Eliphas Levi, the Tarot and Monsieur Philippe revisited
We began this series of chats about occultism in France during the belle époque by concentrating upon Eliphas Levi, and indeed it is only as we have progressed – looking at those he influenced – that I have realised what an important figure he was. Even if he didn’t get all his facts right he was convincing enough to persuade others to follow his vision; and so the movement grew, inspiring enthusiastic organisers, publicists and researchers such as Papus and the rest. It is thus a little surprising that he comes rather late in the sequence of memoirs by Victor-Émile Michelet – but when he does his life story illustrates some of the deeper effects of initiation.
As Michelet records, Eliphas Levi died on 31st May 1875, after a turbulent life ranging from priesthood to imprisonment, wandering actor and popular portraitist, socialist agitator and guest of English lords, all the while coming to terms with ‘the astral light’ over years of meditation and experiment. As Michelet remarks, while it is true that ‘the spirit bloweth where it listeth’ it also brings testing times to those who seek to reveal its secrets; and after his initiation, from whatever source, he seemed sustained by an interior occult force, and became an excellent and compelling writer.
The contemporary poet Catulle Mendès used to recite sentences from Levi’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie that he had memorised for their beauty. But before his ‘second birth’ the political and religious pamphleteer Alphonse-Louis Constant was only a mediocre writer. Michelet puts the sudden change down to his inspiring ‘daimon’ in the Socratic sense, and reckons that one can see a similar case in the playwright Corneille, who wrote very ordinary plays in his early period, until suddenly, after Le Cid, he wrote masterpiece after masterpiece.
It was the same with Eliphas Levi, who in his early period wrote books and pamphlets with no more value than their generous intention, but in the light of initiation wrote several where the most profound knowledge was expressed in the language of a consummate artist. He may have written between times at a lower level, but in Michelet’s estimation, books written in the final period of his life attain the heights of his best. In my view this is probably more easily discerned in the original French rather than the somewhat ponderous English translations by A.E.Waite.
This has led to Eliphas Levi’s interpretations being taken as the one and only true by the French, despite some gross and discernable errors of fact – picked up from Court de Gebelin’s earlier speculations – but nonetheless, honestly pursued, the system works, as systems usually will. In latter years, study of the Tarot has increased so exponentially and in so many directions that early differences of interpretation, once thought infallible, can now be realised for what they are; and for what an individual or a group can get out of them by sustained meditation and contemplation.
One can imagine however, how disconcerted earlier generations of occultists have felt when confronted with such differences of interpretation. No reason to wonder why Papus should have resigned so quickly from the French branch of the Golden Dawn when it was first set up in Paris. No excuse for differences from perceived or claimed authority in those days!
So anyone who wants to get the best out of French occultism had best decide to follow Eliphas Levi – most of the rest of that nation have, from Oswald Wirth to Marc Haven to name but two respected later writers on the subject. In my own books on Tarot I have pursued a number of alternative lines, in the hope of broadening rather than confusing minds. One of them, Tarot & Magic, written some years ago, has just been translated into Italian; its latest incarnation being named Tarocchi e Magia, which gives me something of a warm glow to think that in a sense the Tarot is returning home on a ticket provided by me – for according to the best scholarship Italy is where the wondrous system started from in the form that most of us know it, (cf A Wicked Pack of Cards and A History of the Occult Tarot, by Professor Michael Dummett and his friends).
Marc Haven, by the way, was a Christian Qabalist like myself, and also had the best of both worlds – magical and mystical – in having married Victoria, the daughter of Maïtre Philippe, the remarkable thaumaturge, referred to by Michelet as “the little peasant of the Lyonnais” Philippe Nizier Vachod, whom they called ‘Monsieur Philippe’ whose role in secret history has never been accurately told, and perhaps never will. What seems certain to Michelet is that if the French government of the day and its diplomats had been less stupid, they would have helped Philippe instead of persecuting him, the last imperial couple in Russia would not have fallen into the power of Rasputin, and the inevitable Bolshevik revolution would have been delayed.
So who was this Philippe? A great thaumaturge, a saint, some say, a popular charlatan the official world replies. But the official mind understands nothing of anything that does not fall into the narrow confines of rational belief. Truly, Philippe seems to have been an excellent ordinary kind of man but gifted with real powers as a healer and visionary . No doubt he would have spent the rest of his life in his house at Arbresle near Lyons attending to the needs of the sick if Papus had not precipitated him into political adventures.”
We will return to this educative but depressing story at a later date. For much hangs upon it.