Archive for the ‘Tarot and Literature’ Category

“An O without a figure”: The Fool and the Concept of Zero in King Lear

November 8, 2016


The works of William Shakespeare offer many archetypes and symbols that appear in the cards, including many types of fools. The fools of Shakespeare’s earlier plays embodied the lighter and more entertaining aspects of the Fool’s character because they were written for the clownish Will Kemp, the wildly popular comic actor of Shakespeare’s troupe of players.  But when Kemp wandered off to Morris Dance his way from London to Norwich, Shakespeare had a new player to write for in his fool parts, Robert Armin, who was more suited to the roles of the wiser and wittier fools of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear

Robert Armin

His treatment of the fool as a humorous clown evolved into a presentation of the fool as a reminder of the darker side of life and as a call to make sense of the world’s nonsense. This recognition of the encroaching darkness, the abyss, mirrored the experience of the British people as they moved from the expansionist mindset of the Elizabethan Age to the depression and fear of the Jacobean Age.  


Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Tarot Imagery in “The Searchlight”

August 8, 2015


Getting ready for BATS next weekend, I’m working on a close reading of Woolf’s “The Searchlight.” Here are my lecture notes for the introduction.   Can’t wait to explore the story during our session. I’ll post the close reading itself after I get the benefit of our discussion next Saturday.  I always learn so much from our seminars!

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and developed an acute awareness of the rigidity and smugness of prevailing 19th century attitudes that assumed she would take her place in society accordingly. Unwilling to be bound by societal norms of class and gender that relegated her to a codified domestic life, she wrote both fiction and essays that challenged the status quo.  She named the new century of her adulthood the Modern Age, and used a fresh and dynamic approach to write about everyday life in the midst of the 20th century explosion of urbanization, technology, global war, and cultural change.  Like her fellow Modernist writers, she mined themes, symbols, and works of the past for nuggets of meaning to enrich her own works.  But she applied a modern psychological consciousness to her writing, and delved deeply into the human mind’s capacity to observe and make meaning from sensory details and associations  from ordinary life as well as from large events to explore the macro and micro elements of the changing world she lived in.


Bay Area Tarot Symposium Coming Up!

July 25, 2015

On August 15th and 16th the fabulous Bay Area Tarot Symposium will take place at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose.  It promises to be the biggest one yet, with an eclectic mix of leading lights of tarot, as well as some very exciting  presenters who are new to the symposium.  On Saturday the 15th I will present another of my tarot/literature crossovers, this time on a Virginia Woolf short story. My friend Sophia Mao introduced me to this story through her erudite and fascinating Honors Thesis for the English Department at UC Berkeley.  Her writing on the images of “The Tower and the Telescope” inspired me to see the story with a tarot agenda, which yielded a very rich reading. Here’s the description of my presentation that the BATS program will use as an introduction.

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

                                                                                                                           Tarot Connections in Woolf’s “The Searchlight”                                                                                        

While many readers see Virginia Woolf’s work as daunting because of her use of stream of consciousness, her fragmentation of time, and her haunting but difficult mysticism, her work can be accessible and enjoyable when read with the tarot as a key to her symbology and themes.  In our time together, we will do a close reading of her very short story, “The Searchlight,” using the images of the Tower card to unlock the door of understanding to the story’s message.  Like her Modernist contemporaries, Yeats and Eliot, Woolf taps into archetypes that offer wisdom and guidance for our modern era, archetypes that are reflected in the tarot deck in usage during their era, the RWS deck.

Don’t Miss This Year’s BATS

July 11, 2013

The 22nd annual San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium takes place on Saturday and Sunday, August 17th and 18th at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose.  To register, go to the Daughters of Divination BATS page:  There will be a huge program this year, including Lenormand as well as tarot presenters.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing Bill Haigwood, creator of the Counterculture Tarot, and Julie Cuccia-Watts, creator of the Journey Into Egypt Tarot.

Here’s the introduction for the presentation I will be giving on a couple of my favorite Caribbean poets:

While Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations for the RWS tarot deck are heavily influenced by the art, culture, and spirituality of Western Europe, her Jamaican connection infuses her work with a Caribbean spirit and palette.  This fortunate melange of both cultures is also seen in the literature of the region, nowhere more so than in the plays and poetry of the surrealist Aime Cesaire, and the 1992 Nobel Prize winning poet, Derek Walcott.  In our seminar we will examine some of the glorious work of these two poets to find that special Caribbean quality that manifested itself in what Yeats called Pixie Smith’s “bluest of blue, you feel disposed to call it scarlet.  Blue is too mild a word.”

Hope to see you there!

Madame Sosostris’ Tarot Reading in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

May 2, 2012

Click here to read the passage from The Waste Land to which this essay refers.

Below are the cards that are mentioned in reference to Madame Sosostris’ tarot reading in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The blank card is not shown. Images are from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Corresponding lines are listed below the cards.


Ten of Swords: “Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor.”
Queen of Cups: “Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.”
Three of Wands: “Here is the man with three staves…”
Wheel of Fortune:  “…and here The Wheel…”
Six of Pentacles: “And here is the one-eyed merchant…”
The Hanged Man: “I do not find The Hanged Man.”

Madame Sosostris’ Tarot Reading in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: An Annotative Essay

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences;  the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary.  The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking;  in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes.  (Eliot,Essay on Hamlet, 1917)

In 1922, T.S. Eliot published his long poem, The Waste Land, one of the most influential literary works of the 20th century.  His use of fragments of literature, myth, and everyday experience differs from the traditional narrative structure that had been employed by writers of the past.  He does not rely on the assumption that his audience has a common cultural background or experience to connect with his work;  instead, he writes with a multiplicity of voices that eventually form a unified whole.  He accomplishes this feat by what he calls the “mythical method.”  When writing about Ulysses in Ulyssess, Order and Myth, 1923, he admires Joyce’s use of myth, in his ability to manipulate “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.”  He uses this method himself to structure and give meaning to what he calls “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”

In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” he introduces his method of collaging “fragments [he] has shored against [his] ruin”(430), fragments of experience and culture to give our lives meaning.  He also starts to bring together the overarching theme and mythical background of the whole work.  He mines the ancient myths of renewal that were used to celebrate the coming of spring, focusing especially on the legend of the Holy Grail.  This legend is the story of the quest for a means of renewing the waste land of ordinary existence through the healing of the maimed Fisher King, whose wound represents the illness of his realm.  The poet twists these myths and other historical and literary allusions to show that something has gone wrong in modern times, that our world is sick and longing to be healed.

Although Eliot is quite explicit in his copious notes to The Waste Land about his feelings of despair about the modern world, the poem itself offers some hints that there might be a possibility for hope of  regeneration, at least for individuals.  This is especially apparent in the stanza of the first section which describes a tarot reading, although at first sight it may not seem that way. The epigraph of the poem refers to the Cumaean Sybil, the ancient Roman oracle who guided heroes on their quests.  According to myth, she was granted eternal life by Apollo, but not eternal youth, and she becomes a dried up crone in a cage, begging for death.  Having established the decay of the oracular power the Sybil represents, Eliot introduces “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante”(43) as a parody of the ancient myth, a contemporary mortal woman with a “bad cold,”(44) who is the “wisest woman in Europe with a wicked pack of cards.”(45) While some critics think the poet is making a reference to Mme. Blavatsky with this character, she is hardly a sybil, with her self important attitude towards clients displayed in her insistence on delivering a horoscope herself, “one must be so careful these days.”(59)   But the substance of her reading, as she reveals the cards one at a time, has power and meaning all the same, using the same myths and symbols that Eliot employs throughout the poem.

The first card of the reading, the “drowned Phoenician sailor,”(47) is past hope of life or rebirth, even though he is immersed in water, which appears as a symbol of life and renewal in other parts of the poem.  In parentheses, Madame Sosostris adds, “Those are pearls that were his eyes.  Look!” (48) This is a line from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which in that work is followed by:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (

Although the line in the poem seems final and hopeless, Eliot’s method of using allusion to enrich his work yields a depth to the card’s meaning, implying that a “sea-change” will come, that there is hope of a “pearl” even after drowning in the sea of despair that the modern world has produced. Eliot admits that this card is not actually one of the official cards of the standard tarot pack, but the image on the 10 of swords seems appropriate to represent the theme that Eliot gives this card, perhaps even the ambivalence of its meaning, represented by the darkening or lightening sky, depending on the perspective of the reader.

Next, “Belladonna” appears, the “Lady of the Rocks, the lady of situations.”(49)  Again there is a possibility of two different readings;  Belladonna could refer either to a beautiful woman or to the seductive but deadly nightshade plant.  If we use Eliot’s clues, the Queen of Cups fits this card.  This Queen holds out a Grail in seemingly benevolent way, and yet she is cut off from the seeker of her gifts by water and rocks.  Again Eliot gives us a chance of renewal, but in a way that is fraught with peril.  The next card, “the man with three staves,”(51) is identified by Eliot in his notes as “an authentic member of the tarot pack,” (Notes to The Waste Land)and he notes that this card signifies the Fisher King to him.  In the 3 of wands, a man stands looking out at a waste land, longing to be healed and to see his land come to life again, but he can only be regenerated through the quest of the hero who searches for spiritual truth and feels compassion for others.  Eliot may tell us that there is no hope in the future, for the king or for us, but the card itself holds fragile buds of life in the wands the figure has planted in his waste land.

The fourth card to be revealed is The Wheel (of Fortune), another card that offers a spectrum of meanings.  In Eliot’s interpretation of the world as full of “futility and anarchy,” the wheel turns round and round, like the “crowds of people walking in a ring”(56) that Madame Sosostris sees in her vision.  To Eliot, we are like the king of Greek myth, Ixion, who was punished for his sins by being condemned for eternity to spin through Tartarus, lashed to a fiery wheel.  But the card itself also carries the possibility of chance and change, of spinning the wheel to move to new opportunities.  Instead of spinning in a fixed position, repetitively and without direction, The Wheel can take us on a ride that spirals upward, taking us to new heights and vistas.

Eliot now presents us with the “one-eyed merchant,”(53) a card not strictly defined as a member of the deck.  However, inspection of the 6 of pentacles shows a figure who does indeed fit that description.  This card shows the merchant holding scales and distributing coins as charity.  In part III of the poem, Eliot depicts this character as Mr. Eugenides, the “unshaven” merchant who sells currants, a denizen of the grey, bleak, and greedy “unreal city.”(207-211)  But the image of the card, while ambivalent, offers the possibility of compassion and balance, of putting the merchant’s coins back into circulation.  Like the motif so prevalent in the poem, of stopped up water that needs to be released, this card shows the possibility of allowing our human connections to flow again as well.

Madam Sosostris now tells her client that she is “forbidden to see”(54) what the merchant is carrying on his back, represented by the “next card, which is blank.”(53)  Since Eliot was using the RWS deck (as evinced by his description of the 3 of wands as the “man with three staves,” RWS being the only deck in circulation at that time to have that image), it is reasonable to assume that he was thinking of the blank card which came with the deck.  He gives no explanation, but it is possible to think of what the merchant “carries on his back” as some kind of treasure or boon that he will distribute to his community, like the coins he hands out to the beggars.  And it is tempting to find a comparison of the blank card to the blank stone that comes in a set of runes, which can show not only what is hidden, but also the opportunity of creating one’s own fortune, one’s own destiny.

Eliot ends the reading with The Hanged Man, whom he associates with “the hanged god of Frazer,”(Notes to the Waste Land) who, in his great work on mythology, The Golden Bough,” uses the same motif to describe the vegetation rites that ancient people performed to keep their lands fertile and safe.  But instead of presenting the card in a way that completes the ritual of rebirth and regeneration to which the poem has been leading, Eliot has Madame Sosostris say that she does “not find The Hanged Man.”(54-55)  He indicates that there is no renewal for us, that the traditions and religions of the past have been lost, and we have only “ruins” of what is left from which to cobble together a personal meaning for our lives today.

Eliot clearly felt that our traditions and beliefs had been smashed and torn beyond repair.  But the images and themes he presents in this tarot reading can take on a story of their own.  Although he notes that he is “not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards,”(Notes to the Waste Land) his choice of cards reveals that he knows enough to structure a story that can still have different ending from the doom he feels is ahead.  This “heap of broken images”(22) that we wander through in our own waste land can still be brought together and made whole by the creative, visionary mind, for “in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes.”  Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, is ready for a sea-change.  The Queen of Cups holds out the Grail to the seeker who perseveres in his quest to heal the Fisher King. We can still spin The Wheel of Fortune for a chance at a new life, while compassion and connection to others is in our grasp if we balance our lives and share our gifts.  Our own destiny is still to be written on the blank card, and if we search for The Hanged Man, we can right him and accept his blessing and wisdom.

If you are interested in reading more about T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land, here are some sources you might find interesting:

The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, T.S. Eliot, 1980.  Includes The Waste Land in its entirety, with Eliot’s own notes.

T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems, Derek Traversi, 1976.  An excellent critical study of Eliot’s major works of poetry. This is a hypertext site of The Waste Land with complete annotations.

The Golden Bough, A Study of Magic and Religion, James Frazer.  There are many editions of this groundbreaking work, some abridged, some illustrated.  Eliot relied heavily on it for the mythical background of his poem.

From Ritual to Romance, Jessie L. Weston, 1920.  Eliot incorporated into The Wasteland Weston’s theory that the rituals of the ancient vegetation religions were encoded in the tarot.

Resources for Andre Breton’s Tarot Connections

September 27, 2011

At BATS I gave out a bibliography/resource page with the essay in my last entry.  Since then,  some of the participants from the presentation have given me some new leads to follow up, so here’s the list, but with some additions:


Revolutions of the Mind:  the Life of Andre Breton, Mark Polizzotti, 1995.  A complete and compelling biography that sheds light on the surrealist movement as well as on Breton’s work.

Free Rein (La Cle des champs), Andre Breton, 1953.  Trans. Michael Parmentier and Jacqueline D’Amboise, 1995.  Great collection of essays, including a discussion of the deck of playing cards created by Breton and a group of fellow surrealists, which they called the Jeu de Marseilles.

History of the Surrealist Movement, Gerard Durozoi, 1997.   Trans. Alison Anderson, 2002.  Lavishly illustrated, complete history of the twists and turns of the surrealist journey.  It has some samples of the wonderful Marseilles deck that Breton writes about in La Cle des champs.   A page that gives the history of the Jeu de Marseilles, as well as some samples.

The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus. First published 1896.  Trans. A.P. Morton.  The occultist Oswald Wirth created a tarot deck for this book.  Wirth  revised it soon after, but it was not published 1926.  Breton was using this revised deck for Arcane 17. Both decks are known as the Wirth Deck.

Andre Breton, Mary Ann Caws, 1971.  An accessible analysis of Breton’s major works.  A brief French language biography with many helpful links.  A site on surrealism and Breton, includes poetry and the Surrealist Manifesto.  A nice sampling of poems from some of the major surrealists.

Andre Breton’s Arcane 17: An Exploration of the Tarot’s Star Card

September 23, 2011

 Here’s a copy of the handout I gave to the participants at my presentation for BATS, but it now includes an analysis of what turned out to be the most exciting passage of all in our discussion, the butterfly paragraph.

During WWII, the French surrealist poet, Andre Breton, lived in America in self imposed exile. He spent three months in the far reaches of northeastern Canada, where he struggled to make sense of personal losses he had experienced, as well as of the horror and bleakness of global war.  During that time, he wrote his extended prose poem, Arcane 17, the title referring to tarot card 17, the Star card (Breton was using the Star card from the revised Wirth deck, published in 1926). A work of poetic alchemy, this book offers hope for the individual and for our fragile world in advocating an embracing of the divine feminine in nature and in ourselves.  The Star serves as a key to the symbolism of the work, and Breton’s method of exploring the image of the card uses creative visualization, offering transformation and transcendence.  By examining some of the passages that specifically refer to the Star card, we can follow his surrealist method of drawing meaning from an image that takes on a life of its own when the imagination takes the leap to become one with it. The first time he describes the card, he treats it as a vision outside of his window, appearing to him as a growing light, which resolves itself into the card’s scene:

All the magic of night is in the frame, all of the night’s enchantment.  Perfumes and chills extravagate from the air into thoughts.  The grace of life sends a muffled vibration through the flutes of Pan at the foot of the curtains.  Besides the black cube of the window is no longer so difficult to pierce:  it is penetrated little by little by a brightness spread out in a garland, like a convolvulus of light attached to two transversal edges at the top, not hanging below the upper third of the shape. The image gradually focuses into seven flowers which become stars while the lower part of the cube remains empty.  The two highest stars are of blood, they represent the sun and moon;  the five lower ones, alternating yellow and blue like sap, are the other planets known to the ancients. (67-68)

He immediately establishes that the night he exists in and the card itself are one, in the “frame” that beckons to him from both the window and borders of the card.  He infuses his surroundings with “enchantment,” exploring sensory details, “perfumes and chills,” to flesh out the half real, half “magic” aura he experiences.  “The flutes of Pan” vibrate softly for him, signaling that he is entering a mythic realm, with deep archetypal significance.  The details of the card appear a little at a time for the poet, a “convolvulus of light” stretches its tendrils from the top of the card/window until the flowers brighten and take the shape of a vine of stars.  He creates his own symbolism for the stars, the sun and moon with the planets “of the ancients,” creating a bond between his own yearning for meaning and that of humankind of the distant past.  The sun and the moon “are of blood,” linking them to our own bodies, while the planet stars, “alternating yellow and blue, like sap,” extend the link to the natural world.  The blood of humans and the sap of plants connect to the celestial bodies, which shine above for us to look up at them and feel the connection, as humans have always done.  He then describes the scene as if it were moving, alive, the light gradually growing:

A new glimmer emanate[s] from the zenith which would dominate from above the first ones:  a much brighter star is inscribed in the center of the original septenary and its points are of red and yellow fire and it’s the Dog Star or Sirius, and it’s Lucifer Light  Bearer and it is, in its glory surpassing all the others, the Morning Star.  (68)

Above these shimmering stars the primary light of the scene rises.  By using the word “inscribed” to describe its appearance, the poet emphasizes the surrealist belief that the word itself can create magic and meaning.  The night sky, as a representative of all of the natural world, has its own system of symbols that can be felt and understood in a visceral way by allowing the imagination to wander in it freely, and to accept whatever images and associations the mind infuses into it.  The true poet then has the task of using words to help his readers have that same imaginative and sensory experience that he has had.

Breton also uses the image of the Star to act as a symbolic key to his experience of it.  But he does not pin that it down to any specific correspondence.  Instead, his imagination allows multiple associations to infuse the Star with fluid and changing meanings, enriching an already potent image.  Breton uses the story of the Egyptian god Osiris in other parts of Arcane 17 to reinforce the theme of eternal resurrection.  He brings up the Dog Star here, to the Egyptians a morning star that heralded the sun, which was associated with the goddess, Sepdet, a daughter of Osiris.  Sepdet had a child by him, the planet Venus, which we now know as our “Morning Star.”  This reference to Venus leads to the Roman/Greek goddess, shining down on mankind as a beacon of love and nurturing, properties that Breton associates with the divine feminine elsewhere in this work.  But the poet adds yet another association to this brightest of stars, that of “Lucifer Light Bearer.”  He is referring to the legend that the angel who rebelled against heaven fell from the sky, and is also identified with the Morning Star.  These overlapping references explode in the “glory surpassing all the others,” the Star that can illuminate Breton’s multiple themes: that the cycles of life lead to resurrection, that love and nature create harmony, and that rebellion is a means to true freedom.

Breton then describes the scene that appears by the light of the Star:

The landscape doesn’t light up till the very instant it appears, and at that instant life brightens again and immediately below the luminous blaze which just gave way to the one mentioned, a young woman is revealed, nude, kneeling by the side of a pond, and with her right hand she spills into the pond the contents of a golden urn, while her left hand empties onto the earth an equally inexhaustible silver urn.  Alongside that woman who, beyond Melusina, is Eve and now is all womankind, the leaves of an acacia rustle to the right while to the left a butterfly flutters on a bloom.  (68)

As the poet experiences the brightening of the sky from the appearance of the central, greatest Star, he invites us to use our own imaginations to see by its “luminous blaze,” to feel that “life brightens” again.  Breton then describes the figure in the center of the card, a naked young woman, kneeling as she pours out the contents of two urns, the gold one from her right hand into a pond, the silver from her left onto the ground.  The fluid and eternal nature of this process is marked by his use of the word “inexhaustible” in his description of the urns.  He associates this woman with the Melusina of European legend, a water fairy who marries a mortal, but because he does not follow the “rules” for a marriage between mortals and immortals, he loses her.  However, she still protects him from afar, in spite of the fact that he caused her banishment from the mortal world.  Breton sees Melusina as the embodiment of the divine feminine, a sensibility of natural love and understanding that men have banished from the modern world.  Breton also associates the woman with Eve, as the archetype of “all womankind,” implying that all women have the divine grace needed to save and nurture our world.  The woman of the Star card gives him hope that this archetypal principal is still hovering near our impoverished world, with the “inexhaustible” pitchers that could renew it.

A few pages later, Breton goes on to speak from the point of view of the two streams that flow from the urns, their purpose and properties:

The left hand stream.——I burn and I rouse, I carry out the fire’s bidding. . . . I’m headed for that bleak pond where, under phosphorescent creams, ideas which have ceased to move men have come to be buried.  And this pond belongs to the dogmas that have met their end, to which men no longer make sacrifices except out of habit and pusillanimity.  It belongs to the innumerable existences shut in on themselves, whose magma gives off , at certain times of the day, a pestilential odor but who still retain the power to glimmer with a new dream, because it is there that I bring the incessant bubbling of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas and it’s through me that it rediscovers in its depths the secret principle of its whirlpools. (75-76)

Breton sees the pond renewed by the urn’s contents.  Its surface is covered with “phosphorescent creams,” producing an eerie but superficial light that hides outworn “dogmas” and the “innumerable existences shut in on themselves.”  Like the pond, the stagnant atmosphere of the modern world has no more vital belief systems, and no way for people to reach out and connect with each other. However, even though the pond gives off a “pestilential odor” in its morbidity, it still “glimmer[s]” in its longing for “a new dream.”  The urn’s stream can filter deep within the “bleak pond,” and make it “bubbl[e]” again, and recover the effervescence “of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas” that can effect true change for the better in the world.  Then the poet speaks as the stream of the silver urn:

 The right hand stream.——I bewitch and I multiply.  I obey the freshness of water, capable of erecting its palace of mirrors in one drop and I’m heading for the earth which loves me, for the earth which couldn’t fulfill the seed’s promise without me.  And the seed opens, and the plant rises, and the marvelous operation takes place by which a single seed produces several.  And ideas would also cease to be fertile at the moment when man would no longer irrigate them with all that nature can individually instill in him in the way of clarity, mobility, generosity, and freshness of view point.  I bring to the soil where he walks the confidence he must have in the eternal greening of his reasons for hope at the very moments when they might appeared to have been destroyed. (76)

The fresh water of this urn joins up with “the earth which loves” it, allowing the naturally fertile ground to “fulfill the seed’s promise.”  Breton emphasizes the beauty of nature in what it has to offer us in itself, but he also uses water as a symbol of the nourishment that ideas need in order to grow “clarity, generosity, and freshness of view point” in the human mind.  As our suffering earth needs the bounty of “all that nature can . . . instill,” so does the “soil” of our minds need the “eternal greening” of hope to keep our lives and thoughts vibrant and growing.

Breton then returns to the image of the butterfly as it flutters near the woman, and he goes on to develop the butterfly as a symbol:

 The butterfly turns.  During this last passage it remained still and facing front, mimicking a hatchet of light planted in the flower.  A flutter now reveals its wing, thrice smattered with the dust of all precious stones.  Its pump doesn’t work anymore, imponderable instruments developing from the flowery sap pause in the course of this barely material activity.  And before taking flight to attend to the dissemination of the fecundating substance, before finding again the stippled and sinuous line that directs its flight, it only seems to exist in order to bring to our eyes the sumptuousness of that wing.  And in its turn it tells what a consoling mystery there is in the raising of successive generations, what new blood incessantly circulates and, so that the species may not suffer from the wearing down of the individual, what selection always takes place in time, succeeds in imposing its law above all.  Man sees this trembling wing which is, in all languages the capital letter that begins the word Resurrection.  Yes, the highest thoughts, the greatest sentiments can undergo a collective decline and the human heart can also break and books can age, and all things must, on the outside, die, but a power that is not at all supernatural makes death itself the basis for renewal.  To begin with, it guarantees all the exchanges which make sure that nothing precious is lost internally and that, through its obscure metamorphoses from season to season, the butterfly again puts on its exalted colors. (78)

At first the butterfly is “still,” as it would be on the card, but its presence draws our attention.  The juxtaposition of the delicate fluttering of a butterfly’s wing with an illuminating “hatchet of light,” as the poet sees it, alerts us to its importance, as if it is about to reveal the underlying reality of the scene before us.  The fragile beauty of the butterfly’s wing is a treasure as great as the “dust of all precious stones.”  Breton then goes on to describe the scientific and practical activities of the butterfly, how it takes in the nectar of the flower and then goes to “disseminat[e] the fecundating substance.” The butterfly is merely acting out its natural role, but the poet’s eye recognizes the moment of breath-taking surrealistic beauty as he gazes on the “sumptuousness of that wing” itself.  And then Breton explains the “consoling mystery” of the fragile butterfly.  Any member of a species can be worn down or destroyed, but “successive generations” carry on the legacy of each and every individual. Although ideas, achievements, and individuals will “decline” and “die,” the natural order of things makes even “death itself the basis for renewal.”  The poet needs no reassurances from the “supernatural” for promises of everlasting life, but instead feels the awesome power of nature itself as she continues to push forth new life “from season to season,” revealed to us in the promise of the butterfly’s “exalted colors.”

Breton deepens his experience of the card as he describes the creative visualization that takes place in his imagination as he continues to immerse himself in its details:

 The star reclaims its dominant position among the seven planets in the window whose fires grow dim to proclaim it the pure crystallization of night.  In the only corner that still remained walled with darkness, the claws of a thousand lynx lacerated everything that obstructed vision, releasing a tree as they settle in along its branches whose foliage is such a fascinating green that it seems to be made from the eyes of those same lynx.  I wait for everything to return to its original serenity.  The young woman continues to tilt her two vases over the ground and over the water, with her back to the thorny tree.  But imperceptibly the scene is changing . . . what’s going on?  The acacia comes so close it almost occupies the whole field of vision, doesn’t it look as if its arms are pulling apart the window frames?  Amazing!  It’s walking toward me, it’s going to turn me upside down:  I’m dreaming. (81)

The scene is essentially the same, the stars in the night sky, the woman pouring invigorating streams of water into the pond and onto the earth.  But it then takes a surrealist twist, and the poet describes what happens in his imagination as the picture on the card takes on a life of its own.  The small tree to the woman’s left has now grown large enough to hold “a thousand lynx,” whose only connection with the actual picture is the “fascinating green” of the foliage and the eyes of the lynx.  Their appearance lends an exotic and mysterious note to the scene that deepens its power.  And then Breton moves from a simple description of the details his imagination has added for him;  he starts to describe the actual process he undergoes in his hypnotic like trance of visualization.  He experiences surprise and awe, asking himself, “. . . what’s going on?”  In that space we can see only as an ellipsis, his “amazing” powers of the imagination breathe life into the original images.  Breton admired the poet Arthur Rimbaud for his call to poetry to provoke a “dereglement de tous les sens” (a derangement of all the senses) to be able to experience the world more fully, and here he seems to have found it for himself.  The tree in the card is now pushing through his window as well as the threshold of the card, about to turn him “upside down,” a true derangement of the mundane world that his imagination has effected for him.

Breton ends Arcane 17 with a message of hope and a call to action:

 “The angel of Liberty, born from a white feather shed by Lucifer during his fall, penetrates the darkness;  the star she wears on her forehead becomes, ‘first meteor, then comet and furnace.’”  We see how, where it may once have been unclear, the image sharpens;  it’s rebellion itself, rebellion alone is the creator of light.  And this light can only be known by way of three paths;  poetry, liberty, and love, which should inspire the same zeal and converge from the very cup of eternal youth, at the least explored and the most illuminable spot in the human heart.  (97)

He quotes Victor Hugo’s description of the “angel of liberty” from his epic poem, “La Fin de Satan.”  He describes the qualities of the angel’s star, identifying it with the properties of “Les Etoiles” he has experienced in the card and in his vivid imagination.  He follows its momentum, at first only a “meteor, then comet, then furnace.”  He calls for rebellion against the dogmas and lifestyles that no longer serve us or the earth, rebellion that will set the star on its blazing path of light.  “Poetry, liberty, and love” can inspire our journey to a sane and natural world if we allow the essence of the tarot Star to light up the “most illuminable spot in the human heart.”

Andre Breton’s Arcane 17: An Exploration of the Tarot’s Star card

August 26, 2011

During WWII, the French surrealist poet, Andre Breton, lived in America in self imposed exile. He spent three months in the far reaches of northeastern Canada, where he struggled to make sense of personal losses he had experienced, as well as of the horror and bleakness of global war. During that time, he wrote his extended prose poem, Arcane 17, the title referring to tarot card 17, the Star card. A work of poetic alchemy, this book offers hope for the individual and for our fragile world in advocating an embracing of the divine feminine in nature and in ourselves. The Star serves as a key to the symbolism of the work, and Breton’s method of exploring the image of the card uses creative visualization, offering transformation and transcendence. By examining some of the passages that specifically refer to the Star card, we can follow his surrealist method of drawing meaning from an image that takes on a life of its own when the imagination takes the leap to become one with it. I am giving a presentation on this work at the Bay Area Tarot Symposium this weekend, and I’ll be posting some analysis of Arcane 17 here. Please check in to see more soon!

Yeats’ “Symbols”

June 13, 2011

The great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, mined the tarot for ideas for some of his most powerful poetry.  In his short poem, “Symbols,” he creates a haunting scene that depicts some of the tarot’s most recognizable images:

A storm beaten old watch-tower,
A blind hermit rings the hour.

All destroying sword-blade still
Carried by the wandering fool.

Gold-sewn silk on the sword-blade,
Beauty and fool together laid.

To those who are familiar with the tarot, the images in the poem are clearly drawn from it; however, Yeats is going beyond just a creative visualization of tarot motifs. He entitles the poem “Symbols,” not “Tarot Symbols.” As with his use of Irish and Greek mythology, or Christianity, in other poems, his vision goes beyond the specific images depicted. He explores the ability of the human imagination to see powerful symbolic meaning in physical objects.

We may draw on the richness of the tarot to help us envision this scene in our minds, but even if you’ve never heard of the tarot, you can still feel a frisson of fear and expectancy as the shadowy hermit sounds the tower’s great bell. The “all-destroying” nature of the fool’s sword clashes with, but is somehow softened by, the “gold-sewn silk,” and presents us with a confusing and yet satisfying combination of the precious beauty and the blundering foolishness of the quest.

The symbols come together to stir our imaginations, to lead us to recognize the archetypal nature of the journeys we all take in our daily lives, the mythic warnings and battles and treasures that can illuminate our daily struggles and triumphs. With this poem, Yeats helps us reconnect with the sometimes forgotten dreams and depths of which we are capable, allowing us to see our lives’ journeys for the heroic quests they are.