Tarot Tales with Morbid Anatomy's Laetitia Barbier

Head Librarian at NYC's Morbid Anatomy, Laetitia Barbier shares her childhood encounters with tarot, her fondness for strong coffee and her most treasured deck...

By: The College of Psychic Studies.   Posted

New York's Morbid Anatomy caters well for the curious and the eclectic. We can thank its head librarian and programme director, Laetitia Barbier, for many of its multifarious cultural and artistic offerings. Here, Laetitia, who harbours a deep and abiding passion for cartomancy, invites us into her home to admire her collection of treasures, her most cherished tarot decks and her personal tarot rituals...

Laetitia Barbier with her collection of artefacts at her home in New York

What's your favourite tarot deck?

"I'm partial to the Rider-Waite-Smith, which is a classic but somehow odd choice since I'm French and the Tarot de Marseille tradition is ultimately where I came from. But Pamela Colman Smith's visual sensibility feels to me like a bottomless poetic well and I marvel at how she managed to convey such powerful and complex stories with a minimal line work. Besides, I don't collect Tarot decks (even if I collect pretty much everything else) and will only own decks I feel drawn to read with. Very much like any relationship, I feel like the amount of time and commitment we spend with one tool allows us to go deeper and have access to nuances hidden beyond the surface. The only exception might be of the Carnival of the End of the World by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick which was kind of a "love at first sight" encounter. I read it for people on special occasions but the Rider-Waite-Smith is definitely my 'Cadillac'."

Strength from Laetitia Barbier's first Marseille tarot deck, and her favourite Carnival at the End of the World tarot deck

What first sparked your interest in the tarot?

"Everyone, I'm sure, has a strange story tied to their 'tarot genesis' - mine is odd, for sure, too. I wish I could say I come from a long lasting lineage of cartomancers but I don't. In the early 1990s, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, my mom used to pick me up from school and we'd listen to a radio show on RTL, in which a card reader, Didier Derlich, would read live to people calling the station. Since it was the radio, he would name each card - La Papesse, La Maison-Dieu, Le Pendu - and offer comments on cards when they were reversed or upright. Spoken of, but never seen, the iconography of the cards formed in my imagination, crystallising in my mind. I was inventing how they looked and the enigma of their name was enough to fuel my imagination for hours. I loved that show so much and always insisted on listening to it on our way home."

More treasures from the home of Morbid Anatomy's Laetitia Barbier

Where did you get your first deck?

"A couple of years later, my mother stopped driving me home. By the age of 11, I was able to take the bus with my friends. Every weekday, we'd pass by a tobacconist's shop that specialised in selling games. Chess boards, poker or piquet decks, backgammon... a Tarot de Marseille was there in the window, a Grimaud pack with a Bateleur card on the box. I remember seeing it and thinking: 'That's it! These are the cards Derlich used, the cards from the radio show!' Later, I asked my mother to purchase them for me as a gift for a birthday, or was it my first communion? I don't remember. But I have fond memories of that first time I discovered what they really looked like, after spending hours imagining them."

What do you remember about your first ever tarot reading?

"I received and gave many tarot readings as a teen at school, during recess, and will candidly admit they were not very good. Things changed when I discovered the Rider-Waite-Smith, through my first roommate Marie Anne, who was partly raised in England. I never had a life-shattering reading until later in life. Tarot was at first a personal, very private practice, an introspective process weaving time and image."

Which tarot card most represents you?

"The Fool - the shapeshifter and the misfit - for its capacity to exist and move in a world where people seem to want to define everything in a definitive way. I belong nowhere, therefore, I'm home everywhere."

Any favourite tarot rituals?

"Simply reading cards to others, the intimacy of sharing this time together, without roles or masks, playing with soulful images. It's my favourite way to connect. I also love bringing my cards to the museum and find echoes of archetypal energy to the multiplicity of human creation. Try it. Pick a card, let's say The Wheel of Fortune, and you'll be surprised how many paintings, statues and even objects of daily life translate time passing, and the abstract cycles we are inexorably caught in. Tarot is like a lens revealing the questions underlying our ferocious need to create images."

What do you love most about tarot?

"Its capacity to reinvent itself, transform and be readapted from one generation to the next. I think tarot's history speaks so beautifully about who we are as a society in the time we are given to live, what we yearn for, what we fear and what we need to heal from. Tarot is like a guitar. We use the same instrument but the melodies we play are informed by our own specific experience, from the intimate to the collective. Very much like music, it's a culture in motion, adaptable and always in metamorphosis."

Laetitia Barbier quote on Tarot

Quickfire round:

Dominant colour in your wardrobe? Mostly black, for comfort. But I love 70s dresses and their lurid wallpaper-like patterns.
Dog or cat person? 
My Bauderlian, slightly decadent sensibility and fiercely independent nature would make me gravitate toward cats but alas, I travel too much to have pets.
What's on your bedside table?
A small Art Nouveau lamp and a dangerously unstable pile of books.
Last movie you watched?
I went to see Dario Argento presenting Suspiria the other day so I'm rewatching a lot of his films. Last night: Profondo Rosso, an accelerating murder mystery which I've seen a dozen times and that never stops fascinating me. And one of my favourite soundtracks by Italian psych-rock Goblin, too.
Your guilty pleasure? 
I never feel guilty about any pleasure.
Breakfast of champions?
Black Coffee - a double espresso every morning.
Favourite time of day?
I wake up very early, at 5am, so I can read, write or both. My favourite time of the day. I'm a nocturnal but in reverse. The quietness of the world at that time allows me to do my best work.
Where did you grow up?
In Rueil Malmaison, near Paris. A city slightly connected to cartomancy since this is where Napoleon had his castle, the Chateau of Malmaison. Allegedly, Empress Josephine, his first wife, used to invite famed palmist Mademoiselle Lenormand to get readings from her.
Last thing that made you laugh? 
I wouldn't know. I'm a pretty joyful person - Laetitia means joy in Latin - so I'm laughing pretty much all the time.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
 Never, in the sense I've never seen a spectral human form. But I do have a fair of inexplicable stories, like I'm sure many of us have.

Images courtesy of Laetitia Barbier. Photo of Laetitia: Shannon Taggart

Laetitia Barbier is speaking on Babel Polyphony: On Tarot, Language and Forgotten Iconography at our Tarot Symposium in November. Book now:

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