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)

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