"...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, June 29, 2010

Turning Inside Out

I want to draw attention to the relation between Corbin's spiritual hermeneutics and the ecological phenomenology of the philosopher and ecologist David Abram. Their approaches to explaining the relations between language and the phenomenology of "turning inside out" seem to be diametrical opposites. Corbin is wholly committed to a hermeneutics of language that is theological and transformational - a "top-down" conception of hermeneutic phenomenology. Abram is wholly secular and his analysis of religious language is, in at least a simple sense, reductive and "bottom-up" as he wants to ground it in our immediate physical experience of the world. Both draw on Heidegger's phenomenology, but Abram turns to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whereas Corbin turns to the Ibn 'Arabi and the Sufis. But things get complicated quite fast and I have long thought that a careful consideration of their opposing views of the nature of language, literacy, reading and the imagination is extremely fertile ground for thought. It may be that in the poetic functions of language their world-views come closest to touching. Much of my writing is implicitly a response to the approach that Abram so very ably articulates. His book The Spell of the Sensuous is truly a remarkable tour-de-force and not to be missed. What follows is an excerpt from my first book, The World Turned Inside Out :

The soul can only be at home in a world ensouled, animated with presences, which are here conceived as Angels. Only by turning inward can the true objectivity of the world of the Anima Mundi be found.

"...[F]or all our esotericists, the interior world designates the spiritual reality of the supersensible universe which, while a spiritual reality, is that which encircles and envelopes the reality of the external world... 'To leave' that which we commonly call the exterior world is an experience not at all 'subjective' but as 'objective' as possible, but it is difficult to transmit this to a spirit wanting to be modern."

Every birth requires the death of that which came before, and so it is here. The Prophet said, "You must die before you die!"  Corbin writes: "...to leave this world, it does not suffice to die. One can die and remain in it forever. One must be living to leave it. Or rather, to be living is just this."   This death to the world of Absence is a birth to the Presence of the World and takes place by a kind of inversion; it is a process of turning inside out. In this blossoming, this triumph of the esoteric, the soul finds that it was a stranger in the world in which it had lived, and that now it has come home:

"...[I]t is a matter of entering, passing into the interior and, in passing into the interior of finding oneself, paradoxically, outside... The relationship involved is essentially that of the external, the visible, the exoteric..., and the internal, the invisible, the esoteric, or the natural and the spiritual world. To depart from the where...is to leave the external or natural appearances that enclose the hidden realities... This step is made in order for the Stranger, the gnostic, to return home - or at least to lead to that return.
    "But an odd thing happens: once this transition is accomplished, it turns out that henceforth this reality, previously internal and hidden, is revealed to be enveloping, surrounding, containing what was first of all external and visible, since by means of interiorization one has departed from that external reality. Henceforth it is spiritual reality that...contains the reality called material."

In this treatment of the gnostic theme of the Stranger, there is no sense of the pessimistic and world denying kind of Gnosticism that seeks only to escape to the Beyond. The escape occurs in this world, by the spiritualization of this world, not by its rejection.

We encounter a strikingly similar phenomenology in David Abram's description of the reanimation of the sensuous world. His work, like Corbin's, is influenced by Heidegger as well as by direct contact with traditional cultures, in particular, those of Indonesia and Nepal. We find in this comparison evidence for the universality of this experience of the anima mundi. Abram too describes a process of "turning inside out."  He writes, in words that apply equally well to the phenomena that Corbin presents to us:

"As we become conscious of the unseen depths that surround us, the inwardness or interiority that we have come to associate with the personal psyche begins to be encountered in the world at large: we feel ourselves enveloped, immersed, caught up within the sensuous world. This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate. As the regime of self reference begins to break down, as we awaken to the air, and to the multiplicitous Others that are implicated, with us, in its generative depths, the shapes around us seem to awaken, to come alive..." [SEE NOTE BELOW]*

Coming to consciousness in this way, and thus realizing that the realities of the soul, or of the psyche, are objective, all encompassing and ubiquitous, means that we are never alone again. In fact, it is only to the degree that we become conscious in this way that we can experience the light of that Presence which is the ultimate source of all personification, of all the presence required for the appearance of persons. Without some degree of this interiorization, without some sense for this anima mundi, we cannot experience persons at all. What we are then left with is a world of absence: of objects existing only in public space and historical time. Paradoxically, the world of the objective public, depends upon the gaze of "no one."  And so for Corbin, a world without Presence becomes a world in which there can no longer be persons.

* NOTE: Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 260. The last chapter in his book is called, in fact, "Turning Inside Out."  Abram is no Sufi and his approach differs in many important respects from Corbin's, particularly with respect to the status of spiritual reality.  Nonetheless they share a sense that imagination must be placed near the center of reality, and their works are mutually illuminating. For another approach to this Event see Hillman's treatment of the phenomenology of interiorization in Hillman, Anima: An Anatomy of a Personified Notion, 1985.

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