Vol. 2 No. 21 · 6 November 1980

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Hallo Dad

SIR: I write in no spirit of resentment at Professor Ricks’s generous review of my novel, Mr Nicholas (LRB, 2 October), rather the opposite, but only because the reactions of an author when exposed to criticism of this sort may be of interest. I am not even opposed to such minute examinations of a text, which seem a healthy improvement on unsubstantiated generalisations. And I fully realise that even if an author says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ the fact that he wrote it that way is what matters. There are, however, moments when he, the author, believes he does know best, and must decide whether to bask in undeserved praise or to supply the facts. Ricks congratulates me on originally ending Mr Nicholas with the words, ‘Hallo Dad,’ which is the way the 1961 Penguin edition prints them. By contrast, he suspects a misprint in the new 1980 Macmillan edition which ends ‘Hallo dad.’ He bases several flattering paragraphs on my sensitivity in intending this distinction. Alas, the Macmillan edition was set photographically from the original 1952 MacGibbon edition. It is some meticulous Penguin editor who should have the credit for my sensitivity, since I never even saw the proofs.

Thomas Hinde
West Hoathly, Sussex

Christopher Ricks writes: Authors’ intentions are elaborately slighted these days; this is usually foolish, and when it comes to textual matters, it is absurd. So I unreluctantly accept both the principle and the facts of Thomas Hinde’s letter. There are two textual readings for the last word of Mr Nicholas: one of them has authorial authority, and there would indeed be no point in claiming that an interpretation of the other was an interpretation of Thomas Hinde’s Mr Nicholas. Still, I sketched the differences of implication without claiming that one reading was simply superior. What remains important to me is that it should matter whether a son who has hitherto said ‘Dad’ should say it once more or whether he should say ‘dad’ instead. For what I congratulated Mr Hinde on was not his having written ‘Hello Dad,’ but his writing so that a minute distinction might carry much feeling. It is not clear to me from his careful letter whether he is implying that, though at this point he did unusually write ‘dad’, he didn’t really intend it; or again, that he did intend it, but didn’t intend anything by it. Either of these would seem to me a pity.

Michael Roberts

SIR: It would be a pity if your readers concluded from John Bayley’s somewhat perfunctory review of the Selected Poems and Prose of Michael Roberts (LRB, 4 September) that the prose was merely ancillary to the poetry. Even if we accept Professor Bayley’s assessment of the latter at its face value (which may be risky since he seems not even to know the title of the best-known anthology of modern verse), the prose selections, which in fact comprise four-fifths of the whole book, stand on their own feet. Nor do they by any means consist mainly of poetry reviews, as Professor Bayley seems to imply. In particular, they include several complete chapters from three of Michael Roberts’s main works – The Modern Mind, The Recovery of the West and The Estate of Man. Admittedly, single chapters taken out of context cannot hope to convey the scope or force of a whole book. And some books – including T.E. Hulme, which is in many ways Michael Roberts’s best – simply cannot, because of their subject or structure, be sampled in this way. But the great merit of all these books is precisely that they do measure up to Professor Bayley’s criterion – they ‘stand the test of time’. After a lapse of more than thirty years they remain both readable and very relevant to a wide range of our current concerns, social, moral and political. This is a lot more than can be said for other, and better-known, publicists of the period. I am sorry that Professor Bayley has not observed this for himself: perhaps he disapproves of chapters torn from books of which they are an integral part, and I would agree with him on this. But if so, the remedy is in his own hands. I recommend him, and readers of his review, to try in particular The Modern Mind and T.E. Hulme, if they can find them. No doubt he at least can get them from the Bodleian, but if not I would even, in so good a cause, be prepared to lend him mine. Messrs Faber and Faber could do everyone a service by putting all four of Michael Roberts’s books back into print, but meanwhile the volume under review is a welcome selection, which deserves more careful reading, and more space, than Professor Bayley was able to give it.

Lawrence Airey
Coulsdon, Surrey

John Bayley writes: Michael Roberts is not an easy person for a reviewer to come to grips with, in the form in which Selected Poems and Prose presents him. Lawrence Airey allows that, but at the same time I think I do admit to having been unable to do the book justice, and I am glad he took the opportunity to argue the case for The Modern Mind and T.E. Hulme. I have myself in the past got something out of these books, but I incline to think that Roberts is the kind of writer (often a particularly interesting kind) who has a loyal following but who makes no special impact on other readers. I admit to belonging to the second class, and I was probably not the right person to review the selection. On this account I express my regrets to Lawrence Airey, and I hope he will continue to champion successfully the cause of a writer he believes in.

Tarot Triumph

SIR: Sir William Empson considers it improbable that ‘the tarot pack was used merely for games’ (Letters, 18 September). I think that the clue to his opinion lies in his use of the word ‘merely’. Intellectuals, scholars and other serious-minded people are prone to consider playing games a trivial occupation on which no one would expend any genuine effort; for some reason that entirely escapes me, they do not consider pretentious rigmaroles purporting to reveal the future to be equally trifling. Hence, when they contemplate an artefact as beautiful and intricate as the Tarot pack, they cannot bring themselves to believe it to have been invented for play: it must have been intended for some serious purpose such as predicting future events. I think their estimate wrong, both in itself and historically. Attempting by non-rational means to divine what is to happen is one of the most absurd of human activities; devising and playing games, on the other hand, is a manifestation of ingenuity and of delight in order, an art form as worthy of respect as that of the dance. The game of Tarot was born in the courts of early Renaissance Italy; and in those courts men and women did not despise games as trifling, but cultivated them and took them seriously, by which I do not mean portentously.

These are a-priori arguments, intended only to rebut Sir William’s a-priori argument. For my assertion that no one associated Tarot cards with the occult or with fortune-telling until the 1780s, I relied on empirical facts, which I marshalled. I cited a string of references, from the 15th and 16th centuries, to the use of Tarot cards for play and pointed to the utter absence, from before 1781, of any mention of their use for any other purpose or of their bearing any esoteric meaning. I mentioned two texts, attacking or ridiculing the game, whose authors could hardly have failed to mention their occult associations, if they had been thought to have any. I observed that Court de Gebelin, who initiated the whole occultist fantasy concerning the Tarot pack, believed himself to be the first since ancient times to recognise in it more than an instrument of play, and that Eliphas Lévi and his followers, who were anxious to attribute to their occultist predecessors their own beliefs about it, failed miserably, as A.E. Waite also remarked, to cite one plausible reference to it from their works. If my conclusions are to be rejected, some explanation is needed why it took 350 years for the occult significance of the Tarot pack to come to light; it is surely not enough just to insist that something that makes so mysterious a first impression could not have been originally used ‘merely for games’.

Sir William says that ‘nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical’. Quite so: Renaissance people delighted in symbolism, and used it in all possible contexts, so that its presence needs no special purpose to explain it. There is obviously symbolism in the subjects of the Tarot trumps, but its presence does not imply that the cards were used for anything but play. Most of the symbols were familiar ones: the Wheel of Fortune, for instance, is to be seen on churches in France, England, Sweden and, no doubt, many other countries.

There may even be symbolism there that is not apparent to us. But if there was any hidden symbolism in the pack, the secret was quite soon lost, and this is in itself enough to show that the use to which the cards were put was one to which the symbolism was inessential. If Sir William will look at Alberto Lollio’s mock-serious verse diatribe against the game, published in 1550 and discussed and quoted in Chapter 21 of The Game of Tarot, he will see that the poet, who confesses to having earlier been a devotee of the game, had no conception of any symbolic significance for the trump cards, the meaninglessness of which he derides. In Florence, they removed the Popess, turned the Pope into some kind of temporary ruler and stuck in an extra 20 subjects, to bring the number of trumps to 40; and later changes of subject elsewhere likewise suggest a complete indifference to any supposed symbolism, and, instead, a desire to have easily recognisable and namable figures. A duchess in Sicily objected to the presence of the Devil, and had him replaced by a Ship. In Normandy and in what is now Belgium they replaced the Pope by Bacchus and the Popess by Captain Fracasse from the Commedia dell’Arte.

Whoever first devised the pack may or may not have had symbolic intentions that go beyond what is obvious to us: but, if so, they had, at least by the 16th century, and probably earlier, slipped from the consciousness of those who used the cards, as much as had the military significance of the chess pieces for the Indian inventors of chess from that of chess-players in Europe and the Islamic world. We are disposed to believe otherwise because we have been exposed to the propaganda of the occultists and because we do not live, as did people of the Renaissance, in a world in which the figures on the Tarot trumps are of familiar occurrence in other contexts. But the history of the Tarot pack to be found in the works of occultist writers is pseudo history, bearing no relation to the actual facts; and when the historical facts are looked at, they tell an altogether different story.

Mr J.H. Jones has done me the courtesy to respond (Letters, 16 October), from a standpoint more favourable to the occultists than mine, to the arguments concerning the origin of the Tarot pack which I set out in my book. As I understand him, he does not maintain that the Tarot cards were known, in Western Europe, anywhere outside Italy before the 16th century (or 1480 at the earliest), but is conjecturing a Byzantine origin for the trump cards. Likewise, I do not take him to be suggesting that the composite pack (trumps plus suit cards) was ever used, before the 18th century, for any purpose other than play, or was generally interpreted as having some occult meaning. Rather, I understand him as endorsing the view, rejected by me but propounded by Robert Steele and Gertrude Moakley, that the set of 22 trumps originally existed as an independent set before being joined to the suit cards to form the composite pack, and as coupling this with the occultist idea that the cards correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

If he were right on both points, there would remain much in common between us, supposing that I have interpreted him correctly. It would still hold good that there has been no continuous tradition of occultist interpretation of the cards, and that the composite pack, from its first formation, was used only for play, until the late 18th century. But I venture to say that Mr Jones’s theories are more speculative than any suggestion of mine. There is a question here of burden of proof. Mr Jones says that I am ‘rescued by lack of evidence’ in holding that the trumps were, from the outset, part of a composite pack. My point was that there is virtually no evidence for the opposing theory: it so happens that every one of the many incomplete hand-painted 15th-century sets that survive contains at least one suit card. Since we have imperfect knowledge, the idea that the trumps originally formed an independent set cannot be ruled out as impossible: but, in the absence of any evidence for it, it seems to me unreasonable to believe it.

The same goes for the Italian origin of the cards. We have many cards, and many references to them, from 15th-century Italy; we have many references, and one set of cards, from 16th-century France, as well as ones from Italy in that century: the natural conclusion is that they originated in Italy and spread to France about the turn of the century. I gave specific reasons for supposing that this happened during the French occupation of Milan. I never considered Byzantium, where, so far as I am aware, playing-cards of any kind were unknown. Mr Jones’s conjecture is worth investigating, but, without evidence, it is mere conjecture.

Mr Jones is right to say that the set of subjects for the trumps was standardised at a very early date, but wrong to say the same about their order. The order used everywhere outside Italy (with small variations) was probably derived from Milanese practice, but in Ferrara, a different order was employed, and, in Bologna and Florence, yet a third. This puts in doubt any firm association (for which, again, there is no evidence from pre-18th-century sources) between them and the Hebrew letters. Of course, it does not show that there was not originally such an association, which was never generally known or was quickly forgotten: but, to establish what it was, or to make the theory plausible, one has first to decide which of the different orders was the original one. The fact is, as it seems to me, that, if there were ever such an association, it is very hard to discern. The occultists, who have all believed in such an association, have been quite unable to agree what it is – that is, which card should be taken to correspond with which letter. Mr Jones favours associations between trumps XVI and XVIII which agree with Eliphas Lévi’s system; but, as he well knows, there are rival systems. The Tower and the Moon have not always been numbered XVI and XVIII respectively; if Mr Jones will look at the tables on pp. 399 and 400 of my book, he will see that they have often been numbered XV and XVII. I am not sure why he is so convinced that they correspond to the two Hebrew letters he associates with them. The iconography of these cards, especially of the Tower (whose original meaning is probably the House of the Devil), has varied enormously, as can be seen from plates 6, 13, 18, 26, 27, 30 and 31 in my book: thus, in the Sicilian pack, there is no lightning on the Tower, while, in the Belgian one and some French predecessors, there is lightning but no tower on the corresponding card.

In any case, it is not certain that 22 is the original number of trump cards (counting the Fool as a trump): the earliest surviving hand-painted pack may have had more (it had six instead of four court cards per suit). Mr Jones wants to press the question: why 22? He asks more generally: ‘Why so large a number of trumps?’ In many games there are more trumps than cards per plain suit: in Skat, for example, there are 11 trumps and seven cards in each of the three plain suits. In Tarot, where there are four plain suits and it is compulsory to play a trump when unable to follow suit, at least a similar proportion is essential. The tendency has, in fact, always been to increase the proportion of trumps to suit cards, by reducing the number of suit cards to 41 in Sicily, to 40 in Bologna, and to 32 or even 20 in Central Europe, or by increasing the number of trumps from 2l + 1 to 40 + 1 in Florence. So the only remaining question is: why specifically 22? I do not know how much of an answer the question merits: in devising the pack, its inventor had to pick on some number, and the precise ratio of 3:2 between trumps proper and cards in each plain suit, to which I called attention, seems to me sufficient explanation for his choice. I do not see that the thought, ‘It can hardly be a coincidence that 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet,’ is much more impressive in this case than in that of the chapters of the Book of Revelation.

I do not wish to be dogmatic. It is conceivable that whoever first fixed the number of Tarot trumps at 22 had the Cabala in mind: but if so, his idea was very rapidly forgotten, and he failed to leave unmistakable clues to it. I argued, in my book, that, in the absence of the generic idea of playing-cards, the 52-card pack has too complex a structure to have been invented de novo without any evolutionary forebears: but my thesis that playing-cards were introduced into Europe from the Islamic world had also positive evidence as well as this a-priori argument to support it. I do not think there is a similar a-priori argument concerning Tarot cards. Certainly playing-card packs consisting solely of picture cards were known in 15th-century Italy. It does not strike me as improbable that, given both these and the regular four-suited pack, someone should have had the idea of adding picture cards, to serve as trumps, to the regular pack; there is no need to suppose either that that specific set of picture cards had already existed as an independent unit, or that the idea was imported from Byzantium or elsewhere. Given such an invention, in which the trumps did not form a suit in the ordinary sense, there would be nothing especially natural in having the same number of them as of cards in an ordinary suit: what special explanation do we then need for there being 22 of them?

It is not surprising that we do not know the name of the inventor of the game of Tarot and of the pack with which it is played: we know the names of the inventors of exceedingly few games (not even of that great benefactor of mankind, the inventor of chess).

Michael Dummett
New College, Oxford

BBC Music

SIR: I did not suggest ‘that there is no liaison between BBC radio and television music departments,’ and was explicitly aware of what is being achieved in the area of simultaneous broadcasting. While I greatly appreciate Mr Burton’s detailed information, his very letter (Letters, 16 October) is an amusing piece of central evidence for my complaint: that the co-ordination of television and radio music is gravely defective is proved beyond even unreasonable doubt by Mr Burton himself when he remains unaware that purely accidentally Bruckner’s Seventh was broadcast on successive nights on Radio 3 and BBC 2. He thinks, that is to say, that I was referring to what we in the BBC used to call the ‘planned mistake’ of the repeated broadcast of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the work, whereas my complaint was about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance under Solti on 15 March (BBC 2) and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance under Jochum on 16 March (Radio 3). The very fact that two such repeats occurred within trumpeting distance without the Head of Music and Arts Television (or anybody else) yet having noticed anything amiss would seem to indicate that, if anything, my criticism was not sufficiently drastic. Let me hasten to add that I greatly appreciate Mr Burton’s serious attention to this problem: perhaps he will stimulate his colleagues on the radio side into comparable concern.

Hans Keller
London NW3

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