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By Rev. Marek Bazgrzacki

 

 

Foreword

“My favorite metaphor for watching The Big Lebowski is that old story about the student who rushes to his Zen master, filled with enthusiastic questions, meanings, relationships — only to be whacked on the head with a stick. The Big Lebowski is that cheerfully disruptive Zen stick”
– Paraphrasing Allen B. Ruch ‘Final words’ to his introduction to Gravity’s Rainbow. [1]

 

Introduction

By placing the action of The Big Lebowski in an almost-contemporary Los Angeles, a city portrayed as being populated by opportunists, pornographers, embezzlers and ‘what have yous’, the Coen brothers have, like Chandler, created a image of the modern world, a torn, disparate world; a world which has manifestly failed to rebuild itself anew. A world re-imagined through the cinematic genre of Neo-Noir, which only the Dude, in his own idiosyncratic way attempts to repair. The Coen Brothers have said that they ‘wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery’ [2]. Chandler’s self-contained episodes and discrete short chapters  “each of which is technically a piece of a puzzle, though most of the time the connection between the part and the whole is beyond the understanding of both Marlowe and the reader” [3] are recreated to tell a similar kind of tale in The Big Lebowski, the Coens throwing in the visual imagery of the Waite-Smith tarot deck for good measure.

The Coens not only tap into Chandler in their film, but also the many influences that bore upon his work.

chandler As a young man Raymond Chandler met Warren Lloyd on the ship that took him to New York in 1912. After arriving in Los Angeles, Chandler became good friends with the Lloyds and became part of their intellectual circle which was later to include Manly P. Hall, a young charismatic occult writer who was largely financed by the Lloyds. ‘Warren Lloyd’s upper middle-class money came from the Californian oil business, but his and his wife’s enthusiasm was for collecting eclectic, artistic friends’ [4]. In the 1920’s with the help of Warren Lloyd’s oil business connections Chandler took up a job with the Dabney Oil Syndicate and soon rose to become vice-president. (The Lloyd’s had once owned unproductive oil wells in the Simi Valley). After loosing his job in 1931, Chandler, while financially supported by the Lloyd clan, took up writing pulp fiction stories. His new career eventually took off after the publication of his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939.

ts eliot Chandler was an admirer of T.S. Eliot’s earlier work, having dabbled in poetry himself (work he later described as “Grade B. Georgian” poetry), gave his pulp novels more than just a hint of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land [5]. The Waste Land, probably the most influential poem of the twentieth century (an inspiration for Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep [6]), draws on the legend of the Fisher King, Grail knights, the Greek mythological figure of Tiresias, Wagner’s Wotan and Brünnhilde [7] along side modernist influences such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Joyce’s Ulysses, whilst dabbling in experimental forms like the use of multiple narratives and literary Cubism. The one-time cultural attaché for the American embassy in London and literary critic Cleanth Brooks described the poem as working in terms of “surface parallelisms which in reality make ironical contrasts, and in terms of surface contrasts which in reality constitute parallelisms”[8], a method the Coen brothers steal from Eliot and put to use in The Big Lebowski.

ezra pound Some of the more occult aspects of The Waste Land may be put down to the involvement of Ezra Pound, whom Eliot consulted whilst drafting the poem. The young Pound, an American expatriate poet, critic and modernist, moved within the occult and literary circles of Edwardian England, having friendships with the writers W.B. Yeats and A.E Waite [9]. It may have been Pound’s suggestion to include the Tarot reading in the first section of the poem; Eliot claimed to be “not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards” [10].

The use of the Tarot fitted in nicely with the poem’s themes of the Fisher King and the Grail myths. A.E. Waite, a Grail obsessive, had worked numerous Arthurian figures and symbols into the highly popular 1910 Waite Smith Tarot deck. Along with the grail iconography Waite added aspects of the Christian Cabala and Hebrew Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism and ancient Egyptian symbology into the deck [11]. This was done as part of a ambitious synthesis of the various occult traditions, a task undertaken by the grandly self-titled Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group in which A.E. Waite was a key member. The Waite Smith Tarot was the first deck to have the 22 cards of the major arcana and the 4 suits, each of 14 of the minor arcana cards fully illustrated, a companion guidebook The pictorial key to the Tarot was published alongside the deck with full explanations of the cards.

kabbalah and tarot From the mid-nineteenth century onward the 22 cards of the major arcana had become increasingly associated with the concept of pathways and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet within the Kabbalist ‘tree of life’ and ‘by 1890 Kabbalistic teaching was integral to Tarot design’ [12]. As a body of knowledge the Kabbalah has its origins in Hebrew oral tradition, scriptures and Jewish rabbinical writing. Its early history is unclear, but it developed further between the 7th and 18th centuries. Its formative texts include the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah.  A key point in its development was the writing of Etz Ha-Chaim, “The Tree of Life” by Chaim Vital in the 1590s, based on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The concept of the tree of life entered a variety of Western esoteric traditions, being taken up by the Golden Dawn and their Hermetic Qabalah.

The world of the tarot is explicitly referenced throughout The Big Lebowski through the use of visual and verbal puns and allusions, the themes and imagery of every one of the 78 cards of the Waite Smith Tarot deck being quoted often ironically and sometimes twice, as each card also has a reversed reading (a total of 156 episodes, Dude). Allusions to the components and structures of the tree of life with its alphabetised pathways also permeate the film, again done with tongue firmly in cheek. The use of kabbalistic allegory has a long tradition in Jewish and European literature [13], a tradition that the Coen brothers have regularly drawn on in their screenwriting and directorial method.

Consisting of ten interconnected sefira (plural sefirot), the tree of life is arranged vertically into three columns or pillars: the left hand pillar, the pillar of mercy, representing the principles of benevolence; the right hand pillar, the pillar of severity, power and strict justice; while the central pillar, representing harmony and the ideal balance of mercy and justice, uniting and balancing the two sides. Each of the sefirot has an associated vice and virtue and like a snakes and ladders board, the vices and virtues form gateways and trapdoors between the sefirot.

Though each sefira is as important as the rest, the tree is arranged hierarchically in to the four overlapping worlds of the Kabbalah, a ladder from the physical to the metaphysical, a ladder that one may both ascend and descend, a ladder made up of the 22 pathways.

hebrew tarot The ten sefirot of the tree of life may have had their origins as representations of the metaphysical but they can be used as templates for personality traits, states of mind, or the developmental ages of man and are in some ways similar to Jungian archetypes. These templates are subtler than cartoon stereotypes or the motions of type-cast character actors, coming from a deep tradition influencing literary culture as well folk and pop psychology.

Each of the 22 pathways is associated with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Appendix A). The names of the letters have literal meanings e.g. the word aleph, the name of the Hebrew character ? also has the literal meaning of ‘ox’. Each of the 22 pathways is also associated with one of the 22 Tarot cards of the Major Arcana. In the tarot tradition these have a recognized set of attributes and symbolic and mythic associations and cards will often have links and relationships to other cards in the deck. Though the cards often represent characters they should not be seen solely in those terms, rather they present situations or dilemmas within a plot, situations that the protagonists must overcome, being integral rather than part of a parallel narrative structure. The Coens’ use the combination of cards and the associated literal meaning like Rorschach ink blots to create their trademark Coenesque cinematic tableaux, using the sefirot and the connecting pathways as a method of linking actors and events to make an entire plot. The remaining 56 cards are used to augment the plot or subplots, flesh out characters or provide comic relief. At its simplest, it is a method that could almost be classed as a Person-Object-Action mnemonic technique, allowing the creation and memorization of entire story lines. The cards, like panels from a graphic novel are dealt, interpreted and stitched into a storyboard.

As a direct descendant of The Big Sleep, The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, The Big Lebowski reworks the high modernist canon, though rejecting modernism’s optimism in the way it set about building new worlds and its pessimistic laments for the old order. The result – a crypto-Kabbalist grail quest in 156 episodes.

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Its a tree of life

“Aitz chaim he, Dude, as the ex used to say…”
Walter to the Dude in The Big Lebowski

A pictorial key to The Big Lebowski

[The Tarot deck images are from the 1909 'Pamela-A' deck of cards. These cards are in the public domain in the USA. The deck was a collaboration between Pamela Colman Smith and Dr Arthur Edward Waite.]

When we first encounter the Dude (introduced by the Narrator as “quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County”), we see a man dressed in robe and slippers, standing backlit in on the high polish of supermarket aisle flooring assessing the cartons of ‘Half and Half’ held in each hand. It is the Dude as Temperance, a theme the Dude adopts throughout the film until he finally solves the mystery of Bunny’s kidnapping. The Waite Smith deck shows Temperance as a haloed androgynous angel pouring liquid from one cup to another, with one foot in shallow water. As the name suggests, Temperance is about finding the middle way. The card is linked to the act of verification.

Temperance, card number 14, connects the sefirot of Yesod and Tiphereth, it is the path of trail or temptation.

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As the Dude writes out his cheque, the checkout girl at Ralphs looks on, ironically cast as the Empress, the goddess of the harvest and abundance, the provider.

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Returning from Ralph’s, the Dude skips down the path to his house, groceries under his arm, his gait resembling that of the ‘Lord of Unstable Effort’ a term for the figure in the Seven of Swords, a card whose meaning here implies that the Dude has been running away from his responsibilities — a theme which the Dude later refers to ironically when his sings “and they say he ran away. Branded!” He’s taken the easy way out. The Dude, like one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (a group of Chinese Taoist scholars, artists and poets from the 3rd century AD who went into self-imposed exile as a political protest against the rulers of the day), is seen as having dropped out of the main stream of society. The freedom and independence this has given him appears squandered, he has by his own accounts lately fallen into idleness, idleness being the vice of Yesod.

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The Dudes slumber is rudely awoken as he enters his house and his head is promptly forced down the toilet bowl.

The toilet bowl, it’s seat upright, overflows with spilt milk, an image resembling the Ace of Cups. Waite has the cards reversed meaning as ‘an unexpected change of position’.

The Tarot Aces correspond to Keter; the first sefira on the tree on life. Golden Dawn member Dion Fortune conceived of Keter “as a fountain which fills its basin, and the overflow therefrom feeds another fountain, which in turn fills its basin and overflows” [14].

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The Ace of Cups in the Christian tarot tradition depicted one of either two symbols, a fountain and two flowing streams, referring to the sacrament of Baptism, the other referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Thus the Baptism of the Dude signals the start of more than just an emotional journey; his misnaming, the trigger for subsequent events, can be compared to the Baptism of Christ, which marked the start of Jesus’ ministry.

The Dude’s Transfiguration, Crucifixion and Resurrection are still to come.

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The opening paragraph of Joyce’s Ulysses below ends with a quotation from a hymn, a hymn associated with the sacrament of Baptism, and similarly plays with the imagery of the Ace of Cups and the baptismal metaphor:

‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: —Introibo ad altare Dei.’

The novel anticipated and probably influenced the techniques of The Waste Land, techniques used by the Coens’ in the Big Lebowski, the virtuoso set pieces in Ulysses being described by Declan Kiberd in his introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Joyce’s Ulysses (1992) as ‘less acts of creation than of parody: and parody is the act of a trapped mind which, realizing that it cannot create anew, takes its revenge by defacing the masterpieces of the past.‘ [15]

It has been said of Joyce that “hardly any other modernist writer is at once so esoteric and down to earth” [16] a state which The Big Lebowski (a source of koans for ten-pin bowlers) seems to aspire to.

Joyce’s esotericism and his interest in the occult, specifically the kabbalah, are argued by Heyward Ehrlich’s “Joyce, Yeats, and Kabbalah,”[17] as thanks largely to W. B. Yeats’s influence. W.B. Yeats’ occultism is well documented, as was his influence on the younger Joyce, though Joyce did not profess the same level of interest in the occult as that of the elder poet it is evident in much of his writing. Bloom’s day for instance, the 16th June, the day in which the novel is set was the anniversary of Yeats’ founding of the Dublin hermetic society. It has been claimed by Jackson I. Cope that Ulysses was Joyce’s Kabbalah ”[18], saying of the novel that

‘Like the Zohar, it offers events which are interpreted symbolically by the superimposition of anther symbolic system which paradoxically succeeds in exegesis of the surface action while maintaining its own integrity at a completely arbitrary distance. That is we have no allegorizing or emblematic tendency directing the commentary within the text upon the action of the protagonists. That action serves rather, to trigger a larger surrounding world of meanings in which the action itself ultimately takes its limited historical place…’

James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 7 no.2 Winter 1970 Ulysses: Joyce’s Kabbalah

The Big Lebowski operates in a similar way, using the cryptically embedded symbolism of the Tarot and Kabbalah to provided an added layer of interpretation.

The Coens’ familiarity with Joyce’s Ulysses and its method seems likely, as their next film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, a satire set in the southern states of America in the 1930s, was also to be based on the Greek epic poem the Odyssey and the poem’s hero Odysseus (know as Ulysses in Roman myths).

The symbolism of the Dude’s toilet is not just limited to his baptism, The Ace of Cups is commonly associated with the Holy Grail, however it is not the toilet that functions as the grail, our gaze is redirected by the ‘un-house broken’ Woo pointing his ‘Johnson’ at the Dude’s rug the restoration of which becomes the object of the Dude’s quest.

The dropping of the bowling ball on to the Dude’s tilled bathroom floor is suggestive of the kabbalist notion of the breaking of the vessels, a kind of metaphysical ‘big bang theory’.

The action moves on from the Dude’s bungalow to the bowling alley. When we first see the Dude in the bowling alley he is seated, ball in hand, hair tied back and adopting the pose of the Queen of Pentacles, an allusion to T.S.Eliot’s Tiresias; the stream of consciousness narrator in the Waste Land.

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Warming up, getting ready to bowl, the Dude with arms outstretched mimics a crucifixion pose, a prefiguring used by William Holman Hunt’s 1873 painting The Shadow of Death. Within Tarot lore, the historical Jesus has long been associated with the figure of the Hanged man, perhaps from the reference in Acts 5.30 “whom ye slew and hanged on a tree”, or from the Gnostic tradition.

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On entering the elder Mr. Lebowski’s house Brandt shows the Dude his boss’s trophy wall, upon which ‘staring forms leaned out’ and ‘other withered stumps of time’ were hung including the ‘key to the city of Pasadena’.  Many tarot card representations of the card number 5, The Hierophant (sometimes known as the Pope) picture the keys of heaven, sometimes depicted oversized. Whilst making small talk with the Dude, Brandt holds up five fingers, a seemingly out of place gesture.

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The Dude utters ‘Pope John?’ pointing slackly at one of the photographs, but is then distracted by picture of the wheel-chair bound Lebowski amongst his ‘achievers’. Another tradition in the depiction of the Pope card is to have him sitting with children or acolytes.

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The first shot of the elder Mr. Lebowski has him entering the room with the joystick of his wheelchair with one hand, a remote in the other, a visual pun on the King of Pentacles, who is seen holding a small scepter. The King of Pentacles is symbolic of worldly success and material achievement, a self-made man, the image Mr. Lebowski tries to project.

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Seated in his office, Mr. Lebowski, flanked by two long grey curtains, reminiscent of the pillars behind the figure of the Hierophant, takes the stance of moral authority.

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While leaving the elder Lebowski’s premises with the misappropriated rug, a departure that parodies a grail procession, the Dude passes a pool, in which we see a sleeping man; Uli, whom Bunny informs us is a nihilist. This not just a take on the dead man’s float from Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), but also on card 21 The World.

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Bunny Lebowski, the elder Lebowski’s young wife is seen wearing an emerald and lime green bikini, with toe nails to match, these are the colors of the seventh sefirot; Netzach. Color coding is one of the devices which the Coens’ use through out the film for identifying their characters with the 10 Sefirot of the tree of life.

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In blowing on Bunny’s toes, the Dude is akin to the personified Zephyr in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, with Brandt as the servant in attendance, embarrassed by her immodesty.  Netzach, a state linked to the goddess Venus, has the attributes of compassionate and emotional intelligence and love of nature, balancing hedonistic and aesthetic ideals. Lust and Promiscuity are vices of Netzach. Later in the film Bunny is portrayed as card 19 The Sun, a card linked to the Hebrew letter resh literally meaning head, the term becoming an innuendo for Bunny’s proposition to the Dude.

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The action returns to the bowling alley, where the Dude’s bowling buddy Walter accuses Smokey of an infringement of the bowling rules by inadvertently allowing his toe to slip over the foul line. Here, the meaning and imagery of the Five of Swords are being alluded to. It is not the figure on card, his toe near a lain down sword, that oversteps the mark, but Walter. Walter’s obsession with adherence to the rules causes him to lose sight of what is appropriate behavior, his degree of aggressiveness being grossly disproportionate to the circumstances, causing ill will and a visit from the police.

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At the start of his tirade, Walter seated with side arm in hand appears as card 11, Justice, the card of rules and regulations, ethics and the law.

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Back in his bungalow, the Dude’s makes his second appearance as Temperance, pouring himself a white Russian, overlooked by the poster of President Nixon bowling. The poster’s appearance at this juncture is even more ironic when one considers Nixon’s excessive alcohol use while at the White House. [19]

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White Russian in hand, the Dude performs a slow motion tai chi style movement; a movement which mimics the stance of The Fool  (card 0). The Fool is seen looking outwards standing on the edge of a precipice, holding a white rose in one hand and a bag of possession on the end of a stick in the other. The white rose is Rosicrucian a symbol for the grail cup, the Dude holds his white Russian. The rug and the table and wooden chairs resemble the cliff edge and the mountains behind, while the Dude’s yellow chair echoes the sky on The Fool card. The dog seen at the Fool’s feet becomes Walter’s ex-wife’s old Pomeranian (the misclassified dog is actually a Cairns Terrier like Toto from another fools journey, the Wizard of Oz), snapping at the Dude’s heals, while the bag of possessions becomes the ringer; Walter’s whites.  As The Fool, the Dude is about to head off into the Waste Land of Los Angeles.

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Within the Golden Dawn’s Grail tarot synthesis The Fool is linked to the young knight Sir Perceval.  The image of the fool used by Pamela Colman Smith appears to be based on an 1864 water color by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval were fed with the Grael; but Sir Percival’s sister died by the way”. In Victorian Britain there was a great enthusiasm for the Middle Ages and original medieval texts such as Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ were reprinted. Arthurian legends had become fashionable and were a rich source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Walter is later shown in the film as Sir Bors; depicted in the tarot as the Knight of Pentacles and Donny as Sir Galahad; depicted as the Knight of Cups.

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The Dude’s ‘tai chi’ routine is interrupted when his self-effacing landlord Marty comes to inform him about a dance performance and to gently remind him about the rent due. Plump, with balding pate, Marty with pinkish head and blue T-shirt evokes the colors of Chesed, a state of kindness or compassion.

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That evening, the Dude is summoned to Mr. Lebowski’s residence. There he meets Brandt who ushers him in to see the old man. Brandt’s exaggerated gestures allude to the posturing of the Page of Wands.

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For this visit Jeff Bridges as the Dude wears a Japanese baseball shirt, the same one he wore in the Terry Gilliam 1991 film The Fisher King, another loosely Grail themed story. The Fisher King is a character of the Arthurian tradition, his legs crippled from battle wounds. His healing depends on Perceval’s success in the Grail quest. T. S. Eliot incorporates the motif of the Fisher King into the desolated modern city and its people in his poem, The Waste Land.

When the Dude meets Mr. Lebowski for the second time the mood is very different. Mr. Lebowski, hunched in his wheelchair, gazing into the hearth despairingly. The Dude is informed of Bunny’s kidnapping. In the background we hear O Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (the original script has Wagner’s Lohengrin), the stage is set for the Six of Swords. The card shows a ferryman taking a figure towards a shoreline. One interpretation of this image is that of a mourner going to the Isle of dead. Mr. Lebowski sits in a mirror image of the figure on the card; the bust behind him being the ferryman and the set of fire irons, the swords. The Dude agrees to help Mr. Lebowski to retrieve his kidnapped wife and is given the promise of a reward.

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Later at the bowling alley the Dude tells Walter of his encounter  ‘…20 grand man, and I get to keep the rug… I figure it’s easy money’.  Walter is as pleased as Punch at the prospect of the Dude’s material happiness, his demeanor mimicking the figure on the Nine of Cups card.

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Each of the numbered cards in the tarot deck is associated with the correspondingly numbered sefirot. The Nine of Cups linked with the ninth sefira, Yesod. In the Quintana bowling scene, one of the film’s most memorable sequences, we clearly see the colors of Yesod. Jesus Quintana; ‘The Jesus’, kitted out in purple and violet, with matching pinky-crimson bowling ball held in his ringed fingers, behind him, the circular ‘time to bowl’ clock, azure and yellow with crimson core (For Sefirot colors see Appendix 1). Yesod, known as foundation is the awakening of self-consciousness and linked to puberty and the libido.

In this state sensations and perceptions condition the experience of the world; it is the world of form and appearance, not substance; the world of illusion, imagination and the unconscious mind.

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As Quintana prepares to bowl he mirrors the figure on the Two of Wands, portrayed with a globe in his hand. The card represents dominion over the earth. Chaplin had his Great Dictator toy with a globe like an oversized balloon. Quintana’s realm is limited to the bowling alley, his tonguing the ball alluding to the conclusion of The Adoration of the Earth, the first half of Stravinsky’s ballet the Rite of Spring, in which an elder kisses the earth.

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Having bowled, the second part the Rite of Spring; The Sacrifice, comes into play as ‘The Jesus’ performs a ritualistic dance ending with a gesture towards his team mate Liam O’Brien (also not the Messiah). If reversed, this image of Quintana resembles the pose of the Hanged Man. The allusion is perhaps clearer in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck, where the hanged man comes complete with what look like bowling balls in each hand. The Hanged Man (Card number 12) is caught between heaven and earth, a life in suspension. The card is linked with sacrifice and the historical Jesus’ Crucifixion.

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Allusions to the historical Jesus are continued as Quintana points at the Dude and his companions, an action reminiscent of Jesus’ as pictured in Caravaggio’s The calling of St. Matthew. Caravaggio, working at the start of the 17th century was famous for his use of realism and chiaroscuro; a high contrast light and shade (and infamous for his depiction of low life characters). Caravaggio’s work has deeply influenced many filmmakers, notably Scorsese [20]. Caravaggio is surely a contender for the title ‘godfather of noir’.

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After the encounter with the Jesus at the bowling alley we find the Dude back in his bungalow lying in meditative repose. Looking down on the Dude, his head centered on his newly acquired rug, we hear the sound of scattering bowling pins.

The colors of Binah, the third sefira are evoked; the Dude’s face tinged with pinkish light surrounded by the black of the rugs central medallion black and its reddish brownish field (appendix 1). Binah is associated with the feminine and particularly motherhood. The rug, as we find out later, was a gift from Mr. Lebowski’s daughter Maude to her mother, which, on her mother’s death passed to the foundation, the charitable trust to which the bulk of her mother’s wealth was left.

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Still laid out, the Dude looks up to find Maude, who with the aide of her two thugs has come to assert her ownership of the Ardakan rug. The shot depicts Maude as the charioteer, her Cleopatra haircut in on trend with the two sphinxes, one black the other white, like her thugs. The theme of The Chariot (card 7) is strength and imposition of one’s will. It is the veil of discouragement.  The Hebrew letter associated with this path is Cheth, literally fence; a physical barrier, people have a habit of appearing uninvited in the Dude’s flat.

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The Dude is knocked unconscious and a Chagallesque dream sequence follows. Perhaps we see the transfiguration of the Dude as he surfing the flying carpet in pursuit of Maude and his rug.

With the rug literally pulled from under him, the Dude’s posture again resembles that of the crucified figure; The Hanged Man. Regaining consciousness, the Dude, gets a message giving the go ahead for the drop off, and goes to collect the $1,000,000 ransom money and further instructions from Brandt.

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Like a knight errant the Dude sets off in his car on his quest to rescue Bunny.  The numbers on the car’s license plate 376 PCE are linked to the Tower card 16 and the Chariot card 7   (3 + 7 + 6 = 16    and 16 becomes   1 + 6 = 7). He stops to pick up Walter who immediately springs a plan of his own on the Dude. The letters PCE perhaps being an abbreviation for Sir Perceval.

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Walter drives to the drop-off, his silhouette illuminated only by the head and taillights of night time traffic. His confidence in his simplistic plan of substituting the ransom money for a ringer full of his whites leads him to wishful thinking ‘Why should we settle for twenty grand when we can keep the entire million?’. The image of the Seven of Cups is being invoked.

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During the botched drop off, the ringer is thrown from the car as they cross the bridge. Within the tree of life there is a structure known as the abyss, which separates the top three sefirot from the lower ones. The abyss can only be crossed via the eleventh hidden sefira, Daath, denoting knowledge gained by experience. The Hebrew term Daath equates with the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) and acts as a bridge over the abyss.

Walter cries ‘Your wheel’ passing over control of the car as he attempts a combat roll at 15mph. His Uzi is sent spinning across the two lane black top while firing off its cartridge, recalling both the image of card number 18, The Moon and the Wheel of Fortune. Realizing that their side of the bargain has not been kept, the three bikers ride off into the night.

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The Moon, known as the veil of delusion, symbolizes the realm of dreams and fantasy.  It is the fantasy of easy money that Walter and the bikers have fallen for. The bewildered Dude’s concerns are for the fate of Bunny, who the Dude imagines is waiting to be rescued like the figure in the Eight of Swords.

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Later, back at the bowling alley, we see Walter preparing to bowl, his credibility diminished, a dead ringer for the Page of Pentacles. Perhaps it is this card that inspired the bowling themed Tarot, the card that set the ball rolling.

 

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On leaving the bowling alley Walter, the Dude and possibly Donny come to the realization that the car along with the ransom money has been stolen. “Say Dude, where is your car?”. Lit by the glow of the googie neon of the Holly Star Lanes, the three companions resemble the figures on the Five of Pentacles; a signifier for material loss. Behind the empty disabled parking space where the Dude had left his car we see the sign Ben Hur  – auto repair, reinforcing the connection between the Dude’s car and the Chariot.

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In the next scene the Dude is at his home reporting his missing car and rug to a couple of police officers. Reclining with his knees up, phone in hand the Dude’s posture mimics the Four of Pentacles, a card that can stand for issues of ownership and the rule of law. The Dude gets a call from Maude asking him to pay her a visit.

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The Dude enters Maude’s studio via a darkened passageway, the light from the open door casting a Greek cross, against which the Dude is silhouetted. Maude appears, flying overhead, harnessed on a zip wire with a flailing brush in each hand. She is like the sashed woman on card 21 The World who appears in the sky holding two wands, taking the path from Malchuth to Yesod. The Hebrew word associated with The World is a cross.

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The snow angel drip painting that Maude is working on, suggestive of the Ace of Pentacles, appears to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing The Vitruvian Man, whose outstretched arms are bounded by a circle and an inscribed square. Symbologists are fond of imposing a pentagram upon the drawing.

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The colors Maude has used are linked to the colors of the four worlds of the second sefira; Chochmah (Appendix 1). The painting’s flecked border and its spin art concentric circles of grey, create an image of Chochmah, its two dimensional surface symmetrically opposing the image of Maude’s rug as Binah. The sefirot of Chockmah and Binah are linked to father and mother.

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Having finished painting, Maude now robed comes over to greet the Dude. We see her, dressed in olive with russet hair, behind her the yellow and black of the reverse side of a huge canvas. These are the colours of Malchuth. Malchuth meaning Kingdom, relates to the physical world. By a close pun Malchuth also means “Queen” and is associated in Jewish folklore with the demoness Lilith, Adam’s mythical first wife who left the Garden of Eden as she would not be subservient to him. Created from the same earth as Adam, Lileth hated Adams second wife Eve.

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While seated, discussing the possibility of a reward for the Dude (‘clams or bones’), Maude takes the pose of the subject of Rossetti’s The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, a painting that depicts Mary Magdalene as the bearer of the holy grail.

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The name Maude, which though not etymologically linked to Mary Magdalene does invoke the term maudlin, an adjective describing excessive sentimentality or emotion; a term derived from images of the weeping Mary Magdalene, often at the base of a crucifixion. With Maude as grail keeper, the Coens take a sideswipe at The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a theory no late twentieth century setting of a grail myth could ignore. In The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the authors put forward a hypothesis, that Jesus married Mary Magdelene had one or more children, who emigrated to what is now southern France. Once there their descendants gave rise to what would eventually become the Merovingian dynasty. [21] The grail is both the womb of Mary Magdalene and the bloodline of Jesus. Antony Burges commenting on the pseudo-historical The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for The Observer in 1982 wrote,

“It is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvellous theme for a novel”

a theme indeed taken up by Dan Brown in 2003 in his  best-selling The Da Vinci Code.

 

The Coen brothers place in the character of Maude a number of attributes that may be associated with the Gnostic movement of the pre and early Christian era. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine H. Pagels evokes of the struggles of early Christianity, a struggle the Gnostics eventually lost. Gnosticism is presented as a vibrant and philosophically sophisticated ancient movement that did, in fact, pose a grave danger to Christianity [22]. Maude’s third wave feminism may stem from Gnostic roots. Pagels argues that the ‘Gnostics were predominantly proto-feminists who often granted women equal status’. As for Maude’s artistic endeavors, the Gnostics “considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive.  Each one, like students of a painter or writer, expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught” (p. 19). Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, was a Knox Fellow from Harvard University at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University.

Much of the mythology of Gnosticism survived, underground, and emerged in the revival of occultism in the seventeenth century. Kabbalism being described by some as a form of Jewish Gnosticism.

Prominent in Maude’s studio is a large red scissor painting, the two open blades echoing the open blades on the Two of Swords. The card, symbolic of a closed heart is evidenced in Maude’s emotionally devoid and inappropriately intellectualized use of language when discussing the topic of sex.

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The skimpy outfit worn by Bunny in the video Logjammin’ as she meets Karl Hungus, has resemblances to the binds that tie the figure on the Eight of Swords, a card that is symbolic of entrapment and refers to her alleged kidnapping.

Incidentally, the opening scene in The Big Sleep set in the hallway of Sternwood’s Mansion has a stained glass window depicting a knight rescuing a ‘damsel’.

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Karl Hungus, the self proclaimed expert ‘cable guy’ leans provocatively on the doorpost, arm raised, mirroring The Devil pictured on card 15. The devil towers over two figures, both naked and fettered in chains of bondage.

We are asked by Maude to imagine what happens next to Bunny and her companion, it is doubtful that the girls get emotionally tied up with the cable guy, the word Kunkel being German for a kind of ‘winding stick’ used for spinning flax. Maude continues talking about Bunny and Uli saying ‘there are some people–it is called satyriasis in men ….  who engage in it compulsively and without joy’,  the figure of The Devil card is depicted as a satyr representing the personification of the animal and the instinctual.

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The Devil, card 15 is linked to The Lovers, card number 6 by their cross sum  (1 + 5 = 6). The cards also have similar motifs and design. Bunny and Uli in the black and white video Logjammin’ become a parody of the Lovers.

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Whilst watching the video ‘ The Dude is at the bar, a bottle of Kahlua frozen halfway to his glass’[23], again taking the stance of Temperance.

 

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The Dude is dropped off home by Maude’s chauffer, who tells an anecdote about a man with a rash on his ass.

The chauffer is invoking the Knight of Wands – a figure given to boasting and bragging, being reckless and rash and not giving danger its due respect.

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Manhandled from Maude’s car by Mr. Lebowski’s chauffeur, the Dude is fox-trotted across the road in a strange four-legged canter, drink still in hand, an image akin that of the Knight of Swords charging his mount with raised sword. “Hey, hey, hey careful, man!  There’s a beverage here!”

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Thrown in to a limousine, the Dude meets Mr. Lebowski and Brandt for the third time. Brandt wears a patterned yellow and black tie, a pattern similar to that on the Page of Wands’ tunic. Mr. Lebowski does not mince words, demanding an explanation from the Dude as to unpaid ransom. The Dude attempting to clarify the situation, posits the theory the Bunny has kidnapped herself, and steers the conversation to the reward money, at which point Brandt is requested to pass an envelop to the Dude. The scene plays on the Six of Pentacles a card indicating material success. Expecting a check, Brandt hands the Dude an envelope containing a severed human toe.

The Six of Pentacles was T.S. Eliot’s one-eyed merchant’ in The Waste Land.

 

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With his right hand gesturing a two fingered papal benediction, Mr. Lebowski promises a tenfold retribution for any harm done to Bunny, the harsh justice that the biblical ‘eye for and eye’ tried to temper. Mr. Lebowski, again playing the Hierophant, his hat worn like a pope’s a triple crown, derides the Dude’s inarticulate ramblings ‘what in God’s holy name are you blathering about?’ stating that he will not ‘abide another toe.’ The Hebrew word associated with the Hierophant is ‘nail’.

Did the Pope shit in the woods?

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Later, in a coffee shop, half way through chatting to Walter, the Dude gets up and leaves, avoiding the stand off with the shop owner. The scene is a take on the The Eight of Cups, with the boy’s face in the poster watching over them like the image of the moon on the card.

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After storming out on Walter, the Dude is seen languishing in his bath as three men break into his apartment, one armed with a cricket paddle smashes the Dude’s hi-fi. Like the Page of Swords.

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Uli Kunkel demands the money from the Dude. Uli, cowled like Bergman’s Death character from the Seventh Seal threatens the Dude throwing the ‘marmot’ into the bath. The marmot thrown into the bath by Death is a pun on Le mort du Marat, David’s painting of the death of French revolutionary and newspaper editor Jean-Paul Marat.

The Hebrew word associated with card 15, Death is ‘fish’. On trend with the miss-classified animals theme we get whale song as the background music to the bath scene.

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Peter Stormare (Uli), who worked with Ingmar Bergman in the 1980s, played the Dane in Bergman’s red-and-black themed Hamlet. Bergman also directed The Seventh Seal.

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When the Dude goes to reclaim his stolen car he is lead to a police car lot, he walks with both hands out, again like a crucifixion, but we are looking at the Dude’s back from a distance, in front of him are nothing but stolen cars, palm trees punctuate the horizon. The scene is reminiscent of the Three of Wands or the man with three staves as T.S. Eliot calls him, a figure who represents the Fisher King looking out over the Waste Land.

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Next we are back at the bar of the Holly bowl. The three companions are drinking, the Dude, a white Russian; Donny a red cola drink; Walter amber beer from a clear bottle. They are the colors of the figures on the Three of Cups.

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The Dude’s friends leave the bar as he orders another white Russian, clearly depressed with his lot. In the foreground there are three stacks of plastic cups and in what appears to be a cinematically clumsy take, the barman’s disembodied arm cuts across the screen to hand the Dude his drink, a blended pleasure.

Disembodied hands feature in the Waite tarot deck and grail legends.

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The Stranger takes a seat at the bar. He is the Magician “the master of the show.”

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The Dude visits Maude in her studio for the second time. Searching Maude’s record collection the Dude finds Uli’s Autobahn album Nagelbett, a word that translates from the German as ‘a bed of nails’. The colors of the album cover are those of Hod, which as the eighth sefira lies on the pillar of severity. Hod is the sefira of the intellect, the reasoning mind hence the emotionally void techno-pop leitmotif of the Nihilists.

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The arched windows of the studio are reminiscent of the arches on the Three of Pentacles. Maude beside a circular steel pan implement in hand mirrors the gesture of figure of the foreman on the card, the Dude, holding the album cover and Knox Harrington as the monk are the other two figures.

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Maude, while pulling out a red and silver ‘comb’ implement from her scrap metal bag does a pose similar to the falcon holding female on the Nine of Pentacles, a card representing the gracious living and the Arts.

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Knox Harrington, Maude’s Video artist ‘ friend with a cleft asshole’, wears a shirt with double empty square brackets, takes a phone call regarding the forth coming biennale. The unnatural laughter that follows fits in with the term ‘enforced gaiety’ ascribed to the Two of Pentacles in A.E. Waite’s Pictorial key to the Tarot. The picture on the card shows a man in a tall domed hat with a pentacle in each hand joined by an endless cord, like an infinity symbol. It is an image that suggests a black and white ‘reel to reel’ video recorder (a Sony CV-2100 from 1968, such was life before Betamax). Knox Harrington, whose initials K.H. are the same as those of Karl Hungus – perhaps a link between the elitist and low brow ends of the spectrum of video production?

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The Dude visits Maude’s Doctor, ostensibly to have his jaw looked at. The Hebrew letter shin, linked to Judgment, literally means ‘tooth’, is used as a reference to the Dude’s jaw. The Judgment card shows an angel blowing a horn at the scene of the Last Judgment. The Dude blows off his horn at the surgery.

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Driving home form the doctors, the Dude in a happier mood bangs the roof of his cars to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Looking Out My Back Door. His actions imitate the arm gestures of the figure on the Ten of Cups, his steering wheel forming the rainbow of cups. The Dude is clearly pleased about something, the picture on Ten of Cups may suggest it is the result of the sperm motility test.

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The next scene takes us Marty’s dance cycle, performed to the music of Mussorgsky’s Gnomus. Perhaps The dance of the hatchling eggs may have been more appropriate, a piece inspired by pictures of designs for a ballet, with children in egg-suit costumes, given Marty’s egg-man physique. Marty’s sequence of routines is suggestive of The Wheel of Fortune card, not however the Waite Smith version but earlier French designs which has people in various stages of life ‘riding’ the wheel. Such ‘peopled’ wheels can trace their origin back to medieval Europe.

Marty, wanting his rent, reminds the Dude that, “tomorrow’s already the tenth”, 10 being the number of the wheel.

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Donny watches the performance intently, seated, reclining on his elbow, dressed in red, like another connoisseur of the arts, the King of Wands.

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On arriving at Larry Sellers’ abode, Walter and the Dude are greeted by Pilar. Dressed in pale blue, she looks after Larry’s father, the TV scriptwriter Arthur ‘Digby’ Sellers. Pilar is indeed the keeper of the book, the role of the High Priestess. Card number 2, The High Priestess is pictured with a scroll in her hands, bearing the letters “TORA” an allusion to the Torah. Behind her hangs a curtain embroidered with yellow pomegranates and a body of water.  In the Seller’s living room there are two paintings of sunflowers and two seascapes.  The housekeeper’s name may be a reference to one of the loves of the iconic American author, Ernest Hemingway’s life, his sea-going boat – Pilar, and a pun on the black and white pillars on the High Priestess card, labeled ‘J’ and ‘B’; Jachin and Boaz of the mystic temple of Solomon.

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Entering the house, Walter and the Dude see the Arthur Sellers encased in an iron lung. ‘Does he still write?’ asks Walter hopefully, referring to the 1960s TV show ‘Branded’ which according to Walter, Sellers had written 156 episodes [in reality there were two series, totaling 48 episodes]. ‘Oh no he has health problems’ replies Pilar, meaning that he has now retired from life. The image of the iron lung is a visual pun on the Waite Smith picture of the Hermit, card number 9, symbolic of the ‘veil of darkness’. The Hermit carries Lamp of Knowledge, symbolic of all the knowledge and wisdom. Larry Sellers as the student represents the flip side of the Hermit, the quest for knowledge. But judging by the state of Larry’s homework there is clearly a failure of intergenerational transfer of literary skills. ‘Is this your homework Larry?’ Walter asks, holding the paper as if it were the Hermits Lamp of Knowledge, growing ever more frustrated by the lack of response. Judged by Walter to be guilty, Larry watches impassively as his adversary meets out justice.

The refrain from the theme tune from Walter’s beloved teen show Branded ‘He was innocent/Not a charge was true’, now taking on an added irony.

Larry in indigo denim stands for Yesod, a symbol for puberty. A facet of Yesod is the teen hero figure, seen in Walter’s idolization of Arthur Sellers.

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As Walter trashes of Larry’s neighbor’s car, he holds the crowbar vertically, imitating the image of the Ace of Wands.

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In retaliation, the neighbor attacks the Dude’s car with a double handed swing of a baseball bat, invoking The Page of Swords for the second time.  ‘I kill your car’ he shouts, an anthropomorphization likening the Dude’s car to one of Sir Perceval’s unfortunate horses that was slain by a giant.

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After stopping off at the In-and-Out Burger while driving back from Sellers’ household Walter sips his king-size drink in the passenger front seat of the Dudes beat-up car. As the King of Cups, Walter’s huge shoulders form the backrest of the king’s throne while the green-colored hood of the car resembles the river depicted on the card.

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The Eight of Pentacles, a signifier of hard work and diligence and a methodical or painstaking approach is parodied in the Dude’s attempts to make a doorstop as he haphazardly hammers a four-by-two into the floor.

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The Dude’s makeshift doorstop fails; his addled mind has failed to note that the door opens outwards. Confronted by Treehorn’s thugs, the Dude is summoned to Treehorn’s beach side lair, where a party seems to be in full swing. In an overhead shot, we see semi-naked girl being tossed in circular blanket by a dozen or more youths – a reference to the sun with its rays as portrayed on the Sun card and the naked youth on horseback, riding with arms out wide.

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With her arms outstretched, falling back into the blanket, the girl’s figure also ominously hints at Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross.

 

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Jackie Treehorn appears, kitted out in the flag of St. George while in the background, people with raised arms tossing the blanket, make up the Breugelean analogy to the Judgment card.

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Treehorn is also analogous to the fifth sephirot Geburah, a term which is variously translated as severity, harsh judgment and power. Geburah’s virtues are courage and energy, however if misused they can lead to the blinkered cruelty and destruction that result from pursuing a goal for its own sake, regardless of the context or the consequences. Treehorn is prepared to do whatever he feel’s necessary to protect his interests and extend his influence.

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In the Jackie Treehorn scene the Coens take a sideswipe at Picasso, whose career path from ground breaking Cubism to priapic doodles has been described by Simon Schama [24] as “the longest and saddest anti-climax in art history.” “Standards have fallen”. During the scene, the Dude adopts a sequence of poses that are direct quotations from Picasso’s ground-breaking 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. These culminate in the toppled white Russian and a floor shot of an image of the Dude’s drugged face pressed up against the camera. When the scene is watched along side the painting the allusion becomes clear, re-assembling the ‘heap of broken images’.

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The Page of Cups shows a figure staring at a fish emerging from his cup. ‘You make a helluva Caucasian, Jackie’. Hey Dude! You… have… been… ‘poissoned’.

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Jackie Treehorn stands over the drugged Dude flanked by his two thugs. The devil is on the loose. The Devil, card number 15, is the personification of the animal and the instinctual. Male and female forms are shown chained or trapped at his feet.

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As the Dude starts his dark night of the soul we hear the Stranger’s disembodied voice;  “Darkness warshed over the Dude– darker’n a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night.  There was no bottom.” A reference to the Abyss in the tree of life. The voice is followed by “a thundering bass, suggestive of the fifth section of Eliot’s Waste Land; ‘What the thunder said’.

The opening titles of the Gutterballs sequence ‘Jackie Treehorn presents’ use Jonathan Barnbrook’s font Exocet heavy, white on black background. The font makes use of the Greek and Gnostic crosses for the letters T and O, referencing the Dude’s first meeting with Maude in the darkened passageway of her studio.

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The Gutterballs title sequence continues with an innuendo using a bowling pin and two balls, these are also reminiscent of the hat and the two pentacles pictured on the Two of Pentacles card.

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The Dude’s dream sequence is just groaning with symbolism. It takes us to a bowling alley where we find the ‘camel fucker’ with the rental shoe rack stretching up to the moon. The path from Tiphereth to Keter is associated with the Hebrew letter Gimel whose literal meaning is Camel. The colors of Keter are brilliant white, the sefirot representing the highest state of perfection. Here it is used as an analogue for heaven, the shoe rack forming a ‘Jacobs ladder’. Within the Kabbalah Jacob’s Ladder is seen as being made from four interconnected and overlapping trees; one for each of the four worlds. The shoes Saddam holds are representative of Malkuth the lowest sefirot, which is linked with the feet, the ladder forming a symbolic path from Keter to Malchuth.

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Jacobs Ladder

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The Dude descends the ladder, a scene reminiscent of the Nine of Swords, though unlike the figure on the card, the Dude does not yet wake from his dream. The checkerboard flooring in the Dude’s dream reflects the checkered blanket pictured on the card. The black and white checkered floor (also present in Mr. Lebowski’s house) has esoteric meaning; linked with Masonic rituals it is emblematic of human life, checkered with good and evil. [25]

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Maude’s trident and horned helmet resemble the grail cup held by the Queen of Cups. The card is symbolic of Mary Magdelene; the grail holder. Maude also fits the image of the Queen of Wands with staff as trident and patterned backdrop echoing Maude’s horned helmet.

We are presented with a defamiliarization. Maude appears dressed as a Valkyrie, one of the “choosers of the slain” as though she has looted a stash of Wagnerian opera costumes.

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During one of the Gutterballs dance sequences the chorines circle around Maude, arms interlinked as they bow their heads to her, their bowling pin headgear resembling the staves held by the figure on the Ten of Wands.

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The dance is inspired as much by Busby Berkeley as it is by Nijinsky’s choreography for Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps – the Rite of Spring. The second half of the ballet, the sacrificial fertility dance – the Danse Sacral, is the dance of the “Chosen One”, who is destined to die at the end of the rite, the sacrifice will ensure fertility for the land and people in the coming year. The use of fertility symbolism in The Waste Land was probably influenced by the ballet. The summer before writing the poem, T.S. Eliot saw the London production and wrote up a review [26].

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Photo of The Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 production of Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring using original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll

Maude and the Dude go on to perform a ‘pas de deux’ – a dance for two, as the ‘danseur’ and the ballerina come together. Their dance is a satire the Tarot Nouveau tradition of the The Fool and the Ballerina,casting the Dude as the sad clown. The couple perform a series of movements; holding the ball aloft then extending it left and right forming a partial cross and echoing the downward motion of the ball seen in the Dude’s first dream sequence during his rug flight chase. The dance culminated with the bowling ball being thrown – a scene reminiscent of the Ace of Pentacles card.

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The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ Just Dropped In warn us of the danger ahead -  ‘Someone painted April Fool in big black letters on a dead end sign’. The Dude, embodying the tossed bowling ball, moves head first towards the pins, passes the chorines with their legs akimbo, as if posing for a poster for 42nd Street. The scene depicts the Two of Swords reversed.

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The Dude takes it easy as he glides towards his fate. The Four of Swords is invoked.

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Turning from supine to prone, the Dude now sees his fate and impending martyrdom, realizing he is about to become the sacrificial sap. It is the imagery of the Ten of Swords. The Dude hits the pins head first, next we see an image of a falling woman, reminiscent of the blanket toss scene at Treehorn’s party.

The Dude is about to be crucified and sacrificed.

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After the fall we see a nihilist clad in red spandex coming towards us with menacing giant scissors held open invocating the red lion of card 8; Strength.

 

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The scene pans out to show the three Nihilists; the Three of Swords.

 

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The ‘art works’ in Maude’s studio included a prominent red painting of giant pair of scissors, mannequin legs dangling from the ceiling, like those of the chorines and, on the back wall a large red triptych depicting three figures, not dissimilar from Francis Bacon’s series  three figures at the base of a crucifixion, now invoked by the three Nihilists.

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The Dude pursued by cop car – The chariot

Below is an excerpt from Quest for the Holy Grail by Jack Courtis

‘Taliesin is the poet who (under another name) obtains knowledge, wisdom and inspiration by drinking three drops of the draught brewed by the Goddess in her cauldron (a symbol of the Grail). In her anger she pursues him and they both change their shapes until at last she as a hen, swallows him, as a grain of wheat. She bears him in her womb for nine months until he is reborn. She throws him into the sea but he is rescued and receives his new name – Taliesin. This is a clear allusion to the whole process of initiation and to its results. The maze and chariot are other symbols for this process.’[27]

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Failing to out run the cop car, the Dude, still the worse for wear, is brought up against the forces of law and order in the guise of the Malibu cop, who subsequently adopts the pose of The Emperor, card number 4.  Defending his territory, the cop shouts ‘Stay out of my beach community, deadbeat’. When asked to produce ID, the Dude pulls out his Ralph’s loyalty card, a link to the checkout girl earlier portrayed as the Empress at the supermarket.

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The cop throws his cup at the Dude’s forehead, the area of the body associated with Keter the crown. This action is like the lightening bolt on the Tower card (number 16), striking the top of the tower and toppling the crown. The cop then pushes the Dude, he falls backwards; the first of the Dude’s two falls. The Hebrew letter associated with the Tower has the literal meaning of ‘mouth’ or the act of speaking, the Dude, still in a drugged state is more inarticulate than usual in this scene. The Tower is known as The veil of deep sleep, hence the Dude’s retortI am sorry, I wasn’t listening”.

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After his ordeal with the police, the Dude is being driven home in a cab when he falls out with the driver over his choice of music; The Eagles. The scene is a visual pun on the Two of Cups, which depicts a winged lion’s head, hovering above the figures holding the two cups. The Dude’s clothes and those of the cab driver match those worn by the two figures on the card.

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On arriving home the Dude trips over his makeshift doorstop, falling forwards; the second falling figure from the Tower card.

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As the Dude looks up from the floor he sees an inverted Maude, clad only in his own dressing gown, as if she were the Nine of Pentacles reversed.

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Next we see the Dude in bed having a smoke next to Maude, we see The Lovers.

 

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Later the Dude gets up and dresses, Maude still in bed ‘raises her knees, supine’ [28] like a horizontal version of the Empress card. The Empress is often portrayed as being pregnant, the condition Maude is trying to achieve.

The Dude ‘turns and looks a moment in the glass’, ’smoothes (his) hair with automatic hand’ and ‘paces about his room.’ [28]

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The Dude does Temperance again, pouring himself another White Russian.

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Maude tells the Dude about her intentions to conceive, hearing this the Dude spits out his drink. The scene is a visual pun on the Six of Cups. The card shows a boy holding a cup containing a white flower, he is about to pass it to a girl.  The flower, whose fragrance he is sniffing is close to his mouth.

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Maude calms the Dudes fears over the pregnancy and tells him about her father’s true financial status. This is the information the Dude needed to be able to think more clearly about the case. The Eight of Wands, depicted as eight diagonal staves on the card, is replicated in the film by the use of shadows cast by Venetian blinds, a classic noir motif.

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Pondering on the case the Dude comes to a realization. Stating that his thinking about the case had ‘become uptight’, his thoughts on the problem take a change of direction. He immediately calls Walter.

Waiting for Walter to come to the phone the Dude resembles the figure on the Seven of Pentacles.

 

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Setting off to meet Mr. Lebowski, the Dude confronts the guy who’s been trailing him; Da Fino. Da Fino, fearing physical assault adopts a ‘kung fu’ stance akin to that of the Hermit. Dressed in blue grey suit and driving a blue VW beetle, Da Fino describes himself as a brother Shamus,  ‘What, is that some kind of Irish monk? ‘ asks the Dude, (a ‘brother Shamus’ is an anachronistic term for a private detective, a term self-applied by Philip Marlowe in the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep). The Hermit (card 9) has many monk-like attributes. The literal meaning of Yod, the Hebrew letter linked to the Hermit is ‘Hand’ or ‘Work’. The path is known as the veil of darkness. Da Fino, hired by Bunny’s parents to investigate their daughters disappearance, has made several incorrect assumptions in his pursuit of his goal. Mistaking the Dude for a super sleuth he praises his method of working, unaware that the Dude is somewhat of a gonzo detective.

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Sharing some information on the case, Da Fino shows the Dude some photos of Bunny and her parents home farm from which she had run away from in search of a more exciting life in L.A. The photos resemble the Four of Wands.

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The brief café scene with the Nihilists depicts Uli’s ‘girlfriend with a missing toe’ as the Queen of Swords, her arm held up ready to take the pancake menu, which coincidentally resembles the clouds and sky on the card.

The biker gang foursome perhaps hint at the horsemen of the apocalypse; Death, War, Uli as the Antichrist and his emaciated girlfriend as Famine.

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During the drive to Mr. Lebowski’s house the Dude explains the case. We see a flashback of Walter’s ringer falling into the abyss.

An overhead nighttime flashback of Mr. Lebowski, shows him packing a briefcase with yellow pages. His balding pate reflecting a dim pale blue light, which with his graying hairs make up the colors of Chochmah, the second Sephirot.

Maude later states:  “father’s weakness is vanity” Vanity being a vice of Chochmah.

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Next we get a flashback of Bunny Lebowski, clad navy and white, magazine in her lap, pouting like a chastised teen, her deceptive self-kidnapping plot having ended in failure. A parody of the High Priestess (card 2), Bunny portrays Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Pornographic priestess’ referred to in their lyrics to I am the Walrus  ‘Boy You’ve been a naughty girl you’ve let you’re knickers down.’ Presumably Brandt is the walrus with his  idiosyncratic ‘performing seal‘ laugh.

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The three flashback scenes link the elements at the top of the tree of life.

Bunny, the ‘high’ priestess, out of her head while driving a red Jaguar XJS crashes into the fountain outside Mr. Lebowski’s mansion. The abandoned car is oriented like the flag in the Sun card, the fountain forming the sun, the sun’s rays being the fountain jets.

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Brandt clears Bunny’s discarded red clothes as a she is seen running off into the night, naked, without a care in the world, like the child on the Sun card. The Sun, card number 19 is linked with the Hebrew word ‘head’ hinting at Bunny’s earlier proposition when first meeting the Dude.

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The Dude and Walter confront Mr. Lebowski’s sterile respectability and his attempts to embezzle the money.

As Mr. Lebowski wheels his chair to face them, we see the image of the Ten of Pentacles.

Walter’s yapping dog later appears at the toppled Lebowski’s side, fitting in with the dogs pictured on the card.

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Walter, doubting Mr. Lebowski’s incapacity lifts him from his chair. He falls to the ground, a dethroned King. Game over – Checkmate. The scene, shot from above, resembles the Death card, with its fallen king. A chess set is seen in the lower right corner of the shot, perhaps referencing the second section of the Waste Landa game of chess, or Chandler’s use of the chess metaphor in his Big Sleep  “The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights have no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” The Dude being Chandler’s “skeptical Knight, seeking Truth in a world of false fronts and manipulated deceptions”. [29]

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Later, back at the bowling alley triumphant after having debunked Mr. Lebowski, Walter and the Dude are seen seated at a Brunswick scoring table, above them the ‘Time to Bowl ‘ clock. The table and the clock are like the horse and victory reef pictured in the Six of Wands.

 

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Harangued by Quintana, Walter and the Dude look on impassively as The Jesus makes an arm gesture that mirrors of the figure on the Nine of Wands card.

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Jesus, first in violet then indigo bowling outfits, dresses in the colors of Yesod. Yesod, the ninth sefira, is linked to the four nine cards in the tarot deck.

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After bowling the three amigos are confronted in the car park.

Uli paired with his ‘girlfriend with a missing toe’ the Queen of Swords, takes on the mantle of the King of Swords and lunges forward like Breugel’s apocalyptic ‘Mad Meg’ in a Charlie’s Angels poster.

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Walter is cast as the Ace of Swords, perhaps this scene is visually expressed in the pale blue and yellow vertical neon ‘Bowling’ sign seen behind Walter during the action. Walter, the ace, beats Uli, a mere king.

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Donny, keen to avoid conflict, seeks appeasement with his fistful of dollars. The notes that are held in his hand resemble the golden grail cup borne by the Knight of Cups, a character who stands as a symbol for Sir Galahad.

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On one of his grail quests, Sir Percival came across five knights, who he thought he could beat; he was wrong – the knights killed his horse. Seeing his car on fire, the Dude exclaims “Well, they finally did it. They killed my fucking car”.

Donny asks “Are these the Nazis, Walter?” “No Donny, these men are nihilists…“ replies Walter. Like the Knights who say Ni from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Nihilist’s bark is worse than their bite. Donny’s question may be more pertinent than it seems. The Nazi party did adapt aspects of the Arthurian Legends into its lore and it had its fair share of grail seekers and grail fanatics. In 1934 Hitler declared, “We shall form an Order, the Brotherhood of the Templars around the holy grail of pure blood.” The Grand Master of this Order was Heinrich Himmler, its knights the Officer Corps of the SS, and the Castle at Wewlsburg, with its Round Table, its spiritual center.

A fight ensues, Donny takes no part in it making it a ‘three on two’ bout, the fight echoing the struggle pictured on the Five of Wands.

 

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Walter bowls over one of the Nihilists, making a dramatic bowling gesture reminiscent of the figure on the Seven of Wands card; a symbol of strife.

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Walter, biting off Uli’s ear, parodies the figure prying open the lion’s jaws on the Strength card.

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Having successfully routed the Nihilists, Walter and the Dude find Donny collapsed on the tarmac. As the Dude goes off to get medical help for Donny, the scene resembles the Five of Cups, a card signifying bereavement and loss; the parked black car being the figure, Walter and Donny the fallen cups, curb and door mimicking the river and bridge.

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The scene fades to a shot of Walter and the Dude seated in a mortuary. The funeral director emerges like a Hades from the underworld, the Emperor reversed. Death card 13 and the Emperor, card 4 are linked through their cross sum  1+3 =4. Walter asks ‘is there a Ralphs around here ?’ the reference to Ralph’s linking the scene to the Empress being used in a similar way to the Dude’s display of identification to the Malibu police chief.

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At a cliff top location, overlooking the sea, Walter improvises a funeral oration whilst holding Donny’s ashes in the Folger’s coffee tin in a manner resembling the Knight of Pentacles. The Knight of Pentacles a card associated in Waite’s deck with the round table knight Sir Bors, who in Rosicrucian grail lore is linked with the sephira of the intellect; Hod. Walter, though an everyman, uses learned phrases mixed in with everyday speech. The character of Walter Sobchak, is rumored to be based in part on the screenwriter John Milius, who adapted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the screenplay Apocalypse Now.

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Placing the tin on the ground Walter copies the motion of the figure on the Star card number 17.

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After scattering Donny’s ashes Walter and the Dude fall out, but then they hug and grieve together for their lost friend, their combined bodies forming the grieving figure on The Five of Cups.

 

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Goodnight, sweet prince

The scene fades to show the automated bowling pinsetter in motion, the machinery behind the Holly Star bowling alley. “A little more than kin, and less than kind are the Trance of Sorrow and the Vision of the Machinery of the Universe” [30], states of mind which Aleister Crowley saw as being a steps towards as understanding the nature of change in the world.

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The Dude, sporting the yellow and caramel Medina Sod bowling shirt, the colors of Tipereth, having completed his symbolic transition from the path of Temperance to the 6th serifot Tipereth is now perhaps a sadder and wiser Dude, but still the Dude, ‘taking her easy for all us sinners’. He bows out with a final crucifix pose with the line ‘The Dude abides’. The Christian Cabala tradition has Tiphereth as symbolic of Jesus.

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At the end of the film the Stranger informs that there is a little Lebowski on the way. The Dude has blown off his horn for the second time. There’s judgment for you!

Conclusion

In examining the film’s Tarot and Kabbalah symbolism one must not mistake the map for the territory. Though the Tarot deck, once described by the novelist Italo Calvino as a “machine for telling stories,” underpins the episodic structure and the imagery of The Big Lebowski, the cards having been stitched together to form a seamless narrative, deeper threads tie the film together. The Hebrew phrase ‘tikkun olam’, originally a derived from a sewing metaphor; sewing fragments together, was used to as a term for promoting social harmony and a means to help to perfect the world. In recent years ‘tikkun’ has adopted a wider circulation, dropping its theological connotations and taken on the meaning of repairing the world through social action, a byword for social, moral, or political activism of one sort or another. It is this spirit that the Dude embodies in The Big Lebowski, a film where nobody really knows what his going on, the cast, with exception of the Dude, being too preoccupied with their own narrow interests.  The fictional Dude may have been influenced in his course of action through the past association with Michael Lerner, founder of the online Tikkun Magazine and one of the Seattle Seven.

[Editorial We’s Note: You can read Rev. Marek’s outstanding interpretation of The Coens’ A Serious Man here.]

Notes

[1] Allen B. Ruch Introduction to Gravity’s rainbow, The Modern Word, Website http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/pynchon_grintro.html

[2] Ray Pride, Coen Job: Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen, Newcity, March 9 1998.

[3] John Hilgart, Philip Marlowe’s labor of words, Texas Studies in Literature and LanguageVol. 44, No. 4, The Lost and the Longed For (WINTER 2002), University of Texas press  pp. 368-391

[4] Karen Huston Karydes, Hard-Boiled Anxiety Hammett, Chandler, and  Macdonald, Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park 2010.

[5] Jonathan P. Eburne, Chandler’s Waste Land, Studies in the Novel, Vol. 35, 2003.

[6] Andrew E. Mathis, The King Arthur myth in modern American literature, Mcfarland & Co Inc Pub, 2001.

[7] Grover Smith , T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. The University of Chicago Press, 1956.

[8] Cleanth Brooks,  From Modern Poetry and the Tradition, The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

[9] Leon Surette, The birth of modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the occult, McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1994.

[10] T.S. Eliot, NOTES ON “THE WASTE LAND” The Waste Land and Other Poems, Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1955.

[11] A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, 1910.

[12] Kliegman, Isabel Radow. Tarot and the Tree of Life, Quest  96.4 (JULY-AUGUST 2008) pp137-141.

[13] Marina Aptekman, Jacob’s Ladder: Kabbalistic Allegory in Russian Literature, Academic Studies Press, 2009.

[14] Fortune, Dion, The Mystical Qabalah, Aquarian Press, 1987.

[15] Declan Kiberd’s introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, 1992

[16] Eagleton, The English Novel. An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, 2004, p.284

[17] Heyward Ehrlich,  “Joyce, Yeats, and Kabbalah,” in Joyce on the Threshold, ed. Tim Martin and Anne Fogarty Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

[18] Jackson I. Cope, Ulysses: Joyce’s Kabbalah, James Joyce quarterly vol. 7 no.2 winter 1970.

[19] Davidson, Jonathan R. T. MD; Connor, Kathryn M. MD; Swartz, Marvin MD, Mental Illness In U.S. Presidents Between 1776 and 1974: A Review of Biographical Sources, Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease: January 2006 – Volume 194 – Issue 1 – pp 47-51

[20] Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A life sacred and profane, Allen Lane, 2010, p. 441

[21] Richard Leigh, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Jonathan Cape London, 1982.

[22] Elaine H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, New York, 1979.

[23] BIG LEBOWSKI, THE SCRIPT  Website, http://www.imsdb.com/Movie%20Scripts/Big%20Lebowski,%20The%20Script.html

[24] Simon Schama, DVD, The Power of Art  BBC worldwide, 2007.

[25] The Mystery of the Masonic Mosaic Pavement, Website, http://secretarcana.com/occultsymbols/mosaicpavement/

[26] Grover Smith, T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning, The University of Chicago Press, 1956.

[27] Jack Courtis, Quest for the Holy Grail, Website, The Rosicrucian Archive, http://www.crcsite.org/grail1.htm

[28] T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land Part III, The fire sermon, The Waste Land and Other Poems, Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1955.

[29] Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminati papers, Ronin Publishing, Inc. 1980 p.66.

[30] Aleister Crowley Essay on Wonder, Website, http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/crowley/littleessays/wonder.htm

APPENDIX

Hebrew Letter name Major Arcana of the Tarot Literal Meaning
Aleph 0  The Fool Ox
Beth 1  The Magician House, Body
Gimel 2  The High Priestess Camel. Sling
Daleth 3  The  Empress Door,
He 4  The Star Window, To Behold
Vav 5  The Hierophant Nail
Zayin 6  The Lovers Sword
Heth 7  The Chariot Fence
Teth 8  Strength Snake, Serpent
Yod 9  The Hermit Hand, Work
Kaph 10  The Wheel of Fortune Palm of hand
Lamed 11  Justice Ox-Goad, Staff
Mem 12  The Hanged Man Water
Nun 13  Death Fish
Samekh 14  Temperance Prop, Pillow, Rest
Ayin 15  The Devil Eye
Pe 16  The Tower Mouth
Tsadi 17  The Emperor Fishing hook
Qoph 18  The Moon Back of the head
Resh 19  The Sun Head
Shin 20  Judgement Tooth
Tav 21  The World Cross

 

The colors associated with each of the Sephira in the four worlds of the Kabbalah

 

Sefira Assiah Yetzirah Briah Atziluth
1 Keter White, flecked gold White White Brilliance
2 Chochmah White, flecked red, blue, yellow Blue pearl grey Grey Pure soft blue
3 Binah Grey, flecked pink Dark brown Black Crimson
4 Chesed Deep azure, flecked yellow Deep purple Blue Deep violet
5 Geburah Red, flecked black Bright scarlet Scarlet Orange
6 Tiphertht Gold amber Rich salmon Gold Clear pink rose
7 Netzach Olive, flecked gold Bright yellow-green Emerald Amber
8 Hod Yellowish brown, flecked white Red-russet Orange Violet purple
9 Yesod Citrine, flecked azure Very dark purple Violet Indigo
10 Malchuth Black rayed with yellow As briah, flecked with gold Citrine, olive, russet, black Yellow

Some other recent posts from this category: Dude University

Comments

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7 Responses to “Tarot Yes, Mr. Lebowski: The Big Lebowski, Kabbalah and Tarot”

  1. J.J. Vicars on June 9th, 2012 12:22 am

    Bravo! Wonderful detailing of the imagery employed in the iconic film.

  2. Steve on June 9th, 2012 7:34 am

    What a magnificant article! And yes, even this short attention span seeker read the whole thing…

  3. free tarot on June 16th, 2012 3:05 pm

    Hi,

    speechless article from you and you need a bundle of appreciation.
    Quite helpful post.

    Keep it up.

  4. in-out on June 17th, 2012 11:18 pm

    pretty amazing effort. I have only read about 25% so far. One thing, why does the first diagram of the tree of life have 10 Sefirot , but the diagram that accompanies all of the color palette observations has 11 nodes?

  5. in-out on June 17th, 2012 11:29 pm

    oh …kept reading and found answer to my question: Within the tree of life there is a structure known as the abyss, which separates the top three sefirot from the lower ones. The abyss can only be crossed via the eleventh hidden sefira, Daath, denoting knowledge gained by experience.

  6. Doctor Joe on June 19th, 2012 3:39 pm

    Wow! What an article. Very insightful. I’ll have to grab an oat soda and watch the movie again, and this time paying closer attention to all the symbolism. This may lead to a discussion group at the next Lebowskifest….

  7. Rev.Stu on June 4th, 2014 1:17 pm

    How are you and can I be of assistance?

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