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“he had dreamed the goddess after her image”: dreams and 'Destination Limbo'

Extract from the introduction to Ithell Colquhoun's 'Destination Limbo' by Richard Shillitoe


The trail of illogicalities and strange events that winds its way through Destination Limbo has all the hallmarks of a dream. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that the majority of the book is based on Colquhoun’s transcriptions of her own nocturnal dreams. Having recorded them throughout her life (the first documented dream dates from when she was eleven years old) she had plenty of material to draw from. She used her dreams extensively in her artistic and spiritual activity; they are the basis of all her novels, many of her short stories and her poems. She also made use of dream content when devising certain of her occult rituals. She clearly thought that her dreams were of great value.

Put at its simplest, Colquhoun believed that dreams contain messages, although who might be sending them, who determines their content, or what they might mean is more complicated. As always, she was happy to draw upon a diversity of explanations. Except, that is, from such neurobiological theories that dreams are simply evidence of the brain performing routine maintenance tasks during sleep and have no intrinsic meaning at all. In Colquhoun’s world of magical correspondences and inter-relationships where everything is linked in subtle communion and where “one cannot stir a flower without the troubling of a star”, nothing is meaningless even though in our state of ignorance we might not yet understand the meaning.



From the civilizations of the ancient Middle East she took the idea that many dreams are oracular and prophetic. That is, they contain messages from the gods. If they are genuine, their message should be heeded and acted upon - if only one could work out what they meant and which ones were authentic: which were the ones that had reached the dreamer through the gate of ivory rather than the gate of horn? Ancient sources also taught her methods such as dream incubation, which she used when attempting to influence the content of her dreams. The implication is unequivocal: if the dreamer can influence the dream, communication with the gods is a two-way process in which the dreamer is an active participant not merely a passive receptacle. To effect such communication, perhaps some part of the dreamer leaves the body during sleep. Refining this through her study of occult teachings, Colquhoun learned about astral travel and felt (sometimes literally) the bruising consequences of contacts made on the astral plane whilst her physical body slept.

From Sigmund Freud she obtained the idea that dreams are internal messages expressing our own hidden desires: that they are disguised wish-fulfilment fantasies. According to this formulation, dreams originate in our unconscious mind, conveying information that we have concealed from our rational and conscious selves. No longer regarded as coded messages from the gods, dreams are now to be understood as coded messages from within ourselves. Decoding our dreams through the intervention of a skilled analyst holds the promise of greater self-awareness, self-knowledge and an altered future. In this way, we become our own oracle.

From André Breton, the so-called magus of surrealism, she learned the fundamental precept of surrealism, that the world of dreams is just as important as the world of wakefulness. Taken together as equals, dreams and the waking state should be synthesized into a new reality, a sur-reality. Breton believed that a continuity existed between the dreaming and the waking state, that the boundary between them was more apparent than real and should be overcome. But whereas Breton followed Freud in arguing that dreams come only from the dreamer’s unconscious, Colquhoun never faltered in her belief that they could equally well come from other worlds and otherworldly powers.

From Carl Jung, in particular the Jungian analyst Alice Buck, she absorbed the idea that the meaning of dreams lies, not in the dreamer’s personal past and hidden desires, but in the collective unconscious. That is to say, access is granted during sleep to structures of the mind that contain primordial images (sometimes called archetypes), that are common to humanity at large and so are independent of any one individual and their personal history. Through her membership of a research group run by Buck, Colquhoun became familiar with the related phenomenon of inter-dreaming. This is an idea of great interest to occultists but much less so to psychologists. It occurs when two or more people independently access the same part of the shared unconscious at the same time. Buck associated this with the idea of serial time in which multiple layers of time exist and which can be accessed during dreaming. Promoted and popularised by J.W. Dunne as a possible mechanism through which dreams can predict the future, Buck and her group made experiments to test the validity of the theory, but they were, predictably, inconclusive. Sometimes, one may feel, the explanations given for dreams appear to be just as creative as their contents. Nevertheless, Colquhoun was consistent in her belief that dreams can, and do, contain important information about the past, about oneself, and about things which will, one day, come to pass.

When she came to write Destination Limbo, Colquhoun trawled through her dream diaries, made her selection and then collaged them together, adding details such as names and scenic descriptions to provide some unity and local colour. The selection was not arbitrary and readers may legitimately ask what did she deem so important about certain ones to make them worthy of selection and preservation in a novel, as a public record of her inner activity? The basis on which she made her selections is not known and is not made clear in any of the surviving papers. Neither is it known how far the process of selection was cerebral rather than intuitive, whether she had specific criteria in mind or whether certain dreams simply ‘felt right’. Either of these alternatives could have been the spur for inclusion of the episode of fraudulent oracular pronouncements delivered via a machine from “the seeress hidden beyond the veil”. It would certainly have reminded Colquhoun of the Mahatma letters, those communications mysteriously precipitated out of the air and deposited in a cabinet from an opening in Madame Blavatsky’s bedroom that had caused such controversy in the Theosophical Society.

All the original dream materials survive in her archive in private hands (helpfully annoted ‘DL’ by Colquhoun and transferred from their chronological sequence into dedicated folders - eg photo above) and there is no discernible scheme or order behind their selection. Several dreams are marked both ‘DL’ and ISW’, a reminder that she was also working on I Saw Water during the early 1960s and suggesting that she undertook a preliminary sorting and that final allocation came later. Sometimes she extracted just a sentence or two from a dream, concerning, perhaps, an image or a few spoken words. As an instance of this, a dream of March 1951 yielded the memorable phrase “I live in a sewer and harness the rats for pets”.

On many other occasions she used nearly the whole of the dream. For example, early in the novel, shortly after establishing herself on the island, Ceinwen finds herself in bed with a former lover and soon realises he is dead. It is illuminating to compare this episode with the following, unedited, passage from the dream on which it was based:

The next thing I remember was that Toni was dead, and that I was at my house making an elaborate bier out of a bed for the body. I was trying to get it level. Strangely enough, Toni himself was helping me to do this.
Then the body had to be embalmed. When it came back from the embalmers I realised that all the internal organs had been removed. It was wrapped in sheets and blankets, and when I unwrapped it I found that it looked like a drawing in profile with the head and one arm missing. It was dressed in a singlet and bathing-shorts and was under life-size. Then it decreased still more and grew papery in texture. It had to be washed in warm water; and to do this I took it to Mrs. Schliemann’s studio which, though it seemed comfortless as regards the main room, had a kitchen and bathroom with a most elaborate water-heating system. This could boil kettles and make tea or coffee in silver containers all at the same time.
I began washing the body and immediately it came alive again, though it was now smaller still, in fact only a few inches long. In appearance like a doll dressed in some bright coloured clothes, it began to squeak, embracing my fingers and purring like a cat.
I had to return to my house with it, and to do this I had to plunge down a wide drain filled with water but not dark. My house was connected to Mrs. Schliemann’s study by this underground passage, and it was by this route I had come for the washing of the body. The passage twisted several times and though it grew narrower at some points it was nowhere excessively narrow. There was one patch where someone told me to hold my breath because there was poisonous gas about; it didn’t seem to matter if one breathed the water. On the return journey the poisonous patch seemed longer and my breath only just lasted out til the opening.
I woke up with a feeling of great loneliness..

This dream is recorded as having occurred on June 7th 1949, approximately fifteen years before Colquhoun began writing Destination Limbo. To reach back this far into her dream diaries indicates how extensive was her search for relevant source material. When choosing it for inclusion she must surely have been struck, as the reader is today, by the abundance of tropes of the sort that are known so well from the gothic novels so beloved by the surrealists: a lover’s death, preparation for burial, shapeshifting, an apparent resurrection and a breathless (literally) journey along a foetid, miasmic, underground passage. She could not have escaped the fact that the dead lover reduced in size and threat to that of a purring pussycat is her recently divorced husband, Toni del Renzio. One hesitates to impose a critic’s view of Colquhoun’s selection criteria, but she must have realised that the dream concerned a struggle for control and supremacy. It fitted in with (or helped formulate) the major theme of the novel, Ceinwen’s own struggle for personal autonomy.



'Destination Limbo' by Ithell Colquhoun, recently published for the first time, is available from www.antennapublications.org.uk