Cover image for I Saw Water: An Occult Novel and Other Selected Writings By Ithell Colquhoun, with an introduction and notes by Richard Shillitoe, and Mark S. Morrisson

I Saw Water

An Occult Novel and Other Selected Writings

Ithell Colquhoun, with an introduction and notes by Richard Shillitoe and Mark S. Morrisson

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Was: $54.95 Now: $38.47 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06423-9

228 pages
6" × 9"
11 color/3 b&w illustrations
2014

I Saw Water

An Occult Novel and Other Selected Writings

Ithell Colquhoun, with an introduction and notes by Richard Shillitoe and Mark S. Morrisson

“As this excellent edition clearly demonstrates, not only are Colquhoun's works valuable and important in and of themselves, but they are also vital in achieving as full a picture as possible of the complex history of experimentation in writing in English throughout the twentieth century.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988) is remembered today as a surrealist artist, writer, and occultist. Although her paintings hang in a number of public collections and her gothic novel Goose of Hermogenes (1961) remains in print, critical responses to her work have been severely constrained by the limited availability of her art and writings. The publication of her second novel, I Saw Water—presented here for the first time, together with a selection of her other writings and images, many also previously unpublished—marks a significant step in expanding our knowledge of Colquhoun’s work.

Composed almost entirely of material assembled from the author’s dreams, I Saw Water challenges such fundamental distinctions as those between sleeping and waking, the two separated genders, and life and death. It is set in a convent on the Island of the Dead, but its spiritual context derives from sources as varied as Roman Catholicism, the teachings of the Theosophical Society, Goddess spirituality, Druidism, the mystical Qabalah, and Neoplatonism.

The editors have provided both an introduction and explanatory notes. The introductory essay places the novel in the context of Colquhoun’s other works and the cultural and spiritual environment in which she lived. The extensive notes will help the reader with any concepts that may be unfamiliar.

“As this excellent edition clearly demonstrates, not only are Colquhoun's works valuable and important in and of themselves, but they are also vital in achieving as full a picture as possible of the complex history of experimentation in writing in English throughout the twentieth century.”
“It is difficult to understand how Ithell Colquhoun’s I Saw Water, an exemplary work of surrealist fiction, failed to be published upon completion in the 1960s. . . . Those interested in the historical context provided by Shillitoe and Morrisson will encounter high-grade research performed by experienced scholars, who clearly have an excellent grasp of the complexity of the traditions Colquhoun draws upon. . . . This quality editorial contextualization and analysis, combined with the valuable supplemental materials, enrich an already impressive novel—a surrealist enchanting viewed through jagged dream fractals.”

Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988) is remembered today as a surrealist artist, writer, and occultist.

Richard Shillitoe is an independent researcher who maintains a website on Ithell Colquhoun and has published a comprehensive catalogue of her artworks. Before his retirement, he served as a consultant psychologist with the National Health Service in England.

Mark S. Morrisson is Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (2007).

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction

I Saw Water

I Saw Water explanatory and interpretive notes

Supplementary texts

“Muin”

“The Tree-alphabet and the Tree of Life”

“Dance of the Nine Opals”

“Pilgrimage”

“The Night Side of Nature”

“Wedding of Shades”

“Divination Up-to-date”

“Les Grandes Transparentes”

“Love-charm II”

“Red Stone”

“The Zodiac and the Flashing Colours”

“The Openings of the Body”

“Sanctifying Intelligence”

“The Taro as Colour”

Bibliography of the Published Writings of Ithell Colquhoun

Index

Editors’ Introduction

The centerpiece of this book is the previously unpublished novel I Saw Water. Written by the author and artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988), it is set on the island of Ménec, where Sister Brigid inhabits the Ianua Vitae Convent. She is an unconventional nun, but it is soon revealed that the convent itself has an unconventional mission. It belongs to the Parthenogenesist Order, ostensibly Roman Catholic, but whose purpose is more reminiscent of certain schools of alchemy than of Catholicism. Its aim is the unification of the separated genders, the achievement of which will signal the transmutation of fallen, sinful humanity to a state of spiritual perfection, restore nature’s equilibrium, and confirm the unity of the hermetic cosmos. In tandem with this alchemical undercurrent, many aspects of conventual and ritual life on Ménec have more in common with pagan nature worship than with Christianity. Ménec itself is an unusual island. It is the Island of the Dead, and all the inhabitants, nuns and laity alike, have died and are now in transit, working their way toward their second death. The concept of the second death presented in this novel differs from that of Judeo-Christian eschatology. It has no place in Catholic theology, being more associated with Eastern spiritualities that would have likely reached Colquhoun through the teachings of the Theosophical Society.

Sister Brigid’s cousin, Charlotte, is also on the island, having just taken her own life. Before her suicide, she was the mistreated wife of a homosexual husband. Despite the personal vulnerabilities that she carries with her, she is as much a spiritual guide to Brigid as are the convent mistresses. Another influence on Brigid is a local landowner and heir named Nikolaz, who bears strong similarities to Adonis, the mythological vegetation god. He entices Brigid from the convent but dies by drowning (inevitably, as it will come to be understood) before they can leave the island together. Nonetheless, eventually Sister Brigid is able to cast off her personality and human emotions and achieve a state of disembodied peace. I Saw Water is narrated in a matter-of-fact style that recounts as commonplace a remarkable series of events, including an encounter with a subhuman baboon girl, rituals dedicated to sacred wells, a pagan snake dance, the circulation of a powerful heirloom, the touch of an ectoplasmic hand, and even a demonstration of the power of bilocation by the convent’s novice mistress. Naturalistic passages are juxtaposed with lengthy sequences derived from dreams, resulting in dislocations of time, place, and logic.

As this brief summary shows, the novel is not mainstream fiction. It is forgivable that in the mid 1960s, when it was written, no publisher felt confident enough to add it to their list, especially as Colquhoun required that each chapter be printed on color-coded paper to evoke its occult structure. Today, with more widespread knowledge of the spiritual traditions of East and West, deeper appreciation of dreams and their imagery, and greater awareness of the importance of the occult in modernism, some of the surface strangeness has mellowed. Even so, there is still much to challenge the nonspecialist reader.