"...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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Monday, November 24, 2008

Corbin's Poetics

In his late writings Henry Corbin articulated particularly clearly a powerful vision of the unity of the religions of Abraham. It is a mystical and esoteric view of these religions, in that it gives precedence to the inner significance of religious experience rather than to the social forms that contain and channel the potent forces to which religious experience can give rise. These logocentric religions share a story that centers on the revelation of the Word of God. Corbin writes,

"The drama common to all the ‘religions of the Book,’ or better said, to the community that the Qur’an designates as Ahl al-Kitab, the community of the Book, and that encompasses the three great branches of the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), can be designated as the drama of the “Lost Speech.” And this because the whole meaning of their life revolves around the phenomenon of the revealed holy Book, around the true meaning of this Book. If the true meaning of the Book is the interior meaning, hidden under the literal appearance, then from the instant that men fail to recognize or refuse this interior meaning, from that instant they mutilate the unity of the Word, of the Logos, and begin the drama of the ‘Lost Speech.’ "

For Corbin much of Judaic, Christian and Islamic history can only be understood if we see it as the theater in which the drama of the conflict between the literal and the hidden meaning of the Word is played out. To the degree that the Word becomes only public property, to that degree is the true meaning lost. I think it is fair to say that all Corbin’s work was at root devoted to illustrating deep commonalities between the mystical and often heretical traditions within Christianity and Islam, and of both with similar movements in Judaism. This effort he understood as akin to the attempts of early Christian hermeneuts to reconcile the stories in the four canonical Gospels. The original work of harmonization written by the Syrian Tatian in the 2nd century took its name from Greek musical theory: his Diatessaron means “according to four.” The traditional name for the underlying unity of the Gospels is the Harmonia evangelica. Corbin suggests that his own work is based upon an underlying Harmonia Abrahamica.

One of Corbin’s early influences, whose importance for his work can’t be over-emphasized, is Johann Georg Hamann. It is Hamann’s view of language I want to single out. In a short but crucial essay that Corbin in fact translated, Hamann writes,

"Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race; even as the garden is older than the ploughed field, painting than script; as song is more ancient than declamation; parables older than reasoning; barter than trade. A deep sleep was the repose of our farthest ancestors; and their movement a frenzied dance. Seven days they would sit in the silence of deep thought or wonder; - and would open their mouths to utter winged sentences. The senses and passions speak and understand nothing but images. The entire store of human knowledge and happiness consists in images. The first outburst of creation, and the first impression of its recording scribe; - the first manifestation and the first enjoyment of Nature are united in the words: Let there be Light! Here beginneth the feeling for the presence of things. … Speak, that I may see Thee! This wish was answered by Creation, which is an utterance to created things through created things… . The fault may lie where it will (outside us or within us): all we have left in nature for our use is fragmentary verse and disjecta membra poetae. To collect these together is the scholar’s modest part; the philosopher’s to interpret them; to imitate them, or – bolder still – to adapt them, the poet’s. To speak is to translate – from the tongue of angels into the tongue of men, that is to translate thoughts into words – things into names – images into signs… ."

The language of poetry is as close as we can get to the language of the angels. It is a language of images, of imagination. And the imagination is central to the psycho-cosmology that Corbin describes in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi and in Shi’ism. Nature itself speaks, and it takes a special kind of attention to hear it. As Hamann wrote elsewhere,

"It takes more than physics to explain nature. Physics is only the abc. Nature is an equation of unknowable grandeur; a Hebrew word of which only the consonants are written, and to which the understanding must add the diacritical vowels. "

Corbin’s account of Western history traces the progressive loss of the Breath of Compassion that articulates those vowels and so gives life and soul to the world. He warns us that the history of the West has been the theater for the Battle for the Soul of the World. He calls us to struggle in that long combat by turning towards the inner recesses where the Angel of the Earth and the Angel of Humanity dwell. His emphasis is on the Light that illuminates the path of the mystic out of this world in which we are in exile. On his view, perhaps the most crucial event in this long history was the loss in the Christian West in the 12th century, of the angelic hierarchies of Avicenna and Neoplatonism that had provided the connection between the individual and the divine. The loss of the intermediate world of the Imagination that they inhabit, of the realm of the imaginal, occasioned all the schisms that split the West: religion and philosophy, thought and being, intellect and ethics, God and the individual.

From the first to the last then, Corbin tells a tale of human life in which the place of language and the Word is central, and in which the quest for the lost language of God and the angels is the fundamental problem. It is the question that underlies the unity of the three branches of the Abrahamic tradition.

From: Green Man, Earth Angel adapted by the author.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Henry Corbin and American Poetry - Part 1

The American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) is known to have been influenced by the work of Henry Corbin though little has been written on the connection. I offer these notes as a guide for the interested reader.

This from Dr. Donald Wellman at Daniel Webster College:

"The key text for Olson seems to have been an article, "Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism." [this is in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, Trans. R. Manheim, J. Morris, London: Kegan Paul International, 1983. The essay was delivered at Eranos in 1951 and published in 1952 in the Eranos Jahrbuch]. Olson shared his thoughts on Ismaili philosophy with Leroy Jones (later Amiri Baraka) who published an essay on the topic in his literary journal Floating Bear [originally edited with Diane Di Prima who took over in 1963]. Ralph Maud has published a complete inventory of Olson's readings including his markings in the margins of different texts. He produces a Minutes of the Olson Society with fascinating detail. [See The Charles Olson Society]. Most who have commented on Olson and Corbin refer to the book on Avicenna. See also Tom Clark's book Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life. New York: Norton, 1991, pp. 282-3."

Clark writes as follows:

"In late 1960 Olson found a new spiritual guide to the ritual work of verse, a French scholar of medieval Arabic thought, Henry Corbin, whose essay 'Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism' he discovered in a Jungian yearbook. Corbin's formulation of medieval Muslim mystical belief offered a fresh response to 'that question of a poet's images and his coming into possession of them leading to ...cosmology,' increasingly the central question of poetics for Olson. In Corbin's description of the Ismaili angelology of person, each personified angel or spiritual adept, observing a particularized 'total time of his own measure,' rode the cyclic homing-beams of a cosmic 'thought that is thought through him' back into soul origins in a timeless paradise of genesis. The process of spiritual exegesis or perpetual return, called by the medievel Ismaili philosophers ta'wil, was identified by Olson - as hinted in his largely baffling essay "Gramar - 'a book,'" published in LeRoi Jones' Floating Bear in 1961 - with his own idea of a poetic 'middle voice,' syntax of autonomic measure. The concept of ta'wil also provided him a talisman of the personal meaning of eternity: on the page margins of Corbin's definition of the term he scrawled an exultant "WOW," and beneath it the underscored summary comment "history." Like Corbin's Arabs, he had himself long stubbornly construed history not as a linear progression but as an endless circling back to an "obdurate, or ...archaic time or condition." To see, and experience, history as cyclic return allowed one to simultaneously escape its power "as a 'fate,'" in these years as much a motive in Olson's poetry as (he now learned from Jung) it had once been in archaic mystery rites designed to "break the 'compulsion of the stars' by magic power." The cosmological imagery derived from Corbin entered Olson's epic in 1961, with "Maximus at the Harbor." Written during a dramatic early-winter storm on Cape Ann, it was an anthem of the "progressive rise" of self and soul through the chaotic whirl of natural process: "Paradise is a person. Come into this world. / The soul is a magnificent Angel, / And the thought of its thought is the rage / of Ocean...." " (Clark, 282-3.)

Olson also refers to the Ismailis in "A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul" (1968) which can be found in Rothenberg & Joris, Poems for the Millennium Volume 2, 410-11.

I have recently been alerted to this very interesting essay, "Divining Word" by Dale Smith on Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Edward Dorn and their relation to Corbin.

In Charles Olson's Reading: A Biography, by Ralph Maud we find that Corbin's Avicenna and the Visionary Recital was also an important text for Olson. He listed it, along with a diverse array of other books, including Jung's Psychology & Alchemy as an essential text for a proposed graduate seminar. It also served as a reference for the Maximus poem of 11 Feb 1966 which begins "the Mountain of no difference" (p. 501 in the Maximus Poems). It is also a source for a late addition to "The Animate versus the Mechanical, and Thought" (30 April 1969) p. 368 in Olson's Collected Prose.

NOTE: I find no mention of Corbin in the indexes to any of ten volumes of the Olson - Creeley Correspondence: Olson, Charles, Robert Creeley, George F. Butterick, and Richard Blevins. Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980-1996.