"...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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Friday, May 29, 2009

Henry Corbin & American Poetry - Part 4

In my first post on Charles Olson's and Henry Corbin (here) I had not yet got my hands on Olson's Collected Prose which has two mentions of Corbin, from Avicenna and the Visionary Recital and "Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism." These short references are quite important for understanding Olson's use of Corbin.

In ' "CLEAR, SHINING WATER," de Vries says ' (1968), Olson begins:

"Wishing, in that sense, to start at the bottom - or, in fact, to get there (that is, by the etymological part of ta'wil /_/ the other part, if I take Corbin right, in a footnote in Avicenna, or, His Visionary Recitals, is topological - and this present instance seems very much perhaps the (vertical) topological matter, of all matters which can find a basis for a physics of psyche at this revolutionary point in re-taking the cosmology of creation as fact, both in instant and in consequence, thus prevailing, hidden or no, in whatever is up anywhere for whomever the more so now_//" (364)

In this short essay Olson ponders the etymology of certain words in Northern and Greek mythologies - the title refers to the water sprinkled on Yggdrasill, the World Tree and the Tree of Life of Northern mythology. As the editors point out it is not clear which footnote Olson is referring to but his use of ta'wil is the important point. On page 29 Corbin writes,

"Ta'wil is, etymologically and inversely, to cause to return, to lead back, to restore to one's origin and to the place where one comes home, consequently to return to the true and original meaning of a text. It is "to bring something to its origin. . . . Thus he who practices the ta'wil is the one who turns his speech from the external (exoteric) form [zahir] towards the inner reality [haqiqat]. This must never be forgotten when, in current usage, ta'wil is said, and rightly, to be a spiritual exegesis that is inner, symbolic, esoteric, etc. Beneath the idea of exegesis appears that of a Guide (the exegete), and beneath the idea of exegesis we glimpse that of an exodus, of a "departure from Egypt," which is an exodus from metaphor and the slavery of the letter, from exile and the Occident of exoteric appearance to the Orient of the original and hidden Idea."

Olson's editors also point to this relevant passage from Corbin, page 160:

"...we can understand that the Spring of Life, the Aqua permanens, is divine gnosis, the philosophia prima. He who purifies himself therein and drinks of it will never taste the bitterness of death. As for the spring of running Water hard by the permanent spring, we may see in it a typification of Logic as being not a part but one of the derivatives (furu ) of the divine science. But this on an express condition that safeguards instead of degrading symbolic perception: it is Logic that must be raised to the horizon of this symbolic perception. In other words: it is not Logic that is the ta'wil of the spring of running Water; it is, conversely, the spring of running Water that is the ta'wil of Logic, that, as such, "leads it back" to its "spring," to its meaning and its truth (haqiqat)."

Corbin's appropriation of ta'wil (which is itself controversial among scholars of Islam) is also of central importance in the work of James Hillman, who regards the "reversion to the source" as a crucial move in any attempt to understand the archetypal and poetic basis of human experience.

It is worth noting too that Olson's notion of a "physics of psyche" is also derives from Corbin, though whether Olson got the phrase from him is not the issue - the structures of their thinking are clearly similar. In Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth Corbin writes:

"...ultimately what we call physis and the physical is but the reflection of the world of the Soul; there is no pure physics, but always the physics of some definite psychic activity." (81).

Olson's second reference is to "Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism" which appears now in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, and in this piece the relation of the mythic to scientific cosmology is explictly at issue. In a short note appended to "The Animate versus the Mechanical, and Thought" in 1969 Olson continues his discourse on the mythologies of gravity and modern cosmology. He says,

"To make absolutely sure that this discussion is on the table intended by it, I ought as well to add this note [as a further "Addition" - and as of "other" studies]: that I am here seeking to speak within, or across the 'range' of a principle of likeness which includes, and seeks to 'cover' what Henry Corbin reminds me is a constantly affirmed homology among the initiatic cosmos, the world of nature, and the celestial world." (372)

It is important for anyone reading Olson to see the full context from which these ideas have been lifted. The terms Olson uses are indeed from a short footnote to a discussion of the alchemy of Resurrection in Nasr Tusi. Corbin writes as follows:

"In a stirring vision Nasir Tusi describes the contiguity of all the series of beings, each communicating by its highest degree with the lowest degree of the series immediately above it. Thus the worlds of minerals, plants, and animals, the world of man, and the world of the Angel are graduated. And always the higher degree resembles Paradise for the degree below it. The same is true of the phases of a single being. The condition in which an infant cannot yet open his eyes in the sunlight is like his Hell in relation to the condition in which he can face the light, and the latter condition is then like his Paradise. But it is his Hell in relation to the condition in which he can walk and talk. Hell, again, is the condition in which the adult cannot yet attain to knowledge of the spiritual world through that of his own spirit and in which he is unable to experience the meaning of the adage: "He who knows himself (nafsahu, his anima), knows his Lord." When he attains to it, this state becomes his Paradise. In this vision of an incessant rising from Hells, we see an alchemy of Resurrection operating from cycle to cycle. It offers a series of unfoldings, of divestments and revestments, to which one must consent on pain of falling backward, beneath oneself. Here we may also speak of a "continual exaltation" a cosmology "in Gothic style," or of a pursuit of "retarded eternity." Just as their Fravartis sustain the gods themselves (including Ohrmazd and his Archangels) in this state of ascension, and just as the Fravartis incarnated on earth must there propagate this effort toward superexistence, so likewise, in the Ismaili schematization of the world, [Footnote 94: One should also remember the constantly affirmed homology among the mesocosmos ('alam-e Din, the initiatic cosmos), the world of nature, and the celestial world.] the sum of the degrees of the esoteric hierarchy appears to the adept as a cycle of resurrections, each one of which must be transcended, as a succession of Paradises which must be surmounted on pain of falling back into a Hell. Each rank or spiritual degree is a resurrection (qiyamat) whereby the adept becomes conjoined with new immaterial forms which appear on his horizon." (Corbin, 54).

[I note here that the idea that "always the higher degree resembles Paradise for the degree below it" is "homologous" with Samuel Alexander's notion of "Deity" in his Space, Time and Deity (1920) though for Alexander this was an evolutionary progression. not an entirely "vertical" one. In any case what Olson is up to is in part an attempt to stitch the scientific and the mythological together.]

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can so much comment, as say that I'm working on this, too. It seems to be my path to work from a slightly different direction, and so I avoid textual discussions with theologians on the whole, though I can easily spend a happy afternoon at the pub with them... I suppose Jung would say that for a woman, her animus is her Lord, and for that reason I try to do without Him unless it becomes necessary to formulate an idea in words that are part of a collectively understood set of ideas, or try to shift levels upwards (hard to do without leaving the body). Mostly, as a Jungian-trained psychologist and shamanic practitioner, I try to work downwards. He dominates the feminine in our society already too much, and the collective psyche of women, cutting off her relationship to the Lady. For me, and other pagans I know, what is needed is a linking back at the roots, a bit like Vico, but this time asking the trees directly what they have to say about the matter...Thank you for this post. I came to your blog because I've read your books, alongside David Abrams and Robert Pogue Harrison, Hillman, et al. The thing I appreciated most was the way you took on Giegerich - I'd been meaning to do it for years but lack the philosophical training. I just knew there was something he wasn't seeing. I tried to express it in terms of orientalism (deconstructing it from the point of view of Said), which was partially successful for me. Anyway, when I was most in a stew over Giegerich (about 5 years ago now) I knew that what I needed was a metaphysics of well and tree. I have tried to start writing about this on my blog. http://www.urbanshamanism.wordpress.org
    Again, thank you!
    Luisetta Mudie