The Water-stone of the Wise
This is Colquhoun’s most important theoretical text. It was published in the Surrealist Section of the anthology of new writing, New Road in 1943. (1)Although brief, it is a key statement of her position in relation to surrealism, alchemy, and aspects of spirituality, especially the gendered struggle to restore Man to his 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 is not included in her vision of a new myth. Through reference and quotation she evokes historical and mythical figures to illustrate her case.
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 for a Third Surrealist Manifesto (2) and is Colquhoun’s response to it. 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 was deeply 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.’ (p. 287-288). 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 the story of The Great Transparent Ones, the 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.” (p.293).
Colquhoun clearly knew this text well. An extract was reproduced, in translation, in New Road 1943. In addition, her poem Les Grands Transparents, published the following year (3), owed both its title and its content to Breton’s story. Colquhoun in her text and her partner del Renzio in his introductory essay to the surrealist section of New Road, (which he edited) both echoed Breton in making explicit calls for a new myth. Finally, the passage in The Water-stone of the Wise with the recurring phrase ‘no more…’ owes much to Breton’s own ‘no more..’ list in the Prolegomena. Although unnamed by Colquhoun, Breton is present throughout Colquhoun’s text. She also makes quotation from a wider cast of unnamed figures: they are occult in the true sense of being hidden. Some of them, however, can be identified.
The Sophic Hydrolith. Colquhoun took her title from the classic alchemic text by Johann Ambrosius Siebmacher, first published in 1619. It is more generally known as the Sophic Hydrolith.(4) No matter which way it is rendered into English, the twin ideas of wisdom and the alchemical resolution of opposites (how else can solid stone and fluid water be united into one?), remain. 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 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. (5) 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 let in to Paradise. The poet longs for an existence beyond conflict. He 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 which 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, and returns with a magic cauldron blue-enameled 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.
Colquhoun’s use of this passage is an early instance of her interest in Celtic and Druidic lore. This developed considerably in later years, when she joined both French and English Druidic orders and wrote Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket. (6) At this stage, however, it may be that her knowledge derived from popular books on Celtic myth such as the one by Spence. (7)
Masonic Symbolism. The phrase ‘multitudinous abyss’ comes from the Song of David by the 18th Century poet, Christopher Smart. The subject of the poem is the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and Man, with Christ functioning as the intermediary. Many of the details, however, are obscure. Save for those critics who believe that Smart was mentally deranged, it is generally agreed that much of the symbolism is Masonic. (8) 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 masons 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.
Many of the occult groups of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Golden Dawn, had roots in esoteric masonry and many occultists, including Colquhoun herself, were, at some point, members of both hermetic and Masonic orders. Colquhoun used the phrase in a later article, again in relation to creative forces. In the final sentence of her article on automatism (9) she asks, rhetorically: “does not all inspiration come from ‘the multitudinous abyss’?”
German philosophy. When she writes of a region “far from ‘lordship and bondage’” Colquhoun is referring to a key aspect of the philosophy of Hegel, 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 (10), 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. The scene is therefore set 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.
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 a key concept in the occult philosophy of W.B. Yeats illuminates the passage.
In 1937 Yeats published A Vision, a system for understanding human nature and the cyclical path of human history, as revealed to him through the automatic writing of his wife. (11) The system is highly complex, involving, principally, 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 the faculties, ‘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 (12) expresses in poetry many of the concepts introduced 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. Her essay on Yeats’ occult system was thought of highly by his widow (13). In her essay she remarks on the affinities between the imagery found in A Vision and the sun (male) and moon (Female) symbolism of alchemy. She goes 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 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. Colquhoun may also have been familiar with one of the lesser known works of Aleister Crowley: Ambrossi Magi Hortus Rosarum, (14) a parody of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. In this allegorical fantasy of the marriage of the Sun and Moon, of male and female, Crowley remarks that “Before there was equilibrium, countenance beheld not countenance.” With equilibrium, says Colquhoun, the twins will be “united face to face”.
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 barely remembered 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 Colquhoun’s sources together is that they all contain within themselves the importance of the resolution of opposites. Together, they provide a series of paired comparisons with the promise that resolution to be found away from the paired opposites - 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 metaphor of the Siamese twins, the traditional alchemical image of twins; “a boy and a girl, perpetually joined together…united face to face, having passed forward to the condition of the androgynous egg.”
When describing her vision of the new myth, Colquhoun 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.”
This, of course, is the climax of Colquhoun’s new myth. Redemption is the state where male and female are conjoined. Gender hierarchy has 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 New Road 1943 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 London’s war-time gallery goers would have been aware 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.
1. Colquhoun, I. The Water Stone of the Wise in: A Comfort and J Bayliss,
(eds.) New Road, 1943. Gray Walls Press, Billericay, Essex. pp. 196-9.
2. Breton, A. 1967. Manifestos of Surrealism. Translated by R. Seaver and
H.R. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
3. Colquhoun, I. 1944. Les Grandes Transparentes. The Bell, 8(6), 537.
4. Colquhoun probably knew of this work through The Hermetic Museum, by
E.A. Waite, a collection of alchemical texts published in 1893. She refers
to Waite’s compendium in an early, but undated, essay on alchemy at
TGA 929/2/1/26. His edition also included the writings of Philalethes and
The Book of Lambspring: Colquhoun’s knowledge of all these works is
displayed in her novel, Goose of Hermogenes, which was probably
completed by about 1940.
5. Poe must have been her source as he combined two separate stanzas
into one. See Quinn, A.H. 1977. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography,
Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. pp. 142-3.
6. Colquhoun, I. 1973. Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket. Stevenage: Ore
7. Spence, L. 1899. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. London: Rider.
8. A good introduction is Rose, J. 2005. All the Crumbling Edifices Must
Come Down: Decoding Christopher Smart's Song to David. Philological
Quarterly 84, 4: 403-24.
9. Colquhoun, I. 1951. Children of the Mantic Stain. Athene, 5(2): 29-34.
10. Hegel, G.W.E. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. See chapter 4.
11. Yeats, W.B. 1937. A Vision. London: Macmillan.
12. Of interest, in the light of Colquhoun’s reference to Oedipus at Colonus,
is the fact that the poem following Among School Children in the volume
is Colonus’ Praise, a translation of a chorus from Sophocles’ play. Yeats
regarded Oedipus as a kind of Antichrist, writing in A Vision that he ‘sank
down soul and body into the earth. I would have him balance Christ
who…went into the abstract sky soul and body.’ See Albright, D. 1990.
W.B. Yeats: The Poems. London, Dent. pp.272-3.
13. Typescript versions are at TGA 929/2/3/3. A complimentary letter from
Yeats’ widow to Colquhoun concerning her essay, dated 18 February
1943, is at TGA 929 1/2364.
14. Crowley, A. 1906. Collected Works, vol. II. Society for the Propagation
of Religious Truth.
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