In his classic essay, Mundus Imaginalis, Henry Corbin attempts to articulate the distinction between the imaginal and the imaginary. This distinction has been necessary for discussion since Western scholars took a turn towards Averroism in the twelfth century. At this fork in the Western philosophical road, the acceptance of aspects of Averroes’ philosophy, particularly his cosmology, over that of Avicenna, led to the disparagement of imagination even down to our day and age.
There is a confusion in the West about imagination. We have been led to believe, since the twelfth century, that all things imagined are not as important as material things, or even that they are unreal. Corbin draws the distinction of 1) imaginatio vera, true Imagination, which corresponds to the Mundus Imaginalis; and 2) personal fantasies, which he calls “imaginary.”
Prior to this cleavage of being, the ancient world enjoyed an undifferentiated consciousness:
The ancients–and by the ancients I mean the Greeks, the Romans, and the Graeco-Roman Christians–the ancients experienced an awareness open to what lay around them, and they experienced no sense of dichotomy between their awareness and everything else. What they found in their own minds or intellects was of like character with much of what was outside it; what they found in the world could in large part move directly into their minds and be possessed by it. There was an ontological continuity between what happened in their intellects and what happened in the kosmos or world (F. Edward Cranz, unpublished ms, The Reorientation of Western Thought c. 1100 A.D., qtd. in The World Turned Inside Out, by Tom Cheetham, pg. 120.).
Tom Cheetham comments,
And, so, thanks to our “history of being,” we confound the esoteric with the subjective (and therefore the “unreal”) and the exoteric with the objective (and therefore the “real”) (The World Turned Inside Out, pg. 120).
Cranz sees no way back to the ancients’ mode of consciousness; Corbin seems to think there is a way. He believes the Mundus Imaginalis was lost due to the decadence of Western rationalism:
Whenever imagination strays and is wasted recklessly, when it ceases to fulfill its function of perceiving and producing the symbols that lead to inner intelligence, the mundus imaginalis…may be considered to have disappeared (Mundus Imaginalis, by Henry Corbin).
This realm of the Eighth Clime, as it is described in Islam, is lost to our current mode of consciousness, that of empiricism and ratiocination. The good news, however, is that our Western mode of consciousness is changing, is returning to an ontology that recognizes a reality more encompassing than simply things perceived by the physical senses. I personally feel the work of thinkers like C.G. Jung, James Hillman, Henry Corbin, and many others have led us back to the fork in the road and have enabled us to retrace our steps, thus bringing us to a better understanding of the role of human imagination in our lives. I prefer to think we already have recovered that path and are currently on a journey beyond the mountain of Qaf.
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