Re-humanizing Imagination and Humanity


Reflections and a Review of Tom Cheetham’s Imaginal Love: The Meaning of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman

In the year that I moved back to the United States from New Zealand, I turned to a study of Henry Corbin. I read through his available books in English translation and I found myself drawn to his work and concepts. I knew it was important in some way to my current passage and path in life, but whenever I would try and explain why I would end up spinning in circles around the Arabic word, ‘alam al-mithal, and would keep repeating, it is the place where “matter is spiritualized and spirit is materialized.” The earth-shaking importance of this did not seem to be as immediately obvious to others as it seemed to be for me.

In my course of reading Corbin (who I had come to through reading Carl Jung and later James Hillman) I came across Tom Cheetham’s books: The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism; All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings; After Prophecy: Imagination, Incarnation, and the Unity of the Prophetic Tradition; and Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World. In his most recent book, Imaginal Love: The Meaning of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman, Cheetham says he has spent over 20 years working to understand Corbin and his book are a wonderful resource, not just on Corbin, Hillman and Jung, but also in documenting an individual’s quest and spiritual path.

In reading Cheetham’s Imaginal Love, I found myself being able to clarify why Corbin is so important to me, why I had to take a year-long study of his work, and how I will use his concepts going forward in my own life, work and writing. Below you will find the text of the Amazon review I wrote of his book, but I will add some additional, more personal reflections first.

Corbin, Cheetham, Hillman and Jung all have worked toward a reorientation of our consciousness. The problems and solutions that they grapple with are similar to the problems that I grapple with: dehumanization through objectification and excessive focus on materialism and re-humanization through the quest to get back in touch with the Source. Corbin’s intermediate realm of the ‘alam al-mithal, where matter is spiritualized and spirit materialized, provides a conceptual understanding of a state of being that is necessary to understand visions and dreams in spiritual and psychological context. When we open ourselves up to this imaginal realm, it transforms us. Not just peak experiences of visions, dreams and spiritual experiences, but our everyday lives and our very state of being can become instances of Creation and living as spirit infused matter and matter incased spirit.

On the surface, my reading of Corbin and Cheetham are about my working toward being able to write on a project comparing the visions of Carl G. Jung and Philip K. Dick, with a study toward their personal journals that were published posthumously (The Red Book and The Exegesis) and the necessity of understanding their personal visions (quasi-psychotic experiences depending on your frame of reference) in their lives and their later, mature works. Their visions laid the groundwork for their later lives, in essence they were a kind of gift or compulsive vocation that they then strove to fulfill, revolving around central themes that their visions illuminate. This is the practical need I have for better understanding visions.

Both CGJ and PKD had their visions around mid-life and they served an orienting function for their later work, as well as had a clarifying effect in understanding their earlier work. I am also in the mid-life passage and I find these two men’s visions and subsequent exegeses of these visions helpful in my own life. And I find Corbin and Cheetham’s work helpful as well. The mid-life passage moves between youth and old age and it, perhaps, is symbolic of the work of the mundus imaginalis or the ‘alam al-mithal in connecting matter and spirit. It fits Jung’s conception that the work of human beings is more externally and materially oriented in the first half of life and more internally and spiritually oriented in the second half of life. The work of the Corbin, Cheetham, Jung, Hillman, and PKD thus can help in understanding a third realm that connects the first half of life with the second half of life in a way that is similar to connecting matter and spirit.

Another reason that I find the work of Corbin and Cheetham invaluable at this time in my life is that I have undertaken a friendship and book project with the Native American visionary, Joseph Rael – Beautiful Painted Arrow. This work with Joseph (or Joseph-ing, as he says we should consider ourselves as verbs, not as object nouns) challenges me to move my writing and understanding in a more spiritual way. He is teaching me how to be in an interpretative and experiential state of being in which vision and visions are routine ways of being.

This year, 2015, I have been doing many speaking engagements on my first book, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine. This book spans 9 different dimensions of human experience: body, emotions, mind, heart, creativity, intuition, spirit, context and time. It seeks to provide a framework or pathway that clinicians can use to re-humanize, or stay human, in clinical work and in our lives. It does this by placing equal emphasis on each of these dimensions. It is a book of balance and practicality.

As I was finishing my book, I found myself wondering whether one dimension is more important or a source of the others or if each one is a source in its own right. My motivation in writing it was to try to counter-balance the current primacy of the body and materialism in health care. I had to struggle not to fall into a dualism of over-emphasizing another dimension in an effort to counter-balance medical materialism. Dimensions which are tempting to use to counter-balance medical materialism are the dimension of the heart (basing all health care on compassion and love) or the dimension of spirit (the typical dualism to matter). Obviously, health care today requires a great deal of technical knowledge, yet I also argue that we need to attend to these other dimensions, otherwise we end up with good technical health care that is also dehumanizing, which is a wound in and of itself. But can it be said that, along with the Beatles, that “all you need is love?” Contemporary health care seems to require good technical skills and love & compassion.

Reading Cheetham’s book, I appreciated how he worked with Corbin and Hillman’s root orientations. Corbin views spirit and Light as primary, this is the view of reality and being having its source in the transcendent. Hillman continually is uncomfortable with Jung and Corbin’s focus on wholeness and unity, and instead developed a form of psychospiritual polytheism, in which all the component parts are of equal importance and that we need to resist the temptation of valuing matter over spirit or spirit over matter, but he tends more toward the view of immanence, of spirit being enshrined in matter. Personally, I appreciate Hillman’s work at maintaining the equality of dimensions and experiences, yet I also see him as potentially throwing the baby out with the bath water as his polytheism sometimes seems to me like a post-modernist view in which all things are equal. It is beyond me to be able to say if one or the other of these views is “more correct.” I know that by temperament, I tend to have the unifying tendency of Jung and Corbin.

Is there one Reality or are there many realities? As human beings, should we be oriented toward matter, toward spirit, toward a middle realm, or toward all things equally? Is the imaginal, the ‘alam al-mithal important because it points beyond matter to the Divine, or is it important because it orients us toward the continually renewing Divine within the matter of ourselves? These are theological and metaphysical questions which could be endlessly debated. I think for the purpose of re-humanizing ourselves, it is enough to recognize that we must have some relationship with the realm of imagination, the imaginal place where spirit is materialized and matter is spiritualized, and that there is a value to opening our eyes to the visions that arise both without and within.


Review of Tom Cheetham’s Imaginal Love: The Meaning of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman (Kindle version)

This is an important little book. It is Cheetham’s 5th book on Henry Corbin, as well as on his influences on and similarities and differences from James Hillman and Carl Jung. This current book provides an easy entry into Corbin’s work and why he was so influential in the fields of spirituality, psychology and poetry. The book is informative, providing summaries of Corbin, Hillman and Jung’s work, while also being a work of beauty, poetry, and I dare say, even theophany and gnosis – as it helps us understand to see and understand the role of the imagination in Creation and how we are creators and participators as well as createds.

The book also achieves a good balance of a conversational tone in which Cheetham is present and works alongside Corbin and Hillman and shares of himself as well as engaging in scholarly work. Perhaps it is no coincidence as Cheetham is releasing his first book of poetry, Boundary Violations, this year.

The primary focus of Imaginal Love is on the central or at least integral role of imagination in spirituality, poetry, and humanity. Corbin wrote of a tripartite model of reality, with the typical dualism of matter and spirit being linked by a third realm, which he referred to with various concepts, such as the mundus imaginalis, the Imaginal, or the ‘alam al-mithal. Those familiar with Hillman and Jung’s work will see the influence of these concepts in the methods of Active Imagination and the emphasis on the imaginal and mythopoetic. Regardless of what he called this realm, its importance was that it was here that matter was spiritualized and spirit materialized. This third realm connects and orients matter toward spirit. Corbin traced the loss of this realm to the 12th century with the beginning of philosophical systems that separated spirit from matter.

Awareness of or connection to this intermediate realm creates a different state of being, it engenders a different mode of seeing, being and experiencing the world. This state, the Sufis called ta’wil, is a state of interpretation of texts, world and being with continuous reference to the Divine or the secular could say the numinous. This state of being is crucial to understand visions and dreams, whether they are from indigenous traditions (which did not develop the matter-spirit division) or of modern experiencers of visions, such as Carl Jung or Philip K. Dick. The Imaginal is thus not only crucial to understanding mysticism, poetry and visionary consciousness, but it is also a way of life or a path in which an individual can strive to be open to states of being that come from the imaginative connections between spirit and matter.

Orientation toward the Imaginal, Love of it, or connection to the Love that it is a source of, re-spiritualizes and re-humanizes. Corbin writes that one is human only in relation to God, or God’s intermediary, the angel of one’s being (the ‘alam al-mithal is also the angelic realm, the intermediaries between Spirit and matter). His work is thus a therapeutic endeavour in which an individual moves from a state of disconnected matter (an object) toward a state of spirit and matter in constant back and forth creation, in which the object can move toward becoming a subject, or a Person. Thus we are fully human only when we let go of our views of ourselves as egos and material, physical objects. We become human or re-humanized through letting go of our insistence on ourselves as separate matter and egos and open our hearts to Relationship.

This is a wonderful and beautiful book, important for establishing Cheetham as a Person as well as in illuminating the importance of the imaginal and the works of Corbin and Hillman.