ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

biography

letter from behind an iron curtain The rawness and emotional intensity of this piece are unmatched among any of Colquhoun’s other writings. It went through several handwritten versions. At just under 3000 words it represents a substantial investment of her time It is clearly autobiographical. It takes the form of a letter to an unnamed man. In it, Colquhoun describes her frustration and sense of isolation as she struggles to understand the intense emotions she feels towards him and the motivations that underlie his behaviour towards her: If I understood the nature of this bond, I should understand everything; if I could feel for the totality of being and for every particular what I feel for you, I should know illumination. Not those visions perceived through the intellect alone, nor through the senses alone (though this is nearer) but through ‘the enchantment of the heart’. Yet this includes ‘a vision of irony’ if such there is, for should we meet again and you failed to recognise me, that would perhaps be the most beautiful apprehension of all. You may have forgotten me completely, my image swallowed up, overlaid, buried; yet I may represent for you as riveting an object of communion as you do for me – as obsessive, and as hidden. The man can be identified with “Dr. X”, a psychoanalyst with whom she had a series of sessions and who also appears in many of Colquhoun’s dreams of the early 1950’s. He also features as the focus of ruminations in her magical diary of 1952 where she reflects on her obsession with him. In conventional psychodynamic terms, her reactions can be understood as transference to a powerful and infuriating father figure, but the conceit that runs through the piece is that psychotherapy is a magical event and that their meetings are to understood as magical rituals: It must have been about three months after we first met that you appeared to me robed, crowned and hieratically derisive and like Baphomet offered me a glass shaped as a horn. This contained not the water that opposes fire, but some liquor combining the qualities of the two. I took what you gave me, drank it, and at once fell unconscious, to be carried away to a ritual embrace. Since then I have sought without respite what was found and lost by me in that revealing swoon. For Colquhoun, this may not have been a conceit, so much as an accurate description. It later became the subject of a poem, “Possessed”. You in the head-dress You in the robe What did I drink From your glass like a horn? The taste was honey The touch was oil The colour was amber But if it were these Why did I fall In so deep a swoon Why am I drunk After all this time? Even his appointment slips attain a magical significance: [I] learned to treasure them as a magical link, almost as potent as hair or finger-nails. From the very first sentence: I could not write this letter unless I knew that it would never reach you the text is reminiscent of “the unsent letter”, a psychotherapeutic technique that enables a patient to say things to a person that they never did say – or could say – to them face to face, in an uncensored, candid yet safe way, knowing that they will never read it. The technique was not developed for at least a decade after Colquhoun was writing. If it had, she would have known that subsequent steps might include the composition of a letter from the other person, but framed in a compassionate and understanding manner. In this way feelings and attitudes can be explored and reconstrued.  As it is, by simply rehearsing her negative feelings, Colquhoun ran the risk of intensifying them. The letter contains too much self-justification for her to make progress, and in an echo of the debates she once had with Humfry Payne, her final conclusion, that Dr. X. cannot engage satisfactorily with her because I recognised that you were the sort of man whose approach to women, if they appear to him even slightly attractive, will automatically take on an erotic tone. I saw that you habitually used this approach for your amusement; also perhaps because of that intense shyness which finds any coming to terms with the opposite sex all but impossible except on the erotic plane. shows that she has not advanced her understanding of herself: he is just another man who lets her down.