Not Your Grandma’s Fortune Telling

Camelia Elias, What is Not: Marseille Tarot à la Carte. Eyecorner Press, 2019.

“Draw, cut, and sheathe. Draw the cards, cut the message to one line, and put the cards back into their pouch. Again, draw, cut it as fast as you can to the essentials:” this is the essence of Camelia Elias’ tarot philosophy. As one out of many PhD scholars who, in recent years, have become disillusioned with the antics of corporate academia, Camelia Elias is not your grandma’s fortune-teller. Her Zen approach leaves no room for habitual thinking and dearly held beliefs; as a matter of fact, the comfort of relying on received knowledge is a favorite target of her take-no-prisoners style.

According to Elias, the lists of meanings that many memorize on their way to becoming tarot readers are only meant to assuage the cartomancers’ insecurities. Instead of relying on charts and correspondences that have no real explanatory depth, Elias argues, you will have to develop your seeing skills. By letting go of everything you know about the tarots and focusing instead on what the cards actually show, you will be able to “read like the devil”–which is, incidentally, the title of another book of hers.

What is Not abounds with examples of this reading style: How is the water flowing in the Stars trump? What does this image tell you about the ways in which the querent is (mis)directing her efforts? Does the wreath encircling the character on the World card point to a full success, or doesn’t it rather hint to a constraint?

If, for Elias, reading tarot the Zen way requires analyzing images without being held captive by traditional interpretations, this skill also relies on “hara power” as the ability to energetically tap into deeper consciousness. This is how one achieves what Elias calls the “enlarged field of vision:” a viewpoint that simultaneously encompasses past, present, and future and that explains the uncanny accuracy of good tarot readings.

What is Not is a brilliant book, though not necessarily an easy one for those who enjoy dwelling in their comfort zone. In a typical Zen fashion, its purpose is to challenge its readers’ beliefs. If, at times, What is Not comes across as irreverent, it does so by design. It is only by renouncing received knowledge that you will start seeing things for what they are; this process is particularly effective when it is performed in a quick, incisive manner and no words are minced: “draw, cut, and sheathe.”

In conclusion: read What is Not if you are not only eager to learn something new, but also enjoy being challenged at every step of the way. Whether you agree with Elias or not, confronting a formidable interlocutor will expand your horizons in unexpected ways.

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