Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where is the Land Beyond the Borderzone?

We are hemmed in by our own spatially habituations.  In day-to-day experience, we reach east, west, north, and south  by travelling on a surface, and any direction may be hilly or flat. But we are now also habituated to picturing ourselves living on a globe. Hence north is up and, as the Australians say, south is “down under.” Apart from this globe-knowledge, we don’t think of living above the ground or beneath it. We reserve the heights and depths for transcendental realms. We picture the good up high ( “heaven” or Olympus) and the bad in the depths (“hell,” sheol (“pit” or “abyss”), inferno (“below”)). But these realms are not, for us, literally Up or Down. We’ve been to the Moon. We have crawlers on Mars. And all of those place also have their four directions—and the skies above.

A quite delightful discussion of this subject, if you enjoy the arcane, is presented in the initial chapter of Henry Corbin’s book, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. The chapter’s title is “Orientation.” In that discussion Corbin suggests that the Iranian Sufis discovered the beyond in the east, the Orient, but he modifies that superficial understanding of orient. He says:

Now one of the leitmotive of Iranian Sufi literature is the “Quest for the Orient,” but this is a Quest for an Orient which, as we are forewarned (if we do not already realize), is not—and cannot be—situated on our geographical maps. This Orient is not comprised of any of the seven climes (keshvar); it is in fact the eighth clime. And the direction in which we must seek this “eight clime” is not on the horizontal but on the vertical. This suprasensory, mystical Orient, the place of the Origin and of the Return, object of the eternal Quest, is at the heavenly pole; it is the Pole, at the extreme north, so far off that it is the threshold of the dimension “beyond.” That is why it is only revealed to a definite mode of presence in the world, and can be revealed only through this mode of presence. There are other modes to which it will never be revealed. It is precisely this mode of presence that characterizes the mode of being of the Sufi, but also, through his person, the mode of being of the entire spiritual family to which Sufism—and especially Iranian Sufism—belongs. The Orient sought by the mystic, the Orient that cannot be located on our maps, is in the direction of the north, beyond the north. Only an ascensional progress can lead toward this cosmic north chosen as a point of orientation. [p. 2]

For sticklers, leitmotive is the German plural, so there is no typo there. The “seven climes” derive from Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy actually started with 33 zones, later reduced them to 11, finally to seven, and these were then widely used in references by Arabs and Persians.

The general rules for navigation by, call them astral, travelers, are well laid out by Corbin. We’re talking about transcending places. In one paragraph he accounts both for East and North. To this we might add that the Celtic other worlds, most prominently Tirnanog, are located to the West—although the ship, as it sails off in the direction, rises in the air. And if you are in doubt consult The Lord of the Rings for more authority. That only leaves the South unaccounted for. Alas, I’m only now beginning my ant-like progress into Mayan, Inca, and Aztec cultures. For all I know they might complete the picture. But it is true. When something is really beyond, we’re up a creek. And we must do with whatever happens to be handy.

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