"...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, April 20, 2009

Heretics of the World, Unite!

Corbin’s account of the power and significance of the Imagination and the mundus imaginalis is a passionate defense of the religious and spiritual capacities of human being. He believed in the world-historical importance of a nearly lost metaphysics that places Imagination at the center of human life, and he devoted his life to bringing it to the attention of the modern world. But he was concerned that his message not be misunderstood. The Western world is perfectly familiar with products of imagination, but these tend to be products of a secularized and disoriented imagination, not the imaginatio vera. He says

"it is impossible to avoid wondering whether the mundus imaginalis, in the proper meaning of the term, would of necessity be lost and leave room only for the imaginary if something like a secularization of the imaginal into the imaginary were not required for the fantastic, the horrible, the monstrous, the macabre, the miserable and the absurd to triumph. On the other hand, the art and imagination of Islamic culture in its traditional form are characterized by the hieratic and the serious, by gravity, stylization and meaning."

Now Corbin was a passionate defender of the most heterodox elements of the Abrahamic traditions. He was a generous and eclectic champion of the imagination whose sympathies cover an enormous range of sentiment, and a partisan of the individual in the face of every form of institutional dogma. His long-time friend Denis de Rougemont remembered and celebrated his youthful cry, “Heretics of the world unite!” But recalling this same incident some years later, Corbin demurred and commented that what he had said was probably rather “esotericists unite.” And in his remarks emphasizing the gravity and stylization of traditional Islamic imagination ­he revealed again a rather conservative interpretation of the imagination. This raises an issue of enormous importance: What are the criteria that allow us to tell the difference between the imaginary and the imaginal, between imaginatio vera and Phantasy? Must we appeal only to categories such as gravity, seriousness and stylization? Or are we hearing in these words the voice of an old man, somewhat irritated at the extravagances of his youth and fearing misinterpretation of his life’s work? I tend to think that there may be some truth in the latter. And I think it is in the spirit of Corbin’s life and work to doubt the existence of absolute criteria for distinguishing true imagination from fantasy. But even if there are no public and objective laws governing the Imagination, it is nonetheless important to attempt to fill in the chart of the Imaginal that Corbin has provided, and in doing so begin to orient ourselves at least provisionally in the landscape he has opened for us.

[I am not unaware of the dangers of vague and careless appropriations of the term “imaginal.” William Chittick and Christian Jambet have both often echoed Corbin in emphasizing the necessity of understanding the precise genealogy and context which gives the term its meaning in Islamic thought. It is important indeed to recognize that the mundus imaginalis requires a docetic cosmology quite different from the Incarnationism which forms the context for modern Western theology, philosophy and science. And Jambet cautions that the imaginal is profoundly serious. He writes, “The agent imagination has a prophetological function, a moral use, and an eschatological role.” (The Act of Being, 285. Reviewed here). Keeping these cautions in mind, it is I think consistent with Corbin’s ecumenism that we make the attempt to discover what meaning the Agent Imagination can have for us in the modern world.]

Corbin warns that access to the imaginal world is not easy – “One does not penetrate into the Angelic World by housebreaking” he says. But what are the alternatives? The question arises for those of us who are not given the gift of mystic vision as to precisely how one “learns the imagination.” The initiation can be demanding and prolonged. Corbin lays great stress on the trials of alchemy and speaks of the descent into the underworld which is the unconscious. He says that we

"must pass through the Darkness; this is a terrifying and painful experience, for it ruins and destroys all the patencies and norms on which the natural man lived and depended - a true ‘descent into hell,’ the hell of the unconscious."

But his work provides little practical guidance for our struggles to find the Angel, and he seems to move with ease in realms that often seem remote from the mundane concerns of our fragile and painful daily lives. We need guides in addition to Corbin to help us learn to make the Active Imagination a living reality. If we do not have a veritable Master from one of the great religious traditions to whom we can turn, then we can learn from certain kinds of psychologists, and from the poets and artists to whom Corbin has said the Active Imagination has for so long been relegated. And it may happen that we will be graced with a vision of that unique personal Guide, the only real Master, who is the Angel Holy Spirit around whom our lives individually revolve.

[Adapted from After Prophecy by the author.]

Two Demons Attacked by Four Flying Angels, ca. 1580-1590. Possibly Qazvin, Iran. Freer & Sackler Galleries. S1986.250a-b

1 comment:

  1. Charles Cameron (hipbone)April 21, 2009 at 2:40 PM

    Hi Tom:

    So de Rougement recalled "heretics of the world, unite" and Corbin said he'd probably said something else, such as "esotericists"... It occurs to me that "hermetics" or even "hermeticists of the world" would give us both the *sense* that Corbin himself recalls and a reasonably close approximation to the *word-sounds* as recalled by de Rougement...