Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Tarot to Identity...

The simplest ideas often make the greatest stories. This is certainly true in Italo Calvino’s ‘Castle of Crossed Destinies’. The short novel opens with a wanderer in a forest, tired and hungry. Coming across a castle he enters hoping for food and board for the night. Inside the great hall are many other travellers. After eating he feels the need to transmit his story, he opens his mouth to speak but cannot. In fact all of the visitors to the castle have been struck dumb. At this point the master of the castle comes over with a deck of tarot cards and places them on the table. Each of the visitors then uses the tarot cards to tell their story. Each card duplicated representing a different meaning for each person who places it.

Tarot cards first appeared in Italy in the early 15th century where they were used as part of a card game. Since then they have become soaked with ideas of spirituality and divination so that today they are better known through the process of tarot readings. An individual uses the cards in order to gain an insight into a current problem or into their future. Calvino‘s book works in a similar way. The meaning of each card is not fixed; rather it changes, according to the person and situation they find themselves in. A card has a different meaning to the same person in response to different questions just as each card meant something different to each traveller who placed it down in the castle of crossed destines.

The use of tarot cards to tell the future or to help someone with a problem has always seemed to me to be connected with the modern process of dream analysis in psychotherapy. Here each image taken from a dream has a different meaning, or indeed can have several meanings. In order to understand a dream someone undergoing the process writes down each fragment or image they remember from a dream. Then they describe and try to understand any association that results from each fragment. What the image means to them is much more important than what the image actually is. The final part of the process is to discover the links between these associations, to find the underlying ‘meaning’ of the dream.

The process of concentrating on the associations rather than the images themselves is not and unusual process. After all we do exactly the same thing in creating ourselves from our memories. We each remember certain events in our lives, experiences. Is it these experiences that make up who we are and how we act? I don’t think so. I think it is the story that we make up in-between the memories that creates the person we are today. We don’t decide to act differently in-between two memories, yet we often do react differently. Looking back on it we see the disparity between the two actions and so make up a story to explain how we changed. We have these experiences in our minds and place them down in a sequence in order to explain how we got here, just like the tarot cards in Calvino’s story. What the memory actually is is not as important as the story we tell from one experience to the next. The spaces in-between are where the story of our self is constructed. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, 2 February 2009

Academia is academic, I want the Academy.

Words are amazing. We make up sounds to identify and explain something, to make it comprehensible to others and to ourselves, to pass on what we know. But once that noise is made for the first time it begins to change itself. The word takes on a life of its own, mutates, the way it’s spoken, it is translated into other languages, even the idea it contains changes. As such, they are amazing sources for digressions…

‘Academic Qualifications’. Anyone who has written a CV has written these two words. They normally are normally followed with a stream of exam results going back way into childhood. I used to manage a bar and regularly advertised for staff. Reams and reams of paper would come in listing, in great detail, the exam results of the applicants. The information was absolutely useless to me. Why did I need to know that the applicant received an A* in chemistry five years ago? When confronted by such CVs left for me I used to ‘file’ them and then hire someone who came into the bar and had a conversation with me.

My mother is fond of saying “You have such love for academia” (not as a standalone statement, more a couplet with “Have you thought about going back to University?”). In her mind she connects my love of knowledge and natural curiosity with what make sense in hers, i.e. that I should use this knowledge in the traditional environment (and, although she never says it, eventually get a ‘proper job’).

The origin of both these words is ‘Academy’. Specifically, the ‘Academy of Plato’ (4th Century B.C.E. Greek philosopher) and as a child I remember being told that this was the first school. Now I know that Plato’s Academy was as similar to a modern school (or University) as the Roman Circus is to the big top and clowns of today…

The Academy was a garden just outside Athens used for gymnastics (wrestling, running) from around the 6th century B.C.E. Founded around sacred olive groves and the site of temples and festivals. A river had been diverted and the area walled in turn the once arid area into something resembling a modern park. Plato himself owned a house and garden in the area and after 387 B.C.E. his ‘Academy’ came into being. It was an informal gathering with no curriculum and no distinction between teachers and students. No specific doctrine was taught, rather problems were posed to be studied and ultimately solved. Lectures were given, but the preferred method was the ‘dialectic’ or dialogue. Two (or more) members, who held some ideas, meanings and principles in common, tried to persuade the other over their differences through conversation and debate. Truth was the ultimate value and logic was considered the highest skill.

Rather than a teacher, Plato’s influence has been described as that of an intelligent critic, bringing together disparate figures to discuss and debate. His work heavily features such conversations, with the dialogues taking place not only on visits to the gymnasium, but also on a stroll outside the city gates, a visit to the prison and a wealthy man’s house over drinks, during everyday activities.

This is the love of knowledge I have. Not one of relentless regurgitation, lecturers who are more interested in getting published than teaching and fellow students who are working just hard enough to get that job in the city when they graduate. Learning should be out in the world, conversations between two different people who hold certain ideas in common but disagree on others. An active process. You take away from a conversation like that much more than from any lecture.

Amusingly the idea of academia being too focused, of not ‘being in the real world’, has lead onto another mutation in meaning. When something is ‘academic’ it’s considered “not practical, realistic, or directly useful”. The original Academy was something much more than academia today and it’s results, like you’re ability to be perfect for a job, are not quantifiable on a piece of paper. Sphere: Related Content