Paul Marteau‘s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles received widespread praise and a number of positive book reviews, some of which have been presented on this site. They show not only the ‘reach’ which Marteau and his publisher may have had, but above all, the interest which the Tarot aroused, and this from all angles. Effectively, the book was reviewed by art critics, playing card historians, literary figures and critics of all stripes rather than by occultists and fortune-tellers. One extensive, insightful and engaging review, by a critic well-qualified to do so, provides an in-depth view of the reception of this important work, and raises a number of important points in so doing.
The author, Patrice Boussel (1916-1985), was a senior librarian and a specialist on the history of medicine. Boussel was a prolific author, writing with wit and erudition on a great range of subjects; his illustrated histories of medicine, surgery and pharmacy “are considered classics and their rich iconography is often a revelation that bears witness to his curiosity and his artistic sensibility.”
Boussel further wrote works on all manner of subjects, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, the cult of relics, eroticism and gallantry in the 19th century, and guides to the battlefields of France and to the D-Day landing beaches of WWII. Closer to our subject matter, Boussel also penned a series of guides to the local legends and secret histories of a number of regions of France; Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy, are all examined in this perspective; and closer still, Boussel wrote a guide to the fortune-tellers of Paris. Finally, in 1963 Boussel published a Manuel de Superstition, to which we shall have occasion to return.
These numerous and varied publications express the man’s cultured background and wide learning; having graduated in both philosophy and law, Boussel became interested in mathematics and geology, and after marrying a pharmacist, became interested in the medical sciences. He later became the curator of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. A fuller biography of the man may be read here (in French).
Æsculape (pub. 1911-1974), the journal in which this article was published, was a monthly illustrated journal “on literature and the arts in their relations with the sciences and medicine,” founded by Benjamin Bord and later edited by Jean Avalon. The journal, although ostensibly aimed at the medical practitioner (“and his wife and his patients…”), had a much wider readership on account of the variety of its topics, its readability and the wealth of illustrations it contained. The iconographic collection built up by Avalon was highly considered, and the journal quickly became the official journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine. Out of print since 1974, copies have become sought-after items by amateurs of the weird and wonderful.
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On the Tarot of Marseilles
Georges Courteline, in a masterpiece, Boubouroche, Marcel Pagnol, in another masterpiece, Marius, brought to life men possessed by the demon of cards, and because they were writing comedies, they were able, without concession, without abstract discourses, to show just how serious a thing the game of manille is. They raised laughs, they raise laughs, and they shall raise laughs at their characters, for these fellows are real, reasonable, and tragic, if you like, and yet they do not know it; for they naturally engage in one of the most natural and important acts of man, they gamble. Gambling is a serious matter, much like marriage or death, which explains the involuntary but definitely comical aspect of a gambler, of a cuckold, or of an undertaker.
Reading a medical treatise, a marriage contract, a manual of contract bridge, on the contrary, only very rarely engenders hilarity. The frivolousness of their authors saddens us rather: not only do they take themselves seriously but they wish to be taken as such… and they manage to do so. The reader, forgetful of his human condition, fretfully wonders about the consequences of a bad dose of tuberculosis, of the marital community property regime, or a four no-trump bid, as though, master of his destiny, he considered himself immortal, happy in his domestic life, and unbeatable at cards. He no longer has any desire at all whatsoever to laugh.
The book which Mr Paul Marteau has just published with Arts et Métiers Graphiques, on the Tarot of Marseilles, is not a joyful book, but it is a handsome book, and even a good book for many reasons, not all of which are those given by Mr Jean Paulhan in the preface he has provided, nor Eugène Caslant in his preliminary exposé.
Le Tarot de Marseille may be considered as being a promotional work, since the cards, published in 1761 by Nicolas Conver, master cardmaker in Marseilles, are currently being republished by B. P. Grimaud, and that “Paul Marteau, master cardmaker of France, is one of the directors of the Grimaud firm, globally renowned for its manufacture of playing cards.”
Le Tarot de Marseille is not a work of erudition, a “scientific” work, since it includes no bibliography, and we find almost none of those footnotes, respected by readers to the point of not reading them.
Le Tarot de Marseille is not a history book. The author says nothing of the origin of the cards, nor of the various hypotheses which have been proposed, he even says nothing of the historical position of this Marseilles Tarot.
Le Tarot de Marseille is not the work of an astrologer, for if the author uses the houses for the astrological spread, which is classic, he makes no allusion to the planetary influences, which could be deemed essential.
Finally, Le Tarot de Marseille is not a treatise of arithmosophy, to employ the term coined by Dr Allendy, author of the Symbolisme des Nombres. Mr Paul Marteau’s symbolism seems to be fairly summary: he opposes the Material to the Spiritual, instinct to religious sentiment, activity to passivity…
For all of this, may Mr Paul Marteau be praised.
In his preface, Mr Jean Paulhan deals with occult matters and writes:
“The least that can be said of the specialists of occultism is that they also go awry, even more quickly than their sciences. I dare not even think of those who wind up in misery, or vile disease: neither Court de Gébelin, nor Éliphas Lévi – nor the Gypsies either, whose mysterious function, it would appear, was to spread the Tarot throughout the world, derived any profit from the riches they kindly promise us. There is worse, and the occultists best-known to us – those of the Enlightenment: Saint Germain, Cagliostro, Mesmer, Casanova, Etteilla a little later – end up in general by living at the expense of naïve elderly ladies seeking immortality. In brief, as happens one day, sooner or later, for the famous mediums, they cheat. When they do not adopt the trade that resembles most that of soothsayer: secret agents, informers; or else spies, turning for the benefit of the State which pays them the trenches they have dug out of the laudable concern of finding hidden treasure.”
The author of Le Tarot de Marseille must not “go awry.” He knows the existence of occult matters, but he wields them with prudence, and above all, with health. The superficial critic could say:
— But it’s a manual – a luxurious one – for beginning cartomancers!
No doubt seasoned professionals already have their own personal keys and have no need for the interpretation proposed by Mr Paul Marteau. This would bother them rather, for they might notice contradictions with what they hold to be true, which would inevitably sow some doubt in their souls, particularly avid for certainty.
The historians – equally professional – will consider this book with neither bibliography nor soothing references useful only for its beautiful reproductions of ancient images. They will not say that they are beautiful, but that they are precise, for beauty can be but foreign or unwelcome for the true historian. They will praise Mr Paul Marteau the technician, “the great master cardmaker of France,” and will only blame him for having had these ideas, and above all – o scandal! – for having presented them without any scientific apparatus.
The author has “striven to show the reader that nothing in this Tarot has been placed at random, that the drawings have been conceived in such a way as to give significance to the slightest details, that the colours are always suited to the presiding idea of each card, and that the entire set reveals a transcendental philosophy.”
To explain the existence of soothsayers, of somnambulists, of fortune-tellers, one must accept that there exists, within every man, something secret, which guards itself and which refuses to be drawn out. The coffee grounds, the crystal ball… and in a more detailed and more precise fashion, the Tarot, enable one to evoke this something by stimulating the psyche of the seer, or of the cartomancer. No doubt the interpretation will always depend on this psyche, regardless of the instrument employed, but if we accept as much, how could we not accept that the perfection of the instrument may facilitate this interpretation? Now, the Tarot seems to be, and by far, the best of the lot.
“The Tarot is a universal vibrating instrument and becomes a source of energy by the fluidic projection of our thought.”
The Tarot provides “the symbolic keys of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of man.” Believe it – or not, the essential is that men would have thought in this way, and they would have summarised their philosophy in a collection of 78 images.
Court de Gébelin began his study on the Tarot pack with this striking phrase:
“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book.”
Rather than making a general, and necessarily superficial, study of all the Tarot decks, Mr Paul Marteau has preferred to take as his subject the one he considers as being the best. From these 78 images, he has derived a philosophy, he has shed light on what one may imagine, by means of the Tarot of Marseilles, “of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of men,” he has therefore accomplished the task which he had set himself, and it must be admitted that those who would think otherwise would be bad jokers.
“It would be imprudent to treat it as a handbook of physics or of geometry,” says Mr Jean Paulhan. “On the contrary. It must not be learned by heart. Nor shown – despite being, in my mind, very accurate and very beautiful – to all one’s friends. It must be read, of course, but to be immediately forgotten, and later read once more (without ever being reread). In brief, to relegate it to that secret part of ourselves, to which the Tarot as a whole is but a constant allusion.”
Le Tarot de Marseille presents itself as “a sort of dictionary, or even an encyclopaedia,” it is as serious as a book on law, a dictionary of philosophy, or a treatise on the game of chess might be, but it is by no means boring; the simplicity, the naïvety of the the engravings is moving, and moreover, the subject of the book – functionality and user’s guide to an instrument to know the unknowable – is entirely alive. To believe that we are about to know what we believe – at the same time – we cannot know, is that not human, “too human,” just as surely as considering oneself to be in love, cuckolded, or mortal?
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Images of the “Charles VI” Tarot and Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille courtesy of the BNF.