Artwork and writing by Eden Gallanter.

Eden is a professional artist, author, and scientist, and is the creator of the Cheimonette Tarot, sold in over 30 countries, across 6 continents.

Filtering by Category: Literature

Death is Young

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. Usually, its contents include new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about. However, August has been pretty rough, and so I wrote about pet death, family, and life history. If you'd rather look at the art I've been working on, please check out my new art-only instagram account, @edengallanter.


This month my sweet, two-year-old cat died of cancer.

One day she was running and playing, and jumping into my lap every time I sat down. The next day she started acting sick, and after two subsequent visits to the hospital, the doctors told me that she had cancer—lymphoma. It was incurable, and she was only going to get worse. We arranged immediately for a vet to come to our home to euthanize her, and she died in my arms. It was so shockingly fast.

If you've ever had a pet to whom you have a special connection, who follows you around the house, who trusts you, and just wants to be near you all the time, you already know that this pet feels like family. Whatever the world family has come to mean to you, it acts as a soft, warm cocoon around your heart. Family, whether made up of biological relatives, caretakers, close friends, partners, or pets, is one of those parts of life that appears to me to be fundamental, and vitally important for survival.

I am very close to my parents, and I know how lucky I am that this is so. Many people I know have bad luck in this regard. They have parents they are unable to connect to, or unable to respect. Some have parents who were cruel, or violent, or neglectful, or who abandoned them. I am fortunate to have parents I can love and admire, and who have always, always strived to be loving, supportive and faithful to me.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My parents are also quite old—especially my father, who turned ninety this year. I am writing his biography. This is both intensely pleasurable for my father, and incredibly difficult. There are few happy memories of childhood and youth to detail; an overwhelming number of his recollections are marked by loneliness and tragedy. It is an incredibly intimate experience to do this with him. He has now told me stories he hasn't told anybody else. Sitting with him, holding his hand, sometimes crying with him, while listening to these memories that have been buried for so long, touches me deeply.

In writing a story, we are always haunted by the story's end.

Both my parental grandparents died suddenly of cardiovascular disease in their fifties, his elder brother in his forties, and my father himself survived a triple bypass when I was in the third grade. Nevertheless, he is ninety, and I couldn't help wondering what it would be like when my dad passed away, as I was spending my last remaining days with my sick cat.

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)


There is no real way to prepare for tragedy. I believe that the best we can all do is try to face the inevitable, and accept the fact that the world we live in gives us an illusion of control on a truly immense scale. There was no way for me to prepare myself for losing a very young and beloved pet to cancer. All I could do was focus on what mattered, when it happened. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, but I knew that the most important thing was my responsibility to take care of her. In this case, that meant protecting her from suffering any more pain. I stayed awake every night to sit with her. I could barely eat—food choked me. Grief can fill you up and bury you at the same time. The world around us faded. I couldn't even feel the chill of the house, sitting on the floor with her at 4:00 AM. I sat there, with my dying cat leaning against my leg, and I thought about what it would be like to lose my father.

The culture I live in has shielded itself from death. Death happens in hospitals and dark alleyways. Open casket funerals are increasingly rare in this country. The processes of mortality are more secreted away from us that they used to be. But isn't death as natural as the ocean? Can't death be as gentle as the wilting of cut roses, which leave behind a subtle fragrance even after they have faded? It seems to me that life is very short. Living in perpetual fear of tragedy isn't realistic, but at the same time I believe I ought to make the most of whatever time I have with the people I love—my little family, my close friends, and the small number of people who have profoundly inspired and changed the course of my life.

I don't have an answer for grief, or for the inevitability of future grief when you let yourself love someone. Grief is a living creature, with its own logic, its own desires, its own food. All we can do is care for it as tenderly as we would care for anything else we loved.


Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head.

young death sits in a café
smiling,a piece of money held between
his thumb and first finger

(i say “will he buy flowers” to you
and “Death is young
life wears velour trousers
life totters,life has a beard” i

say to you who are silent.—”Do you see
Life?he is there and here,
or that, or this
or nothing or an old man 3 thirds
asleep,on his head
flowers,always crying
to nobody something about les
roses les bluets
                              will He buy?
Les belles bottes—oh hear
,pas chères”)

and my love slowly answered I think so.  But
I think I see someone else

there is a lady,whose name is Afterwards
she is sitting beside young death,is slender;
likes flowers.

- ee cummings, Tulips & Chimneys

The Bridge Between Love and Death

There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.

-Margaret Atwood

Let's say that fiction is a vital component of human existence.

If so, poetry, art, music, dancing, and so forth is all merely part of a natural drive to exalt our limited personal experience beyond what we call real life—the practical parameters of our survival as living, social creatures. Fiction can be created everywhere: putting on makeup, lying to your father, magic tricks, having a crush on a movie star, playing chess. Fiction is ready to come out and play at the least excuse. Fiction is art, it is beauty, it is a wonderful game that everybody wins. Larp (live-action role playing) is literature, except it is created by a group of people in real time instead of by, say, a haggard-looking, brilliant, overcaffeinated, godlike Author who, without involving himself in the convoluted drama of his characters’ lives, creates, peoples, and finally perfects his little world before releasing it into the wilds of the public imagination. In larp, the creator and the beholder are one.

So what do we need fiction for? We need it to fill in the gaps. Even scientists couldn’t do much of anything without theorizing, and nobody could do anything at all without stitching all the bits and pieces of what-we-know-for-sure together with our untested ideas, our wishes, our delusions, or our educated guesses.

The endless procession of marriages between what is true and what is beautiful.

And the one fact of existence that, alone among all others, is surrounded by the widest chasms of unknowability, is that all existence must come to an end.

There are only two views which correspond to the duality that is man: animal and spirit. According to the one the task is to live to enjoy life, and put everything in to this. The other view is: the meaning of life is to die.    

 -Søren Kierkegaard

This year I played two larps about death. The first one, “The White Death”, lasted about an hour. The second game, “Just a Little Loving”, took three days. It wouldn’t be right to compare the two games as equals—while both were extremely important experiences for me, the White Death specifically prepared me to have the incredibly lasting and profound experience I had in Just a Little Loving.

Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

The White Death is about mortality and immortality. It is an abstract, wordless game based on an allegory about a group of settlers trying to set up a community in the mountains, but dying off one by one when winter storms hit. In it, death was a release from suffering and circumscribed consciousness. We all began the game as human beings (miserable, ineffective, and hopelessly restricted to base animal drives), and we were given several props to work with: white balloons, white sugar, and white paper, representing dreams, survival, and faith, respectively. These provided us with a way to develop a relationship to our own death. My character, like all the other “humans”, had a random and unique physical disability, and several meaningless prejudices (mine were a hatred of people taller than me, and an attraction to people with brown eyes). From the beginning of the game, my character had decided that life wasn’t worth living. She clung to her dream and her faith as desperately as the others held onto survival. Standing still in the midst of a cluster of stumbling, moaning humans, she held onto her white balloon gently but persistently.  And when a tall man with blue eyes took it away from her, she began to wail, and then they both wept together, sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, sharing a single dream between them.

In retrospect, I think this character was about my experience with a dear friend of mine, who had been struggling with depression, addiction, and suicide for a very long time. In many ways, she and I are very much alike, and we became close in the autumn of 2013. Life had been hard to her, and I wanted so much to help, and in order to do that I tried to feel for myself that hopelessness and its drive towards suicide. I saw it could be welcomed as the ultimate release from suffering. A life without hope of real human connection, with only the inevitability of suffering and failure, would truly be unbearable. I liked to think that I would find mere consciousness its own reward, even if life held no warmth or happiness for me, but I found out, in the White Death, that of course this could not be the case. I might beguile myself with empty dreams and unwritten beliefs, but it would be presumptuous to imagine that I could generate all my own happiness. My character wanted to be free of the oppressive, meaningless loneliness of life. And when I was finally drawn into the darkness by the dead, I was freed of my human disabilities and prejudices, and the first human I welcomed into the afterlife was the man who had stolen my dream, because he had sat down next to me and wept, too.

The White Death was a truly hopeless world, and I think that’s exactly what major depressive illness feels like. But the world we live in doesn't have to be meaningless, and depression and addiction are not, in fact, hopeless conditions. My friend remains one of the most wonderful people I have ever met—imaginative, creative, curious, brilliant, and breathtakingly artistic. The world is a more beautiful place because she is still here. The White Death was an immaculate death, one that freed us from our suffering, hopeless, and dying bodies. The living color of the mortal world was to us only an impurity, which would be inexorably subducted beneath the perfect, lifeless, crystalline structure of the snow that covered the blessed dead. I grew less afraid of death after this game, more accepting of it, and, I hope, more understanding and forgiving of the darker side of the human mind that seeks to die.

                Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

                Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

             By contrast, Just a Little Loving was full of life and color. Death was real, but we needed to make the most of whatever time we had left, in order to be together. The very structure of the game was oriented towards living, and even suffering was just another way to interact with others, to deepen a character and add even more meaning to his or her life. Death was not a beautiful release, it was just the end. If you died, your character was gone and a new character would be given to you, with all your former connections effectively destroyed.

And this world wasn’t abstract at all; it was real. New York City, 1982-1984: the specter of AIDS. My character was a young gay man named Francis, who had come from a terrible childhood where he was neglected, abused, and ultimately rejected by his family, but who, in spite of everything, had made a good life for himself. He had a stable relationship and was well-liked among his friends. He had a brilliant dancing career, a close-knit community in the drag scene, and meaningful counseling work at the LGBT Center. When the first rumors of the “gay cancer” arose, he couldn’t run away, as he had from his destructive family life. He had to confront the new danger while remaining devoted to his identity as a gay man and to those he cared about. He had a very fine line to walk between putting himself and his community at risk, and loving the gay community the way he wanted to, using the only the available, insufficient facts about HIV to make such decisions. He lost a great deal to this terrible epidemic, and through no real fault of his own. He lost dear friends, he lost his relationship, and he even lost part of his own identity.

Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

The three days of this larp are really three years—annual 4th of July parties, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, set in Saratoga, NY—and Francis transformed dramatically between that second and third year, when his boyfriend Tony left him without saying goodbye, falling into heroin addiction and HIV, and when the science around AIDS finally produced better prevention data and an HIV test. Francis developed a great deal of courage, and matured from a lighthearted boy, trying to keep the monsters in his past at bay, into a strong young man, more serious about the work and people that matter to him, more generous with his love, and more brave in his vulnerability. On the one hand, he felt he didn't have much more to lose. On the other, further loss would have been devastating. He managed to blend his fierce independence with a beautifully raw emotional intensity. He became strong enough to intentionally lay himself open to being hurt, in pursuit of genuine honesty and generosity towards those he loved.

In the third act Francis tried to give back, not just to the gay community as a whole, which he now did every day in his counseling work at the New York City LGBT Center, but to his friends. Trusting and being trustworthy was both very simple and very frightening. He had an unshakeable belief in those he cared for—the support and love he had to give was always real. This realness was a liability for him, but he took a leap of faith by offering his simple, trustful friendship.

If the community he loved was really going down in flames, than he was going with them, with no regrets. He lit a sky lantern for Reginald with his Club Diamond family, holding hands, helping them let go. He sat with Diane and listened to her romance woes. He kissed Nate, calling him "mama", telling him how beautiful he was. He hugged Marcus and told him he was going to be wonderful up there. He blew kisses to everybody who said hello. He supported his best friend Artie, who always came to him for help and whose loneliness touched him deeply. He promised loyal friendship and assistance to Tony, who finally came to Francis and Artie, apologizing for the way things ended and asking for help getting off drugs and into a better life. He watched every last person at the party seek forgiveness, or resolution, or hope, or redemption, and he felt with them all.

And then he stood up on the stage, and with everyone watching him, sang a love song to Daniel, who had left Club Diamond to work on a cure for AIDS. It was a song without demands or expectations. Francis was offering love without strings attached, without making Daniel have to choose between having a life purpose and living a beautiful life.

Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

"I love you," said Francis, afterwards.

"I'm positive," said Daniel.

And Francis didn't even flinch.

            On the last morning, at the time of the lottery of death, Francis felt absolutely frozen. He thought of Tony, addicted, homeless, and now HIV positive too. He thought of his new relationship with Daniel. He thought of Nate and Walter, his beloved surrogate parents at Club Diamond, both HIV positive. He thought of his dear friend Reginald who he had lost to AIDS the year before. Francis felt like he was looking out of a deep, cold tunnel. In his mind, they had already left him, and he was alone on the grass sobbing, as defenseless as he had once been as an abandoned child. And this time, there was no hiding behind a fortress of ruthless independence, flying free of life's cruelty and insisting that he never needed anything from anybody. He had chosen this community and thus acknowledged his own longing for them.

And it was unspeakably frightening to want something so much.

He walked to the graves, holding the hand of the man he loved, staring at the grass and feeling a million miles away, carrying funeral flowers for as-yet-undetermined fallen comrades, sure that he was about to lose everything and feeling utterly defenseless. He thought, I will die if they die. These people are my life.

He held on to Daniel's hand as if it was the one thing keeping him from drowning.

And then he let Daniel's hand go, and walked among the coffins.

And the names inside did not belong to him or to his dearest friends.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. Maybe he smiled. Maybe he kissed Daniel. Maybe he went to each of his friends and embraced them. Maybe he cried.

I don't think he did any of those things, though—I think he just laid his flowers on the dead, and gently touched the shoulders of those who were mourning, and found Daniel's hand again.

And the funeral song played, and pieces of his heart shattered and flew out to join the bereaved, and Daniel and Francis slow-danced to Dusty Springfield's song "Just a Little Loving", and Daniel said, for the first and last time, "I love you", and the game was over.

The Great Ineffable

In July of 2012 I went to Portugal to give a talk on Occupy Wall Street and public spaces in the United States at an international conference about cities and social justice, at the University of Coimbra. (I have my friend Ella to thank for this entire endeavor—not everyone can manage to generate so much inspiration in me from such a minimum of in-person friendship, but Ella has truly wondrous talents in this regard.) My talk there did not go especially well. The skills I have developed over the years for public speaking come and go, and, in the clutches of a tremendous undertow of heartbreak, loneliness, existential crises, and politics, my confidence rolled merrily out to sea with the tide. All in all, it was probably okay.

The conference was replete with people backed by large institutions, and I was the only one I knew who wrote a paper independently. Perhaps my shy speech went over with the rest of the group in the way of Van Gogh's lousy table manners or Wagner's appalling romantic life.

"Well, she's an artist, after all!"

I can only hope.


Before visiting the tiny little medieval town of Coimbra (Portugal's old capital, and at present a hotbed of abstract science and impassioned student anarchists, to my great delight), I spent four days in Lisbon. I had a lot to think about, and Lisbon, with its beautiful buildings spanning more than a thousand years (Lisbon is also one of the most cheerily colorful cities in Europe: baroque buildings in soft easter egg colors, red roofing, elaborate painted tiles, and Lisbon's special mosaic Portuguese pavement all contribute to the riot of complex visual noise, subsiding abruptly into peaceful monotony when your eye reaches the mouth of the Tagus river), was ideal for the sea wave-gazing, bonfire-gazing, train window-gazing, aquarium fish-gazing impulses I have when I have a lot on my mind.

Watching the world go by, and watching its constituent parts describing the internal architecture of the great natural entities: oxygen, water, the vernacular growth of cities and townships, the melt and swell of geological landscape sculpture, the role of the ego in a larger world (the fish moving ever so slightly with the surge, building on the current like a dancer uses the movement of her partner to execute a high kick or rotation), is an ideal blank canvas for thinking. Order is forever in love with chaos.


I'd wander the streets of Lisbon all day long with my sketchbook, listening to the sounds of the city, daydreaming, drawing and writing down whatever came to mind, but mostly letting my mind wander while I trudged up and down the steep cobbled streets and alleyways of the city.

I seemed to grow smaller during the day, as though my mental hurricane dried up in the powerful heat of the summer sun. I let all the terrible thoughts fly out of me, like a tower filled with blackbirds against a hot, white sky. At night, I filled my mind back up with books. One of the books I read was "Just Kids", Patti Smith's story of her life-long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It was the best love-story I've ever read. Patti and Robert made an enormous amount of art together, and supported each other through incredibly hard times. They went through phases of sharing absolutely everything together, and growing apart and into solitude or the lives of others. They remained inseparable in so many ways, but also seemed, almost effortlessly, to avoid the mistake so many make in love: mistaking the beloved for yourself.

“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Total intimacy, total freedom. The most beautiful thing in the whole world.

"The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

Sao Domingos
Sao Domingos

This book articulated what I had always believed about my life's work and about human connection. The fact that I have never loved Patti Smith's music (though I have always respected it) merely added to this feeling of oceanic solidarity; if I can find such a treasure in a gift that is not meant for me, than I am more intimately connected with the world than I had dared to hope.

Alone in my guesthouse room, jumbled among the rooftops and jutting chimneys, with the moon hanging low in the sky and the fantastic heat of the summer nights, I felt something like relief, like salvation, like happiness, although I was not yet happy. Nobody could tell me any longer that what I wanted did not exist. Slowly, the strictures surrounding my identity were crumbling away. It was a process that began in the years after middle school, and accelerated when I met my present community. It is an ongoing process today.

Last week my friend Conor shot and killed himself. He was not a very close friend, but he was a friend, and he was a part of my community, my chosen family. There was this one night that Conor got pretty drunk and needed a place to stay overnight, and I was happy to be able to lend him my bedroom. I could tell that things were hard for him, and it felt like such a huge gift for me, to be able to do something for him. I was so happy to be a part of his safety net. It reminded me that I was, for the first time in my life, part of a community. It reminded me that I wasn't alone. Every time I saw him at a party, I tried to edge my way into a conversation with him to see how he was doing. Although Conor so tragically did not survive this depression, the fact that he did reach out felt like a gift, and one that included me. Conor's depression took so much away from him: his sense of intimacy (though it was there for him all along), and his freedom (which was, heartbreakingly invisibly, within his reach too).

I don't really feel that we, Conor's friends and community, failed Conor. I wish more than anything that there had been something to prevent him from that last and final fall—a serendipitous situation, a friend in the right place at the right time, a windfall of rationality and common sense, blind luck, anything—but ultimately I think that we belong only to ourselves. I wish he could have seen that it was going to get better, or felt (as I feel) that life was an irresistible adventure, even in the midst of terrible suffering, and that he couldn't help but stick around to find out what happened next.

The End
The End

To all those (my smart, sarcastic, jolly friend Luke, my sweet friend Conor, my artist-dancer role model Lisa, my Russian bear of a childhood friend Dima) in my life who have taken their own lives, and to the many more who have been tempted or who have tried, please reach out. You are alone and you are not alone. You belong to yourself but you are surrounded, inundated, by a fine, filamented web of love and generosity, which will reach out to you if you can only find out how to reach out to it. Keep trying, please, and hold on.

I miss you so much.


The End of the World

The end of the night is a little like the end of the world sometimes, when you wake up from your dream or your nightmare, when you wake up from the daze of love and find you were in love with a ghost, when you realize that you've been working for eight hours straight in the dim shadows of the early dawn. It's over. Ready or not. Lately, I’ve been pulling a lot of late nights and all-nights, working on my paintings and writing, deep in the wonderful trance that artwork and writing generate, and nothing else exists for a while. Next to my art table, I’ve got a few prints of Mondrian’s trees, and I like to look up at them sometimes, while I work.

Tree, 1912. Piet MondrianIf you’re thinking “Trees? Wasn’t Mondrian that guy who exclusively painted rectangles in primary colors?” then you’re in for a treat: Mondrian’s early work was startlingly different from his later obsession with rectangles. If you follow the early work (the trees in particular) chronologically, you can see how he got into geometry. He is clearly preoccupied by the way the trees divide and fracture the sky behind them. The spaces between the branches become more and more dominant until they swallow up everything else.

In the end, Mondrian throws out everything but the math and the primary colors: elementary particles of the world of the artist.

Ten years ago, I painted the last of the major arcana cards, The World. At the time, I was mad about abstract mathematics (not that I’m not still, I simply have learned to be less heavy-handed about it). I was just

The World, version 1

beginning the process of designing and painting my tarot cards, and I was still having trouble figuring out a method. My head was always a confusing tumult of images and ideas, and I usually didn’t know how they would fit together until I put it all down on paper. I would sometimes go through four or five unsatisfactory card paintings until I got it right (energetically tearing up an unacceptable card, catharsis suffusing me with each shred of paper that fell to the floor). I was in the process of teaching myself how to use watercolors. I had never done a large-scale art project before. So, there was a great deal of trial and error, but by the time I had gotten to the World card, I had refined my process to a gracefully attenuated point.

As much as I was inclined towards the final card of the tarot’s major arcana, I found (and still find) the World a challenging card to interpret. After all, it is a word that is meant to encompass everything. Where are we even supposed to begin? Going through the knucklehead prehistory of our current understanding of the universe is of little assistance. Both the Rider-Waite and Thoth images of the World are symbolic representations of the human experience (which, actually, is what all the science we have on the subject amounts to as well), so I decided to begin with us—specifically, with the foundations of identity: our place within our environment. As the Fool is a blank card, depicting an entire lack of experience or identity (and the Angel is the Fool’s transformation from an empty vessel into a divine being), the World must be about the acquisition of a self, and of a relationship with the universe outside the self.

The first version of the World was made of math: two trees composed of infinity signs (and whose shadows reveal them to be the Trees of Life and Knowledge), with a child in the space between them (demarcated as human and therefore finite by the “1” inscribed on her hand), orbited by a cluster of zeroes or planetary bodies. This is one story of the original bitten apple: how our species acquired almost godlike powers of understanding and control over our environment (though, as anyone can see, without any of godlike powers of foresight which comes along with the dubious ability to live indefinitely).

Which brings us (somehow, but you’ll see, just you wait) to a tiny little jewel of a poem by ee cummings, from his book “95 Poems”.

wild(at our first) beasts uttered human words —our second coming made stones sing like birds— but o the starhushed silence which our third’s

Within the jumbled flavors of human evolution, religion, sound, and sex, the poem has always seemed to be about the arc of creation and destruction. Language, technology, and a strange cosmological quiescence at the end: the human body, the human race, the planet, and the whole universe will ultimately destroy itself, much in the same fashion in which, in the beginning, it created itself.

I did not have a clear notion of this when I painted my first version of the World (beasts uttered human words) back in 2004, but the velvety black shadows of the trees and the fury of the child between them seem to me to

The World, version 2

portend the last two versions, which I painted only in recent months (each painted all at once, in two

isolated all-night electrical storms of artistic energy).

The second World (stones sing like birds) has several of the same elements: the trees and the orbital band of

planets. The human child has vanished, and in its place is a black snake (or is it a serpentine hold in the fabric of the universe, through which the great eye of some god or monster shines?) The moth of the swords

suit (the same moth first introduced in the clothing of the pregnant, masked figure in Death) hovers above the trees, whose roots and branch tips intermingle in a

The World, version 3

continuous ring. In the third World (but o the starhushed

silence), the trees are replaced by golden serpents (a duplicate version of the

Ouroboros world

serpent, eating its own tail, a representation of a primordial and eternal unity). The death

moth has vanished, and no central figure exists between the trees and their orbiting

planetary belt.

What began as a human child and transformed into a black serpent with a human eye has ended in simple darkness, as though it is an open portal into some other world, brand-new and unknown.

As though the world had already ended and nothing was left but a cloud of postexplosive, poststellar material gathering itself along the last remaining vectors of gravitational and electromagnetic forces. As though nothing was left but the mathematical principles behind the grand set of the physical laws of the universe.

The World card, last of the major arcana, is really the end of the world. Only upon the conclusion of the bigger story do we discover its meaning.

This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.

The Kickstarter to fund its publication is currently live! Pre-order a deck or the artwork here.

Ada and the Queen of Swords

"'What on earth is an artist?' 'An underground observatory,' said Van promptly."

-Vladimir Nabakov, Ada

A long time ago, when I was an undergrad, upon swimming for the first time in a vast sea of literature of my own choosing, I was just awakening from the deep, trance-like existence you get into when you find a really, really good book and can't stop reading and re-reading it, the kind of book you wish would never end at all. At that time, my Book-to-End-All-Books was the immortal Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I had read, at that point, Ellison's book about ten times straight through, and I still don't know how many times I read that beginning and ending (it still gives me the shivers just thinking about it, Ellison's character in his illuminated cave, writing from a place outside the world, lonely but powerful, ending with his terrifying line, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?") I was winding down, in a frenzy of African American history books, jazz music, and poetry, looking desperately for another work of fiction, when a friend, from whom I was slowly and painfully learning how to be cool, told me about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

I read it, was impressed with the language but mildly bored and a little sickened by the story, and began casting about to read more of Nabakov's brilliant, self-conscious and bravely egotistical writing. Then I found his Ada or Ardour: A Family Chronicle, a love-story complicated by incest. The characters were spoiled, brilliant, and ridiculously self-important, even for main characters. Like Van Veen, the book's number-one narrator, I fell in love with Ada. Not that she was particularly likeable or even admirable—her brilliance never consolidated into anything more substantial than a string of sad love affairs, though she tried hard to be an actress. One might have watched with interest from afar, but I hardly think that either of them would be tolerable in real life. It is not necessary to like that which you love.

But she was so real. Her self-importance merely reflected my own, buried under yards of empathy and self-doubt. She was a tragic figure, living in a world that did not see her and could not accept what she had to give. Neither Ada, nor her brother-paramour, Van (nor, I suspect, even the great and all-seeing author himself) seemed to have any idea why this should be so, and the book's plot tossed among the flotsam of a deteriorating world, its characters saddened to find themselves lost anonymously in a landscape over which they had expected to someday rule.

Says Van (always a foil for Ada, always her more legible spokesperson, always her other self): “Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval.”  Ada herself dwells in that gap, belonging no place and every place, and without any metric by which to judge her shape, her size, or her place in the world.

The Queen of Swords

So it is not surprising to me that when I painted my Queen of Swords, it was Ada. In tarot, queens, kings, princes, and princesses ("pages" in some decks) are sixteen distinct personalities, and may represent real people, communities, ourselves, or that "dream of ourselves" with which we do daily battle.

The Queen of Swords is at once cold and tender. She is cold because she knows herself to be the brilliant, insightful, and capable person she is, and is in so many respects immune to need and desire, because she already has everything. She is tender because she has never known an existence without her riches, and therefore has no name for the blind, yearning, half-formed girl inside of her. In many ways, her only desire is for herself. Looked at another way, her desire to share her glut of blessings with the world (a desire which has not yet taken the shape of interest in the lives of other people, only a feeling of emptiness where this interest ought to be) makes her irrepressably sad. She looks down at the world, feeling powerful and yet alone, permeated by all the knowledge and experience of the whole world and yet weak with the hunger for human experience and fellowship.

Like Nabakov's Ada, the Queen is proud but bewildered; self-worth is not confidence. She thinks well of herself and her abilities (as well as her ability to give), but she finds no one who recognizes her in the world outside. Her dream of herself does not match how others see her, and she withdraws, confused and hurt, far beneath her skin and into her internal landscape, where no one can ever find her.


This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.

Copyright 2014 - Cheimonette