I’ve been thinking a lot about cards this week. Cards occupy this weird liminal (I know I use that word too much) position that I love. Playing cards care used for gambling, but also for stage magic–which when you think about it isn’t really a given, although it’s so common as to seem so. Why cards, for either or both? Is it coincidence, or do cards contain a natural trickster-ish element that makes this inevitable? Gambling and legerdemain (possibly my favorite word) are combined in card cheats and in three card monte, which always seemed a little magic to me. When I was a kid I would watch the three card monte dealers on Broadway, hypnotized into trying to find “the lady” (I remember them hiding a red Queen and calling it “the lady”). Their slight of hand skills were amazing–most of them cheated, but I think some of them didn’t need to. They just couldn’t be beat. Even if they were “cheating,” what a skill! Gifted men, dealt a bad hand in life.
People also tell fortunes with playing cards: I don’t know how to do that, but I do read tarot cards. Even if you don’t believe in any metaphysical ability of the cards, they’re useful as little Rorschach ink-blots to bounce your subconscious off of. Or you could think of them as little paper dolls that you can use to tell yourself a story and see what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised. And I bet you won’t doubt their metaphysical ability for long.
There’s also business cards, those little bits that seem like a piece of themselves someone left behind, and in the old days people had calling cards, which they would leave so you’d know they’d been there. When you read old novels it’s easy to get confused by the elaborate rituals of dropping off calling cards here and there and the heavy significance of each one. In a magic spell, you can sometimes use someone’s business card as a substitute for the person themselves, and do to the card (the microcosm) what you’d like done to its owner (the macrocosm). There’s also credit cards and ATM cards and ID cards, each of which has magical properties of its own–credit and ATM cards can be turned into money and ID cards can tell a story (Illinois, 25 years old, blue eyes…). Credit cards can also tell a story, which is why American Express cards come in green, gold, and the coveted black.
Not only do cards themselves seem to hold a trickster-ish position but in playing cards, the trickster is built-in in the form of jokers. Jokers can be assigned a variable meaning or left “wild,” i.e. undefined, unformed, chaotic, pure potential. There isn’t much that’s left wild these days, so if you get a wild card, in cards or in life, appreciate it. These days were taught to fear the unknown–the wild–but remember: that’s where all the best stuff comes from. Including us.
A cautionary tale comes from what used to be my favorite short story, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, although I haven’t reread it in years. I do remember though, that the story agrees with me: cards are strange little things. Read it yourself, play some cards, and see what happens.