Reading and Making Meaning in Literature and Tarot

In the summer of 1971, the professor and scholar Stanley Fish pranked a class of graduate students. He was actually teaching two classes of grad students back to back–a class on theoretical linguistics from 9:30 to 11am, and a class on 17th century religious poetry from 11-12:30. For the first class, he had written their homework on the chalkboard, a list of linguists whose work he wanted them to read. The list looks like this:





Ohman (?)

After the first class cleared out and before the second entered, he drew a frame around these names and wrote “p. 43” above it. Once his students of 17th century religious poetry settled in, he pointed to this list, told them it was a religious poem, and asked them to analyze it.

And oh, they did! The students were able to find significance in the shape of the poem (although whether it is a cross or an altar one can’t be sure) as well as the names. They saw the poem as a religious riddle. “Jacobs”=”Jacob’s ladder,” “Thorne”=”crown of thorns,” “Ohman”=”omen” or “Oh man,” etc., etc. I won’t go into detail about everything Fish reports that the students saw in this “poem,” but suffice it to say that they found a lot of significance.

So what was Fish’s point in giving his students a fake poem to analyze? This anecdote comes from his book Is there a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Harvard UP, 1980.) The chapter is aptly called, “How to Recognize a Poem when You See One” (322-37). Now, if you know anything about Stanley Fish, you know that he is not an uncontroversial figure. His treatment of his graduate students here–his dishonesty and willingness to use them as guinea pigs–carries over to his thoughts about graduate student labor, but that’s another story for another time. My point is that I don’t agree with Fish on a lot of stuff. By the time I entered grad school, he was pretty much known as a crank who says provoking (rather than thought-provoking) stuff on behalf of the academic community in his role as a “public intellectual.”

BUT–I think Fish has a point here, however he might have arrived at it. The larger argument that Fish uses this experiment to illustrate is that

acts of recognition, rather than being triggered by formal characteristics, are their source. It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities. As soon as my students were aware that it was poetry that they wee seeing, they began to look with poetry-seeing eyes, that is, with eyes that saw everything in relation to the properties they knew poems to possess. (p. 326)

In other words, if you are primed to think that something has significance, and you are trained to read it a certain way, you will see significance there. The same point is made in this brilliant XKCD comic: lock a group of people in a box for a year with 500 still-frames of Joe Biden eating a sandwich and by the end of that year they will find the aesthetic criteria by which to rank the best and the worst. In other words, there is nothing inherent in wine, cheese, art, music, or poetry that is meaningful. It’s where and how human beings exercise their attention that makes these things meaningful.

Fish’s larger point is that what he calls “interpretative communities” (pretty much another word for universities) are generators of significance. In the framework of a university setting, when students are told by their professor that something is a poem, they will read it as a poem because that is what they are trained to do. Likewise, if Fish had written “homework” above the list of names, the students would have known what to do with that, too: recognize it as a homework assignment for another class and not give it another thought.

At this point, I bet Fish was gleefully imagining many of his fellow professors of literature clutching their pearls (or their Keats, as the case may be.) After all, we study literature because we believe that it’s a special kind of utterance, that it requires and repays deep reading and close attention. All the things that make literature special–rhyme and meter, or metaphors and similes, reflections on the human condition, imaginative plots, beautiful language–is what sets it apart from newspaper articles or ad copy.

But you only write poems because you know what a poem is; you only read a poem as a poem because someone has taught you to do so and you’ve decided that the poem fits the criteria of poetry. The cynical way to interpret Fish’s argument is to say that nothing has meaning–a sonnet by Keats and a list of random names are in fact the same. I see it differently, however. I think it’s wonderful that human beings live in a world where we create beautiful things and decide to assign meaning to them. It’s wonderful that whole art forms flourish because they emerge from our systems of values. Keats wrote his poems because he was taught and believed that poetry was a worthwhile thing to write, and that others would agree with him. A poem without a reader is just some ink on a page; a poem with an untrained reader is some information; a poem with a trained reader is a meaningful work of art. (By “trained” here, I don’t mean that you have to go to grad school to read poetry. Anyone who puts in the time and attention can become a skillful reader.)

All of this is a long-winded way of getting at my approach to tarot. While I respect the beliefs of people who feel that meaning is inherent in the cards–that the symbols or the cards themselves hold some sort of power–I personally don’t find that view compelling. To my mind, the cards are just cards, and the symbols are just symbols. They may be drawn from older systems of thought, but those systems of thought also had their source in human beliefs. But when I say all this, I’m not knocking tarot down a notch. I think the interpretive powers of the human mind, when trained and used with focused attention, are sufficient to count as wonders in themselves.

Because tarot has its own interpretative communities–tarot readers, authors, and artists going back centuries–those who know how to read the cards are able to make meaning out of them. That’s different from just making stuff up. I believe that a skillful reader really can pull what’s useful and significant out of a spread.

The one thing that continues to be a delightful mystery to me, however, is synchronicity in tarot readings. When a card shows up in a daily reading in the “today’s overview” position, and shows up again the next day in the “yesterday’s unfinished business” position, you can bet I sit up and take notice. My hunch is that these coincidences do have their source in the human body/mind and not the cards themselves, but that they operate at a level other than the rational consciousness. And I, for one, am content with encountering the mystery and not needing to solve it.

And just like my approach to tarot does not take the mystery out of it, Stanley Fish’s prank does not make me doubt the power of poetry or make me want to stop reading it. It does, however, help me understand what I’m doing when I read a poem and teach my students to do so. Likewise, saying that tarot’s significance lies in the meanings that people have ascribed to it doesn’t make it any less powerful or interesting; it just makes me focus on the relationship between the cards and my conscious and unconscious mind. After all, Keats said, and I believe, that for those willing to receive it, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”


  1. bethelwood says:

    I love that story!! I agree, the attention we pay to the cards (and perhaps the person we are reading for) is what brings forth the meaning and brings it all to life. Nicely written! =)


    1. Emily says:

      Thanks so much!


  2. tarotbythom says:

    Wow, Emily! This is not only terrifically written, but I think you’ve hit on a core deconstruction of tarot interpretation.

    I had read Fish’s book *Is There a Text in this Class?* when I was a student studying literary theory at university. I have just pulled it out and upon reading some of my marginal notes, realize how overwhelmed I probably was as a young “interpretive community” waif. But all these years later looking back through my experience with tarot… some of those marginal perplexities seem much more answer-able.

    For instance when Fish is discussing—in the same chapter that you reference—“an infinite plurality of meanings”… I did at the time understand about recipient-of-the-information interpretation and the variableness of interpretation by the individual as well as by social conditioning. But I visualized it somehow in the context of multiverses and dimensions—sort of like that episode of *Star Trek: the Next Generation* where all the hundreds of different dimensional Enterprise ships converge on the same small area of space—What is the one true ship? The point is there isn’t one. Each one was true and real to the individuals on each ship, living through their experience from their own dimension. (aside: I swear I’m not a Trekky—but I realize how nerdy this paragraph sounds!)

    In many ways, it was distressing to me—to think that there were that many answers. How was anyone’s brain NOT supposed to explode?? BUT… with the tarot as a by-way to using one’s objective reasoning and wading through all the possibilities, it suddenly makes VERY much more controllable sense. (Does that make sense?)

    In other words, to rephrase this passage from Fish:

    “An infinite plurality of meanings would be a fear only if sentences existed in a state in which they were not already embedding in, and had come into view as a function of, some situation [or some specific topically specified question from the querent].” (p.307)

    That’s the magic of the tarot—the 78 cards can answer virtually every question thrown at them because of our interpretive abilities. And the point is, I think, for the two different dimensional interpretations—that of the querent, and that of the reader—to meet up in the same small plot of space and for their interpretations of the universe to collide. As long as the querent is receptive, can listen, and can open-up his or her purview outside the socially conditioned compartmentalization that they seem “stuck” upon, a “trading” or exchanging of dimensional interpretations can take place. (Does THAT make sense?… Sometimes I call this “the Hanged Man moment”—when the querent can suddenly see the situation from a completely different perspective.)

    SOOOooo sorry to drone on and on in your comments section, Emily! But wanted to let you know that your blog post really made me think and was very well written. I’m feeling a bit of kinship, truth be told. Your writing was inspiring to my imagination. And now I’m going to have to read Fish’s book all over again. Brava.


    1. Emily says:

      Thank *you* so much, Thom, for this insightful comment. I’m so glad that my post was thought-provoking! Since I’m such a tarot newbie I’m so glad to hear that these ideas are helpful to a practitioner.

      “with the tarot as a by-way to using one’s objective reasoning and wading through all the possibilities, it suddenly makes VERY much more controllable sense.”

      Yes, this makes sense. Especially because, as you say, the cards themselves free us from having to consciously sort through every possible meaning (of a card or of a situation) in the abstract as an act of reasoning. The cards themselves, or the occasion upon which they are consulted, anchor the meaning of the reading. The real act of reasoning occurs when we are confronted with a non-rational tableau of meanings and need to interpret it in a holistic way.

      I’m very glad you found my blog! I took a look at yours and am very excited to see you using the tarot as a tool for examining/cultivating virtue! I’ve been thinking about the tarot in a similar way from my Buddhist perspective and think that if I ever become a reader for others, I would like to focus on using the cards to help people use the precepts and six paramitas (that is, the general principles behind these things) into their lives. Cheers!


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