Furthest Right

Recovering a Visionary Geography (Ptolemy Tompkins)

Henry Corbin and the Missing Ingredient in Our Culture of Images
by Ptolemy Tompkins

It’s no great secret that ours is a culture obsessed with images. From the Internet to the octoplex to the endless barrage of advertising that half-consciously guides so many people through their day, to be a citizen of the modern world is to be immersed within a constant rush of pictures: an appealing, strident, yet ever-evanescent parade of things that aren’t really there, but which are always threatening to become more important than the things that really are.

On the surface, and all the familiar complaints aside, for a long time we have been happy enough with this situation. Most of us are so used to existing amidst this image orgy that even those of us who claim to hate it would probably miss the spectacle were it suddenly taken away. Yet there are signs that we are becoming dissatisfied with the bargain we’ve struck up with the manufactured image that we are tired of being endlessly titillated, lulled, amused …and nothing more. All the feigned excitement about increased gigabytes, virtual sex, interactive movie screens, and so forth, is really little more than evidence that our ambiguous relationship with the manufactured image has finally soured. We are coming to the point where we want such images to do more for us than they have so far.

If there is any truth to this suggestion that the magic has started to go out of our relationship with the manufactured image, it makes sense to ask whether there was ever a time when the situation was different when the manufactured image really delivered in some way that it now doesn’t. On the surface, it seems like such an inquiry could only stretch back a century or two to the beginnings of photography and mass production. But if we are willing to transcend the technical aspect and see the manufactured images that surround us today as essentially visionary, or imagined products, one can travel further back. Taking the human imagination, rather than simply the camera or computer, as the generating device, a whole added realm of inquiry opens up.

Is it possible that long ago, before the advent of the age of mechanical reproduction, there was a relationship between the observer and the imaginatively generated image that didn’t carry the component of disappointment, of failed expectations, that it does today? Was there, perhaps, a time when the imagined image actually delivered something—some mysterious fulfillment—of which the vague but persistently promised pseudo-fulfillments offered today are a vague echo?

A fascinating, but so far little heeded, answer to this question has been given by the French Islamicist Henry Corbin (1930-1978). Focusing on religious visionaries from the Persian and Arab world, Corbin uncovered a lost tradition that shows that our modern cinema-and-cyber-culture is hardly the first one to be endlessly preoccupied with disembodied images. More importantly, it also suggests that this preoccupation was once, at least for a select group, a far more fruitful, mysterious, and satisfactory one than it is now.

In his studies of Sufism, Shi’ism, and the pre-Islamic religions of Persia, Corbin rediscovered a vast body of lore about a visionary landscape existing above and beyond the three-dimensional world of ordinary experience. This landscape goes by various names in his work, depending on the specific culture and philosopher in question. It is the mundus imaginalis, the barzakh, the interworld, the earth of Hurqalya. But whatever the term used to describe it, this domain appears in Corbin’s writings as a categorically real place—a dimension accessible to the penetration of human imagination, but not contained by it. Terms like real and imaginary, “inner” and “outer,” lose their hard and fast meanings there. It is not simply the interior world that everyone enters in sleep; not an “imaginary” place existing in contradistinction to a more real physical world that swallows it up when one awakes. Instead it is a dimension that secretly encompasses the physical world, and in contrast to which the latter is placed in a radically new and larger perspective.

One of the most significant characteristics of this realm is that within it the things that one encounters—and they are very specific things indeed, ranging from rocks and trees to buildings and entire cities have about them a distinctly personal character. As Corbin says, the pronoun best used when describing the specifics of this dimension is not “what” but “who.” The imaginal dimension, he wrote, is “a universe for which it is difficult in our language to find a satisfactory term.” It is “an ‘external world,’ and yet it is not the physical world. It is a world that teaches us that it is possible to emerge from measurable space without emerging from extent, and that we must abandon homogeneous chronological time in order to enter that qualitative time which is the history of the soul.”

Corbin was a scholar first and foremost, and because the lore surrounding this dimension he worked so hard to bring back into the light was so removed from the sober world of academia, he seems to have felt called upon to keep the weight of the scholarly apparatus he brought to his investigations in sight at all times. But Corbin’s interest in the Iranian and Arabic esoteric traditions that make up the bulk of his subject matter was nonetheless a deeply personal one. For him they were not simply the remains of some intricate but outmoded tradition of philosophical systems, but fragments of an actual lost geography.

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