"...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, March 16, 2009

Notes on Corbin's Shadow - Part 1

I have for a long time felt an obligation to address some of the charges made against Corbin by his critics but have not yet been able to write the extended essay that this demands. Many of these questions have been discussed at least indirectly in my books but it seems appropriate to make some explicit statements and gather them in one place. Although I hesitate to raise such complex issues in an informal context, I want to make known some of my current thoughts on subjects that are of great importance for anyone engaged in the study of Corbin's work.

Most straightforward to answer is the claim that Corbin is at least implicitly anti-semitic because of his privileging of gnosis over Law. The issue arises because Judaism is often regarded as primarily a religion of the Law. Corbin is quite clearly wary of "legalism" in all of the Abrahamic faiths, and most of his criticisms are directed explicitly at Muslims of various sorts. But his critiques of the "doctors of the Law" are entirely ecumenical in spirit and aimed at fundamentalists of all persuasions. The early context for his attitudes was provided by the philosophical and theological tensions between Protestants and Catholics, and it is above all the institutionalization of doctrine into dogma that is the subject of his critiques. And though he is less enthusiastic about it than some would prefer, Corbin is entirely aware of the fact that there can be no inner meaning to a religion that has no outer appearance. It is not that he argues there can be no binding divine law, but rather that he is extremely suspicious of any human attempts to impose a specific reading of such a law on others. He argues that whenever there is a mediating individual such as a priest or a Master, or a mediating social structure such as a Church that comes between the individual and the Lord we must be very much on our guard. [In the first version of this post I didn't even mention the fundamental fact that Corbin's entire opus is devoted to showing the unity of the three Abrahamic faiths. To suggest even a suppressed anti-antisemitism entirely misses the meaning of his life's work.]

It has been suggested that Corbin was an ideological Iranian nationalist and a supporter of the Shah and his repressive regime. It is now widely known that Reza Shah Pahlavi was put in place after the British and Americans conspired to bring down the democratically elected but Soviet-leaning government of Mohammad Mossadegh, in part to help prevent the nationalization of the Iranian oil fields. (See for instance The CIA in Iran from the New York Times.) Corbin's ties to the Shah and to the Mellons, who were investors in American oil companies, are indisputable. What is in question is the meaning of these connections and the lessons we should draw from them. Guilt by association holds no weight, although I remain open to learning more about his relation to these people. We all break bread at one time or another with those from whom we perhaps should keep our distance, and association need not imply complicity. However there are deeper issues here. As Norman O. Brown has commented, in many areas Corbin simply refused to see any political implications whatever in the subjects of his study. I think this is deeply troubling and it points to one of the most profound dangers inherent in Corbin's approach - one of which we should be entirely conscious. As I have written elsewhere:

"It is often not at all clear in reading Corbin that there is any politically important component in the history of the Shi'ites. In fact he often remarks that it is when Shi'ism does come to political power that it is most in danger of betraying its inner trust. Success on the political front is the "most formidable and paradoxical ordeal that an esoteric religion may undergo." It is in fact just the "sacralization" of institutions that is the prime symptom of metaphysical "secularization." He goes so far as to say "The very idea of associating such concepts as 'power' and the 'spiritual' implies an initial secularization." In the West the failure of the priesthood to gain secular power was the cause of the projection of "a fiction of that same power into the supernatural." His exclusively spiritual view of things makes him a poor guide to political or social history. Norman O. Brown remarks that "Corbin, indispensable in other ways, refuses to see any political dimension whatsoever" in Ismaili or Shi'ite history. It is perhaps unfair to accuse him of being politically naïve when his purpose is not to write political history. Yet it is wise to be aware of the limitations inherent in an exclusively spiritual perspective on history, particularly in view of the fact that the central issue here is the source of legitimate authority in matters of the soul. A spirituality that is blind to political realities is in danger of falling into folly.

And yet it may be that this is precisely the point we can take from his work. Whatever his shortcomings as a social historian, Corbin's writings can be understood as political in the deepest sense. By showing that a metaphysics of individuation is necessary to counter the threat of totalitarianisms, he makes it clear that any spirituality that holds itself aloof from the merely temporal is doomed to the ineffectuality of the abstract. Through his attempt to reinstate the Image in its rightful place in the scheme of things, Corbin attempts to restore balance to the lives of each of us and thereby to the social world as well. James Hillman has seen this aspect of his work clearly. In reference to the nightmares of terrorism in the contemporary Islamic world he says:

"Corbin said to me one time, 'What is wrong with the Islamic world is that it has destroyed its images, and without these images that are so rich in its tradition, they are going crazy because they have no containers for their extraordinary imaginative power.' His work...can be seen as political action of the first order: it was meeting terrorism, fanaticism, nihilism right at its roots in the psyche."

(from The World Turned Inside Out)

That being said, we should be clearly aware of the fact that Corbin often seems generally blind to the political uses of spiritual symbols, and this is indeed naïve and dangerous. Corbin is uniformly dismissive of an exclusively historical approach to spiritual matters, regarding it, rightly I think, as yet another form of fundamentalism which robs us of our humanity. And yet it would be a terrible mistake to ignore the insights of the critical theorists of the last century who have revealed so powerfully the psychological, social and political roots and implications of all of our acts. Not to acknowledge this is to be wide open to all the political and psychological repressions that Corbin, in his own way, is so concerned to fee us from. Corbin's "hermeneutics of unveiling" simply must be balanced with the "hermeneutics of suspicion." The former without the latter begets an ignorant and naïve spirituality; the latter without the former leads to nihilism.

With regard to Corbin's "Iranian nationalism" I think the same comments apply. His clear intention is to open up the world of Iranian spirituality, stretching back to Zoroaster, for all the world to see. He saw it as providing a perspective which was available almost nowhere else and believed that without it our conception of the primary human spiritual potential would be profoundly diminished. He saw, particularly in Suhrawardi, a union of the imaginative and the philosophical which is at best rare in world history. If an enthusiasm for this vision and the spiritual world which is its context leads to a blindness to the negative implications of political nationalism (and I am not at all convinced that it did in his case) then this is something we should be careful to guard against.

A closely related issue is the more general claim that Corbin's a-historical approach and his fondness for emphasizing cross-cultural similarities and "spiritual affinities" is simply a careless "syncretism" which dispenses with and ignores the critical-historical discrimination of modern scholarship. Corbin is dismissive of critiques which disparage this approach and replies that he is uncovering essential spiritual realities that lie behind the historically contingent facts of literal history. It is, he claims, the hiero-history that reveals the face of the divine reality. This dispute is thus part of the perennial antagonism between "Platonism" in various forms and a more "Aristotelian", or in the modern world, historical and materialist philosophy. Corbin was indeed a "Platonist" in the broad sense, and Platonism is not, to put it mildly, currently in favor among philosophers in the West. This dispute is far too broad to enter into here - I have tried in my books to suggest how Corbin's approach may be understood within the context of modern thought. Here I will only point out that one way of seeing the conflict, though it is an over-simplification, is to contrast Corbin's "Platonic" spiritual individualism with the impersonal tenor of a purely historical and material reductionism such as one finds for instance in Darwinism or a neurophysiological approach to the human being. A common charge against "Platonic" idealism or a mythological and archetypal view of reality is that these are (or can be construed as) "essentialist" worldviews. The problem with essentialism is at least twofold: it assumes that there are such "essences" that can identify and define the complex and changing beings that make up reality, and therefore it suggests that these identities can perhaps be discovered by us. The first is a philosophical problem. The second is a political one. Even if we grant that something like essences exist and can define, and thus constrict and control individual things like people, the political question concerns who is to do the defining. Thus essentialism so understood is one more fundamentalism that can be used to justify political and social control and repression. So essentialism is feared by some as providing justification for constraints on individuality and freedom. Corbin's argument is in some respects the opposite: he fears the disappearance of the person into the unanchored flow of historical and material contingency that is the matrix within which modern science, and in fact much modern thought, operates. He would have regarded the postmodernism of Derrida and others as a continuation in another guise of this same fall into chaos and incoherence. There are points to be scored on each side. One of the reasons that Corbin was drawn to Ibn 'Arabi is relevant here. William Chittick has pointed out that there are senses in which Ibn Arabi's worldview is strikingly postmodernist. His spiritual individualism, which influenced Corbin immensely, provides a way to see spiritual and moral truths as both individually absolute and historically relative. And it is critical to keep in mind that, as Corbin stresses, what we think of as the individual is really the ego, and the eternal Self is nothing at all like the finite and limited ego of the terrestrial human being. Thus the "essence" of the individual may not be at all the changeless and immutable Form that a simplistic "Platonism" suggests, but rather the perpetually changing and ascending soul of the mystic vision.

Another critique of Corbin relates to the character of his scholarly approach. There is no such thing as entirely objective and dispassionate scholarship. Yet modern scholarship is based on an attempt to achieve a degree of objectivity, and academic scholars engaged in the study of other cultures are generally diligent in trying to correct for their own biases and maintain a certain emotional distance from the subjects of their investigation. Corbin has been widely viewed as being engaged in something rather different. William Chittick, while sympathetic to Corbin and his work, has written of Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, "Corbin's rhetorical flourishes and passion for his subject put his work into a unique category... [He] is concerned with his own philosophical project... Any reader of Creative Imagination soon begins to wonder where Ibn al-Arabi ends and Corbin begins. The lines are not clear, especially if one does not have access to the Arabic texts. Certainly we come to realize the Ibn al-Arabi is a precious larder from which all sorts of delicious vittles can be extracted. But most people familiar with the original texts would agree that Corbin has highly individual tastes." (The Sufi Path of Knowledge, 1989, xix.). Corbin's work as editor and translator has to be distinguished from his work as a powerful and creative philosopher and theologian (although his translations too have been critiqued as reading his own ideas into the texts themselves). There is no doubt that Corbin was engaged all along in something other than philological scholarship, however much his scholarly activities added to our knowledge of the traditions he studied. As he wrote at the age of seventy, "To be a philosopher is to take to the road, never settling down in some place of satisfaction with a theory of the world, not even a place of reformation, nor of some illusory transformation of the conditions of this world. It aims for self-transformation, for the inner metamorphosis, which is implied by the notion of a new or spiritual rebirth. The adventure of the mystical philosopher is essentially seen as a voyage which progresses towards the Light." (The Voyage and the Messenger, 140.) It might be that we should understand Corbin's appropriation of the Islamic tradition in somewhat the same way that we view Heidegger's use of the pre-Socratics, or any Christian theologian's creative re-reading or "mis-reading" of the Bible. In any case the reader of Corbin should be aware that his project is an explicitly hermeneutic one, and therefore different from that of those indispensible scholars whose work has a rather different purpose. [This discussion occurs within the larger context not only of theology & philosophy versus philological and textual scholarship, but of the controversy over "Orientalism" sparked by Edward Said's work. This is a topic on which I do not feel competent to comment, though it is of considerable significance here. Two rather good wikipedia entries provide an entry into the literature: Edward Said and Orientalism.]

Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens); Adam and Eve. ca. 1550. Safavid period Qazvin, Iran. Freer & Sackler Galleries. "In this painting, Adam, whom Muslims consider the father of humanity and the first prophet, is depicted riding a serpent; Eve rides a peacock. According to tradition, Iblis, the Islamic counterpart to Satan, was intent on entering the Garden of Eden to foil Adam and Eve. By appealing to his vanity, Iblis enticed the peacock, the gatekeeper of paradise, to allow the serpent, then the most beautiful of all creatures, to enter Eden. Seated between the serpent's fangs, Iblis entered the garden and seduced Eve into eating the fruit of the forbidden tree."

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