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Knight of Cups: Spiritual Ascent Through Meditations on the Tarot

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Abstract

Malick’s 2015 Knight of Cups portrays the chaotic-yet-cathartic life of a Hollywood screenwriter and his spiritual ascent out of decadence towards existential meaning. With the backdrop of John Bunyan’s 17th century allegory, the prison epistle The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the constant visual storytelling themes of Platonic ascesis and enlightenment, the film can be fairly interpreted as utilizing the scala literary form, that is, having to do with the “ladder of divine ascent.” With this in mind, a “spiritually formative” (rather than expository) reading of each of the arcana in the film (characters who Malik links to Tarot cards) may also elucidate the mystical journey of the protagonist, Rick. The “anonymous” author of Meditations on the Tarot explores the Tarot of Marseilles through this lens and serves as a helpful interlocutor. His elucidations on various cards (The Moon, The Tower, The High Priestess, and Death) will be examined, building typological links between the characters’ portrayal in the film and their potential meanings in Rick’s spiritual exercises.
Knight of Cups: Spiritual Ascent Through Meditations on the Tarot
William Sipling
Secular and the Supernatural, at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), 52nd
Annual Convention
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
March 12, 2021
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Sipling
Knight of Cups: Spiritual Ascent Through Meditations on the Tarot
Malick’s 2015 Knight of Cups portrays the chaotic-yet-cathartic life of a Hollywood
screenwriter and his spiritual ascent out of decadence towards existential meaning. Combining
allusions and references to The Pilgrim’s Progress, the “Hymn of the Pearl,” and themes of Platonic
ascesis and enlightenment, the film can be fairly interpreted as utilizing the scala literary form.
With this in mind, a “spiritually formative” (rather than simply expository) reading of the
arcana in the film (stages of life and characters who Malik links to Tarot cards) may also elucidate
the mystical journey of the protagonist, Rick. The “anonymous” author of Meditations on the Tarot
serves as a helpful interlocutor through his elucidations on the “The Moon” and “Death” cards.
Knight of Cups as Scala Film
Following a brief synopsis of the film, it will be argued that Rick’s journey follows the
markings of the scala genre; that is, having to do with the step-by-step, ascetic journey of
progressive awakening to grow in virtue and against wrongful passions upon the “ladder of divine
ascent.”1
Knight of Cups finds itself within Malik’s “weightless” trilogy, itself released in 2015
between To the Wonder (2012) and Song to Song (2017).2 These three films focus upon the “film-
philosophy” of “personal transformation,”3 with each cinematic piece emerging from Malick’s
academic training in the thought of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.4 In Knight of Cups, a
1 Jonathan L. Zecher, “The Reception of Evagrian Psychology in the Ladder of Divine Ascent: John Cassian
and Gregory Nazianzen as Sources and Conversation Partners1,” Journal of Theological Studies 69, no. 2 (2018): 675–
76, https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/fly125.
2 Robert Sinnerbrink, “Love Sick: Malick’s Kierkegaardian ‘Weightless’ Trilogy,” Paragraph (Modern
Critical Theory Group) 42, no. 3 (2019): 279, https://doi.org/10.3366/para.2019.0307.
3 Martin P. Rossouw, “There’s Something about Malick: Film-Philosophy, Contemplative Style, and Ethics of
Transformation,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 15, no. 3 (2017): 281–281,
https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2017.1332845.
4 David Sterritt, “Film, Philosophy, and Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World,’” The Chronicle of Higher
Education 52, no. 18 (2006): n.p.
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Hollywood screenwriter Rick (played by Christian Bale) traverses a spiritual journey out of Los
Angeles decadence and into the discovery of spiritual fulfilment. The film is divided into chapters,
“seasons” of his life associated with or marked by a Tarot playing card.
First, the film opens with a quotation from John Bunyan’s 17th century allegory, the prison
epistle The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this English Puritan classic,5 the story of the protagonist
“Christian” is “delivered under the similitude of a dream” (from the cover of the book and as quoted
in the opening lines of the film) as the hero progresses through discrete sequences in his journey to
the “heavenly city,” navigating through the “Hill of Difficulty,” the “Shadow of Death,” “Doubting
Castle,”6 and more.
Second, the film continuously references the “Hymn of the Pearl,” the 3rd century Syriac
poem from the gnostic Acts of Thomas.7 In the “Hymn,” a ruler sends his son to acquire a “pearl of
great price” from Egypt and thereby inherit the teleological “end” of his father’s kingdom, but,
distracted by food, drink, and sleep, the son neglects his quest.8 The father communicates with the
son, who experiences the grace and care of the father, and anamnestically re-members and re-calls
his mission.9
5 John Bunyan, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. Charles Sears Baldwin (New York, NY: Longmans,
Green, and Co, Longmans, Green, and co, 1905), x, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/emu.000011293142.
6 Doubting Castle is where Christian is captured and kidnapped, but remembers—he wills, rather—that he
holds a key with which he may release himself. That is, Christian recognizes that what keeps him bound is himself
(until “awakened” to understand otherwise). This section is referenced in the High Priestess chapter with “Karen,” as
the extreme decadence of Vegas is “revealed” by Rick to be a “world” which “held up a mirror” to his materialism.
7 K den Biesen, “Hymn of the Pearl,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. A Di Berardino et al., vol. 2
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 306; Sinnerbrink, “Love Sick,” 297; M.G. Hammer, “‘Remember Who You
Are’: Imaging Life’s Purpose in Knight of Cups,” in Theology and the Films of Terrence Malick, ed. Christopher B.
Barnett and Clark J. Elliston (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2016), 270.
8 The film, at the very beginning, in a flashback to childhood, makes mention of this story directly (and
allusions to “awake” or “the pearl” are throughout): Joseph says, “Remember the story I used to tell you? About a
prince, a knight, sent by his father, king of the East, to find a pearl from the depths of the sea? But when he arrived, the
people poured him a cup that made him forget and he fell into a deep sleep.” All the while, the scene cuts from
childhood to Rick hungover at a wild rooftop party.
9 A.F.J. Klijn, The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, and Commentary (Leiden, NL: Brill Publishers, 2003),
190–91.
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Third, Malik references Platonic ascent throughout the film,10 and anchors this insight in
Plato’s Phadrus during the “The Moon” sequence.11 In the “myth of the soul” (245c–249d),
Socrates describes the soul’s ascent—seeing rightly between eros and mania12—summarized as the
“long and gradual process of detachment from false reality and attachment to, and growing
familiarity with, true reality,”13 a beatific theoria.14
Knight of Cups through Meditations on the Tarot
Tarot finds a place explicitly within Knight of Cups (given the title), but also at the very
beginning of the film during the “The Moon” sequence. Rick visits a spiritualist shop for a Tarot
reading, and the viewer sees several Rider-Waite cards laid in divination15—the Knight of Cups, the
Emperor, the Chariot, the Hanged Man, the Tower, the Sun, the Fool, and the Star (others are also
visible, but are obscured either by lighting or camera framing). However, not only is Tarot relevant
terms of its use as a storytelling element within the film, but also as a form of mystical
contemplation as well, and may interpreted through an anonymous 20th century European author in
his magnus opus, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. This author’s
explorations of The Moon and Death will be explored here.
10 Gabriella Blasi, The Work of Terrence Malick: Time-Based Ecocinema, Film Culture in Transition
(Amsterdam: University Press, 2019), 139, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvscxsqz.
11 “Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven where only creatures with wings can
be. But the soul lost it wings and fell to earth, ere it took an earthly body. And now, while it lives in this body no
outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there and [...] when we see a beautiful woman, or a
man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven and [...] the wings begin to sprout and that makes the
soul want to fly but it cannot yet, it is still too weak, so the man keeps staring up at the sky like a young bird that has
lost all interest in the world.”
12 JensKristian Larsen, “Dialectic of Eros and Myth of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedrus,” Symbolae Osloenses 84,
no. 1 (October 2010): 77, https://doi.org/10.1080/00397679.2010.501199.
13 Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, 2nd edition (Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007), 6.
14 Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
2018), 59, 63.
15 Note that Anonymous uses the Tarot of Marseilles, but the points he makes still stand in as far as Tarot is
understood as shared “perennial” hermetic tradition.
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On Anonymous and Meditations
A brief introduction to this author and his text is in order.16 Born in 1900, the Estonian
author was initially formed by Rudolf Steiner’s school of anthroposophy, and then following a
religious conversion experience dedicated his life to “synthesizing” esoteric and gnostic teaching
with Roman Catholicism.17
In the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s afterword to Meditations, he speaks of the
author’s astonishing ability to synthesize the Emerald Tablet, Kabbalah, yoga, Christian mysticism,
and more. Further, “he is not at all interested in the practice of ‘laying the cards’ (cartomancy). For
him it is only the symbols or their essential meaning which are important,”18 as archetypes.19
Anonymous’ purpose for the text—as his hope for its readers—is “to inspire piety… to capture and
regulate esoteric spiritual practices according to a rule-governed orthodox theological system.”20
With this background in mind, two arcana in particular will be explored.
Concerning Letter XVIII: The Moon
In Knight of Cups, The Moon, represented by Rick’s relationship with Della, is the first
sequence following the introduction of the film (immediately after the “earthquake” scene). Their
bond is characterized by eros, as unfulfilled and misdirected desire. She tells Rick, “you don’t want
love; you want a love experience.” This disconnection between the mundane subjective (the
“experience”) versus the Platonic form (love itself) is summarized by her appropriation of
16 It should be noted that the author’s identity is in fact well-known, but in deference to the tradition of using
Meditations as a text, he will be referenced as “Anonymous,” and in regard to his other texts, he will be referred to by
his name.
17 Valentin Tomberg, Christ and Sophia, trans. R. H. Bruce (SteinerBooks, 2011), p.vii-viii.
18 Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert Powell
(Penguin, 2002), 661.
19 Balthasar is right to say “tentative” regarding what the Tarot are and do, for Anonymous says that they not
merely Jungian archetypes, but are arcana, a special designation above the symbolic level of “secret” but not at the
“real”-analogical level of “sacrament” in the Catholic sense, cf. Meditations 4.
20 Kevin Mongrain, “Rule-Governed Christian Gnosis: Hans Urs Von Balthasar on Valentin Tomberg’s
Meditations on the Tarot,” Modern Theology 25, no. 2 (2009): 287, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2008.01520.x.
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Augustinian theology: “‘Love and do what you like.’ A saint said that.” Eventually, however, the
saint’s Confessions seems to be alluded to as their relationship declines: “We’re not leading the lives
that we’re meant for; we’re meant for something else.” This is said as Rick watches a news report
of a car speeding away, then fishtails, then crashes into another vehicle.
Concerning the Moon, the anonymous author states that this card—through its symbols of
the crayfish, the dog, and the rays and droplets from the moon—teaches three principles: from
Plato, that “all knowledge is recollection” (that is, re-collection, or re-membrance, the opposite of
dis-memberance); from Jung, that “there is a historical memory in the collective unconscious,” and
from biology, the principle of heredity.21 He defines heredity in another work, Lazarus, Come Forth,
describing the analogical nature of being in that things inhere to one another—in the words of
Hermes Trismegistus, “what is above is like to what is below, and what is below is like to what is
above.”22
Retrograde movement—like that of Lot’s wife, looking to the burning city of Sodom and
then being cast into permanent regression and decay—characterizes the arcana of the Moon.23
However, the Moon may direct one towards a better end—though it renders “the instincts
disinterested,”24 this “disinterest” does not necessitate moral vice. It may rather be an asceticism,
via purgativa.25 In this way, the moon reflects the Sun (which the “soul” re-cognizes as its origin
and ideal) and therefore “enlightens” one on their journey.
21 Valentin Tomberg, The Wandering Fool: Love and Its Symbols: Early Studies on the Tarot, trans. Robert
Powell (San Rafael, CA: LogoSophia, 2009), 93.
22 Valentin Tomberg, Lazarus, Come Forth!: Meditations of a Christian Esotericist, trans. Robert Powell and
James Morgante, 2nd ed. (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006), 23.
23 Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot, 493.
24 Anonymous, 504.
25 Anonymous, 504.
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To summarize Rick, then, according to the anonymous author: “if one is not free in the
sphere of lunar influences, one cannot remember freedom, the memory of the freedom—albeit
paradisal—of the past reawakens.”26
Concerning Letter XIII: Death
The final arcana sequence (before “Freedom,” the chapter that seems to indicate Rick’s
initiation onto the ladder of divine ascent) is Death, symbolized by Elizabeth. She is married, but
she and Rick desire for their own marriage to each other, and a family. A higher level of desire
seems to be indicated here, as Elizabeth and Rick’s relationship has more to do with generativity
and “contemplatio-of the other” and less on one-night stands. However, it turns out that Elizabeth
finds out that she is pregnant, does not know if her husband or Rick is the father, and is encouraged
by a friend to terminate the pregnancy which Elizabeth carries out, haunting both characters and
ending their relationship.
For the anonymous author, Death is not simply “the end of one’s life”; rather, death comes
in three manifestations: forgetfulness, sleep, and death (proper), as illustrated by the inky darkness
of the card, the tufts of grass, and the skeleton.27 This is because each of these manifestations have
to do with “the disappearance of intellectual, psychic, and physical phenomenon. Forgetting is to
sleep as sleep is to death… forgetting is to memory as sleep is to consciousness, and sleep is to
consciousness as death is to life.”28 Death points to the antithesis of each kind of loss, as indicated
in the biblical story of Christ raising Lazarus: “the operation of recall to life—or resurrection—
comprises three stages: that of coming, that of taking away the stone, and that of recall, i.e., ‘crying
26 Tomberg, The Wandering Fool, 94.
27 Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot, 342.
28 Anonymous, 342.
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with a loud voice,’”29 when Jesus declares, “Lazarus, come forth!”30 The “coming” stage directs
human energy to a particular discrete point (when Jesus arrives in Bethany to resurrect Lazarus), the
“taking away” stage is the counteraction of doubt (when Jesus contradicts the doubt of those who
buried Lazarus) and “recall” is “the culminating—and the supreme effort—of the operation of recall
through the force of love,” a “sacred magic” compelled by an almost-ontological level of suffering
(St. John, the reporter of this account according to Christian tradition, says this when Jesus arrives
at the tomb: “Jesus wept”31).32
Forgetting, sleep, and death—seen in Knight of Cups through wild parties, hangovers, a
robbery, mental illness, and other trials—reify the human person into animality, vegitality, and
minerality. But, The Pilgrim’s Progress (“he remembered the key called Promise”), the “Hymn of
the Pearl” (“awake!”), and the Platonic recognition of the soul when it contemplates the Beautiful
(the transcendental) indicate this tripartite victorious and etheric resurrection for which Death serves
as a mirror.33 To put it another way, Death is like a medical operation which includes forgetting,
sleep (both having to with anesthesia), and “death” (in a way, such as debridement or amputation).
“Death corresponds to surgery in the ‘cosmic hospital.’ It is the last expedient to save life.”34 This
was the case for Rick, as loss and suffering allowed for his openness towards spiritual light and
freedom.
Conclusion
Malick’s Knight of Cups makes use of typology, in various mystical sources and ideas,
including Tarot. Therefore, the writings of the anonymous author’s Meditations—who exposits both
29 Anonymous, 348.
30 John 11:38-44.
31 John 11:35.
32 Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot, 349.
33 Tomberg, Christ and Sophia, 261.
34 Tomberg, 370.
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the esoteric and Tarot itself—bring into conversation many reference points and commentary
concerning the film’s themes: spiritual enlightenment and ascent.
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Bibliography
Anonymous. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Translated by Robert
Powell. Penguin, 2002.
Biesen, K den. “Hymn of the Pearl.” In Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, edited by A Di
Berardino, Thomas Oden, Joel C. Elowsky, and James Hoover, 2:306. Downers Grove, IL:
IVP Academic, 2014.
Blasi, Gabriella. The Work of Terrence Malick: Time-Based Ecocinema. Film Culture in Transition.
Amsterdam: University Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvscxsqz.
Boersma, Hans. Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2018.
Bunyan, John. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Edited by Charles Sears Baldwin. New York,
NY: Longmans, Green, and Co, Longmans, Green, and co, 1905.
https://hdl.handle.net/2027/emu.000011293142.
Hammer, M.G. “‘Remember Who You Are’: Imaging Life’s Purpose in Knight of Cups.” In
Theology and the Films of Terrence Malick, edited by Christopher B. Barnett and Clark J.
Elliston. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Klijn, A.F.J. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Leiden, NL: Brill
Publishers, 2003.
Larsen, JensKristian. “Dialectic of Eros and Myth of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Symbolae
Osloenses 84, no. 1 (October 2010): 73–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/00397679.2010.501199.
Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. 2nd edition.
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
Mongrain, Kevin. “Rule-Governed Christian Gnosis: Hans Urs Von Balthasar on Valentin
Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.” Modern Theology 25, no. 2 (2009): 285–314.
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2008.01520.x.
Rossouw, Martin P. “There’s Something about Malick: Film-Philosophy, Contemplative Style, and
Ethics of Transformation.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 15, no. 3 (2017):
279–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2017.1332845.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Love Sick: Malick’s Kierkegaardian ‘Weightless’ Trilogy.” Paragraph
(Modern Critical Theory Group) 42, no. 3 (2019): 279–300.
https://doi.org/10.3366/para.2019.0307.
Sterritt, David. “Film, Philosophy, and Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World.’” The Chronicle of
Higher Education 52, no. 18 (2006): B.12-.
Tomberg, Valentin. Christ and Sophia. Translated by R. H. Bruce. SteinerBooks, 2011.
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Sipling
———. Lazarus, Come Forth!: Meditations of a Christian Esotericist. Translated by Robert Powell
and James Morgante. 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006.
———. The Wandering Fool: Love and Its Symbols: Early Studies on the Tarot. Translated by
Robert Powell. San Rafael, CA: LogoSophia, 2009.
Zecher, Jonathan L. “The Reception of Evagrian Psychology in the Ladder of Divine Ascent: John
Cassian and Gregory Nazianzen as Sources and Conversation Partners1.” Journal of
Theological Studies 69, no. 2 (2018): 674–713. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/fly125.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.