Saturday, March 21, 2009

Left to the Poets

All communications ultimately rely on shared experience, and if the experience is subtle, making it known turns problematical; one can’t rely on adequacy in the listener. The world to which Henry Corbin points, the mundus imaginalis, is actually accessible to us, but our experiences of it, especially if they are mild (as mostly they tend to be), we routinely class as mere emotions; we mislabel and dismiss them.

Corbin himself, writing in preface to his Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, writes as follows about the imaginal realm:

…the fact remains that between the sense perceptions and the … categories of the intellect there has remained a void [in modern times]. That which ought to have taken its place between the two, and which in other times and places did occupy this intermediate space, that is to say the Active Imagination, has been left to the poets.
The poetic and the spiritual are rarely conflated for the simple reason that we class “spiritual” perceptions with religious piety whereas we place the “poetic” in a mental region marked with the sign of Eros; Eros we classify as an inhabitant of the sensate dimension. Herein lies a vast potential for misunderstanding.

The poetically-gifted (in my language “poetic” includes all of the arts) are our most experienced travelers in the imaginal world, not, to be sure, because “imagination” is often involved in the creative arts but because these arts draw their sustenance entirely from the “third” world that Corbin claims modernity has written off. Here the potential for misunderstanding is even more marked. If we select, say, ten novels from the library entirely at random, running through the fiction aisles, maybe with some special luck we’ll manage to pick up one book strongly marked by the poetic spirit. The rest will all be mere entertainment, indeed ordinary secular works. Artistic talent and poetic gifts don’t always coincide. The greats are not always fluent, the clever are rarely poets. Here that common phrase applies: “I know it when I see it.”

There is a Sufi saying that “The mystery hides itself.” This applies with special force to the genuine products of the poetic power. Only those who have ears will hear. The perception remains always private and cannot be socialized—another way of saying that it cannot be conveyed unless the hearer is himself, herself able to hear the message.

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