Henry Corbin and the Archetypal Realm

Henry Corbin and the Archetypal Realm

Nicholas Roerich “Song of Shambhala”

The active Imagination is the preeminent mirror, the epiphanic place of the Images of the archetypal world; that is why the theory of the mundus imaginalis is bound up with a theory of imaginative knowledge and imaginative function–a function truly central and mediatory, because of the median and mediatory position of the mundus imaginalis. It is a function that permits all the universes to symbolize with one another (or exist in symbolic relationship with one another) and that leads us to represent to ourselves, experimentally, that the same substantial realities assume forms corresponding respectively to each universe (for example, Jabalqa and Jabarsa correspond in the subtle world to the Elements of the physical world, while Hurqalya corresponds there to the Sky). It is the cognitive function of the Imagination that permits the establishment of a rigorous analogical knowledge, escaping the dilemma of current rationalism, which leaves only a choice between the two terms of banal dualism: either “matter” or “spirit,” a dilemma that the “socialization” of consciousness resolves by substituting a choice that is no less fatal: either “history” or “myth” (Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal, by Henry Corbin).

French philosopher and theologian, Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was one of the most important intellectuals and scholars of the twentieth century. I first heard of him in the mid ’90’s, after immersing myself in the writings of James Hillman. The latter saw him as a carrier of the torch of Soul, when many in those days were denying its value. In 1949, Corbin attended the Eranos Conference in Asconia, Switzerland, in which he would play a large role, along with C.G Jung.

Most of us are aware of what Corbin means in the above passage by “active imagination.” If you’re not, read Gary Lachman’s wonderful essay at Reality Sandwich.

We know the power and value of this gift that Jung rediscovered for our generation. It was by no means a Jungian invention, for mystics and seers have used it for millennia to enter another, more subtle world. Corbin dubs this realm mundus imaginalis,  the world of the imaginal. He uses “imaginal” to differentiate from “imaginary,” and the disparaging connotations it carries in our rationalistic culture.

Corbin’s worldview requires a complete cosmology and metaphysics of presence. The West once possessed this, but lost it when the Aristotelianism of Averroes swept aside the Avicennan cosmology in the twelfth century. From that point on, the emphasis would be on res extensa and res cogitans.

Our typical idea of historical consciousness of a world of cold, dead objects and linear time will not work here. According to Tom Cheetham, “the human presence spatializes a world around it in accordance with the mode of being of that presence” (The World Turned Inside Out, p 66). This is very Heideggerian, reminding me much of Dasein. In fact, Heidegger was a major influence on Corbin’s work. This mode of being requires a qualitative, not a quantitative space. Our normal idea of space is much too limited for the limitless depths of Soul. That is why our urge to personify machines, as in the seemingly never-ending quest for so-called artificial intelligence, will never produce anything more than a cold, lifeless calculator.

The mundus imaginalis is the realm of Soul, the metaxy, mediating between the physical and spiritual universes. It is the middle course Icarus was instructed to fly by his father, but disobeyed and perished. It is the abode of the Archetypal Images of all existence and the realm of all mythology, which provides for us analogical knowledge by which we can peer into multiple levels of being. Cheetham says,

It is a measure of the depth of the catastrophe to which we have succumbed that we have come to regard this realm as just a fantasy in our heads. It is a realm of Being with its own characteristics, its own laws, and to which we have access by an organ of cognition appropriate to just this realm. The organ of cognition that gains us access to this universe is the active Imagination. It has a cognitive function just as fundamental as sensation or intellection, and like them, it must be trained. Therefore there are a perfectly objective imaginative perception, an imaginative knowledge, and an imaginative consciousness (ibid, p 69-70).

 I don’t know about you, but these are very exciting ideas.

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