Saturday, March 21, 2009

Henry Corbin

Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a great, original, but obscure French philosopher, no doubt the most searching interpreter of Iranian religious culture to the West in the twentieth century—but by no means restricted to that scope. Most of his writings are centered on Mazdaism and Shi’ite Islam. A truly excellent introduction to Corbin is Tom Cheetham’s The World Turned Inside Out. That book, as I’m sure Cheetham himself would agree, is a mere introduction to Corbin, much as Corbin’s entire opus is itself but an introduction to a vast cultural treasure no one can casually absorb. Great obscurity—but equally great splendors—await those who enter here.

Corbin is perhaps best known for introducing the concept of the imaginal world, what he labeled the mundus imaginalis. Not to be confused with the imaginary or with the fantastic, Corbin placed this realm in an intermediate cosmic space between the world of matter and the world of pure intellect, a plane of visionary experience, to which our access is by means of a power Corbin associated with the true imagination, Paracelsus’ imaginatio vera, a visionary power Paracelsus placed in the heart. A culture that cannot recognize this faculty in man and does not help it to develop is doomed to a flat cosmic landscape and an existence polarized between sensory perception and intellectual speculation, unaware of a vertical orientation that gives meaning to existence.

I came across Corbin in an odd way. I was reading an article in Arcana: Inner Dimensions of Spirituality, a journal centered on Swedenborg’s teachings. It occurred to me that Swedenborg’s experiences and those of the twelfth-thirteenth century Ibn el-Arabi had a great many parallels. I sent an e-mail to Leonard Fox, then the editor of Arcana, and suggested that someone ought to be commissioned to write an article on this linkage. Fox answered by suggesting that I read Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam by Henry Corbin, which Fox himself had translated from French into English. I’d never heard of Corbin before. For me this was a significant discovery—and the recommended book my introduction. The first half of the book is titled Mundus Imaginalis—thus I began at the most crucial node of Corbin’s own teachings.

An excellent general-purpose entry point for anyone is Cheetham’s website entitled The Legacy of Henry Corbin.

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