Tom Cheetham has, over the past few years, published a trilogy of works intended to clarify, elaborate, challenge and extend the influential studies in Islamic mysticism undertaken by French scholar Henry Corbin. This volume follows The World Turned Inside Out and Green Man, Earth Angel. I seem, by chance, to be reading this series backwards. No matter; in some sense, of course, it is appropriate. There is little in Sufi mysticism that can be unfolded in a linear way, and the concept of reverse direction resonates with the Gnostic sense of the divine spark’s return to its source that pervades Corbin’s reading of Persian spirituality.
Cheetham wryly notes in the preface that a friend observed, on hearing of his first book on Corbin’s work, “I see that you have become the student of a student of Sufism.” Mysticism and magic are of course rife with second-hand, third-hand, and even more removed and abstracted information and “knowledge”. Cheetham is modest enough not to completely shun the implications of his apparent distance from authentic transmission. And yet, savouring his language in a garden softened with a warm breeze, it is clear that his thoughts and perceptions are not to be classed with the seven-times-removed nature of some works on spirituality. His passionate engagement with Corbin’s thought transforms his “research” into something more than scholarship. In approaching some rather abstruse and easily ridiculed religious traditions with rigour and a critical eye, he brings them alive for the post-psychological West.
While politics are certainly not at the forefront of these essays, Cheetham’s references to the relevance of mysticism to the social ills of the present world are in some ways central. Chiefly informed by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, he grounds the social role of spiritual consciousness in much the same way as Terence McKenna grounded psychedelics:
Neediness is the opposite of freedom and is a form of idolatry; what it idolizes are things, or people regarded as things; and things never suffice. The human economy depends upon this idolatrous relation and the calculus of values that it requires.
As with McKenna’s “thing fetishism”, Cheetham’s analysis highlights the way in which the boundary-dissolving trances of gnostic traditions can unwind the binding trances of consumerism and idolatrous religion.
Countering the false opposition between materialism and all-out renunciation, he points out that the meaning of “asceticism” and “chastity”, so fundamental to mystical traditions, have been distorted by our unbalanced culture:
There are deep connections between ascesis and aesthesis, between conscious and careful renunciation and attention to the beauty and animation of the world.
We see a similar distortion in our contemporary use of the word “epicurean” to refer to unbridled sensual indulgence and ingestion of luxury, when Epicurus and the members of his school advocated a kind of moderate asceticism, a refusal to let the delicate, subtle pleasures of life be suppressed or swept away in a tide of grasping desire.
The polarization of asceticism and indulgence loses the distinction between free, open engagement with the world of incarnation, and neurotic entanglement. The paroxysmal renunciation of indulgence casts both aside, leaving the hairshirt ascetic vying with the obese glutton, or with the dullard whose bridges to the living world have been burned. The disciplined, open-hearted yea-sayer is lost.
In our present world, with obscene indulgence and famine competing for headlines, Cheetham’s accessible and thoroughly intelligent exposition of traditions of mysticism, poetry and gnosis that try to attack the roots of these horrors couldn’t be more welcome.
The environmental debate gets bogged down repeatedly as activists who aren’t corporate-friendly are accused of wearing hairshirts. Perpetual growth vs. mortifying contraction. Gone is the idea that the ruler measuring our success here might not be the only one. Cheetham advocates “counter-technologies” based on poetry, aligning him with a tradition of aesthetically-motivated refusal that is often as fragile and in danger of obliteration as the radiantly affirmative perceptions it seeks to cultivate.
He also manages to filter a surprising amount of humanism out of these esoteric schools of thought, arguing convincingly that the angelology of Corbin and his Sufi subjects, which posit a divine, angelic counterpart to each creature, actually forms the grounding for true personhood. The idolization of things is seen as manifesting along with treating people as things, and the intuitive sense of spiritual extension to the immediate, felt encounter with another person is seen as rescuing us from the abyss of depersonalization. It’s a subtle point, easy to lose among the grosser aspects of the monotheist traditions surrounding it, or in the New Age associations of “angels”, but Cheetham’s success in bringing esoteric religion into direct confrontation with the central problems of our culture has to be respected.
Sometimes the theological discourse here leaves me losing sight of the relevance of mysticism and Gnosticism to the pressing issues of the world today; even then, Cheetham’s skilful analysis works just fine as a tool for the deeper appreciation of some of the stranger treasures of human culture. But running throughout this valuable book is something immensely courageous, and perpetually relevant: “a quest to be open to the world without fear of violation”.