"...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, June 12, 2009

Literalizing the Imaginal

In talking with people interested in Henry Corbin I am sometimes reminded of one of the obstacles to understanding the meaning of the "esoteric" as I believe he intended it. Some who are attracted by Corbin's work are understandably bedazzled by visions of angelic hierarchies and the reality of the imaginal worlds. Corbin's own enthusiasm is palpable in his work. But it is important not to lose sight of the intensely apophatic context in which these visions occur. The modern urban societies in which most of us live are thoroughly exteriorized and extraverted and so dominated by the will-to-power that drives modern technology that it is easy to overlook the profound interiority that characterizes Corbin's writings. Doing so can distort the meaning of his liberating message.

The problem is easy enough to state, but the solution is exceedingly hard to live. Corbin warns that the realm of the imaginal is "not to be entered by housebreaking." It is necessary to overcome the will to power and the desire for mastery. He puts it quite starkly: "The very idea of associating such concepts as 'power' and the 'spiritual' implies an initial secularization." (Creative Imagination, 16.) This is one place where contemporary critical theory can help open up a spiritual perspective, by making conscious the varieties and structures of power. (A nice guide can be found here courtesy of Stephen Macek).

Entry into the imaginal requires a delicate, subtle and difficult personal transformation. It requires what Ivan Illich calls an "embraced powerlessness," which for Christians is symbolized by the Cross. It is all too easy to approach the inner world of the "hidden trust" as if it were a literal, public and exoteric reality. To make this mistake is the essence of idolatry and of fundamentalisms of all kinds. To live a life in tune with imaginal realities requires abandoning the desire for what postmodernists call master narratives. The counter-history that Corbin would write lacks most of what is taken for the central thrust of Western culture - certainly there are no Scholastics, no Hegelians and no scientists seeking a Theory of Everything. They are currently popular, but I am deeply suspicious of grand theories that attempt to unify spirituality and science. However well-intended they may be they risk enacting new versions of the totalitarian fantasies that Corbin fought so hard to combat. [I presented a short version of this argument several years ago that can be read here. (pdf)]

The goal of exploration in imaginal realms is not conquest and mapping. The terrain is real, but it is neither objective nor public. Any map is provisional and of limited use, for the landscape is constantly shifting and always unique, individual and personal. (Think of the confounding profusion of "maps" provided by the alchemists.) There can be a Guide, but the paths are made by the unique person walking them. The ground shifts and the traveler is perpetually lost, constantly seeking. That is why fundamentalism is impossible there - there is nowhere stable to stand and we are forever undone. The form of spiritual life Corbin opened for us requires the "ability of not knowing" that Keats spoke of. This is more than challenging. The near impossibility of living in "metaphysical poverty" and humility sets up a dynamic in the soul that is acknowledged by all the great traditions - the life that the world of the imaginal provokes and requires is nomadic and wandering, unsettled and unsafe. It is our lot to fail continually in our attempts to love and forgive. We waver in and out of idolatries and literalisms of all kinds. And we constantly judge others and fail to see our own faults. Human be-ing is a project, not a fixed state, and the ego gets continually in the way since the "essential person" that is the goal "in its posthumous becoming and in its immortality perhaps immeasurably transcends the 'personality' of so-and-so son [or daughter] of so-and-so." (Avicenna & the Visionary Recital, 116).

On Corbin's account of Ibn 'Arabi's doctrine the faculty of the Imagination as we experience it is inherently ambiguous. It has both a passive/sensitive aspect that we share with animals and an active aspect that, in its pure mystical form, has the power to create real beings outside the inner state of the soul and perceptible to other mystics (Creative Imagination, 222ff). The imagination spans a vast range of modes of being so that it may be most useful to speak of imaginations in the plural. We live in ambiguity in an intermediate realm of plurality and complexity. This requires a stance towards reality that is cautious, empathetic, sensitive and creative - one that is attentive to the uses of power. Power in itself is not evil, and we cannot live without a degree of mastery and control. But unconscious and uncritical power is dangerous, and its uses, mis-uses and hidden effects need to be uncovered. As Corbin and Hillman have emphasized, literalism is one of the chief strategies of the fundamentalist and totalitarian mind. Literalism encourages the uncritical use of power and coercion because it presumes that reality can be known with certainty. Humility, caution and critical self-awareness are essential for a life in tune with imaginal realities.

Corbin was worried about a facile adoption of the term imaginal, and though I am no doubt more liberal in my attitudes on this than he was in his later years (for instance I am deeply indebted to Hillman's work) I think it is crucial to guard against the dangers of violating the sacred interiority of the imaginal by professionalizing, literalizing or otherwise co-opting its meaning.


  1. An excellent post Tom, I really enjoy your diligence in exploring what these imaginal musings have for life on/ in earth, all the while maintaining your respect for the spirit of the material and your individual academic voice. This blog is a pleasure to read

  2. Thanks Tom - I appreciate it. I was hesitant to post this - its such a complex and thorny issue - but very important - I'll to write something more careful & extensive elsewhere.

  3. Jonathan said...

    What you express here Tom is crucial not only to one's understanding Corbin, but to all sincere experience of the imaginal. One thing that Corbin placed great emphasis on, and this I found also in Buber, is the need to transcend the desire for a Truth that is "once-and-for-all," beyond which lies the "forever-anew," and this is central to the encounter the imaginal. Without this shift (from truth as possession to truth as responsibility), any "forced" experience of the imaginal is a recipe for insanity. To want a literal Truth once and for all, wanting to own it, betrays a will to power that is potentially devastating psychologically (this is, I believe, where the "fear of God" has its rightful place in religion). To walk on the path of interiority, one needs to live in the "forever-anew," always returning to humility, sincerity and self-awareness, because without it, the face of the Angel would be too much of a temptation for hubris. Humility is not finite. It can always expand, and deepen. Emerson expresses this very beautifully: "In the sublimest flights of the soul, rectitude is never surmounted, love is never outgrown." I am also reminded of a verse in the Old Testament, "The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find the grace of the Lord." And Blake, "He never rises too high who flies with his own wings." On this matter Jacob Boehme's treatise "On True Resignation" is very helpful, in that it imaginally expresses the dangers of hubris and the grace of humility. In one passage, he writes:

    "When the outward Reason or self riseth up and triumpheth in the Light, saying, I have the true Child, then the Will of the Desire must bow itself down to the Earth, and bring itself into the deepest Humility and most simple Ignorance, and say, Thou art foolish, and hast nothing but the Grace of God. Thou must wrap thyself up in that Belief with great Humility, and become nothing at all in thyself, and neither know nor love thy self. All that thou hast, or is in thee, must esteem itself as nothing but a mere Instrument of God; and thou must bring thy Desire only into God's Mercy, and go forth from all thy own Knowing and Willing; and esteem it as nothing at all, nor ever entertain any Will to enter into it again."

    In our time, we tend to believe that life is about what "I" want, and that spirituality is about "my" perfection and spiritual growth. It is "my" path to God, "my" anticipated triumph. But there is something more, much deeper, which I believe is central to Corbin's work: listening to the Angel, whose invisible presence is never grasped, never possessed. I have myself searched far and wide for the figure of Sophia in mystical literature. She is very fleeting, and never lets herself be possessed. She asks to be courted forever.

    "Car il ne faut pas se promener comme un vainqueur, et vouloir donner un nom aux choses, à toutes les choses; c'est elles qui te diront qui elles sont, si tu écoutes soumis comme un amant..." - Henry Corbin, 1932