In response to the horrors of World War II, the French poet and founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton moved to the United States as part of a self-imposed exile. Following the banning of his writing in France by the Vichy government as "the very negation of the national revolution,” Breton escaped to the United States and the Caribbean in 1941 with the help of Varian Fry and Harry Bingham. Deeply affected by the bleakness of war-ravaged Europe and the increasing decline of his artistic manifesto, he used his exile as an opportunity to make sense of the new world, and find a new vision for his fledgeling movement of Surrealism.
Many still forget that Breton’s original aim was not the creation of an artistic movement, but an aggressive social revolution to rally against the rationalism which he saw as responsible for society’s ongoing degeneration. Now in the midst of World War II, he wondered whether Surrealism had lost its way and become yet another fashionable hobby for the intellectual bourgeois. Both Surrealism and society needed a renewed sense of hope to guide them into the future after it seemed so much had been lost through war. From the isolation of his exile, Breton looked for a new star to follow, a new concept which could guide the next chapter of his revolution. During a trip to Gaspe on the East coast of Canada in 1944, Breton wrote the extended poem, Arcane 17, the title referring to the Star card, the 17th card of the Tarot deck, and the 17th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Peh. Breton was using the Star card from the 1926 Wirth deck as the basis of his study, and would later work with his surrealist counterparts, Rene Char, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Jacques Herold, Wilfredo Lam, Andre Masson, Benjamin Peret on his own contemporary revision of the deck. In a letter dated March 8, 1944 to Patrick Waldberg, Breton writes: “I'm thinking of writing a book about the arcane 17 (Star, Eternal Youth, Isis , the myth of the resurrection, etc.) taking as model a lady I love and who, unfortunately, at this time is in Santiago.” The new love of Breton’s life at this time was Elisa, this "love that takes all the power, which gives the duration of life.” As is often the case with new love, Breton rediscovered the sense of hope and renewal which drove the creation of Arcane 17. Within Breton found the coexistence of the most tragic fate with the brightest of rebirth.The original edition by Arcane 17 was published in March 1945 with the New York publisher, Brentano’s, and was illustrated with four drawings by Matta depicting the The Lovers card, The Moon card, The Chariot and The Star card.
Considered one of Breton's most complex works, Arcane 17 is rich in literary influences, poetic, political and esoteric, signalling his final conversion to esotericism and his commitment to “roam the edges of knowledge.” This conversion would later prompt him to call for the “occultation of surrealism” in 1947, culminating in the exhibition, Le Surrealism at Galerie Maeght. Arcane 17 was originally planned to be released as part of the exhibition but was overtaken by the general theatricality of the event and received little serious critical attention. Breton’s interest in esotericism increased in response to American society, and further spurred by his first meeting with the well-known bibliophile, Kurt Seligmann. Seligmann showed Breton antiquarian documents and books on the tarot, the myth of Isis and Osiris, gematria and treatises on the ability for visual images to reveal and conceal meaning. The richness of these myths, metaphors and ritual concepts had a deep effect in the writer who was effectively searching for a new language. Within the vehicle of esotericism, Breton saw infinite possibilities to discover truth and preserve the freest state of the individual. As Breton observed: The esoteric, even with all reservations, is an unlimited field of interest for those interested in the dynamic state of comparative systems, and the man who understands its secrets may connect even the most obscure objects to discover the mechanics of universal symbolism. While travelling through Montreal in 1942, Breton discovered the work of Eliphas Levi, and found common ground with Levi’s belief in magic and art as revolutionary aspirations. He also drew on the importance of the feminine and its idealisation as a means for humanity to attain spiritual renewal.
In Arcane 17 he embraces the divine feminine in nature and in ourselves, delving into analogies between the inner and the outer, and placing the feminine at the centre of the work as a symbol of the source of life. The card itself depicts a naked young woman kneeling as she pours out the contents of two “inexhaustible” urns. The gold urn in her right hand tips into a running stream, while the silver urn in her left runs onto the earth. Breton likens the woman with the mythical figure of Melusina and Eve, as the archetype of “all womankind,” carrying the Star which can release humanity from its spiritual prison. He describes the the left hand stream as a “bleak pond” of the old spiritual aeon, 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. Breton presents the pond as the stagnant world of his age which has rejected all belief and principle in the name of logic and rationality. Only the renewal offered by the urn of the mystic feminine can bring the world “a new dream” and “recover the effervescence of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas.” Breton then writes as the water from the silver urn falling upon the earth: 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 fulfil the seed’s promise without me. And the seed opens, and the plant rises, and the marvellous 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 instil in him in the way of clarity, mobility, generosity, and freshness of view point. As the earth needs the water, our spirit needs the sustenance of union with all. Breton emphasises 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… instil,” so does the “soil” of our minds need the “eternal greening” of hope to keep our lives and thoughts vibrant and growing. Breton’s new understanding of gematria finds its first use in Arcane17.
The Hebrew letter, Peh referenced in the title, has an ordinal number of 17 and the mispar number 80, which also equates with the sephirah of Yesod, and just like the female figure of the card, is associated with the Moon and considered the 'engine-room' of creation. This was also the age of Moses when he regained his ability to speak and rise to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and is connected to the teacher-nourisher figure. Peh also has both a medial form and soft form. The medial form is “bent in humilty”, suggestive of a closed mouth, while the soft form is straight and upright. The esoteric meaning or mid rash of Peh is that we must be silent and passive before we rise to speak. “If the mouth cannot bring forth praise and the truth of Torah, it should remain closed.” (Proverb 10:19) Within Peh sits the hidden letter of Bet. The first word of the Torah begins with an enlarged letter Bet, representing the house of creation, and the letter Peh surrounding Bet, represents the word of God which created the heavens and the earth. This gives a clue to the underlying story which Breton has hidden with Arcane 17. The interaction of the two letter forms presents Peh as the outer Yesodic Goddess, and within lies Bet, the inner divine Star. Breton references the story of the Egyptian god Osiris to reinforce the theme of resurrection and birth of a new godform/ philosophy for the new age. He also references Osiris’ daughter, the goddess Sepdet, who gave birth to a child, Venus, also equated with Lucifer, both known as the “Morning Star.”
Breton sees the birth of the Star from within the Goddess as the cycle of life culminating in resurrection. A new glimmer emanates 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 its Lucifer Light Bearer and it is, in its glory surpassing all the others, the Morning Star. On the surface is the outer narrative of the feminine or goddess figure often depicted on tarot cards in the pose of “Isis Morning”, and above her head are eight stars. The Protestant pastor, Count de Gebelin, initiated the interpretation of the Tarot as an arcane repository of esoteric wisdom in 1781, and considered the female figure on the star card to be Isis in the act of causing the inundations of the Nile which accompanied the rising of the Dog Star. The elements of water and earth under her feet represent the opposites of Nature sharing impartially in the divine abundance. On other earlier decks this figure is sometimes depicted in the pose of “Isis mourning” and is surrounded by eight stars. Within this outer narrative of the Goddess (Peh) is the inner narrative of the birth of the Star (Bet). With the feminine defined as Isis, the star-child is symbolic of Horus. Aleister Crowley explicitly defines Peh as corresponding to the “Crowned and Conquering Child emerging from the womb,” and Bet corresponding to the “Messenger, Prometheus,” and the “Juggler with the Secret of the Universe.” Further, Bet has a value of 2, this is said to symbolise that there are two meanings within the Torah: the Inner and the Outer. The number 2 also denotes the mystic number of Kether. This inner and outer nature of the card is further depicted subtly in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, in which the central female figure is shadowed by an oversized, pregnant moon, and within it is a foetal seven-pointed star coming to life. In Thelema, the seven-pointed star described by Breton as the “septenary” is symbolic of BABALON, and the star which Breton connects with Lucifer could be read as the corresponding Beast 666, the union of which creates the magical child.
The revelation of The Book of the Law, received by Crowley in 1904 while in Cairo is that a new spiritual age was about to commence, one which would renew and free humanity. Crowley associated the Crowned and Conquering Child with the deity Harpocrates, the God Horus as a child. The symbol of the Child itself stands for the combined action of the initiated people of the new aeon, who embrace the future willingly and openly to create truth and beauty. In the words of Crowley: The Quest of the Holy Grail, the Search for the Stone of the Philosophers—by whatever name we choose to call the Great Work—is therefore endless. Success only opens up new avenues of brilliant possibility. Yea, verily, and Amen! the task is tireless and its joys without bounds; for the whole Universe, and all that in it is, what is it but the infinite playground of the Crowned and Conquering Child, of the insatiable, the innocent, the ever-rejoicing Heir of Space and Eternity, whose name is MAN? This is the vision of a new age which Breton was seeking in his darkest days of exile.
He ends Arcane 17 with a message of hope and his signature call to action, finally stating the theme of the poem in its final pages, namely the Utopian quest for “Light.” “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. He calls for rebellion against the dogmas and lifestyles that no longer fit our age, and for a rebellion which will set the Star on its blazing path of light. “Poetry, liberty, and love” are the only paths to a free state of humanity, if we allow the essence of the Star to light up the “most illuminable spot in the human heart.” For Breton this quest for light is manifested in a new age of consciousness where art and spirituality co-exist as a single quest. In astrological terms the Star card corresponds to Aquarius, a zodiacal age which is now upon us as was foretold as an age of true artistic and spiritual freedom.