"...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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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Coming Into the World: Henry Corbin & the Exegesis of the Soul

I will be publishing a pair of essays in the next two issues of Sacred Web, 25 (Summer - to be available in June or July) and 26 (Winter). These provide readings of two important  texts of Corbin's. I'll post a note when these issues appear. Below is a brief excerpt from the first essay (without footnotes).

Coming Into the World - Henry Corbin & the Exegesis of the Soul:  Part I – Cyclical Time

In what follows we will be trying to set out the “schema of the worlds” in which Corbin finds his key concepts – ta’wil perhaps pre-eminent among them. Two texts in particular will claim our attention: the essay on “cyclical time” that Corbin wrote for the 1951 Eranos Conference when he was 48 years old, and some sections from his first major book Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, published in French in 1954.  They are important early products of his maturity as a scholar and thinker, and are exceptionally rich and dense with ideas. A close reading shows that very many of the major themes of his later work are already present. This alone makes these texts worthy of attention. They are also the first of his works to be published in English and therefore the first to be read by any number of non-specialist readers. Both appeared as part of the Bollingen Series, established by the Bollingen Foundation to make available the works of C.G. Jung and his colleagues at Eranos.  And both were read by Charles Olson, who seems to have been the first major American poet to have come across Corbin’s writing. Olson had a significant influence on the dissemination of Corbin’s work beyond the community of orientalists in the English-speaking world. This is a further reason to look closely at these foundational texts.
    Some of the history of the reception of Corbin’s work among American poets has been chronicled and analyzed by the English poet, critic and teacher Eric Mottram (see here).  His essay on the meaning of ta’wil for the practice of poetry reviews the influence of Corbin’s work on Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Robert Kelly among others. As he shows in some detail, the chief sources for Olson were the “Cyclical Time” essay and the Avicenna book, particularly certain portions of the latter. In all likelihood Olson also would have read Corbin’s “The Time of Eranos” which served as the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s 1957 collection Man and Time in which “Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism” appeared. Duncan and the others had access to Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi which was published in English after Olson’s death. Mottram provides not only an account of the use these authors made of Corbin but in doing so, a reading of Corbin that repays further attention by all who are interested in the implications of Corbin’s work  for creative artists in the modern world. It is worth providing a reading of these texts that were studied with such intensity by these important figures in American literary life in the 20th century.

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