Where we ended up last time:
various commentators [have] compared Space is the Place to The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays a similarly high-stakes chess game with Death. The chess game in The Seventh Seal is realized fully enough for chess fans to reconstruct it and comment on its relationship to the themes of the film. So far as I know, though, no-one has yet tried this approach with Space is the Place . . .
. . . UNTIL NOW.
So, Sun Ra’s game with the Overseer begins. (You can watch this scene starting at about 10 minutes into the film.) We never know what the rules are, exactly. It’s something like the Sandman’s Game of Forms, a.k.a. the Oldest Game of All, where one player tries to trump the other by imagining a superior form.
But here the forms are given by tarot cards, albeit cards from a strange deck whose forms are mirrored in the earthly plane (i.e., Oakland) where the film’s main story plays out.
The Overseer shuffles, deals, and draws. He seems to know what the cards are before he picks them up. He gloats as he draws trump no. 21, The World. Ra doesn’t react.
The World (or, in Aleister Crowley’s deck, The Universe) is, well, the form of all forms—everything. Das All. The completion and culmination of the whole 22-card series of the tarot’s major trumps.*
You can’t beat that. But just for good measure, the Overseer pulls another card, the Chariot, trump no. 7, a card of earthly power, material glory, ambition, and pride.
And here the Overseer shows his limits, because it is clear that “the world” here is merely the world as he understands it — the world of cars, clothes, cash, and ass. The world of matter, the world as it is, not what it might become, not what transcends it. And what is that?
It’s Judgement, trump no. 20. The card here is an image of the spaceship in which Ra and his Arkestra travel to earth, with its bulging double hull painted as burning eyes . . .
. . . which, when you think about it, paraphrases the central form in the traditional Judgment card of the old Marseilles tarot, an otherworldly figure that floats in space, staring right at us. And, now that I think of it, it’s playing a musical instrument, the only one to be found anywhere in the traditional deck:
So, who wins that round? Sun Ra is the one who’s laughing. But after the subsequent scene, where Sun Ra’s spaceship touches down and becomes the center of the usual tornado of media bullshit, the Overseer calls it even. There’s the higher vision (what Sun Ra calls the alter-destiny) and there’s the world in which that vision must manifest—which is to say, a world that for the most part doesn’t care about higher visions. Or wouldn’t understand them even if it did care. Or wouldn’t do anything about them even if it understood them. Or would do the exact wrong thing even if it could bestir itself to action, which it almost certainly wouldn’t.
This is something of a perennial problem for religiously- and philosophically-minded persons. Kant remarked that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Religion, among other things, is about the miracle of straight things appearing in a crooked world.** Everyday life offers us boundless evidence against straight things, and yet at the end of the day we still find ourselves calling it even. There is always that voice of . . . what, faith? Hope? The alter-destiny? telling us that things could yet be otherwise and willing to gamble on the possibility that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we might pull something off in the end.
This is Ra’s gamble. How that gamble plays out remains to be seen.
*I know, I said it was trump 21. But there is one unnumbered trump, Le Mat (usually translated as The Fool), which doesn’t really belong in the series. More about that later.
**This is the meaning of the well-known Buddhist symbol of the lotus: it is an image of something beautiful growing from the mud.