Mundus Imaginalis II: THE SPIRITUAL IMAGINATION
By Henri Corbin
We will touch here on the decisive point for which all that precedes has prepared us, namely, the organ that permits penetration into the mundus imaginalis, the migration to the “eighth climate.” What is the organ by means of which that migration occurs—the migration that is the return ab extra ad intra (from the exterior to the interior), the topographical inversion (the intussusception)? It is neither the senses nor the faculties of the physical organism, nor is it the pure intellect, but it is that intermediate power whose function appears as the preeminent mediator: the active Imagination. Let us be very clear when we speak of this. It is the organ that permits the transmutation of internal spiritual states into external states, into vision-events symbolizing with those internal states. It is by means of this transmutation that all progression in spiritual space is accomplished, or, rather, this transmutation is itself what spatializes that space, what causes space, proximity, distance, and remoteness to be there.
A first postulate is that this Imagination is a pure spiritual faculty, independent of the physical organism, and consequently is able to subsist after the disappearance of the latter. Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, among others, has expressed himself repeatedly on this point with particular forcefulness.15 He says that just as the soul is independent of the physical material body in receiving intelligible things in act, according to its intellective power, the soul is equally independent with regard to its imaginative power and its imaginative operations. In addition, when it is separated from this world, since it continues to have its active Imagination at its service, it can perceive by itself, by its own essence and by that faculty, concrete things whose existence, as it is actualized in its knowledge and in its imagination, constitutes eo ipso the very form of concrete existence of those things (in other words: consciousness and its object are here ontologically inseparable). All these powers are gathered and concentrated in a single faculty, which is the active Imagination. Because it has stopped dispersing itself at the various thresholds that are the five senses of the physical body, and has stopped being solicited by the concerns of the physical body, which is prey to the vicissitudes of the external world, the imaginative perception can finally show its essential superiority over sensory perception.
“All the faculties of the soul,” writes Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, “have become as though a single faculty, which is the power to configure and typify (taswīr and tamthīl); its imagination has itself become like a sensory perception of the suprasensory: its imaginative sight is itself like its sensory sight. Similarly, its senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch—all these imaginative senses—are themselves like sensory faculties, but regulated to the suprasensory. For although externally the sensory faculties are five in number, each having its organ localized in the body, internally, in fact, all of them constitute a single synaisthēsis ( ḥiss moshtarik).” The Imagination being therefore like the currus subtilis (in Greek okhēma, vehicle, or [in Proclus, Iamblichus, etc.] spiritual body) of the soul, there is an entire physiology of the “subtle body” and thus of the “resurrection body,” which adrā Shīrāzī discusses in these contexts. That is why he reproaches even Avicenna for having identified these acts of posthumous imaginative perception with what happens in this life during sleep, for here, and during sleep, the imaginative power is disturbed by the organic operations that occur in the physical body. Much is required for it to enjoy its maximum of perfection and activity, freedom and purity. Otherwise, sleep would be simply an awakening in the other world. This is not the case, as is alluded to in this remark attributed sometimes to the Prophet and sometimes to the First Imām of the Shi’ites: “Humans sleep. It is when they die that they awake.”
A second postulate, evidence for which compels recognition, is that the spiritual Imagination is a cognitive power, an organ of true knowledge. Imaginative perception and imaginative consciousness have their own noetic (cognitive) function and value, in relation to the world that is theirs—the world, we have said, which is the ‘ālam al-mithāl, mundus imaginalis, the world of the mystical cities such as Hūrqalyā, where time becomes reversible and where space is a function of desire, because it is only the external aspect of an internal state.
The Imagination is thus firmly balanced between two other cognitive functions: its own world symbolizes with the world to which the two other functions (sensory knowledge and intellective knowledge) respectively correspond. There is accordingly something like a control that keeps the Imagination from wanderings and profligacy, and that permits it to assume its full function: to cause the occurrence, for example, of the events that are related by the visionary tales of Sohravardī and all those of the same kind, because every approach to the eighth climate is made by the imaginative path. It may be said that this is the reason for the extraordinary gravity of mystical epic poems written in Persian (from ‘Attār to Jāmī and to Nūr ‘Alī-Shāh), which constantly amplify the same archetypes in new symbols. In order for the Imagination to wander and become profligate, for it to cease fulfilling its function, which is to perceive or generate symbols leading to the internal sense, it is necessary for the mundus imaginalis—the proper domain of the Malakūt, the world of the Soul—to disappear. Perhaps it is necessary, in the West, to date the beginning of this decadence at the time when Averroism rejected Avicennian cosmology, with its intermediate angelic hierarchy of the Animae or Angeli caelestes. These Angeli caelestes (a hierarchy below that of the Angeli intellectuales) had the privilege of imaginative power in its pure state. Once the universe of these Souls disappeared, it was the imaginative function as such that was unbalanced and devalued. It is easy to understand, then, the advice given later by Paracelsus, warning against any confusion of the Imaginatio vera, as the alchemists said, with fantasy, “that cornerstone of the mad.”16
This is the reason that we can no longer avoid the problem of terminology. How is it that we do not have in French [or in English] a common and perfectly satisfying term to express the idea of the ‘ālam al-mithāl?. I have proposed the Latin mundus imaginalis for it, because we are obliged to avoid any confusion between what is here the object of imaginative or imaginant perception and what we ordinarily call the imaginary. This is so, because the current attitude is to oppose the real to the imaginary as though to the unreal, the utopian, as it is to confuse symbol with allegory, to confuse the exegesis of the spiritual sense with an allegorical interpretation. Now, every allegorical interpretation is harmless; the allegory is a sheathing, or, rather, a disguising, of something that is already known or knowable otherwise, while the appearance of an Image having the quality of a symbol is a primary phenomenon (Urphänomen), unconditional and irreducible, the appearance of something that cannot manifest itself otherwise to the world where we are.
Neither the tales of Sohravardī, nor the tales which in the Shi’ite tradition tell us of reaching the “land of the Hidden Imām,” are imaginary, unreal, or allegorical, precisely because the eighth climate or the “land of No-where” is not what we commonly call a utopia. It is certainly a world that remains beyond the empirical verification of our sciences. Otherwise, anyone could find access to it and evidence for it. It is a suprasensory world, insofar as it is not perceptible except by the imaginative perception, and insofar as the events that occur in it cannot be experienced except by the imaginative or imaginant consciousness. Let us be certain that we understand, here again, that this is not a matter simply of what the language of our time calls an imagination, but of a vision that is Imaginatio vera. And it is to this Imaginatio vera that we must attribute a noetic or plenary cognitive value. If we are no longer capable of speaking about the imagination except as “fantasy,” if we cannot utilize it or tolerate it except as such, it is perhaps because we have forgotten the norms and the rules and the “axial ordination” that are responsible for the cognitive function of the imaginative power (the function that I have sometimes designated as imaginatory).
For the world into which our witnesses have penetrated—we will meet two or three of those witnesses in the final section of this study—is a perfectly real world, more evident even and more coherent, in its own reality, than the real empirical world perceived by the senses. Its witnesses were afterward perfectly conscious that they had been “elsewhere”; they are not schizophrenics. It is a matter of a world that is hidden in the act itself of sensory perception, and one that we must find under the apparent objective certainty of that kind of perception. That is why we positively cannot qualify it as imaginary, in the current sense in which the word is taken to mean unreal, nonexistent. Just as the Latin word origo has given us the derivative “original,” I believe that the word imago can give us, along with imaginary, and by regular derivation, the term imaginal. We will thus have the imaginal world be intermediate between the sensory world and theābād world. When we encounter the Arabic term jism mithālī to designate the “subtle body” that penetrates into the “eighth climate,” or the “resurrection body,” we will be able to translate it literally as imaginal body, but certainly not as imaginary body. Perhaps, then, we will have less difficulty in placing the figures who belong neither to “myth” nor to “history,” and perhaps we will have a sort of password to the path to the “lost continent.”
In order to embolden us on this path, we have to ask ourselves what constitutes our real, the real for us, so that if we leave it, would we have more than the imaginary, utopia? And what is the real for our traditional Eastern thinkers, so that they may have access to the “eighth climate,” to Nā-kojā-Ābād, by leaving the sensory place without leaving the real, or, rather, by having access precisely to the real? This presupposes a scale of being with many more degrees than ours. For let us make no mistake. It is not enough to concede that our predecessors, in the West, had a conception of the Imagination that was too rationalistic and too intellectualized. If we do not have available a cosmology whose schema can include, as does the one that belongs to our traditional philosophers, the plurality of universes in ascensional order, our Imagination will remain unbalanced, its recurrent conjunctions with the will to power will be an endless source of horrors. We will be continually searching for a new discipline of the Imagination, and we will have great difficulty in finding it as long as we persist in seeing in it only a certain way of keeping our distance with regard to what we call the real, and in order to exert an influence on that real. Now, that real appears to us as arbitrarily limited, as soon as we compare it to the real that our traditional theosophers have glimpsed, and that limitation degrades the reality itself. In addition, it is always the word fantasy that appears as an excuse: literary fantasy, for example, or preferably, in the taste and style of the day, social fantasy.
But it is impossible to avoid wondering whether the mundus imaginalis, in the proper meaning of the term, would of necessity be lost and leave room only for the imaginary if something like a secularization of the imaginal into the imaginary were not required for the fantastic, the horrible, the monstrous, the macabre, the miserable, and the absurd to triumph. On the other hand, the art and imagination of Islamic culture in its traditional form are characterized by the hieratic and the serious, by gravity, stylization, and meaning. Neither our utopias, nor our science fiction, nor the sinister “omega point”—nothing of that kind succeeds in leaving this world or attaining Nā-kojā-Ābād. Those who have known the “eighth climate” have not invented utopias, nor is the ultimate thought of Shi’ism a social or political fantasy, but it is an eschatology, because it is an expectation which is, as such, a real Presence here and now in another world, and a testimony to that other world.
15. See our article “La place de Mollā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (ob. 1050/1640) dans la philosophie iranienne,” Studia Islamica (1963), as well as the work cited above, note 5.
16. See our work L’Imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabī, 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1977), 139. (First edition translated as Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969].) Regarding the theory of the Angeli caelestes, see our book Avicenne et le Récit visionnaire, vol. 1, Bibliothèque Iranienne, vol. 4 (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1954; 2nd ed., Paris: Berg international, 1982). English translation of the first edition: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).