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

esoteric writings:

water-stone of the wise Despite its brevity, The Water-stone of the Wise is Colquhoun’s most important theoretical text. It was published in the Surrealist Section of the anthology of new writing, New Road in 1943. It is a key statement of her position in relation to surrealism, alchemy and the gendered struggle to restore Man to ancient and innate harmony. Although the general thrust of the piece is clear, some of the detail is obscure. The text falls into three parts. It opens with statements about the importance of myth and liberty. There are references to the vitality of nature. The language itself is full of natural vigour. Thus, she writes of ‘volcanic force’, ‘eruption’, ‘comets’, ‘purifying fire’ ‘repeated explosions’ and the ‘perpetual stream’ of liberty. In the middle section, Colquhoun outlines the nature and origin of liberty. References to elemental water; the ‘clear stream’ and the ‘gushing side of the mountain’ predominate here. She begins to describe what she excludes from her vision of a new myth. She takes care to distance herself from icons of male phallocentric power: no more the fevered alternations of that demon-star which sponsored the births of de Sade and von Sader-Masoch … Oedipus will be king no more. Finally, she describes the attributes of her new myth. The imagery is alchemical and astrological. The language has changed from the charged rawness of the opening to a more tranquil vocabulary. Words and phrases such as ‘embrace’, ‘dance’, ‘balance’ and ‘warmed by solar and lunar currents’ help evoke a vision of peaceful harmony. The essay was heavily influenced by Breton’s Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or not, and is Colquhoun’s response to it. (1) Surrealism as an organized movement during the Second World War was in a state of flux. The writers and artists were widely dispersed and some, including Breton, had taken refuge in North America. In the volatile years leading up to the outbreak of war, questions about the relationship between inner metamorphosis and outer, social, change had led Breton to be more concerned with the external world than with the inner world of mental life. He adopted Hegel’s dialectical materialism but whilst remaining suspicious about ideas of social revolution as propagated by the communists. At the time of New Road’s publication, Breton’s most recent theorizing was contained in the Prolegomena. Breton saw the future lying in the hands of individuals rather than institutions. Emphasizing the necessity of revolutionary artistic and social objectives independent of enslavement to a party or state, he stressed the need for a new social myth, ‘a myth fostering the society that we judge to be desirable’. This myth, destined to reunite humanity, would be given shape by writers and thinkers tapping into unconscious forces and desires. In the construction of the myth he was happy to embrace mysticism. For example, in recounting the story of The Great Transparent Ones, he floated the idea that Man may not be the centre and focus of the universe, but that there exists beyond him invisible beings ‘whose behaviour is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale’. Colquhoun clearly knew this text well. An extract from the Prolegomena was included in New Road. Her own poem Les Grandes Transparentes, published in The Bell the following year, owed both its title and its content to Breton’s story. (2) Colquhoun in her text and then her partner Toni del Renzio in his introductory essay to the surrealist section of New Road both echoed Breton in making explicit calls for a new myth. (3) Finally, the passage in The Water-stone of the Wise with the recurring phrase ‘no more …’ owes much to Breton’s own ‘no more ...’ refrain in the Prolegomena. Although unnamed by Colquhoun, he is present throughout her text. She also quotes from, or makes reference to, a wider cast of unnamed figures to help her make her case. They are occult in the true sense of being hidden. Some, however, can be identified. The Sophic Hydrolith Colquhoun took her title The Water-stone of the Wise from the classic text first published in 1619 by Johann Ambrosius Siebmacher and more generally known as The Sophic Hydrolith. The title contains the twin ideas of wisdom and the alchemical resolution of opposites: how else can solid stone and fluid water be united into one? The text also draws out the spiritual dimension of alchemy. In it, Siebmacher attempts to link alchemy with Christianity: to associate the magical substance, the Philosopher’s Stone with Christ, the Corner Stone. Arabian mythology. The brief Spanish quotation is from Vida Retirada by the Spanish mystical poet Fray Luis de Leon. Colquhoun’s knowledge of the quotation came via Edgar Allan Poe. Poe must have been her source as he had merged two separate stanzas into one, and Poe’s elision is copied by Colquhoun. In the notes to his poem Al Aaraaf, Poe identifies a supernova discovered by Tycho Brahe in 1572 with Al Aaraaf, a star that, according to Arabian legend, was the place between paradise and hell where people who have not been either markedly good nor markedly bad had to stay until forgiven by God and allowed to enter Paradise. The poet longs for an existence beyond conflict and dreams of: An unbroken sleep A day pure, joyful, free I wish – Free from love, from jealousy From hatred, from hopes, from suspicion. Celtic grail legend The ‘unceasing cauldron rimmed with pearls’ is a reference to the 10th Century Welsh poem The Spoils of Annwn, traditionally attributed to the bard Taliesin. In the poem King Arthur raids Annwn, usually interpreted as the Isle of the Dead, a place where there was perpetual feasting and where none knew age and decay. He returns with a magic cauldron that is blue-enamelled and pearl-rimmed. It is one of a number of cauldrons that figure in Arthurian Grail legends and which symbolise abundance, fertility and rejuvenation. This particular example is warmed by the breath of nine maidens. It never runs dry and will only cook the food of those whose courage is beyond reproach. Many readers will recall that the pearl is a common symbol for the clitoris. The passage, therefore, links a specifically woman-centred sexuality with creativity. Masonic Symbolism The phrase ‘multitudinous abyss’ comes from the Song of David by the 18th Century poet, Christopher Smart. The subject of Smart’s poem is the relationship between God and Man, with Christ functioning as the intermediary. Many of the poem’s details are obscure. Save for those critics who believe that Smart was mentally deranged, it is generally agreed that much of the symbolism is Masonic. Colquhoun’s quoted phrase comes from the middle section of the poem in which Smart links each of the seven pillars of wisdom - associated by freemasons with the Temple of Solomon – with God’s actions on each of the seven days of creation: The world – the clustering spheres he made, The glorious light, the soothing shade,    Dale, champaign, grove and hill; The multitudinous abyss, Where secrecy remains in bliss,    And wisdom hides her skill.                                                            Verse 21, lines 121-126. Colquhoun used the same phrase again in her article on automatism published in 1951 where she asked, rhetorically: ‘does not all inspiration come from ‘the multitudinous abyss?’’. Hegelian philosophy When she wrote of a region ‘far from ‘lordship and bondage’’ Colquhoun was referring to a key aspect of the philosophy of Hegel, one that is sometimes known as the Master-Slave Dialectic. Hegel’s views on society became a blueprint for Marx’s communist revolution and also heavily influenced André Breton, who cited him regularly in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the development of a social relationship between two individuals, who each try to force the other to accept their own point of view, setting the scene for a battle between liberty, slavery and death. True freedom for an individual, says Hegel, is possible only after one has learned to detach oneself from one’s selfish desires. The Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis shares many similarities with esoteric mysticism. Although the language is very different, both seek the harmonization of the contraries that constitute reality. Just as the individual in Hegel’s view can only achieve freedom through overcoming self-interest, the acquisition of magical power depends upon the renunciation of selfish ends. W.B. Yeats and the growth of the soul In her discussion of the conjoined twins and the androgynous egg, Colquhoun uses the expression ‘body-of- fate’ in one of the most opaque sentences of the text. Knowing that ‘body of fate’ is an important concept in the occult philosophy of W.B. Yeats helps explain the passage. In 1937 Yeats published the second edition of A Vision, an occult system for understanding human nature and the cyclical path of human history, as revealed to him through the automatic writing of his wife. The system is highly complex, involving ideas concerning the interlocking gyres, the twenty-eight phases, the Great Wheel, the four faculties and the Anima Mundi. Each person’s destiny is shaped, says Yeats, by four faculties of the soul. Between birth and death, everyone progresses through these faculties. Two of them, ‘creative mind’ and ‘body-in-fate’ are paired in the struggle to understand all the causes and effects in the universe: they are ‘the knower’ and ‘the known’. Yeats volume of poetry The Tower (1928) expresses in verse many of the concepts included in A Vision. One of the best known poems in the collection Amongst School Children contains the following lines, to which Colquhoun’s sentences could almost be a gloss. Writing of himself and his love, Maude Gonne, Yeats says: … it seems that our two natures blent into a sphere … Into the yolk and white of the one shell. Colquhoun was deeply influenced by A Vision, writing a (still unpublished) essay on Yeats’ occult system. In it she remarked on the affinities between the imagery found in A Vision and the sun (male) and moon (female) symbolism of alchemy before going on to comment upon the faculties and the opposition between the lunar ‘knower’ and the solar ‘known’. She also suggested that Yeats was a man with a limited automatic faculty and needed the sibylline powers of a woman for his contact with the supernatural. Qabalistic symbolism The two opening sentences of MacGregor Mathers’ translation of the texts that make up The Kabbalah Unveiled, are: ‘The Book of Concealed Mystery is the book of the equilibrium of balance. For before there was equilibrium, countenance beheld not countenance.’ Although not an exact match, Colquhoun’s phrase ‘and countenance once more beheld countenance’ almost certainly derives from this source. The countenances referred to are Macroprosopus and Microprosopus; the Vast and Lesser countenances, the Supreme Being and its antithesis. The doctrine of the equilibrium of balance is a fundamental qabalistic principle, being the harmony which results from the resolution of opposing forces: the synthesis of counterbalanced power. She may also have known of Aleister Crowley’s somewhat obscure text Ambrossi Magi Hortus Rosarum, (1906) a parody of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. In this allegorical fantasy of the marriage of the Sun and Moon, (i.e. male and female), Crowley quotes the phrase exactly: ‘before there was equilibrium, countenance beheld not countenance’. Looking through Colquhoun’s sources, one is struck by their diversity. Celtic legend rubs shoulders with Arabian myth. Major cultural figures such as Yeats and Hegel line up alongside a little known poet. The occult tradition in which Colquhoun had her place, however, was one that was by its very nature syncretic. It valued such diversity, and held the core belief that aspects of the truth are to be found concealed throughout all historical periods, all traditions and all cultures. One of the characteristics that tie these sources together is that they all contain the importance of the resolution of opposites. Together, they hold the promise that resolution is to be found between Heaven and Hell and between male and female. Release the power that lies in ‘the region between sleeping and waking’, says Colquhoun, and the world will move beyond divisions to the state of ‘the hermaphrodite whole, opposites bound together in mitigating embrace.’ Pressing home the point, writing of the conjunction of opposites, she used the traditional alchemical image of twins, in this case Siamese twins: ‘a boy and a girl, perpetually joined together … united face to face, having passed forward to the condition of the androgynous egg.’ This, of course, is the climax of Colquhoun’s new myth. Redemption is the state where male and female are conjoined. Gender differences and hierarchies have been overcome. When male and female are recombined, all masculine potencies are joined with the feminine and all dualities are removed. Day becomes one with night. Time itself is conquered. Publication of the text in the anthology New Road would have been the first time that her views reached a sizable and non-specialist audience. Earlier forays into the sexuality of God would have been known by the comparatively few members of London’s esoteric community. Hardly anyone outside of her immediate circle would have seen, let alone understand the significance of, paintings such as The Pine Family (1940) or Sardine and Eggs (c.1941) which are visual explorations of gender difference. No wonder she was at pains to compress so much into so few words. Notes 1. First published in 1942. Reprinted in Breton, 1967. pp. 279-94. 2. It was also the subject of a watercolour of the same period. The watercolour and the poem can be found in Shillitoe and Morrisson (2014). 3. The importance of, and need for, a new myth ‘as a personal means of reintegrating the personality’ also formed part of the programe of the New Apocalypse writers, with whom Colquhoun had a brief contact in 1941-2. More information on the movement may be found here.
new apocalypse new apocalypse bibliography of   published works bibliography of   published works