Monday, November 9, 2009

Gryphons! Background Notes

The next two articles will be some information that should probably have come first for this series. I always do things bass-ackward around here! This information will largely be about thinking and theories on just what the "imaginal realm" is, if indeed there is one-I believe there is. Henry Corbin (14 April 1903-7 October 1978) was a philosopher, theologian, and professor of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. As a boy he had a profound sensitivity to music. Although he was born a Protestant he was educated in the Catholic tradition and at the age of 19, received a certificate in Scholastic Philosophy from the Catholic Institute of Paris. Three years later he received his "licence de philosophie" under the great Thomist (the philosophical school that arose a a legacy to the work and thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) Etienne Gilson.

In 1928 he encountered the formidable Louis Massignon, director of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne, and he introduced Corbin to the writings of Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian philosopher and mystic whose work was to have a huge impact on Corbin's life. The stage was set for a personal drama that had deep signficance for understanding those cultures whose roots lie in both ancient Greece and the prophetic relgions of the Near East going all the way back to Zoroaster.

Years later Corbin said, "through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed. Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia, illuminated the path that I was seeking."

Corbin is responsible for redirecting the study of Islamic philosophy as a whole. In his Histoire de la philosophie islamique (1964), he disproved the common view that philosophy among the Muslims came to an end after Ibn Rushd, demonstrating rather that a lively philosophical activity persisted in the Muslim World-especially Iran and continues to our own time. The philosophical work or Corbin can be divided into 3 phases. The first is the 1920s and 1930s, when he was involved in learning and teaching western philosophy. The second is the years between 1939 and 1946, in which he studied Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination in Istanbul. The last begins at 1946 until his death, in which he studied and reintroduced eastern and Islamic philosophy.

It is the second and last phases of Corbin's life that are most important to us. In 1949, Corbin first attended the annual Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Switzerland, where he was to become a major figure along with Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Gershom Scholem, Adolf Portmann and many others. In 1954, he succeeded Louis Massignon in the Chair of Islam and the Religions of Arabia. From the 1950s he spent autumn in Tehran, winter in Paris and spring is Ascona.

The 3 major works upon which his reputation is largely based in the English speaking world were first published in French in the 1950s: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Creative Imagination in the Sufiism of Ibn 'Arabi' and Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth. His later work on Central Asian and Iranian Sufisim appears in English with an introduction by Zia Inayat Khan as The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. His magnum opus, as yet untranslated, is the four volume En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels philosophiques. His life was spent teaching, working lecturing, and editing critical editions of Persian and Arabic manuscripts. His published work includes over 200 critical editions, translations, books and articles. He presented his last paper in June 1978, entitiled "Eyes of Flesh, Eyes of Fire: the Science of Gnosis." He died later that year.

The term "imaginal realm" is somewhat strange and new to most people. To understand it better we should go to Henry Corbin himself, as he coined the phrase. In his study of Sufi and Persian texts, he discovered that in these literatures there was believed to be a realm that existed above our ordinary three-dimensional reality and consciousness. Some parts of the imagination are clearly unreal. But these same texts also suggest that there is also a place in our minds and imaginations where things are real in a form where they exist independently of the "imaginer"-they have some degree of ontological reality. The imagination would then appear to have two aspects: one is intentionally false; the other comes to us as a "real" place. Corbin used the term mundis imaginalis (imaginary realm) to differentiate between the "imaginary" (i.e. something equated with the unreal or with fantasy) and the "imaginal" (i.e. a world that is ontologically as real as the world we know from our senses and intellect). Something imaginary is "made up" and comes from us, whereas the imaginal comes to us from another realm. The difference would be that of thinking about some fantastic thing like a pink elephant wearing a tutu (imaginary)-and having a dream image of that same elephant (from the imaginal realm).

In Corbin's view and that of Jungian philosophy the motifs, symbols and images that come from the mundus imaginalis are a reality in some dimension other than the sensible and intellectual dimensions that we are more likely to encounter in our workaday world-and that we have been taught (in some societies, like Pavlov's dogs) to value and respect. This concept can be a very difficult one to accept for a person grounded in the materialist and rationalistic perspective. The most unlikely of saviors, however, science is starting to provide a framework for understanding these other realms of being. It can't be stressed enough-and maybe I have gone too far in this blog with these ideas-that science can only take us so far. God, Godhead or Transcendence will never be found in a particle accelerator (although maybe some other things will;-).

These other realms can also be experienced through dreams, prayers, meditation or even when we are moved by some powerful image in our own culture, such as from a film, book, or even the news. I am often very moved by either "real" stories on the news etc-or completely "fictional" stories in books (some books I have read are so good it makes me wonder-only half jokingly here-that the places and characters described in the book might really exist somewhere in some form!). Music also moves my spirit tremendously at times. When an image does make itself known to us, we may be inspired, awestruck, surprised puzzled, or very touched emotionally. Overall these images awaken or stir an emotion or feeling in us.

Looked at from Jungian or archetypal psychology, we are supposed to work with these images not interpret them. Dr. Carl Jung believed that the soul and image/archetype were one and the same. They exist as a mediating factor between body and mind. As a mediating factor, soul/image allows the integration of the body and the mind, which have been so long separated in dualistic consciousness since Descartes, although the split goes back even further in time. Henry Corbin went further in his later work and said that images are the thoughts of the heart and that the heart is the seat of the imagination, which in turn is the true voice of the heart. To speak from the heart is to speak imaginatively. The English poet John Keats said, "I am certain about nothing but the holiness of the hearts affections and the truth of the imagination."

I hope to be back again today with another article -hopefully a bit shorter than this one and to catch up with friends! It is lawyer time now. This is just a strategy meeting and not the actual hearing. All the best to anyone stopping by! I wanted to mention also before I go that there are many fantastic links and comments in the comments section of this blog. Thanks again for all of your intelligent, thoughtful comments and great links and information!


Alex Robinson said...

Devin this was absolutely magical - I loved it - thank you so much for posting it - I need to ponder more on what is here. But I too have had stories that feel so REAL - there is one I still treasure as somehow being outside of this world, something so alive about it that has never left me & there are others that seem to hover on the edge of my consciousness as 'super real' - these are really great ideas on the Imaginal World.

Fantastic - THANKS!! xx

Devin said...

I am glad you thought it was magical alex-i do also!! i really do believe there is an "imaginal" world out/in/everywhere -i wonder if human consciousness can access it to save ourselves in the years ahead? i hope so!!
all the best ot you as always-and remember to take a peek back at the links in the comments that folks have given -really great stuff i would like to get them all together in one post someday!!xx