TAO TE CHING and Tarots
Whereas this would be the (still temporary) conclusion of Parsifal:
"The kernel of the world is empty, the beginning of what moves
in the universe is the space of nothingness, around absence is
constructed what exists, at the bottom of the Grail is the Tao,"
and he points to the empty rectangle surrounded by the tarots.(I.
Calvino,"The Tavern of Crossed Destinies," p. 97)
It seems, if we analogize the Tao and the tarots, that Calvino's
frustration springs from his attempt to shape the cards to a predetermined
narrative. But the cards, soft and pliable and formless in their
meaning, ooze through the bars of his structure.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the gods.
Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
The tarots, like the Tao, derive their power from their indeterminancy,
from the endless possibilities each card opens. Calvino becomes
trapped in this incertitude - to define is to destroy - in the
Tavern. With the Tao, trying to extract the essential denies the
principles of sponteneity, fluidity and inexplicability that are
In the final Note, p. 126 Calvino writes:
I could have followed the same method with the Marseilles tarots,
but I was unwilling to sacrifice any of the narrative possibilities
I was offered by these cards, so crude and mysterious. The Marseilles
tarots continued giving me ideas, and every tale tended to attract
all the cards to itself. I had already written "The Waverer,"
which required many cards; I had in mind a Shakespearean pastiche
with Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear; I didn't want to lose Faust,
Parsifal, Oedipus, and the many other famous stories that I saw
appear and disappear among the tarots, and also stories that had
come to me somewhat accidentally: but all culminated in the same
cards, the most dramatic and significant ones.
Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard -it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Therefore they are joined in one.
From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.
Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.
Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.