was “wrong” becomes highly valid in another context or layer of meaning. But, when coupled with our desire to be understood and/or to be right (I admit to having a particular fondness for the validation “right” provides) and our discomfort for anything approaching “wrong” we miss the luxurious poetry — and discovery — contained within these communicative tensions.

Different languages eventually fall more toward one side of each dichotomy or the other — some more poetic, others more technical; some more harmonious sounding, and others more broken and harsh on the ear; some concerned with communicating feeling, others wit thought; and some expressed better through shape and image, others through sound and articulation. These differences influence the tensions between each polarity, and create different balances between them.

English (and probably many other languages I’m not proficient in) is generally considered a more technical language — better used for communicating ideas and describing material things, but often not considered a “romantic” or poetic language, at least not like French, Spanish, or Italian. But what I love about English is that it can both be so technically specific, and yet also poetically vague and mysterious.

Other languages have this quality to varying degrees, too, and I think the challenge of the more poetic and symbolic languages is that we attempt to interpret them literally; while in the more technical languages like English, we use these languages to define and divide…

When we use language to describe something, to define what it is, we are also automatically defining what it is not, and in so doing, we create division. This division is necessary, whether in tarot or any other mode of communication — but, this use of language can also be an opportunity to recognize division, to make conscious the desire and/or necessity for definition and division. In that consciousness, know that unity is just as possible, it is just another direction.

But, I think that this is a function of how we use the tool of language, not which language we use. It is the mind we bring to our use of language, and we sometimes forget that it is equally possible to unite as it is to divide… we just have to remember the direction, or at least remember that division and unison are merely directions along each path — each useful dependent on context, but neither is the ideal in all contexts.

Become aware of how these necessary omissions within language create division and can never really describe the wholeness of any one thing, no matter how particular… Even with a graphic language like tarot, each definition creates further obscurity, and yet obscurity can exhibit greater clarity than explicitness. Interpretation becomes an exercise in description via feature and omission, and inevitably we fall onto one side of opposition or another.

As an exercise, whenever using language to define and divide — which is actually most of the time: we divide space through sounds and breath; we divide space on a page with words, punctuation, and white space; and, we divide, define, and shape thought through how we divide space through sound and image — see if you can find ways of connecting and unifying through your use of language as well.

Another fun game is to describe a card or set of cards in their interaction in some form of obscure language, like poetry, to friends and have the friends “guess” the cards you are describing. This is a golden treasure for exercising symbol-language connectivity so crucial as tarotists — both for the “poet” and the one(s) guessing at the cards being described. The pitfall of the game is getting sucked right back into right/wrong, where the guesser gets frustrated when incorrect, and the “poet” becomes gratified by making the poem too obscure — this is as much an exercise in mental acuity as it is for seeing the interpersonal interactions and personal investment in “rightness” and “wrongness.”

Getting the answers right (or wrong!) here is not the goal, but rather the tool that helps us look through another oblique eye at what we are seeing, saying, hearing, feeling, and understanding.


On the morning of the same day that I watched the video on language, I had a dream that expressed the relationship between the Supernals on the Tree of Life. In this dream, the relationship between 1, 2, and 3, showed as being equal — three expressions of the same thing: the tension between duality (2) always automatically creates a compromise, mediary, or combination (3) and yet both the 2 and the 3 are modes of expressing the 1, except that singularity, wholeness, is so difficult to describe that we hold dear to our view of part of that whole, the opposites we argue over. That is, we shift between the left pillar and the right pillar, when really, they’re both continually leading toward the Middle Pillar. In some 3-dimensional depictions of the Tree, the Middle Pillar is geographically between the paths running from 1, 2, and 3, and yet is not ON those paths…

And so, at every opportunity, look between the dichotomies, between the opposites, and see the 1 in the 2, the 2 in the 3, the 3 in the 1, the 1 in the 3, the 3 in the 2, and the 2 in the 1.

These meanderings are all simply to say: remember that tarot is rarely either/or, but more both/and… try to find comfort in the discomfort between opposites, because in that discomfort is wholeness.

Pairspectives to return soon…

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