Tarot Philosophy: The Very Hungry Card: Aquinas, Buddhism, David Lynch and Eric Carle 

“On Saturday, he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon
That night he had a stomach ache.”
―Eric Carle  

We all love to eat and sometimes to overeat till we reach the state of gluttony. Our meals offer us the culinary pleasure of filling our plates again and again until we feel the sweet taste of satiety. However, after the delightful feast the pleasure is often replaced with a sense of emotional emptiness. This emptiness is manifested by the point that we cannot understand how, just a while ago, our plates were filled without hesitation with loads of food and now we cannot even look at them. We rush to pack the leftovers of our dying pleasure and put them quickly into the refrigerator until tomorrow. We often have the experience of guilt after overeating. We feel that our moral obligation is to “burn” the calories we have just accumulated and we are ready to take any measure to ease the agony of our bodies.

One of the most interesting children’s books which deal with the phenomenon of gluttony is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle (1929- ). In this wonderful story we follow a little caterpillar for seven days from the moment of its birth until its turning into a cocoon and then into a butterfly. The consciousness of the caterpillar develops through the story according to the gluttony motif: from the early days of controlled eating of fruits and vegetables to the compulsive gluttony of junk food just sixth days after. The caterpillar moves from eating fruits and vegetables to overeating synthetic products such as sausage and a lollipop thus the book describes the relationship between the naïve little caterpillar at the beginning of the story and the capitalist society to which he was born. Eventually, the caterpillar returns to its original nature by eating green leaves and in the seventh day it mends his eating habits and discovers his fate as a beautiful butterfly. However, if we take it to the human aspect, the story leaves the reader wondering whether we are sentenced to eat those synthetic products as a necessary step of growing-up. Actually, it is a complex metaphor of the human condition: do we enjoy consuming those products or is it a necessary ingredient of our reality? Is the Sisyphean and erroneous process of growing up is something we have to go through in order to fulfill our destiny in the world?

One possible answer to that question is that the desire to eat (properly or improperly) is related to the process of fertility: both of them occur in the abdomen and both fill us with inner beauty and glamour coming from inside-out. Our nature automatically starts the mechanism of eating in order to keep ourselves fit for reproduction and similarly the caterpillar feels it has to eat in order to develop into something else.

The Tarot offer us a similar mechanism of “gut feelings” associated with eating and fertility. If we will examine the Empress card we will notice she points to her stomach and maybe this gesture indicates that our productivity and growth will come from there. Generally speaking, the card describes our connection to the divine feminine and the application of our feminine side to our souls and bodies. When we say we have a “gut-feeling” we are always united with the empress through her great maternal abdomen and her large pelvis. Both in the caterpillar story and in the card the idea that the food we eat represents both the material world and the world of passions is fully expressed. 

 The Empress is pointing at her belly and her wide hips in a suggestive fashion which unites passion and matter. Even her grip at the end of the wand is both delicate and confident and therefore represents the unification of passion with material security. Like the caterpillar story this unification will lead us to our destination. In this way, the empress and the caterpillar never lose their spiritual and material grip of the world. In addition, we see the empress embraces her shield with the engraved image of the eagle. The royal eagle suggests that her maternal gut feelings will someday make her fly away from the daily routine to the royal rebirth of her nature. Like the caterpillar story which eventually becomes a colorful butterfly, we can confidently say that both narratives claim that the balance of matter and passion is the key to be the master of your own domain.  The way to achieve the balance won’t be easy and sometimes our passions will win the battle of attention: we see that the eagle and empress gazes are directed towards the tip of the wand and not towards the belly as if telling us that we can surrender to our passions for a moment. Similarly, In order to eventually discover its destiny the caterpillar was extremely passionate to eat the industrial food that does not come directly from nature such as sausage, cakes and more. Likewise, we notice that the empress is sitting in an artificial yellow frame indicating that the reconnection to our maternal feelings cannot happen without breaking the structural and maybe institutional frameworks of society.

Our discussion concerning the Empress card still does not answer the question why Carle and many other writers think that gluttony is such a terrible thing?  The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas discusses in length the phenomenon of gluttony and it’s relation to sin. According to Christian faith gluttony is regarded as one of the seven deadly sins and thus it raises a few questions which Aquinas is keen to answer: Could gluttony be considered a sin? Is it a mortal sin? Is gluttony the greatest sin of all sins? Aquinas’s method of writing is always fascinating: he always bothers to present the most convincing arguments of his opponents, then he raises his thesis on the subject, and for conclusion he addresses all the objections raised.

Is gluttony a sin? Aquinas claims that although we feel regret and shame after overeating, the vast majority of people don’t consider gluttony to be a sin. Aquinas tells us that if gluttony was a sin then we would have felt its burden already from the first sip or bite. But at the beginning of the meal we do not feel sinful and therefore gluttony is not a sin. In addition, we cannot refrain from eating and drinking, therefore gluttony, even if it is an excessive form of eating, cannot be regarded as a sin because sometimes it is inevitable. In spite of those convincing arguments for not considering gluttony a sin, Aquinas argues that gluttony is a sin. Gluttony is an excessive desire to eat and drink which causes us to act not according to reason and we actually turn against our nature. 

Concerning the claim that gluttony is not a sin because we don’t feel sinful at the beginning of the meal Aquinas believes that when it comes to gluttony it is not a normal and healthy appetite. In fact, the healthy appetite does not involve morality at all because it is unrelated to moral standards. There is a different kind of appetite which is passionate and gluttony is the immoral side of it. In gluttony we devour from the first moment in frenzy acts which are against the rules of logic and reason so gluttony is a sin. 

The second claim was that gluttony is inevitable but we have already seen that Aquinas doesn’t regard it as an expression of normal and healthy appetite. In fact, there are two types of overeating and only one of them is considered gluttony and a sin in the eyes of Aquinas: the first type is an unconscious and exaggerated overeating which is not a sin but an expression of immature personality. Only when the excessive eating is done out of conscious thought to consume everything in sight, then it is considered gluttony and sin.

Food and sex are frequently regarded as the basic needs of all human species. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) famously claimed that if we do not provide those needs, we cannot climb the pyramid ruled by self-fulfillment. The problem with this model is that we never really fulfill our basic needs because the fulfillment is always accompanied by the irrational feelings of guilt and regret. We commit the sin of gluttony on a daily (and sometimes even hourly) basis and thus maybe we can think of it as the most deadly sin of all sins. Is gluttony the worst sin of all sins? Aquinas does not think so. His opponents will claim that gluttony is the worst of all sins because Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their gluttony. Likewise, the flood, the destruction of Sodom and more: all occurred as a result of sin involving gluttony. Secondly, it seems that gluttony forms many other sins like lust, greed and pride. Since the cause is always more powerful than the effect gluttony is the severest of all sins. 

Aquinas believes that the severity of sin is measured by three aspects: first, it depends on the object of sin. Sins related to God are of the worst kind and therefore we can’t say that gluttony is a severe sin because it is associated with physical desire. Second, the degree of severity of sin depends on the person doing the sin. Grave sins are done by few people and hence it easy to see that gluttony is not a grave sin because we all, without exception, must eat and sometimes we have no choice but to overeat. Third, the degree of severity of the sin is measured by the severity of the outcome. It is agreed that the result of gluttony is not serious at all so gluttony is not a severe sin. Concerning the Torah punishments, Aquinas argues that those sinners have done the real severe sin before the sin of gluttony and actually gluttony just accompanies grave sins done earlier. Gluttony might be the reason for many sins but even if we accept this claim it does not mean that gluttony is a more grievous sin than them.

We have seen that Aquinas mentions the story of Genesis and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as part of his discussion on gluttony. Now we will examine what the story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and the Tarot cards have to tell us about these founding myths. Beyond the almost trivial fact that the story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” takes place over seven days, the downward spiral of the caterpillar begins when he eats the apple. The act of eating is accompanied by the caterpillar crawling through the apple hinting us that sin is not accidental but is calculated and has a defined route. Likewise, Adam and Eve have realized from the outset that they have deteriorated to the slippery path of righteousness, temptation and guilt. Our consciousness is born in the biblical story on the sixth day and the first notion of Adam is that he can take advantage of the natural food surrounding him. Similarly, the caterpillar discovers the diversity of food in his world on the same day. So “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” story hints that the initial consciousness of food is actually the initial consciousness of sin. 

The connection between crawling on the ground and the phenomenon of gluttony is represented in the Tarot as well. If we examine the Temperance card we see that she pours water from two jars which may represent two opposite sides of a particular matter. The mid liquid generated from these two jars might be a symbol for balance and more explicitly calls for moderation on the subject of food and beverage consumption. However, this harmony of the temperance is always in danger. If we look at the legs of card we find that they are deeply established in the ground and the hem of her dress is wrapped with hungry caterpillars and snakes. Thus the card implies that the process of achieving harmony with the universe might disconnect us from the mundane reality. The message is that we cannot completely eliminate the part of the “Hungry Caterpillar” in our personal identity. It is very clear that we must think of our healthy consumption of food but we can overeat occasionally as well. Our preoccupation with ourselves and our dietary habits disconnects us from reality, which includes worldly temptations.

But what exactly is the personal identity of this gluttonous person? Is it real? One can suggest a Buddhist interpretation of Carle story which undermines our previous conclusions.    

The story of the hungry caterpillar may metaphorically illustrates the concept of emptiness (Sanskrit; Pali: suññatā) in Buddhism as a whole and in Mahayana Buddhism in particular. According to Theravada Buddhism we do not have a permanent self-identity that continues from moment to moment. There is an illusion of continuity, but in fact there is only a sequence of moments called Dharma and it establishes reality. In the story the caterpillar eats series of leaves, then eats a series of fruits of the same kind, and finally comes a chaotic sequence of foods of various kinds. However, the caterpillar’s self is not formed by any sequence. The last series of chaotic foodstuffs emphasizes that the only thing which really changes is the nature of the sequence itself. The caterpillar is still “hungry” for finding his “true” self.

Mahayana Buddhism goes beyond this concept of the self and not only negates the existence of an ongoing self but also denies the very reality of the selfhood moments themselves. The Dharma is a simple concept because the nature of things is their emptiness. We are left with two paradoxical truths: according to the first truth, everything is an illusion and there is no self-identity to anything in the world. According to the second truth, we must attribute identities to all distinguishable things in our mind in order to act in the world. Mahayana Buddhism steps into this paradox and simultaneously holds both truths. It solves the unbridgeable by saying that the relationship between the two truths is not static but rather a process of an endless meditative thought. In the first stage, we distinguish between things according to their selfhood, and in the second stage we do not make any distinction. In the third stage, Mahayana Buddhism asks whether the very distinction between the stages is real. This question brings us back to the practice of identities and the distinction between things and so on.

These three stages are actually the three metamorphoses of the caterpillar: in the first stage it emerged into the world as a leaf-eating creature, in the second stage it realized that the rampage eating did not establish any self-identity but only a abdominal ache. In the third stage, it underwent a metamorphosis from a golem to a butterfly whose existence is detached from identity of the gluttonous caterpillar. The caterpillar crawls into the paradox and becomes a beautiful Buddhist butterfly: It now holds that we must live every single moment of our lives as a butterfly emerging from the golem. It is the liberating thought that everything is possible for those who can be emptied from their previous thoughts. It is in fact the way we experience our lives and our identity through a story we tell ourselves that includes the disintegration and re-integration of our identity. 

One of the world’s best-known film directors associated with Buddhism in general and its Transcendental Meditation in particular is the American director David Lynch (1946- ). The motif of dissertation and re-integration of our self-identity is woven throughout Lynch’s films and culminates to its artistic perfection in his latest film, “Inland Empire”. The film describes the fragmented self-identity of a girl who is “imported” from poverty in Poland to a miserable reality in the United States. She is forced to work as a prostitute but he cannot cope with it and thus loses her grip in the world as a sentient person. In the beginning of the film she is already portrayed as both a heroine in a Hollywood melodrama and the glamorous actress who plays the heroine in melodrama. This dual distinction is undermined as the film progresses and the heroine a series of torn identities appears on the screen: she is also a failed actress who plays the role of the glamorous actress, an actress who plays someone who fantasizes that she is the glamorous actress, a whore who escapes from the daily horrid reality, a failed murderer and all sorts of fragmented identities. At this stage her self-identity is destroyed and sheer terror consumes her soul. Like the Mahayana Buddhism, which poses to the question of the distinction between identity and non-identity of the self, Lynch portrays his fragmented identities in order to challenge this distinction. In “Inland Empire” he creates an inner world which is very close to the way we compose (and decompose) our self-identity on a daily basis: we experience our identity through a story we tell ourselves about and this story which itself falls apart sooner or later, and all these identity-pieces reunite into another story that contains the bits and pieces of our dusty, old self-identity. Lynch, Buddhism and even the hungry caterpillar tell us about the incoherent way we experience of our self-identity:  life is a Sisyphean effort to tell ourselves why we are what we are or why we are so hungry.

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01/22/2022 · 4:39 am

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