"...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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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Notes on Corbin's Shadow - Part 2

In discussing in this informal way certain aspects of Corbin's "shadow" I mean to highlight some criticisms that have been made of his own work and of some who have been influenced by it. Corbin's work is powerful and of tremendous appeal to many, and this is reason enough to take care in assessing the risks associated with his approach. One contentious issue concerns the interpretation and appropriation of the alam al mithal, which Corbin translated using the Latin term mundus imaginalis. Here the issue has been not so much a critique of Corbin but of those who have in turn used his work for their own sometime rather different ends. Again it is William Chittick who puts the matter clearly and succinctly and I have quoted him at length in The World Turned Inside Out. Here is an extended quote from Chittick's The Sufi Path of Knowledge:

"Corbin performed the great service of introducing the Western world to many uniquely Islamic ways of expressing philosophical positions, but it is beyond the capacity of a single individual to bring out everything worthy of consideration. Moreover, in his zeal to revive the honor due to the imaginal realm, Corbin tended to de-emphasize the cornerstone of Islamic teachings, tawid, the 'declaration of God's Unity.' It is as if Corbin was so entranced by the recovery of the imaginal that he had difficulty seeing beyond it.

"From the point of view of the Islamic intellectual tradition, the tendency to become transfixed by the multiple apparitions of the One represents a danger inherent in the current revival of interest in imagination. It is clear, for example, that certain varieties of Jungianism divinize the imaginal world, giving to the soul an autonomous status never granted to it by the great traditions. Man's own domain of microcosmic imagination is posited as the Real, since 'God' is merely the soul's projection. But this - in the Islamic view - is to fall into the error of associating other gods with God (shirk), the opposite of tawid. We are left with polytheistic multiplicity, and the 'gods' are reinstated as real entities possessing insuperable differences.

"Corbin never fell into such a position, which would have betrayed the central teaching of the texts with which he was concerned. Nevertheless, if his approach to Islamic thought is to be understood as reflecting the concerns of his sources, it needs to be tempered by more attention to the ultimate Unity lying behind the theophanic facade of created existence." (Chittick, p. x.).

The polytheistic appropriation of the imaginal realm in question here is that form of Jungian psychology known as archetypal psychology. The prime spokesperson has long been James Hillman, who was a colleague of Corbin's at Eranos. In the introductory section of Le Paradoxe du Monotheisme Corbin expresses considerable enthusiasm for Hillmans' early book Re-Visioning Psychology and praises its vision of a "resurgence of the gods." He also contributed a Prefatory Letter to David Miller's book The New Polytheism in which he details (in rather technical philosophical terms) the necessary pluralism which must on his view complement the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths lest they betray the fundamental principles on which they are based. (I have discussed some of this in an earlier blog post on Corbin & Platonism as well as in After Prophecy.) Thus it is no surprise that some have read him as a champion of a kind of polytheism - for which he used the term kathenotheism (borrowed from Max Muller's discussion of Hinduism). But Corbin's polytheism occurs, as Chittick points out, within a monotheistic framework, and this is decidedly not true of Hillman's version at least. And so there arose a certain tension between Corbin and those who used his term mundus imaginalis in ways that he came to regret. This is the subject of some comments in his late preface to Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth in which he stresses that for anyone to use the term imaginal outside of the context in which it developed will misunderstand and mis-use the imaginative faculty and consequently go far astray in realms which are potentially dangerous for spiritual development.

Archetypal psychology is hardly a branch of Islam, or of any of the monotheisms. But what are we to make of Corbin's avowed "protestantism" and his stance "outside" of Islam as a doctrinal religion? For he surely was not a Muslim, but thought of himself as a protestant Christian - albeit one with a radical and heretical Christology. So he himself seems to have uprooted the mundus imaginalis from its native soil and applied it to the entirely docetic, post-Islamic, ecumenical and "small c" christianity that he endeavored to live. The enormous question here concerns the perennial tension between Tradition and conservative orthodoxy on the one hand, and creative, "heretical" protests and re-imaginings of the established order on the other. This is the context in which any study of Corbin's work takes place. These questions are indeed timeless and will recur as long as humans inhabit the earth. I believe that anyone who takes the reality of an imaginal world at all seriously would do well to recognize that these questions exist. Corbin echoes the words of teachers in many traditions when he warns that the true imagination is not innocuous. Corbin was suspicious of merely human Masters, as he was of the institutional Church. But he was clearly very aware that one could lose one's way in the world of the imagination - witness his critique of Nietzsche's "failed initiation," and his warning that much of the modern imagination is consumed by the macabre and the demonic. It is important in understanding Corbin to note that he is well aware of the dangers of imagination and stresses the "hieratic" form that seems to him the mark of the vera imaginatio. His early enthusiasm for the "heretical" perhaps changed in time to something more cautious, as one would expect with increasing age, and wisdom. But for all that, his theology of the Holy Spirit remains, and it is based on the personal, individual encounter with the Angel.

This leaves open the issue of just what the function of the Tradition and of the Church properly are. Not everyone can do as Corbin suggests is possible for some spiritually powerful figures such as Ibn 'Arabi: to seek freely the teachings of all the Masters. This, as well as an uncritical "divinization" of the imaginal, can indeed lead to disorientation and the naive and simplistic pseudo-religions that Traditionalists are so afraid of - though I do not think that either must. It is hardly wise, even if it were possible, to jettison the entire accumulated wisdom of traditional religions. But uncritical adherence to a misunderstood "tradition" has dangers of its own that are all too clear in an age of fundamentalist violence and intolerance. This leaves some of us at least in the uncomfortable and difficult position of managing to live somehow on the margins of the Church, on the margins of the traditions. This can be a painful and dangerous position, but it can also be creative and fruitful as long as we are aware of where we stand and continually aware of the risks. For some people in the modern world it is I think necessary to live in this perpetual tension. There are on the one hand no "private religions," but the historical failings of the traditions render them unavailable to those who can see only those failures. There are dangers both in living outside tradition, as the "doctors of the law" have always stressed, and clear dangers in blind acceptance of the rule of dogma. It is above all important to try to know where you stand and to be as aware as possible of the risks inherent in your position. It is the price we pay for freedom.

A further and related caution to those attracted by Corbin's vision is in order. The formal teachings of the Churches and the Masters are meant to guard against individual excess and error - for example, the question of how one does judge the source or significance of a dream or a vision is obviously of considerable importance. The same issues arise concerning the nature of esoteric knowledge and gnosis in general. And here the political implications are manifest. I am reminded of a bumper sticker I suspect many of my American readers have seen that puts this point quite succinctly: I DO WHAT THE VOICES IN MY HEAD TELL ME TO DO. Behind the humor lies a very serious point not lost on anyone who is aware of the potential consequences of individual extremism. And of course it is just this kind of threat that makes religion in general seem so foolish to secularists and rationalists everywhere. What makes science and modern rationalism in general so powerful and effective, and what ought to ensure their political impartiality and success, is the objective and public nature of their processes and results. And it is this Enlightenment (and ultimately Greek) view of reason that underlies the democratic vision of human society. Any esotericism has political implications. Corbin was perhaps politically naive but he was no fool, and he saw clearly enough that esoteric religion gets in trouble when it has political power. But the relation between esoteric truth and politics is a difficult and serious issue that cannot be ignored by anyone professing to have access to "inner" sources of knowledge that are in principle hidden from rational public scrutiny and public justification. I think that in the end all "esoteric" knowledge does have such a publicly effective measure - and that must lie in the actions and the form of life of the individuals who have been opened to such graces - "Ye shall know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7) Secret sources of knowledge should always be suspect. It is crucial that authority and power of all kinds be viewed with skepticism and caution - especially when the source of the authority is held to be Divine.

Two demons, fettered, 15th century - Timurid period. Iran or Central Asia. Freer & Sackler Galleries. F1937.25. "One intriguing and enigmatic series of drawings and paintings that incorporates Chinese pictorial conventions shows monsters and demons (div) in various activities and poses. These wild, highly expressive creatures contrast sharply with the elegant and emotionally reserved men and women typically seen in Timurid paintings and recall Central Asian and Chinese models and techniques. Frequently, the demons appear with familiar objects, as seen in this remarkable tinted drawing. The one on the right, for instance, plays a spiked fiddle (kamancha), a musical instrument that was popular in Iran and Central Asia. His companion holds a gold cup and a Chinese blue-and-white bottle decorated with a writhing dragon. The style and technique of drawing also owes more to Chinese than Persian pictorial conventions. Both ferocious and comical, these fantastic figures are among the most distinct and powerful images created during the fifteenth century."


  1. I’d like to express my appreciation for you site—and for this series of postings (Corbin’s Shadow) particularly. I would have expected multiple comments, but realize that many of your amateur followers may be shy while the academics may feel constrained and probably communicate in other ways. I’m myself not of the latter tribe but, indeed, one of those who’ve lived my life long “on the margins of the Church, on the margins of the traditions.” I chanced across Henry Corbin by the helping hand of Leonard Fox who, at that time editor of >Arcana,< suggested to me by e-mail (I didn’t know him personally) that I read his own translation of two of Corbin’s essays published as >Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam<. I’d sent him e-mail suggesting that many of Swedenborg’s experiences reminded me strangely of Ibn El-Arabi’s—and since Arcana concerned itself with Swedenborg, I’d suggested that this seeming convergence be the subject of an article. I read the recommended book and became an admirer of Corbin’s (to put it mildly). Earlier this year I’ve also read with considerable admiration your own >The World Turned Inside Out<—which I’d finally bought, alas almost in desperation. I’d already obtained and read all of Corbin’s works published in English (most of them multiple times)—and struggled through >Suhrawardî d’Alep< in French (virtually translating the work before I could trust the meaning). So now I turned to the seemingly leading commentator and guide on the French sage. I was rewarded—and thank you for that too.

    Your postings on Corbin’s Shadow deal with a subject almost never discussed in the clear. It is the strange twilight world some of us inhabit on the margins, benevolently inclined toward but not enlisted in the various orthodoxies, be they of the East or of the West. This, of course is the realm Corwin himself explored with such soulful and fervent persistence. Reading your postings, fragments of Idris Shah’s writings about Sufi experience echoed in my head. Shah occasionally addressed the problem of would-be gurus high-jacking a genuine tradition—and felt that the process could not really be stopped. The secret protects itself—meaning that many people can and indeed many shall abuse the concept of the >mundus imaginalis,< this despite Corbin’s oft-repeated warnings, cautions, and pleas. But the inner perceptions of those with open ears will act effectively to screen out the imitators. It is odd indeed how a genuine message works its way through the flux and chaos especially of a decaying culture like our own. “For some people in the modern world,” as you put it, “it is I think necessary to live in this perpetual tension.” And I might add that the statement would apply with equal force to a world dominated by a dogmatic religiousness too. >Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.< One of my growing convictions is that the genuinely transcending aspects of reality can never really be socialized, institutionalized—any more than the genuine poetic spirit can be “churched.” United Church of Shakespeare? At the same time I do agree with you that all esoteric knowledge “does have…a publicly effective measure”—working through individuals touched by its graces.

    I’m very glad that the mysterious tradition to which Corbin opened our vision, to which he added such impetus—and original insights of his own—is visibly maintained now through such efforts as your own writing, web work, and the French site. I’m pleased to be a follower. If you are curious about me, you can glance at two blogs of mine reachable through arsendarnay.blogspot.com (Ghulf Genes) and qafzone.blogspot.com (BorderZone). In the latter you’ll find a brief posting on Corbin with a link to your site.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments and your support - it is much appreciated. - TC