Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Corbin's Three Levels

One of the most interesting conceptualizations I’ve ever come across is Henry Corbin’s three-level world. He himself would hasten to deny that this projection is his. He would say that it is Persian and that it appears first in the Zoroastrian picture of the cosmos but is then later repeated, at a higher octave, in Shi’ite mysticism. All this is laid out in Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. The book begins this way. The first of several introductions is a presentation of the middle world, the mundus imaginalis.

The three worlds are those of matter, those of the imagination, and those of the intellect. In Corbin’s presentation the middle world is mediating. It mediates between the highest world (cherubic intelligences) and the lowest (the material). The imagination spiritualizes matter and makes intellect accessible through images. The world where this mediation takes place is the mundus imaginalis. This realm is found in the Qur’an [25:53] as the barzak; the barzak it is the separator between two seas, the salty, brackish—and the sweet.

Qur’anic images always resonate better in me than the abstract notions derived from one or another kind of scholasticism. Muhammed was a poet, that is why. Poets rank thinkers. Sorry, but they do. I like the notion of that spit of land separating the brackish from sweet. I’ve been unable to comprehend—genuinely inwardly—the possible attractions of a world of pure intelligence...perhaps because the intelligence means only abstraction to me, nothing  more, and in that I discover, in turn, nothing but a mechanism. But also—and this is really the same issue—I’ve always favored the projections of a Qur’anic heaven, cast in terms of sensual joys over those of the West. We can’t really imagine—I can’t anyway—any kind of heaven in which pure thought produces ecstasies. That might attract the mathematician but certainly not the poet.

To this I would add a couple more comments before I actually get into the core of my reaction. The first of these is that the Mazdaist tradition seems altogether to lack any kind of cherubic level of intellect, as such. Certainly never one expressed as such. I can’t find it—not in Corbin’s summaries presented in the referenced book nor elsewhere. What I do find is magnificent moutain-scapes and waterfalls and goddesses and splendid mansions hugging cliffs. What I find is a grand and uncompromising dualism. That’s preliminary comment one.

Preliminary comment two is that in Corbin’s exposition of the mundus imaginalis I never encounter any discussion of the highest world, the world of Intelligence. The middle world might mediate, but Corbin does not discuss, beyond mentioning and pointing to, the third world, the cherubic. And the reason for this, I suspect, is that the highest level is just a place-holder, is only present by way of completing a triad. It isn’t important for Corbin. His interest is in that second, median world. He is the prophet of the mundus imaginalis; he found it; he is bringing it to the West.

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If we seek Corbin’s actual project, it is to establish the reality of the spiritual world. He conceived of our world as having retained two worlds, the physical and the intellectual, and to have abandoned the third. For the moment let’s not label it; but what he clearly had in mind was the spiritual. He pictured the modern world as active in understanding the material universe (by practicing science) and to have continued to maintain a world of thought (by practicing philosophy). But in this process meaning has been lost, the soul has been abandoned. Thus he sets out to rediscover Atlantis, as it were. And he does discovers it: it is the mundus imaginalis. He chooses the imagination as its active force and expression, contrasting it to intellect on the one hand and sensory perception on the other. This matches what he observes in modern life where, on the one hand, all of reality is based on measurable physical phenomena on the one hand and philosophy in its analytical forms has become a juggling with concepts, concerned therefore purely with language. (This, mind you, is an interpretation of Corbin, not what, in so many words, he expresses in precisely this way.) Imagination serves a very good purpose here. In modernity it is the fictitious, frivolous, and the fantastic. It is derived from matter in modern psychology and is also classed with the sensory in scholastic circles. Therefore, seeking an organ for the detection of the soul, he finds imagination, separates it from the physical, gives it rank and status, and raises it to a high rank, below the intellect but above the sensory. And, furthermore, being the organ for the detection of the immaterial, he also renders it immortal.

Terrific, I would say. Laudable. Corbin is right, of course. We have abandoned the spiritual—and, doing so, we’ve abandoned our essence. He projects a middle world to make room for the soul. But it is a middle world only because he ranks the intellect so high. In this he conforms to the traditions at least of the western world. We find this in ancient Greece already, worked to a very sharp point indeed in Plotinus. But, alas, for me, something doesn’t resonate. But what?

Let me try to give expression to this what. I find it hopelessly difficult to separate the functions of the self enough to make them genuinely free-standing realities. By this I mean intellect, feeling, willing, imagination, intuition, and perception. To me all of these things are ultimately and irreducibly one. I cannot separate any one of these forces one from the other even for a nanosecond and still retain a coherent sense of what a true agent, a conscious self, might be. Nor can I therefore reasonably give these powers a hierarchical arrangement—or conceive of reality as ordered by them in a tri-partite or any other arrangement. Schopenhauer, for instance, would deify the will, not the intellect. Same problem.

No. One cosmos, one order, a single integration. I don’t deny a hierarchical arrangement of reality. Something about that concepts everything within me finds almost self-evident. But the way I feel it, think it, intuit and imagine it, the cosmos presents itself at its very highest level just as it does at its very lowest. You might say that up there, in the cherubic realm, the cherubs have delights and joys, and insights, and see wondrous images as, down here, we do as well. It’s all in the degree. No facet of the cosmic diamond predominates anywhere—or is absent even in the deepest chasm of reality.

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Henry Corbin’s thought delighted me from the moment I encountered it years ago in a volume titled Swedenborg an Esoteric Islam. And he continues to delight me. I’m not criticizing, here, far from it. I’m engaged in sorting my thoughts about his very up-to-date and very helpful contributions to a new age that is in process of birth.

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