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Esotericism, Art, and Imagination

Esotericism, Art, and Imagination. Eds. Arthur Versluis, Lee Irwin, John Richards, and Melinda Weinstein. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009. 336 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-87013-819-5.

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Reviewed by Emily E. Auger


[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 107/108.]

I’ve told you,” he answered, “I told you at first; at least, I hinted at it. There is correspondence everywhere; but some correspondences are clearer than others. Between these cards [...] and the activities of things there is a very close relation.”

–Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps (ch.3)

Esotericism, Art, and Imagination is the first in a series on esotericism from Michigan State University Press and the Association for the Study of Esotericism [http://www.aseweb.org/]. This inaugural monograph has been published in lieu of the 2008 volume of the Association’s journal Esoterica, and its contents derive from the international conferences also sponsored by the Association in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Esotericism, as editor John Richards explains in the first of the book’s two introductions, “embraces, among others, the following areas of investigation: alchemy, astrology, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, magic, mysticism, Neoplatonism, new religious movements related to these currents, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century, [sic] occult movements, Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and witchcraft” (viii). While this list is obviously relevant to both the collection and the expansive claims of esotericism conceived as an ambitious new academic discipline, this volume is not the place to look for extensive background information on any of these subjects. Neither is it the place to look for specific arguments in support of Antoine Faivre’s much quoted, and here neatly summarized, list of six characteristics, including correspondences, as definitive of Western esotericism, as these characteristics are explored only incidentally in most of the papers. The authors’ responses to the challenges of a diverse range of cultural objects and topics tends to the particular, and their approaches to the essay format range from the conventional academic to the more literary essay. As editor Arthur Versluis observes in the second introduction, these papers are primarily about showing the intersection points between esotericism, art, and literature, particularly insofar as the imagination fosters the translation of esoteric ideas into art and literature (xv). To the reader unversed in the “discipline” of esotericism, this means that these papers are largely dedicated to correspondences, some more clearly realized than others.

Among the more studied approaches to correspondences in the collection is Giovanna Costantini’s “Le Jeu de Marseille: The Breton Tarot as Jeu de Hasard,” about the Tarot produced c. 1940 by a number of Surrealist artists working closely with Andre Breton. Like several in the anthology, this essay addresses a cultural object about which nothing or relatively little has previously been published. The deck is fascinating, particularly in light of the realization that Breton was inspired, not by the modern notion of Tarot as a means of divination, but as a game of chance with military associations; hence, the article title reference to the “Jeu de Hasard.” The author notes the Surrealists’ interest in correspondences between Tarot and alchemy and points out that the traditional Tarot suit signs were exchanged for a key, black star, bloody wheel, and flame because the artists felt these images correspond to knowledge, dream, revolution, and love respectively. If the trumps-the cards that were added to the regular playing deck in the fifteenth century to create the actual gaming deck of Tarot that became associated with fortune-telling and “occult” or esoteric practices in the eighteenth century and meditation and popular culture in the twentieth century-were treated by the Surrealists, that portion of their deck is not considered here. All of the sixteen unfortunately rather gray card reproductions show the Surrealist versions of regular deck cards and all are from the March 1943 issue of the Surrealist journal VVV published in New York (1942-1944) held in the special collections library at the University of Michigan; none are referenced by call-outs in the text. The author, however, contemplates the Ace of Clubs at some length and makes several notes regarding the appearance of cards in paintings by Picasso; images with Tarot associations in the work of other artists of the period, such as the wheel of the Wheel of Fortune Tarot trump in works by Duchamp and Man Ray; and Breton’s later authorship of Arcanum 17 (1944). The Surrealists also assigned people they knew to the cards of their deck: Baudelaire, whom they admired very much, was found to correspond to a card representative of second sight, though it is not clear which card that was. Baudelaire is, of course, famous for his Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857), which includes the poem titled “Correspondences” about the “forests of symbols” and “expansion of infinite things.”

The strength of the collection as a whole indeed seems to be the authors’ more or less common realization of correspondences, with or without other purported esoteric associations, as the basis of practices, conducted both inside and outside the contexts of ritual and secret societies, that are means of investing meaning in all aspects of the human experience – and also form the substance of art. This realization, along with some related to Faivre’s other largely uncited characteristics of Western esotericism, is made in studies of the processes of alchemy (see M.E. Warlick) and initiation (see Sarah W. Whedon); in studies of such individuals as William Blake (see Marsha Keith Schuchard), Cecil Collins (see Arthur Versluis), D.H. Lawrence (see Glenn Alexander Magee), Vladimir Solovyov (see George M. Young), and Dion Fortune and W.B. Yeats (see Claire Fanger); and studies of particular works, such as Euripides’ Bacchae (see Melinda Weinstein), the Tarot of Marseilles (discussed above), and Venetian senator Angelo Querini’s garden near Padua (see Patrizia Granziera). However, Joscelyn Godwin’s paper on Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials novels, Cathy Gutierrez’s paper, which highlights the role of fraud in spirit photography, Eric G. Wilson’s paper on film, and Lance Gharavi’s and Victoria Nelson’s papers on literature, make one additional very specific point clear. In spite of the obvious seriousness and relative secretiveness invested in “authentic” esoteric practice, many people, whether or not they know anything, in the “academic” sense, about Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and so forth, are profoundly affected by representations in art and literature that convey ideas about the unquantifiable aspects of the universe and, on this level at least, are ever ready to be entertained by and to indulge in “esoteric” concepts.


Esotericism, Art, and Imagination. Eds. Arthur Versluis, Lee Irwin, John Richards, and Melinda Weinstein. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009. 336 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-87013-819-5.

Buy Online