Max Ernst was intrigued when he first saw Dorothea Tanning’s enigmatic self-portrait, which he suggested should be called TheBirthday; she agreed that it was an apt choice.After playing chess they fell in love, as Surrealist’s were wont to do. They married in 1946 in a joint wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. They remained together until Ernst’s death in 1976. She would outlive Ernst by a further 36 years, living to the grand old age of 102, the last of the Surrealists.
A writer as well as a painter, Tanning’s memoir is entitled Birthday.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
Count it down,
Let it begin,
So that we be finished,
Better sooner than later.
We never start something
Without wanting it over,
Done with all that,
To start on something else,
Something brand spanking
So in descending order
Because to go down
Is really an ascension
On the numbers chosen
Whether it be
696, 695, 694
93, 92, 91
Or perhaps just
(But everything has significance)
So let the countdown …
She turns over the card and pauses,
Lost in contemplation and glances
Over at the abstracted young man
Looking downwards at the table,
There cannot be any doubt, no,
Not this time for once she is sure:
She waits until his coppered stare
Intermingles with her agate rays
Before speaking, carefully considers
The weight and import of each word
“Do you see this card, Le Bateleur,
Numero uno in the pack, but neither
Aleph or alpha, although he juggles
Worlds and words, a natural Magician
With fast hands and silvered tongue,
A grifter and a shyster, but make
No mistake his quick change routine
Is as magic as magick is, all is illusion
After all and he just sells us dreams
Make believe meanings, confidences,
The glittering allure of glamour;
But through such deceptive practises
He rends and tears the veil
To reveal ultimate reality, maybe;
The workings of chance and destiny
The latent manifestation of will.
Well…can you see now?
Do you understand?”
Lowering his eyes he shakes his head
“No? Maybe you will one day,
When you look in some form
Of mirror that will reveal more
Than just the surface of things:
The entire history from the whimper
Back to the lightening strike of the start.”
Magritte’s The Eye from 1936 presents the image of an eye and the surrounding areas of the face, painted in Magritte’s usual dry, meticulous and unsettling bland style. The painting is contained within a Victorian shadow-box that gives the illusion that the unblinking eye is staring through a peep-hole. The effect is profoundly unnerving; the object we are looking at returns our gaze and exposes us for the voyeurs that we are. Everything we see we objectify, with the exception of ourselves, of course.
Subtly terrifying, Rene Magritte’s La Condition Humaine uses the picture within a picture device that was to become a Magritte trademark. The painting is realistically banal, showing a painting by a window that is an exact representation of the obscured landscape. Or is it? Is the human condition the fact that we are trapped in the realm of appearances and any attempt to tear asunder the veil will reveal only another deceptive surface without any depth?
Magritte was characteristically unrevealing in his comments on the painting:
‘In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape.’
For a moment I thought,
When we came together
That anything, everything
Was finally possible;
Love as a greater unity,
Combining our limbs
Lips mouths cunt cock
Nothing to divide us,
No barriers to separate;
We shared a vision,
Tasted the pleasures
Of the long anticipated,
Much deferred paradise.
But the moment passed,
Our bodies disentangled.
Even the shortest distance
Can lead to disenchantment;
Ultimately we fuck alone.
After such knowledge,
After being tantalized
With the promise of grace
Makes this world a hell
And other people,
No, we can’t all just get along,
I will repay your hate
With pinpricks of fear,
Maybe then we can finally
Share the horror inherent
In everything, anything,
Even a wilted dandelion clock.
But I always miss a beat…
Just that fraction off,
Forever misreading my cues
Carelessly crashing through
The most unforgiving hours
Wandering through the rooms
In the house of sleep
With eyes growing larger,
Shining warningly bright,
Constantly changing colour
Like all the creatures
That come alive in the dark,
So alert and predatory,
Naturally scorning company
For our own being overflows.
Then when the night is over,
Done with, burrow deep away
From that searchlight in the sky,
The unwanted intrusion of the sun.
Rhythm is rhythm and I am what I am,
I know that I always get it wrong,
But not for a moment did I want to be right.
The ending is not the end
The end is the beginning…
Now hold on,
Wait a sec…
I’m not sure that
I have it quite right:
It doesn’t seem just so,
Maybe I have got it backwards
And the beginning
Is actually the end:
What you just begun to begin
Is in a certain sense
Already over and done with,
Or perhaps I am confusing
My alphas and omegas,
My lasts and firsts,
Not to mention
All the spaces
In between times.
I do have that tendency
To get lost in
Of my own masochistic devising
I think I should start over,
Let’s do it again,
But surer and better this go round;
(Hopefully you’ve got the pills)…
To begin is an end in itself
Though this ending hasn’t yet begun
The beginning is just the end
And the end is just the beginning.
The beasts (A vivid bestiary indeed: Eerie condor atop a desolate eyrie; Aloof snow leopard alone in her Kingdom of Bones; Ravening wild dogs scouring the steppes; Scaled dragon protecting his hoard of gold; Fantastical drolleries, grotesque hybrids, Horrific metamorphosis, decanate aspects, Demonic synthesis, alien creations)
of my nature
At the end of their tether.
Maybe, in an act of self division,
I will let them off the leash
To mount a ceaseless attack
Upon the most dangerous of beasts:
Man, that mad animal.
Once the grave has been filled in it shall be sown over with acorns so that afterwards the ground of the said grave having been replanted and the thicket being overgrown as it was before, the traces of my tomb will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the minds of men, except none the less from those of the small number of people who have been pleased to love me up to the last moment, and of whom I carry into the grave a most tender recollection.
Marquis De Sade-Last Will and Testament
Regardless of your opinion of the Divine Marquis, it has to be admitted that he got it spectacularly wrong in his prediction that his memory would be effaced from the minds of men. Although he certainly didn’t invent the sexual pathology that bears his name, he does hold the world trademark rights. Rarely has a writer, and a writer so rarely read, achieved such lasting notoriety far beyond the narrow confines of literature and philosophy. Sadism is an important concept in psychology, jurisprudence and is a boon to journalists, not to mention has given rise to an increasingly visible sub-culture, of which Fifty Shades of Grey is the most prominent and commercially succesful.
The pioneering sexologist Krafft-Ebing introduced the term Sadism in 1890 based on the content of his works. In many ways De Sade anticipated both Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud by placing sexual desire and sexuality as the prime, motivating factor in human behaviour, and furthermore categorising all the possible aberrations inherent in humanity. It was another German psychiatrist Ewan Bloch who first published The 120 Days of Sodom, De Sade’s most extreme and surely the darkest book ever to be written, in 1904, further spurring interest in his work.
Although it was the psychiatrists who brought De Sade back to public attention in the 20th century, it was the poets who venerated him as the ultimate rebel . Apollinaire proclaimed him ‘the freest spirit to have ever lived’, and in the First Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton noted that ‘De Sade is surrealist in sadism.’ Georges Bataille entire oeuvre is a marriage of Sade and Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault wrote extensively (and infuriatingly) about a figure they saw as an important post-modern predecessor.
Outside of France, Henry Miller was an early champion and a number of Beats either translated his work or produced Sadean erotica for the Olympia Press. In recent years biographies have proliferated (with good reason, De Sade’s life reads better than most novels, no matter how imaginative) and Penguin Classics just issued a new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom, the original manuscript of which was recently sold for 7 million euro at auction.
The Marquis or characters from his novels has made many a cameo in movies as well. In L’Age D’or by Luis Bunuel the coda contains the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus Christ was one of the libertines of the Chateau de Silling. Bunuel would later feature a vignette of De Sade in La Voie Lactee. A sardonic De Sade is the main character of Peter Weiss’s Brechtian film Marat/Sade, while more recently the Philip Kaufman directed Quills re-imagines the Marquis’s time in Charenton in gothic horror fashion. And one shouldn’t forget Pasolini’s highly controversial Salo or his influence upon the pornographic and sexploitation genres, especially Jesus De Franco.
Two centuries after his death it is safe to say that De Sade isn’t going away any time soon. Whether he is viewed as the destroyer of traditional values or the apostle of radical liberty, his vision of a total, impossible freedom will continue to haunt the imagination.