Wicked pack of cards: The Tower.
N+1st in a series of shortish essays ‘about’ the Major Arcana. On we go. –-wa.
All occult practices begin with one assumption: that it is possible to call down the bolt of revelation, that a person can take definite steps to make this happen.
…And truth, the mystics tell us, cannot be expressed in words. (Rachel Pollack)
Category and order, accumulation, the material brought under control but without vision. Building but not creation. Hubris.
Then the weather changes.
It is not even to be understood by study of the Eye in Atu XV. Perhaps it is lawful to mention that the Arab sages and the Persian poets have written, not always guardedly, on the subject. (Crowley, Thoth, re: the Tower’s esoteric ‘technical’ meaning)
An ex-girlfriend of mine used to say: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothing.’ She was correct and for years I’ve been grateful for that piece of folk wisdom.
Then again, she’s never been struck by lightning.
THE TOWER.– … Reversed: According to one account … oppression, imprisonment, tyranny. (Waite)
Bad news either way, and I’m left to wonder who, in this depiction, is the prisoner. Pollack reads the Tower as a person, and the lightning as direct mystical experience for which the first two ‘lines’ (Earthly and Inner) have been necessary — if at times maddeningly oblique — preparation; pride goeth before the Fall and such but if the Tower is a folly then Falling is the quickest way out of fatal error, e.g. trying to systematize your way to godhood, to the Godhead…
As a Catholic, I’ve always had a slightly standoffish relationship to the Old Testament. We’d get a weekly Psalm in church, celebrated Passover, got our doses of the Prophets and such during the Liturgy of the Word, heard the Moses litany and the fall of Goliath…but it was all delivered as prequel, in a way, to the triumph (not solely institutional) which was the Christian testament. The center of the Mass, after all, was the Gospel reading and the rite of transubstantiation, recreating the Last Supper.
Well, it is what it is.
I don’t remember the Tower of Babel making an impact on young-me at all — instead of a biblical teaching-tale I received it as…a joke, frankly. ‘Humankind got too big for its britches — and you know what happened?’ Finger wag! The Babel/babble thing seemed stupid, still does, and anyway it didn’t comport with my worldbuilding, my end of our faith’s imaginative cocreation. (You can build a literal stairway to heaven? Not in my private Ancient Earth.) And it had no mystery, as it was a common reference in (ewwww) popular culture.
Pentecost, meanwhile, just terrified me. Still does. And in middle age I know why: not only the vivid, visceral imagery (those tongues of flame! which I always saw as a kind of reverse-Phoenix moment) but the fact that Pentecost, the gift of tongues, involved the maddening disruption of all those minds present in the room. The disciples gather and are able to speak, but God (in Spirit form) sears their brains and for a moment, before they adjust, they are speaking in a confusion of languages. There’s a happy ending, of course, they’re all bilingual now (at least) — but as I always imagined it, for a second there they experienced the pure terror not only of being alienated by private language from their neighbours but of being absolute strangers to themselves. The two stories are linked in my mind.
That’s the lightning, mind. That’s the nice version of the Tower: ‘threshold of revelation.’ The truth hits you, one-size-fits-nobody. Oooh, a gift.
(Fuck you, I’m a prophet!)
‘Pride goeth before the fall’ not least, or perhaps solely, because what else can possibly follow pride? Ascent and then descent, probably (preferably?) in a hurry. A fall is the lowest-energy solution to the narrative problem of having risen…and yes, thinking of ‘rising’ as a problem in the anti-entropic ‘gathering of potential’ sense is appropriately realistic rather than Gus-Gloomy pessimism. Nature abhors a vacuum, e.g. that nice person-size spot you left open on the ground when you started up the stairs, and fort-da is Chekhov’s Gun is Satan’s fall is the safety valve alone knowing the worst truth about the engine. Comedy obeys gravity, i.e. it’s restorative, and the plays that don’t end in marriage end in death because those two figures respectively mean self-organizing ascent and entropic descent (natural selection), potential and kinetic energy, fort-da, and what else is there? Going sideways? How modern (i.e. quaint).
The revelatory lightning bolt lays you low, clears the ground — the way a forest fire burns up the accumulations of the recent past (dead wood, undergrowth) to allow deep time through, the forest to reassert itself… Study and devotion goeth before the fall, complication and fractality goeth before the fall, a good meal before the… The steps you take toward some new unknowable outside (outward outwise) put you in a position to be struck, are the conditions of possibility of a kind of regenerative memory-loss: looking down at the lifelong work of your own two hands wondering, ‘How did I ever care about these things?’
Closer: ‘Who was I, that I wanted in this way?’
Give me apoptosis or give me death, the ironist with just a smattering of biology education says.
The fallacy of the Tower (of Babel among others): I have found what I sought, taken what I am owed; and the taken were owed their fate as well. I deserve the earth. Later, having wandered and risen, I’ll deserve the sky.
When I wrote that on The Chariot I was in a different place though it was only two months ago — as always, I’m less certain now and somewhat more confident, those two self-senses at obtuse angles to one another, the latter a kind of ever-shifting groundedness (‘antifragility’ the self-promoters say) but the former a reifying distance. Immurement: premature ejaculation, talking out of turn.
The trouble with the Tower is that it’s neither sky nor earth: flees the one to penetrate the other — from behind a stone or steel barrier, monumental prophylaxis, no skin or flesh. Tin-can rocketship full of doll-men, bathysphere (fear in form), an entire Valley made of silicon.
Or an entire Tower, if you like, made of ivory. An autonomous field,1 dwellers speaking from fixed positions (not only sinecures but,) solely to one another, like Alan Shepard in the perfect silence of the dark side of the moon, his buddies down on the surface chatting with Houston, collecting with rocks. (Aldrin, listening to Glenn’s halting speech: For this I got a Sc.D. from MIT?) Expertise as incommunicability — or maybe in our plaguetime we should speak of herd immunity to knowledge…
From the top of the Tower the illusion of flight is available but it’s no less an illusion than from the ground, or from indeed the chalk outline on the sidewalk where the last mistaken man found himself completing the narrative movement from ascent to and-cetera. (Chalk-off’s done; oh forgive me.) In the cosmic scheme, so to speak, there’s the same amount of sky above the Tower as above the ground or any star or… The Tower is a ward against falling, a psychological not physical barrier it turns out, reassuring but in the end — rising up quickly to meet you, lest we forget — not actually preventive/protective.
The danger is the sky, mere presence of steel and stone at that height. (‘Danger’ like a kiss or a secret.) After the lightning, after the built-up potential energy discharges with what we’ll later editorialize as ‘violence,’ we’ll brush eyebrow hairs and maybe a limb or two off the ground and wonder what we were thinking, aiming so high. Maybe find ourselves saying it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time,’ embarrassed and likely made fun of for it, though that’s as close as we can come afterward to a comprehensive account of our changed position. I wanted to get higher. I wanted to see. I figured I’d figure out the next part when I got there.
‘What was I thinking?’ Well, I was thinking: More!
And I got it.
Now then, fried and (ZAP!) falling toward (ZAP!) knowledge.
‘Beautiful, beautiful…magnificent desolation.’
It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely. (Ted Chiang, ‘Tower of Babylon’)
Where are we on our procession of trumps?
Let’s not worry about that just now. There’ll be time again and again for worry, later, as there has been before. I mean that’s how time works, it moves in a line and feels like a circle, or sorry I mean vice versa. Er. I mean that’s how people work, or I mean:
‘I can hear you! I can hear you! …and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!’
But I thought we were past all that.
‘Now, I say all this not to re-litigate the past…’
We’ll be here again; wounded pride cometh after the fall. But maybe not only that? The knack to flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss, after all, which we might gloss as being ready in and for the World. And you learn pretty quick, they say, that there’s no point where our world ends and All The Rest begins or vice versa — only a slow grade from fort to da, leaving home to finding…whatever’s out there, I guess. And after a while you don’t have to climb so many fucking stairs, is (I guess) the lesson or hope, to be reminded of the obvious.
Maybe then to step out of the steel skin and look around already.
Outside the tower, the stars.
- Bourdieu? Did I lend all my books to you irresponsible fuckers in like 2004? This is what happens when you get old, isn’t it. Fuckers borrow your books, or time just passes, and before you know it you’re worm food. (Well but time passes, long minutes(!), before — cymbal crash — I find my mistreated copy of On Television and the passage in question is highlighted, thank you back-then-Wally. Bourdieu! Academia, autonomous field. Check. Now which one of you fuckers has my copy of The Practice of Everyday Life?) ↩