"...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, July 7, 2009
Poetry and the Exile of the Soul
Not long ago I received an email from Clayton Eshleman. He wrote " 'the exile of the soul' in one of your Avicenna postings caught my eye... Is the soul, in your view, by its nature, in exile? May it be brought out of exile? How? One response to this question might be that a realized poem or painting entails a momentary release from exile for the soul. Or might it be truer to say that the realized poem expresses the extent of the soul's exile?"
It instantly struck me as exactly right, and it still does now on reflection that a "realized poem or painting" can release the soul from exile. Eshleman's questions seem to me to crystallize much that I have tried to articulate throughout my books on Corbin, for whom exile is such a central theme. I have long tried to discover how to make available for a new generation Corbin's insights concerning the Lost Speech and the meaning of the Holy Word. Hamann said: "To speak is to translate – from the tongue of angels into the tongue of men" and Corbin's "poetics" is to a large degree based on this vision (See this earlier post on Corbin's Poetics). It seems to me that Corbin's post-Islamic protestant christianity can be understood in ways that free the Abrahamic religions, not from living tradition, but from the suffocating weight of institutional religiosity and theological orthodoxies. Norman O. Brown has quoted Corbin's mentor Louis Massignon in a passage that opens up a vast landscape for those able to enter:
"The Islamic imagination, Massignon has written, should be seen as the product of a desperate regression, back to the primitive, the eternal pagan substrate of all religion... Islam stays with the dream life of the masses...discarded by the Enlightenment as superstition..."
I think that eternal substrate is poetic in the root meaning of the term, and that such a form of life is democratic and available to everyone and not only those who adopt the doctrines of a particular creed, a particular Church. Such a hope risks the missteps that can come with narcissistic individualism and an over-reliance on personal experience - and yet this is a necessary direction for many who would otherwise find the religions of their ancestors unavailable, even repellent. In a passage that I have quoted elsewhere Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement writes,
"Humility and silence are so many aspects of interior poverty and renunciation. A person uprooted from a settled life, heads for the desert, to become God’s nomad. The real desert is within us. ...Some men of the desert become pillars of prayer, settled or wandering. They reject all domestication, even that of monastic communities, in order to opt for the untrammelled liberty of the wild animals. ‘Men of the hills’ on the heights and in freedom. ...The contemplative, like the illiterate person, does without books. Creatures and things in their delicacy and infinite subtlety continually speak to him of God. ...Interior freedom... makes possible that attentive gaze, stripped of covetousness, which perceives the outward appearance of each object and its secret, and honours it."
I take this "doing without books" to mean doing without Authoritative books - to allow the freedom to write one's own Book, as well as to read the Book of Creation.
The search for the roots of religion requires that we rethink the meaning of the worship and liturgy that stand at the center of the religious experience. The late Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, monk and priest of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, points out in his short and powerful book On Liturgical Theology that they provide the primary experience of God for the faithful. He argues that liturgy provides the “ontological condition of theology” and so is the source of primary, primitive and original theology. Liturgy is the cause of prima theologia and is the original content with which “theologians” in the usual sense, concern themselves. In liturgy the community which is the Church stands in the presence of the living God. This is not an easy place to be: “The liturgical assembly’s stance in faith is vertiginous, on the edge of chaos.” Being brought to the brink of chaos causes deep, long term changes, however slight or great they may be, in the lives of the participants. The slow adjustment to these changes results in alterations in the subsequent liturgical acts. This is, he says, theology being born. To detect these changes is to discover “where theology has passed, rather as physics detects atomic particles in the tracks of their passage through a liquid medium.” This view of theology is at odds with modern assumptions about the bookish and intellectual nature of theology and the tasks of theologians. Kavanagh writes,
"To argue with minds accustomed to thinking of theology in such a manner that theology at its genesis is communitarian, even proletarian; that it is aboriginally liturgical in context, partly conscious and partly unconscious; that it stems from an experience of near chaos; that it is long term and dialectical; and that its agents are more likely to be charwomen and shopkeepers than pontiffs and professors - all this is to argue against the grain. It is to argue that the theology which we most readily recognize and practice is in fact neither primary nor seminal but secondary and derivative: theologia secunda."
This is to say, in the words of Prosper of Aquitaine, that “it is the law of worship which founds or establishes the law of belief.” “Something vastly mysterious” occurs, however unpredictably, when the church stands in the Presence of the Lord, and it is only grace and charity that “permit the assembly, like Moses, to come away whole from such an encounter, and even then it is with wounds which are as deep as they are salutary.” Kavanagh continues,
"Standing before the living God is a risky business. People dare to do so not because they are irrational but because they have found it plausible that they, like others before them (even Moses), might do so without actually being incinerated, and that the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages of not doing so, the deity remaining all the while alarmingly unpredictable. Whom God loves he chastises. It is risky to sit at the Lord’s table, and there is absolutely no certainty that one will not end up on it with one’s own body broken, one’s own blood poured out. But it is plausible in faith that one might risk the whole thing and even be the better for it."
This is powerful stuff. I think that not everyone will find their liturgical service to be this unsettling (and some are themselves unsettled by those that do, so this is an interesting topic). But my intention is to draw attention to poetic and artistic aspects of human experience that are this powerful, this archaic, and this challenging - and to suggest that they are indeed liturgical. I think Eshleman's comment highlights what we can now see as the primordially liturgical and theological nature (in Kavanagh's sense of prima theologia) of all poetic and artistic languages. (On this see George Steiner's two remarkable booksReal Presences and Grammars of Creation and Simon Schama's treatment of Mark Rothko). (For more on Kavanagh & Ivan Illich & Corbin as well see my unpublished essay The Break with the World).
Corbin's vision of the Lost Speech suggests to me ways of understanding the essential pluralities of religion in something like the way we understand artistic creation and variety: not Christianity but christianities; islams, not Islam; judaisms, not Judaism - and this simply reflects the actual histories of these complex and powerful religious phenomena. (One useful book that comes to mind as I write this is Robert Inchausti's Subversive Orthodoxy, now sadly out of print but worth seeking out). I like to think that part of Corbin's legacy lies in this direction - in understanding the consequences for the prophetic tradition of the primordial strength of the creative imagination and the heritage of the archaic, of the nomadic, and of the shamanic roots of Central Asian Sufism (as Murat Nemet-Nejat has proposed - see this earlier post). We need to see the whole sweep of the religions of the Book embedded in the archaic (knowing that the "archaic" is an archetype and not a phenomenon of linear time) and extending into a post-Islamic and, one hopes, ecumenical future, where all three of the traditional monotheisms can retain their dignity and their unique traditions, and remain alive to the messages of a Book that never closes. I give William Blake the last word here:
Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists - A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian
The illustration is of the Exile: Adam & Eve Reproached by the Lord from the Doors of Bishop Bernward (960-1022), Hildesheim Cathedral. Photo from Aloys Butzkamm, Ein Tor zum Paradies: Kunst und Theologie auf der Bronzetur des Hildesheimer Domes. Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2004.