• Dr John Breadon

Sylvia plath's tarot cards

On 21 July 2021 Sylvia Plath's Tarot pack sold for £151,200 at Sotheby's in London. The origin of this extraordinary auction - the guide price was a modest 6k - was Frieda Hughes' decision to sell most of her mother's estate items. My interest in the Tarot has grown over recent years as my acquaintance with Jungian archetypes has deepened. In this blog I attempt three very brief sketches: firstly, to make a few general comments about the origin and power of the Major Arcana (the 22 images most associated with the deck, though representing only a portion of the overall 78 cards); secondly, what the Tarot meant to Plath through her focus on the The Hanging Man card; and thirdly, how the Tarot might link to the work of therapy.

The pack entered Plath's life on the occasion of her 24th birthday, a present from Ted Hughes; Hughes already had a long-standing interest in esoteric and occult practices so this somewhat unusual gift from him was not that surprising. In a letter to her mother Plath notes the day and the gift:

"We celebrated my birthday yesterday: [Ted] gave me a lovely Tarot pack of cards and a dear rhyme with it, so after the obligations of this term are over your daughter shall start her way on the road to becoming a seeress & will also learn how to do horoscopes, a very difficult art which means reviving my elementary math". (letter to Aurelia Plath, 28 October 1956).

The card which seemed to resonate most with Plath was The Hanged Man. We'll come back to him shortly. But what is the Tarot? Where did it come from? What does it mean?

The most reliable study of Tarot that I know of is Helen Farley's A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. Here are the bare bones of the story. The pack - which came onto the cultural scene around 100 years after the more familiar 52 playing card deck - originated from the court of Duke Visconti of Milan (1412-1447). The cards famous images tell us much about this historical moment. It was still mostly a culture shaped by Christianity (Popes, Devils, The Last Judgement), but open to other sources of insight and learning such as astrology (Moon, Sun, Star) and the classical world (Chariot, Emperors and Empresses). It was a religious culture to be sure but one that was starting to seriously question dogmatic religious authority. It was becoming apparent to Renaissance scholars that the real study of man was actually man himself. The human mind and imagination was starting to usurp the place of God. The symbolic meaning of Tarot's images have mutated over the centuries and their earliest associations have largely been lost to us now. The Hanged Man is one of the best examples of this.

Hanging criminals upside down as punishment - the seed idea of the image in all likelihood - is surely an echo of the anti-Christian Roman practice of crucifying Christians upside down (most notably St Peter). It was a form of humiliation in other words; this wretched criminal is nothing to aspire to! And yet, you wouldn't know this by looking at the image of The Hanged Man from the Marseille deck of 1761 (above). He is an almost serene figure, dangling there with his leg and hands tucked away at a jaunty angle. What sort of suffering is this? It's not perhaps a suffering at all: it is initiation. This reading of The Hanged Man as put forward in the greatest of all works exploring the Tarot's meaning (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, anon, 1985) is of someone undergoing a metamorphosis and desired one at that. Much is often made of his head being level with or in the earth. He is gestating his brain so that something wiser might grow within him.

The therapeutic use of the Tarot for me lies close to Jung's notion of the collective unconscious. Whilst I take a more deconstructed and postmodern approach to universal imagination than Jung would, I agree that key archetypes like those displayed in the Tarot connect us to currents that run through all our lives, currents that we might be wholly forgetful or even in denial of. Currents of power and powerlessness, of male and female, of earthly and infinite, of sociability and seclusion, of the manifest and the hidden. The Hanged Man, I suspect, is a rich image because it is both uncanny and recognisable at the same time: we all feel bound and captive at times. And yet like the Hanged Man we can also take some pleasure and joy in having so few choices. There is nothing to do but swing in the breeze. Moreover, I wonder if there isn't an aspect of the image that reminds us of therapy. We are bound to the chair, captive in a sense. Captive to the gaze of the therapist, captive to our own need to get better. There can be real discomfort in this as most clients will attest to: our whole being might be screaming get out! but we remain seated, at least most of the time.

What was the attraction for Plath to this image and card? To answer that question we'll need to look at the short poem she wrote which bears the name 'The Hanging Man' (1960).

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.

I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid:

A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.

A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.

If he were I, he would do what I did.

The masculine and the feminine in a tussle; that's where Plath starts (and for the sake of space I'll comment only on a fraction of this first verse). Like the person in the image (can we be sure it's a man?) Plath's blonde hair was often remarked upon. It was a sign of conformity and eroticism at the same time - at least according to the male gaze (then and now?). This is often how she felt about her conventional attractiveness: ambivalent. Who or what is the male god that strings Plath up? Could it be mental illness itself? This possible meaning transmutes and leaks away into the mostly male-dominated mental healthcare system of 1950s America that Plath had recourse to seek help from at various points in her life. During her stay at McLean Hospital Plath underwent several rounds of ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy). This had been 'diagnosed' as the best treatment for her after only two outpatient psychiatric sessions. The 'blue volts' surely call this troubling (if occasionally effective) treatment to mind. Plath's most recent biographer sums up not only of Plath's time at McLean but her plight as a young female visionary writer in a sexist culture: 'She was at the mercy of a patriarchal medical system that assumed that highly ambitious, strong-willed women were neurotic. As women, she and her mother had no power to defy the system: the doctor knew best.' (Clark, 2020, p. 271).

The gift of the Tarot is its symbolic trajectory - a life journey laid out in images. As Sallie Nicholls in her classic study of the pack from a Jungian perspective says: 'In our journey through the Tarot Trumps we shall be using the cards as projection holders'. All that we fear and desire can be met here. So we move with the Fool on her life quest as she encounters sacred and worldly powers (Popes and Chariots), chance and fairness, death and evil, the cosmos near and far off (the Star, Moon and Sun), and then a summing-up of what it all means and what it all leads to (Judgement, the World).

Sylvia Plath lived intensely like a comet, but couldn't remain hopeful in a trajectory of life which states we gain rather than lose meaning over time. It's tempting to give the last note to despair, as many of her biographers do. But there is more than enough to celebrate in her short life. I think Plath left behind her very own archetype - let us call it The Warrior-Seeress. She who fought to initiate herself into a creative way of life that could hold together the threads of mother, wife, daughter, thinker, and, above all, poet. Plath was plural, and proudly so. As a seer she read the signs of her own age deftly and with humour and from her readings gave birth in her poems to ways of being a woman that can still challenge and startle today.