"...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

Solzhenitsyn & the Grail Castle

In an important essay presented at the Eranos Conference in 1974 Corbin wrote as follows:

The norm of the Temple may doubtless appear fragile or absurd in a world like ours, and the state of the "guardians of the Temple", of the contemplatives "at the meeting-place of the two seas" may seem infinitely precarious... What will the future of this norm be? The answer, it seems to me, comes at the end of Albrecht von Scharfenberg's great epic, "the New Titurel"... Here, there is an episode which has all the impact of a parable of the Imago Templi. When Titurel and Parsifal take the Holy Grail back to the East, they pass through a certain city. Parsifal leaves the inhabitants of this city with an image of the castle-temple of the Grail at Montsalvat. And with the aid of the single image the inhabitants set about building their own Temple of the Grail.

This Image is also what remains to us. No more; but no less. No less, because it provides the answer to our question: what will happen in the future to the norm of the Temple? And it answers this question because this Image is imperishable, to the extent that we see it rise triumphant in the "waste land", from an earth that is spiritually more devastated than the domain of the Grail ever was before the coming of Parsifal. I call to witness the extraordinary vision of the castle-temple at Montsalvat which comes in one of the most moving pages written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Here the Imago Templi, rising like a challenge to dominate the norms of a hostile landscape, can be contemplated in all its purity. The vision takes the form of a study made by a painter who is trying to set down the moment when Parsifal "contemplates" the castle-temple of the Holy Grail for the first time.

"In shape the picture was twice as high as it was long. It showed a wedge-shaped ravine dividing two mountain crags. Above them both to right and left, could just be seen the outermost trees of a forest - a dense, primeval forest. Some creeping ferns, some ugly, menacing prehensile thickets clung to the very edge, and even to the overhanging face of the rock. Above and to the left a pale grey horse was coming out of the forest, ridden by a man in helmet and cape. Unafraid of the abyss the horse had raised its foreleg, before taking the final step, prepared at its rider's command to gather itself and jump over - a leap that was well within its power. But the rider was not looking at the chasm that faced the horse. Dazed, wondering, he was looking into the middle distance, where the upper reaches of the sky were suffused with an orange-gold radiance which might have been from the sun or from something else even more brilliant hidden from view by a castle. Its walls and turrets growing out of the ledges of the mountainside, visible also from below through the gap between the crags, between the ferns and trees, rising to a needle-point at the top of the picture - indistinct in outline, as though woven from gently shimmering clouds, yet still vaguely discernible in all the details of its unearthly perfection, enveloped in a shining and lilac-colored aureole - stood the castle of the Holy Grail."

This visionary page written by Solzhenitsyn is evidence that the Imago Templi, the image of the castle-temple left to mankind by Parsifal, will never be lost. It is in some sense the response to the geste of Parsifal, and both together are the response to the desperate cry of the Templar knights... Together they reply: No! the temple is not destroyed forever. This was known to Suhravardi also [who]... composed an entire "Book of hours" in honour of the "guardians of the Temple", who are unknown to the majority of men. They guard a secret Temple, and those who find their way to it can join in the invocation which returns, like a refrain, in one of the most beautiful psalms composed by Suhravardi: "O God of every God! Make the litany of the Light arise. Make the people of Light triumphant. Guide the Light towards the Light. Amen."

From Henry Corbin, "The Imago Templi in Confrontation with Secular Norms," in Temple and Contemplation, London: KPI, 1986, 389-90. The passage by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is from The First Circle, trans. Michael Guybon, London: Collins & Harvill Press, 1968, 259.