The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital

The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital


This is the second book by Henry Corbin that I have read, the first being Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, with its beautiful cover. I came to Corbin via James Hillman and Carl Jung, and was thus interested in Corbin’s concept of the imagination. Corbin goes to great lengths to distinguish imagination from fantasy, and sees “active imagination” as a creative force, that creates the reality, and even matter of ourselves and our worlds. “Each of us carries in himself the Image of his own world, his Imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which becomes the stage on which his destiny is played out. He may not be conscious of it, and to that extent he will experience as imposed on himself and others this world that in fact he himself or others impose on themselves,” (8).There is a correspondence between what is within the individual and what the individual experiences in both the external material and spiritual worlds.

Corbin’s thoughts revolve around Avicenna, a Persian philosopher and physician (980-1037). Corbin studies three “visionary recitals,” or as he sometimes calls them, “spiritual romances.” Corbin is a dense writer and I cannot claim to have a full understanding of his writing, nor an in-depth understanding of Persian and Arabic culture and terminology that Corbin explores his ideas through. He seems to be focused on a turn in Western culture with Avicenna being a pivot point. Corbin draws a distinction between rational, objective, materialist Western thought and a form of thinking that includes “active imagination” in which the imaginal is as real as the material, in fact possibly more real as it precedes and gives rise to the material. This leads to an in-depth discussion of Avicennan angelology and the ‘alam al-mithal (world of Images), where “spirits are corporealized and bodies spiritualized,” (35). The loss of this intermediary realm of the ‘alam al-mithal leads to a severing of the connection between spirit and matter and to the dualism inherent in much of Western thought. Corbin argues that we “must cease to separate the history of philosophy from the history of spirituality,” (16). While Corbin is interested in history and scholarship, his underlying drive is to illuminate a spiritual quest.

I’ll just touch on a couple of the themes in the book, as it winds its way through various Gnostic and Islamic mystical visions and encounters. There is the recognition that the individual is a “Stranger” in the world, i.e. comes from somewhere else and that “the soul must find the way of Return. That way is Gnosis, and on that way it needs a Guide. The Guide appears to it at the frontier where it has already emerged from this cosmos, to return-or better, to emerge- to itself,” (19). There is the “quest for the Orient,” or discernment of proper orientation toward the truth, that is the ta’wil, or the return “to restore to one’s origin,” (29).

I find it difficult to summarize the philosophical arguments of this book, but I found it immensely interesting and I read it as much as poetry and as mystical imagery as spiritual philosophy. Jacob Needleman describes Corbin’s work as “visionary scholarship” (foreward to Corbin’s The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy). I like the idea of a visionary scholar and it reminds me of Juan Mascaro’s work translating the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, scholarship that is historical, linguistic, yet motivated by an underlying search for Truth. For one new to Corbin, this would most likely be a difficult book, but if you read it as you would a dream, albeit a dream with complicated technical and foreign terminology, it can be a beautiful and rewarding experience.

For a reader, like myself, coming from a familiarity with the works of Jung and Hillman, Tom Cheetham’s book, All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings is a good introduction to Corbin’s thought and explores the relationships between these three men’s thought as well as their meetings, but reading Corbin’s original works is a must.

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