Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
Playwright’s Tip #3:
This installment of the Playwright’s Guide to Tarot proposes that by applying Aristotle’s story elements, we can perform more focused tarot readings.
- Backwards and Forwards by David Ball: March 4
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: March 11
- Poetics by Aristotle: March 18 (Today’s post!)
- TBD: March 25
If you find this interesting, please check out my talk for the Denver Tarot Meetup on applying literary theory to tarot reading, The Playwright’s Guide to Tarot, on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM, Goddess Isis Books & Gifts, 2775 South Broadway, Englewood. $10.
Poetics by Aristotle
Years ago, at the old location for the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, a large display of Dover Thrift Editions caught my attention. I bought several of these inexpensive volumes on a variety of subjects, including Aristotle’s Poetics. When I was working on my theatre degree later on, I turned to this useful book.
Like the majority of readers, I worked with a teacher who stressed finding the story in the cards. But one day about six years ago, I was preparing a talk for a local metaphysical Meetup group. I realized that it would be increasingly helpful if I could tell people what the elements of story are. After racking my brain, Googling, and finding nothing useful, it occurred to me that someone must have already developed this. Then I remembered the Poetics by Aristotle.
Aristotle, the fourth century BCE philosopher, was a student of Plato and in his own right a scientist, teacher, and writer. He established much of the basis of Western philosophy. Written twenty-three hundred years ago, his ideas expressed in the Poetics still inspire and guide modern writers. Influentially, he defined tragedy and comedy; he recognized that stories had a beginning, middle, and end; and he established that tragedy must bring about catharsis or the purging of the emotions of fear and pity. He also established that tragedy must have six parts, the dramatic elements.
The Six Parts of Drama
Aristotle defines the six parts of drama as Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song.
- Plot—What is the action, or the sequence of events?
- Character—Who are the people involved? Is their nature good and moral? What flaw do they have that can undermine their success?
- Diction—Aristotle means the metrical arrangement of the words–he considered different rhythms of speech to be lofty and serious or base and sarcastic. In tarot readings, we might consider what the characters say to the querent or to each other. What is their tone and attitude?
- Thought—Are the arguments made strong and clearly expressed? Are universal truths applied? What themes are relevant to this story?
- Spectacle (an embellishment)—this can include the setting or environment, the mood and atmosphere, or the degree of intensity of the events. Because spectacle is dependent on the art of stagecraft or special effects more than on the author, this can also include the experience you provide as a reader. How do you set the scene through the use of lighting, incense, costumes, and special decorations. Do you use short rituals to connect with the querent? None of these things are necessary, but the choices made by the reader establish whether the reading has a natural feel or is dramatic or mysterious.
- Song (an embellishment), to include harmony and rhythm—Aristotle says the song “is a term whose sense everyone understands.” Song was such an established part of drama in Aristotle’s day that he gives the least description to this. Song, along with Diction, is one of the mediums of imitation, or one of the ways in which the actions, characters and ideas are expressed. It would be interesting to break down the essential differences between music and language, but for now a simpler understanding will suffice. In addition to the accoutrements of spectacle, you can also set the mood of the reading by playing music. Abstractly, music can address the emotional tone that underlies and empowers language.
Of all of these, Aristotle says that plot is the most important, and character second. Plot is of primary importance due to the fact that life is composed of actions. Although a character may be good or bad, it is not his qualities but his choices that determine the outcome of the story. This is key to good tarot reading.
How Understanding Story Elements Changed my Life
I was in a screenwriting class once with a teacher I had studied with previously. To open the class, he asked everyone what they thought the most important element of good drama was. As we went around the table, each person said, character, character, character until it was my turn. I said, conflict! How a person responds to the test of a situation reveals his true character. When he is in conflict, he must make a choice. It is the action he takes that ultimately defines him, not his beliefs or his innate virtue.
This changed my life when I recognized that the actions taken are not necessarily directly related to the moral quality of the person. By moving away from character and focusing on choices, I was able to achieve an objectivity that is necessary to talk honestly about a situation. If we focus on character, and the cards show an unfortunate event, then we might shy away from expressing the challenge for fear it will insult the questioner. But when we focus on the actions made, it is no longer character assassination to say that the road they are walking is full of pitfalls–now we can simply focus on how to navigate the difficulties.
Story Elements and Tarot
When I’m teaching beginning tarot and I ask my students to describe a card, I advise them to start with who is in the card and what are they doing. It’s too easy for inexperienced readers to focus on their emotional response to the card. But that leads to mushy, touchy-feely readings based on sympathy rather than defining choices that will lead to the desired results. Instead, establish the action rather than the emotion. Consider the differences in the following statements: “This person is standing with head bowed” rather than “This person is sad.” “This person is walking away” rather than “This person is lonely.” “These people are toasting” rather than “These people are festive.” Hone in on choices, not character.
Aristotle describes plot in great detail, defining a clear path through the story’s murky middle to the decisive ending. We’ll look at ways of defining the structure of plot next week.
Aristotle. Poetics. Dover Publications, 1997. 60 pages. Who would like this? Writers, philosophers, playwrights, theatre types, classicists, artists, literary and drama critics. Anyone who wants to understand Western culture better. Anyone who wants to tell better stories.