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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

Tarot Philosophy: Levitate Like a Saint: Brueghel, Tarkowsky, St. Thomas Aquinas and Muhammad Ali

“Any fool with fast hands can take a tiger by the balls, but it takes a hero to keep on squeezing.” ― Stephen King

The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) is one of the most influential artists in the history of western painting in general and painting in particular. Many of Brueghel’s paintings depict the Flemish village life which takes place in landscapes defined by early modern reality. Those paintings sometimes imply to events from the Bible or classical Mythology and generally speaking, faith and religion hover above all of them. Breughel is interested in depicting the special connection between sin and its embodiment in village life. The dramatic tension between faith and village life is achieved by the feeling that death and religion lurk, symbolically or explicitly, in every corner of our lives. 

The tension between these poles is present in the Tarot cards as well. We will study some details from two of Brueghel’s paintings and reveal similar ideas to those expressed in Tarot cards.

One of Breughel’s most impressive and terrifying paintings explicitly dealing with death is “The Triumph of Death” from 1562. The painting depicts the absolute reign of death over life. The people in the painting surrender unconditionally to death which in turn destroys any attempt from those people to attain an earthly meaning to their lives. Death’s representatives on earth are crushing life under their murderous spears and life has no hope for the future. Brueghel skillfully describes this theme on a variety of expressions: the king who lost his fortune, the beggar who lost her meager possessions, the religious believer who holds his cross in vain, the adventurer who unsuccessfully flees to the mountains, the educated man who reads his books in the midst of terror, the brave who vainly try to resist death, the musicians and artists – all of them, without exception, are doomed to surrender unequivocally to the triumph of death.

However, a detailed examination of the painting reveals that there is still hope for life. Hope is not shown explicitly in the painting but is implied by a movement toward new life made by one of the painting’s characters. The chance for a new life is embodied in the image of the fool who crawls under the table. It seems that the fool understands, contrary to the entire human inferno which surrounds him that he must do everything in his power to save his life. He crawls under the table in a quest for the unknown future and abandons his past which is represented by the dice and cards. The murderous skeletons gazes are not directed towards him so the probability of saving his life is greater than the risk of losing them. In fact, he is the only human character in the painting that has a real chance to survive the mayhem.

Placed side by side, the Tower and the Fool card show a resemblance to Breughel’s death (and survival) theme. The lightning which destroyed the tower of his old life triggered the fool to find a better future. Like Brueghel’s painting, our peaceful lives in the “tower of safety” are, following the appearance of death, heading towards a catastrophe. However, those who accept destruction as an opportunity for a new start can begin to march in those unknown paths like the fool. We can imagine the tower as a phallus after ejaculation and thus it may symbolize the debauchery before dying in Brueghel’s painting. We feel that only few of us are willing, like the fool, to forget their carnal past and without delay to break free to a new life. This is a break in consciousness which involves a significant change of all we knew until now. We have to “levitate” above our current reality and personal choices to the creation of a new reality.

Speaking about “levitation” we can mention the intuitive link to Christ levitating above the Sea of Galilee water. The linkage between levitation and spiritual powers revealed to man in the process of enlightenment appears in eastern religions as well. In Hinduism the Guru has the spiritual power to levitate above the ground during meditation and even during sleep. One of the miracles of Buddhism mentions Buddha levitating above the water with his legs crossed. But not only in the Eastern religions: throughout history, mystics, psychics and various theosophists claimed for some ability of levitation. The most famous philosopher whose name has been linked to the phenomenon of levitation is the medieval scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). 

In 1272 Aquinas left the University of Paris in order to establish a new Dominican Order in Naples. As the head of the new order, Aquinas could manage it as he pleased. But a year later something happened to Aquinas in Naples: In the 6th December 1273 Aquinas seemed to levitate in the air while praying before the icon of the crucified Christ with tears running down his cheeks. According to Christian tradition, Jesus turned to Aquinas and said, “You wrote so beautifully about me. What is the prize you ask for your work?” and Aquinas replied, “I do not need anything but you, my lord.” 

After the levitation experience Aquinas stopped writing philosophy, he abandoned his daily routine and refused to dictate his teachings to his students. When his disciples begged him that he will begin to write philosophy again Aquinas replied, “I can’t, everything I have written seems like straw to me.” The supernatural experience of levitation has changed Aquinas forever; he could not be the man he was.

The association between levitation and Brueghel’s paintings becomes more significant through the work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986). His movie “Solaris” displays a particularly long-shot on Breughel’s work from 1565 “Hunters in the Snow”. Generally, we can say that Solaris is one of the most sophisticated science-fiction movies ever made. Solaris explores the possibilities of the human mind to create a new humanity as the film’s central theme is love as a force that disintegrates and integrates worlds. The disintegration of any rational explanation for love in our current logical world pushes the movie into the abyss of cosmological madness. The abyss is located in an endless vortex where the unfamiliar fourth dimension of love ends the journey in space. Memory, fantasy, collective delusions – Solaris is an immersion in a parallel universe, a paradoxical world where the present confronts the past, fantasy challenges reality, sleep meets death, and of course – gravity meets levitation. Tarkovsky’s movies float in the midst of these paradoxical realities and that’s what makes them so disturbing and profound.

The scene which presents a long-shot of “Hunters in the Snow” is called “Levitation”. It shows the loss of gravity in the room where the painting is hanged. But as we have seen, Tarkovsky’s movies offer a profounder kind of levitation which is performed between our imagination, dreams and reality. The painting depicts hunters and their dogs returning to their small village: the fierce winter is cold, the hunting loot is quite scant, the hunters stare quietly at the snowy ground, the dark dogs tremble, the naked tree branches are piercing like knives – all contribute to the hostile and gloomy atmosphere of the painting. However, in the background we see cheerful children skating, playing games, falling and frolicking. Thus, according to Brueghel the return to childhood always accompanies the impossible mixture of a hostile environment with a sense of playfulness and game. Our childhood memories are a paradoxical combination of hostility with sweetness: we return to our intimate childhood memories which are wrapped with layers of sweetness and tenderness but fear and hostility are integral components of those memories as well. Finally, we wake up from our dreams, drenched in sweat and for a few moments we levitate. We levitate because we are in the midst of dream and reality: on the one hand we can still feel the dream’s tenderness on the other hand we are trying to make sense of dread. The combination of sweetness with horror is the only truth we know, and we levitate spiritually. In fact, after a few moments, all that remains for us is a reflection. We dismiss the matter by telling ourselves that “This was just a dream” but the nature of this reflection, which always strives to an objective perspective is exactly what Tarkovsky seeks to refute. In his view, science strips reality from its true emotions and thus only his art (or Breughel’s) can conquer the exiting realms of emotion and imagination.

The Moon card of the Tarot depicts the ungraspable line between dream and reality, imagination and rational science. The moon is our cosmic mother: before we go to sleep, we ask her to keep us from harm coming in our dreams and also to give them their positive meaning. She is femininity who is endowed with deep intuition and has the ability to understand the deep meaning of our dreams. We notice the same mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere of Brueghel’s paintings in the card: the magical moon threatens to expose the secret thoughts from our deep water of the soul and she entices the dogs and the world around her to float into her lap. Like Tarkovsky, the card shows us that the understanding of our dreams cannot rely only on rational tools. The moon attracts the dogs to stare at her and forget their natural environment, the cancer is emerging from its safety rocks and the drops float in air against the laws of nature. Late at night, when imagination and dream begin their reign on our minds, we fly to the planet of Solaris, to the paintings of Brueghel, to the mind’s hidden alchemy.

The famous boxer Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was known for his speed and amazing flexible body. One of his tricks was done as he turned his back to the public in the arena, pressed his heels together and then seemed to levitate a few inches above the ground. As he converted to Islam Ali claimed that Islam forbids cheating and explained that it was just an illusion. Ali had a remarkable ability to stand on the tip of his left thumb and then lean his weight on it so it looked as if he was levitating. One of Ali’s famous quotes is “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. We can now conclude that after Ali converted to Islam his famous quote could be rephrased:  He levitated like a fool not to get stung by his being.

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