Book review: Arcanum 17 by Andre Breton

The Star (17th card in the Major Arcana)

And this light can only be known by way of three paths: poetry, liberty, and love, which should inspire the same zeal and converge to form the very cup of eternal youth, at the least explored and most illuminable spot in the human heart. (97)

As far as I can currently tell, Arcanum 17 is a shockingly undervalued text in the Surrealist canon of literature. My own proctor for my comps, who regularly teaches undergraduate classes in Dada and Surrealism, did not know about this book. It was a major turning point in Andre Breton’s life and in Surrealism, which was largely because his own hot head was finally cooled by WWII and his wife’s departure. This novel is a beautiful mixture of love letter, political pamphlet, myth, and meditation. It is part prose and part poetry, though in keeping with Breton’s transition away from automatic writing to instead rely on verbal imagery to disrupt traditional narrative structure, it is pushed more in the poetry direction. It is therefore difficult to actually read: it is like following his constantly-changing train of thought as he moves from one topic to the next, but all thoughts tie into certain central themes.

This book is about discovering love through loss: his newfound love of the woman who would become his third wife, Elisa, after his second wife, Jacqueline Lamba, left him along with their eight-year-old daughter; also the terrible destruction and darkness in Europe resulting from World War II (from which Breton had fled). Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book is that it is something of a Bretonian pre-feminist manifesto. It the first time that he not only acknowledges women as being as capable as men as artists (which he had never done before, as he had only seen women primarily as muses), but in fact superior:

I say that the time is past when we can be satisfied on this point by mere whims, by more or less shameful concessions; instead, those of us in the arts must pronounce ourselves unequivocally against man and for woman, bring man down from a position of power which, it has been sufficiently demonstrated, he has misused, restore this power to the hands of woman, dismiss all of man’s pleas so long as woman has not yet succeeded in taking back her fair share of that power, not only in art but in life. (62)

Perce’ Rock

Arcanum 17 was written in 1944, when Breton and Elisa were in Canada. And not just Canada, but Quebec, near Percé Rock. This rock plays a major role in the book, as Breton was very inspired by its isolation and slow-crumbling nature as well as the bird sanctuaries in Bonaventure. He himself felt very isolated in his self-exile from France, and when 17 was first published, most people regarded it as lofty preaching from his rock, far from the thick of war. However, it was revolutionary in terms of science, ecology, politics, and sexuality. In the 1947 reprint, he attached a second text, Apertures, which further explains his political position and how he believes that war can– and should be– avoided in the future.

The title of the book refers to the 17th card in the Major Arcana of Tarot: The Star. The Star represents “feminine” qualities, such as creativity, (re)birth and regeneration, love, the psychic and the intuitive, and metamorphosis. Its placement in the Major Arcana is after The Devil (15) and The Tower (16), both of which can represent darkness, destruction, and bad fortune. Anna Balakin’s beautiful introduction to 17 likens The Star card to the morning star, which rises after the darkest part of the night, signaling a new dawn. Furthermore, Perce’ Rock is, according to Balakin, “… as close to the North Star and the North Pole as one who was ever fascinated by the North could hope to reach” (10). The allusion to his own personal situation (and Elisa’s for that matter, since she had lost a child of her own to drowning not long before she had met Breton) and to the war in Europe is strong, as he wants nothing more than peace to return to his own world and the world at large. And he believes that the only way that peace can return is through women, who, in his view, are capable of bringing peace by their very nature (hence why The Star– Arcanum 17– is so apt at describing women’s peace-bringing qualities).

Breton’s pre-feminist proclamation in 17 has been lambasted by many contemporary feminists, particularly because he is still pre-occupied with the notion of the femme-enfant (child-woman). He states that “I choose the child-woman not in order to oppose her to other women, but because it seems to me that in her and in her alone exists in a state of absolute transparency the other prism of vision which they obstinately refuse to take into account, because it obeys very different laws whose disclosure male despotism must try to prevent at all costs” (65). The child-woman is an infantilization and heavily romanticized. However, we must remember that this was written in 1944, two decades before feminism was formally acknowledged. Plus, the fact that the Andre Breton actually said that women are superior to men, after so many years of regarding them as inferior, is huge.

Julius Hubner, “Fair Melusine” (1844)

Amidst his political and love-oriented motivations, he relies heavily on mythology. He is particularly interested in one version of the story of Melusina, a woman who transformed into a half-woman/half-serpent once a week, who almost had the chance to have her physical curse broken by marrying a man who could resist the temptation to look at her in her semi-serpentine form. If he did, she would remain in her cursed form (and of course he can’t resist seeing her that way, thus permanently cursing her). The version that Breton prefers has Melusina turn into a protector of the chateau (the Chateau of Lusignan) of her betrothed. According to Balakin, the legend of Melusina “supports Breton’s haunting thought that man has unwittingly dislodged woman from a position where she could do much good for humanity” (12). He is also fascinated with Egyptian mythology, particularly Osiris and Isis, which is symbolic to Breton of triumph over suffering. Osiris was resurrected by Isis, his sister-wife, after his brother had murdered and mutilated him.

Finding love after loss, resurrection, beauty in nature, peace, feminine strengths– these are the ideas that defined Arcanum 17 and helped change the course of contemporary understanding of Surrealism. Though the book itself does not make sense in the linear sense of narratives, his ideas do come through like snapshots of memories. I am looking forward to reading it again to try to absorb more of his ideas through the verbal chaos.

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