"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Rilke's Angels

There is, Corbin tells us, a remarkable concordance between certain mystical Islamic accounts of the Angel and the late poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke. Rilke indeed believed that his vision of the Angel had more in common with the Angels of Islam than with those of the Christianity he knew. Rilke’s mystic vision implies a cosmology that denies any gulf between Heaven and Earth - they are, rather, continuous. It is I think this fundamental intuition that makes his work so important for Corbin. Corbin, whose knowledge of German theology, philosophy and literature was astonishingly broad and deep, believed that the Elegies “formulate exactly, literally” the central themes of the Islamic mystic vision which he so passionately defended. He quotes from a well known letter Rilke wrote a year before his death: “our task is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its being may rise again, ‘invisibly,’ in us.” We must perform a transfiguration of the visible into the invisible. It is in the figure of the Angel, central to the Elegies, that this transformation appears already accomplished. Rilke wrote,

The Angel of the Elegies is the being who vouches for the recognition in the invisible of a higher order of reality. – Hence “terrible” to us, because we, its lovers and transformers, do still cling to the visible. – All the worlds of the universe are plunging into the invisible as into their next deepest reality… We are these transformers of the earth; our entire existence, the flights and plunges of our love, everything qualifies us for this task (besides which there is, essentially, no other).

Corbin says that this is precisely the view of Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra and Ibn ‘Arabi. In language that mirrors Rilke’s, the 20th century Shi’ite theologian Mohammad Hosayn Tabataba’i said that the function of the Gnostic in this world is to be the workshop for the production of the invisible, the transcendent. The imagination in us provides the necessary meeting place between this world and the Divine. Corbin tells of a Shi’ite tradition which holds that the blood of Imam Hosayn, Prince of Martyrs, must remain suspended forever between Heaven and Earth, for if it were ever to fall, the world would come to an end. The Angel allows us to perceive all things as suspended between Heaven and Earth in the mundus imaginalis. The Imagination establishes the reality of the “meeting place of the two seas” where Moses meets Khidr, the Verdant One.

(Adapted from After Prophecy: Imagination, Incarnation and the Unity of the Prophetic Tradition by the author.) Seated Angel, Iran, 1575–1600, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. From the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Lent by the Art and History Trust LTS1995.2.72