"...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, January 26, 2010

More Notes on Henry Corbin & Charles Olson - (Corbin & Poetry #17)

Henry Corbin & Charles Olson At the Harbor [1]

(Eric Mottram's essay has made it unnecessary for me to spend any more time tracking down Olson's references to Corbin. It seems I found everything of importance anyway. At some point in the future I hope to write something about Mottram's reading of Olson's (and other's) use of Corbin. The following is what I had on Olson & Corbin prior to discovering Mottram's piece and there are some things mentioned here that Mottram does not discuss. So there is perhaps enough of interest to justify posting it, thought it is simply an annotated chronology. I refer the interested reader to Mottram. If anyone finds errors of fact or omission I'd appreciate hearing about them.)
[This is an update of Corbin & Poetry - Part 12]

Ralph Maud suggests that Olson’s move into Corbin’s work on the Ismailis and angelology was a kind of final “circumvallum” which some might find hard to follow.[2] Charles Stein writes that “Olson read Corbin with great excitement, intensity and care.”[3] By late 1960 Olson had found “Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism” in Joseph Campbell’s 1957 collection Man and Time: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks.[4] In March of 1961 he wrote “LATER TYRIAN BUSINESS” using some material from Corbin’s text.[5]
            Of particular importance to Olson was the notion of the “middle voice” which is indeed a central theme of “Cyclical Time” but which Olson had latched onto several years earlier. The term first appears in Olson’s “Tyrian Businesses”[6] written in the spring of 1953. In May of 1961 Olson published “Grammar – a book” in Floating Bear #7, edited by Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones, in which he further plays with notion of the “middle voice” so it was clearly still actively engaging his attention. He got the idea from Stefan Wolpe, a pianist and composer who taught at Black Mountain from 1952 to 1956. Wolpe had told him that the middle voice is “the thing that makes music work.”[7] This is the perfect context for approaching Corbin’s use of the idea, given how profoundly Corbin thought and felt in musical terms. In late October 1961 Olson wrote “Maximus, at the Harbor” which is shot through with references to Corbin’s essay, in particular to what is perhaps the core of Corbin’s thinking on phenomenology and “angelology” – the ontological significance of the middle voice in revealing the action of the Angel in us.[8]
            A brief and cryptic page of the Maximus Poems, II.47, probably written in 1961, mentions the Cinvat Bridge with no explanatory context at all.[9] It is a central image from “Cyclical Time.” The allusion occurs again in “Maximus at the Harbor” in the image of “the Angel out ahead” who the soul will meet. In July, 1963 Olson made his thoughts more explicit:

There is that beautiful idea of the Muslims that you’re walking towards that angel – the actual occurrence is on the Cinvat Bridge in the text. There is this angel who’s coming towards you as you are coming towards him. And there’s moment when you pass through your angel and become the creature, not of the two, but of the fact that you are without any chance involved with another figure who is you, who is coming towards you in time as you proceed forward in time. And at the moment that you pass, you then are something that that angel was, and you’re no longer that thing you were.[10]

Ralph Maud comments: “Working here is Olson’s great wish to see mundane acts intersected with eternal events. This produces an adjustment to the eschatological narrative, but not out of range of what Corbin’s texts essentially propose.”[11] Maud has it exactly right – Corbin indeed shared Olson’s great wish, and all his work can be read as a elaboration of what such a vision of human life entails.
            Olson taught at the University of Buffalo from 1963 to 1965. In November 1963 not far outside the city in a conversation transcribed and published as “Under the Mushroom” Olson refers to the “Mohammedan” idea of eternity that he had found in “Cyclical Time.”[12] During his time at the University he composed “A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul” which includes mention of “Ismaili muslimism” and “the Norse and the Arabs” – clearly derivations from Corbin. A group of his students established The Institute of Further Studies, which published a series of pamphlets detailing aspects of Olson’s plan. The “Curriculum” itself was published in 1968.[13] The individual components of the plan were expanded by various people and appeared in series from 1972 to 2002.[14] Of most interest here is Michael Bylebyl’s contribution, “Ismaeli Muslimism”[15] which develops Olson’s brief allusions to the contents of the “Cyclical Time” essay.
            In 1960 Avicenna and the Visionary Recital appeared in English. Maud reports that Olson bought a copy on May 15, 1965 while he was in Buffalo.[16] He clearly had read it by July 1965 since in his Berkeley lecture of July 20th, published as “Causal Mythology,” he quotes a story of the angels who dictate and the angels who write from the “Recital of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.” [17] These Guardians and Scribes are mentioned again in 1966 in a transcribed conversation published as “Olson in Gloucester.”[18] In his Beloit Lectures of March 1968 he also mentions ta’wil. [19] Olson’s annotations to Avicenna are densest and most enthusiastic in the section on “Ta’wil as Exegesis of the Soul.” Corbin’s text served as a reference for the Maximus poem of 11 February 1966 which begins "the Mountain of no difference".[20] Ralph Maud writes that the Avicenna volume was listed in 1967, along with a diverse array of other books, including Jung's Psychology &  Alchemy, as an essential text for a proposed graduate seminar.[21] The July 1968 essay “‘CLEAR, SHINING WATER,’ de Vries says” also is concerned in part with the meaning of ta’wil.[22] The conversation of August 1968 published as “Interview in Gloucester[23] begins with references to ta’wil and to Avicenna as poet and storyteller. His concern is to articulate the duality of ta’wil  which he takes to be “both topological and etymological.”[24] Here he wants to compare it in some way with the Old Norse samtal, which means “dialogue” or “conversation” in an attempt to get at the roots of language as creative and dialogical. Olson returns to “Cyclical Time” in “A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul” (1968)[25] and in a late addition to "The Animate versus the Mechanical, and Thought" of 30 April 1969.[26] Olson’s final writing, his “death-bed summation of his concerns and beliefs”[27] dated December 16, 1969, draws in some small measure on themes from both “Cyclical Time” and Avicenna.[28] Hee H died on January 10, 1970.

[1] I want to extend my thanks to Ralph Maud and Duncan McNaughton who provided invaluable information and comments.
[2] Ralph Maud, Charles Olson's Reading: A Biography, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, 8.
[3] Charles Stein, The Secret of the Black Chysanthemum, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1979, 162.
[4] New York: Pantheon Books, 1957.
[5] Maximus II, 36.
[6] Maximus I.35-40.
[7] Butterick, Guide, 59.
[8] Maximus II, 70-1. See Ralph Maud, Charles Olson at the Harbor, Vancouver: Talon Books, 2008; and George F. Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
[9] Butterick, Guide, 317.
[10] “On History,” Charles Olson, Muthologos: The Collected lectures and Interviews, Vol. I, Edited by George Butterick, Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978, 15-16.
[11] Maud, un-published commentary.
[12] “Under the Mushroom,” Muthologos Vol. 1, 60-61.
[13] A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul, Buffalo: Institute of Further Studies, 1968. 22 pp.
[14] Glover, Albert, ed. A Curriculum of the Soul 1-28, Canton, NY: Institute of Further Studies, 1972-2002.
[15] Michael Bylebyl, Ismaili Muslimism, Institute of Further Studies, 1972.
[16] Maud, 1996, 160 and note p. 309.
[17] Causal Mythology, transcribed and edited by Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1969), a lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, 20 July 1965. Quote from Corbin on p. 13. The passage in Avicenna is on p. 148.
[18] in Muthologos, Vol 1, 192-3.
[19] Poetry & Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems, by Charles Olson, Transcribed & Edited by George F. Butterick, San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1971.
[20] III.124, p. 501 in the Maximus Poems . See Butterick Guide,  629-30.
[21] Maud, 1996, 201-202.
[22] Charles Olson, Collected Prose, Ed. Donald Allen and Ben Friedlander, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, 364-6.
[23] Muthologos Vol 2, 84-104.
[24] op. cit., 84, 87.
[25] which can be found in Rothenberg & Joris, Poems for the Millennium Volume 2, 410-11.
[26] Collected Prose, 368-70.
[27] Stein, 1976, 156.
[28] Maud, 1996, 205. This text is reproduced in Stein, 1976.

Photo: June, 1963 - Charles Olson in front of the sea - Gloucester.

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