To Seek the Nature of Things, Irene Hillel-Erlanger, ‘Voyages in Kaleidoscope’

Primordia Quaerere Rerum

During the Dark Ages, countless healers and philosophers found expression in the secret science of alchemy. Known as ‘adepts’, these pilgrims sought through the physical and spiritual rigours of the ‘Great Work’ to attain the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ – a substance capable of transforming the subatomic structure of matter, of enriching or ‘ennobling’ the common elements of the periodic table, and of transmuting lead into gold – producing the elusive ‘Elixir of Life’.

In 1919, Editions Georges Cres in Paris published a curious book by a wealthy socialite, Irene Hillel-Erlanger, entitled ‘Voyages en Kaleidoscope’ (Voyage in Kaleidoscope). Irene was a poet (using the pseudonym of Claude Lorrey) and literary innovator, as well as one of the first cineastes. She was born into the wealthy Parisian banking family, the Camondo’s. When she was twenty-four, she married the well known composer, Camille Erlanger. They had one son, Philippe (who went on to organize the first Cannes Film Festival). After ten years, Camille had an affair with his lead soprano, Marthe Chenal, and the marriage was over. A scandalous divorce ensued. After, Irene became a patron of the Dadaist movement, counting Andre Breton and Louis Aragon (whose surrealist erotic novel Irene’s Con was rumored to have been based upon her) amongst her friends and fellow writers. In 1915, she began making films with the avant-garde, feminist director, Germaine Dulac, for H-D Films. In late 1919, Voyages in Kaleidoscope was published, and by March of 1920, at the age of 41, Irene was dead. Subsequently, all copies of her book were ‘pulped‘ and destroyed.

Voyages en Kaleidoscope, written in an avant-garde manner, tells the story of Joel Joze, the naïve, yet brilliant inventor, who studies the occult sciences. He invents an odd device (a kaleidoscope) that, through a dizzying process of chemical synthesis (including mysterious fluids, salts and precious metals (platinum pellets)), makes the unseen world seen. It allows the viewer to discover the hidden meaning of all things, offering a new vision of the universe – a vision to the true nature of how things are animated. In a doomed love triangle, Joze is torn between his infatuation with the darkly sensual, Countess Vera, star of the Paris ballet, and his love for the discreetly veiled, Grace. Joze chooses Vera, leading to his eventual downfall as she exploits both him and his miraculous device. In the end, Grace appears at Vera’s house to save poor Joze from the clutches of the Countess. He then discovers the two women are sisters: Vera is reality, and Grace is truth – they are two aspects of the same person, or a double emanation of the unseen – signifying both time and eternity. The Countess Vera flies into a rage. Lifting her veil, Grace reveals a white diamond in her forehead that has the power to detonate a thousand bombs. With a current of electricity, she destroys the kaleidoscope, creating a catastrophe that razes the neighborhood. Afterwards, Vera returns to her stage career, and the half paralyzed Joel returns to Grace, abandoning his ambition for power, money and worldly success. The book is narrated by Joze’s secretary, Gilly, the ‘loyal servant‘, whom Irene sagely describes as, ‘the salt of the earth‘, or whom some may recognize as saline, the first solvent in alchemy.

At first glance, Voyages seems like a lightweight romantic farce. But closer examination reveals the subtext, or hidden meaning within the text. Like carvings from the Gothic cathedrals of old, inside the story exists a certain ‘spoken cabala‘ or ‘cant‘ –  “a language peculiar to all individuals who wish to communicate their thoughts without being understood by outsiders.” (Fulcanelli) Irene elucidated further in Par amour (In Litterature, n°10, December 1919 – her last published work before her death) when she stated, “enigmas, signs, you are everywhere, if only we: knew how to read, how to see, but then we are carnal readers and blindly presumptuous.” There were rumors that within the pages of Voyages she exposed the process defining ‘the Great Work‘. Others said, she gave away the identity of the master alchemist who had successfully transmuted ‘the Great Work‘. And while there is no proof Irene was a practicing alchemist, she was well entrenched within the occult community of La Belle Epoch (including such luminaries as Fulcanelli, Jean-Julien Champagne, Pierre Pujols de Valois, Eugene Canseliet and Louise Barbe, to name a few). A community that traveled throughout high society who, for the most part, funded their efforts.

After Irene died all traces of her work would have been eradicated if not for a tight-knit group of alchemists who had held her in high regard. In 1945, Eugene Canseliet mentioned in his book, Deux logis alchimiques, en marge de la science et de l’histoire, that he had been ordered (by Fulcanelli) to find a copy of Les Voyages en Kaleidoscope in 1919, managing to do so before they were destroyed. He also wrote of a model who posed for a painting done by Jean Julien Champagne at the request of Fulcanelli in 1910, whom often “frequented the house of Mme. Erlanger”. He went on to say his master (Fulcanelli) had been surprised to see the level of like-minded symbolism hidden within the text of Voyages.

In the secretive community of alchemists there is a  rule strictly adhered to – ‘silencium‘. Perhaps it is best described by the motto of alchemist, Jacques Coeur (1395-1456), “JOIE. DIRE. FAIRE. TAIRE”. (About my joy, say it, do it, be silent). The alchemist, Georges Starkey (1628- 1665), whose pseudonym was Eyrenee Philathe, in his 1740-54 treaty,  ‘L’Entrée ouverte au Palais fermé du Roi’ (The entrance is open in the closed palace of the King) wrote, “I know several people who own ‘the art’, and who hold the real keys: all want the most rigorous about her silence. For me, I hope in my God made me think otherwise, and that is why I wrote this book, none of my brothers Followers (with whom I am in daily reports) knows nothing.” Quite clearly he knows he is breaking the rule of silencium, while protecting his adepts so they will not be ostracized – or worse.

In the subtext of Voyages, Irene may have broken the rule of ‘silencium’, but was the infraction worth her life? Since the advent of the internet, stories have circulated that Irene was poisoned by oysters at her book launch (Voyages makes much wordplay on oyster cocktails) for betraying the secrets of ‘the Great Work‘ within the ten ‘voyages‘ described in her novel. Unfortunately, there’s no proof for this conjecture.

Much of the murder speculation centers around a curious diagram for a ‘thermo maitre‘ (thermometer) by painter, Kees Von Dongen, that supposedly divulged the ‘temperature scale‘ of ‘the Great Work’. But perhaps the drawing, along with the characters of Vera and Grace, were meant as an allegory. In The Kybolian (1910), by the ‘three initiates‘, chapter II, The Principles of Polarity, states, “Heat and Cold, although “opposites,” are really the same thing, the differences consisting merely of degrees of the same thing. Look at your thermometer and see if you can discover where “heat” terminates and “cold” begins! There is no such thing as “absolute heat” or “absolute cold”–the two terms “heat” and “cold” simply indicate varying degrees of the same thing, and that “same thing” which manifests as “heat” and “cold” is merely a form, variety, and rate of Vibration.”

Having been born into a wealthy banking family, it is no stretch of the imagination to say Irene’s artistic pursuits were something of an embarrassment. First, the scandalous dissolution of her marriage. Of course, funding the rebellious Dadaists of her day whom she openly invited into her house, making movies and keeping occult company, didn’t exactly thrill them either. Irene’s uncle, Solomon Camondo, had married into the wealthy Pereire family who owned the infamous financial institution, the Banque Transatlantique, whose monetary pursuits covered the globe. It is evident from the wording in the ‘4° voyage‘ (Voyages in Kaleidoscope) titled ‘The Octopus‘ (pages 77-81 version Allia, 1998) Irene didn’t approve of the merchant banking business.

the octopus
However eats, digests, and Devours
everything it has…”

“Money is nothing here
if it’s not GOLD
Gold is nothing
if it is not

Different sources of power (or force material) in the early 19th century were jealously guarded. It is no coincidence that in the history of the Banque Transatlantique “the banque’s largest undertakings began at the turn of the century when the new gas and electricity industries created a demand for distribution.” Most alchemists of the time worked under the guises as scientist and chemists. Some of them, like Eugene Caneseliet, worked for years at the Sarcelles gasworks. Film director and adept, Walter Lang, writes in his introduction to the second edition of Fulcanelli’s,  Mystery of the Cathedrals (1977), “Alchemy is the total science of energy transformation... The decay of radium into lead with the release of radioactivity is alchemy. The explosion of a nuclear bomb is alchemy…

In Voyages, the inventor of the kaleidoscope bears the distinctive name, Joel Joze. People have speculated whether it was a pseudonym for Jean-Julien Champagne, the inventor, painter, alchemist, who was close to Fulcanelli, or the scientist, alchemist, James Joules, who created the ‘Joules effect‘, noted for his work on the first law of thermodynamics and kinetic energy. A straight line can be drawn from the work of James Joules to the work of Ernest Marsden, and Ernest Rutherford (the father of nuclear physics), when Rutherford managed an alchemical hat trick by using radium as an alpha source to probe the atomic structure of gold.

At the end of the ‘work‘ in Voyages, Grace discloses the ‘truth‘ when she lifts her veil to reveal the white diamond on her forward that has immeasurable destructive force. With the advances that were occurring in the science of energy of time was Irene Hillel-Erlanger trying to warn of the deadly potential of this knowledge? There might be another hint in her story. Joel Joze, unhappy within the established constraints of the academy which surrounded the positives science, namely physics and chemistry that he was hypnotized by, one day he found his answer within the masters of the Occult: namely, the Cabbala and the Bible.

Soon he (Joel Joze) became master of the fluidic forces which prevail in the world. And the secret was not entirely buried (hidden) since the Very-Sublime Antiquity. Docile to his commandments, these forces merged with their captive brothers; Rays. Radiant bodies. Fragrances. Electrics. Of which we know nothing. And of which we serve. These Great Princes-Prisoners under their metal armlets and glass masks.

Furthermore, in his introduction to Mystery of the Cathedrals, Walter Lang tells a curious story of how French researcher, Jacques Bergier, assistant to the noted physicist, Andre Helbronner, received a visit from an impressive individual who passed onto him a ‘strange and highly knowledgeable warning which had to do with the fact that orthodox science was on the brink of manipulating nuclear energy’. “The stranger said it was his duty to warn that this same abyss had been crossed by humanity in the past with disastrous consequences. Knowing human nature, he had no hope that such a warning would have any effect but it was his duty to give it.” Bergier became convinced the stranger was none other than the master alchemist, Fulcanelli.

Sadly enough, breaking the rule of ‘silencium’ is not what eliminated most of Irene’s legacy but instead, it was the greed of the octopus. Shortly after her death, her uncle Solomon Camondo, bought all of her work he could find and ordered it to be destroyed. His reasons for doing so remains murky. Whether she was an embarrassment to the prestigious family name, or she had touched upon secrets from Solomon’s ‘power‘ sector that were never meant for the public, we will never know. Her son, Philippe wrote that she, “she was considered and outcast who brought scandal to the family through her outspoken intellectual prowness.

Ahead of her time and in the ‘know‘, it seems death was the only way to silence Irene. But the underground stream always manages to surface and neither time, nor money, could erase her from memory. The ‘work‘ transcends and flows forth.

This time I will contribute a modest stone to the edifice of hermetic poetry by evoking an authentic, almost contemporary alchemist whom, I think, I am entitled to call an Adept, and whose writings are practically impossible to find. I mean Irene Hillel-Erlanger.” – poet heremeticist, Andre Savoret.

Special thanks to Richard Armin for his correspondence and for steering me in the right direction when it comes to the source material.

A different version of this story was written by Scarlett Amaris and Richard Stanley for The Heretic Magazine.

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