Archive for the ‘Tarot Books’ Category

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.

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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.”

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