World Turned Inside Out

Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism

Tom Cheetham

So here we have the first in Tom Cheetham’s “Henry Corbin” trilogy. I approached it inversely, starting with After Prophecy, then Green Man, Earth Angel. This inadvertent inversion had an amusing resonance with the ontological reversals of Corbin’s gnosticism; but in the end, straight-forward chronology—despite being antithetical to Corbin’s philosophy—seems best for taking in Cheetham’s project. This volume provides essential grounding and orientation, but generally seems humdrum in relation to the more stimulating rhetorical and conceptual flights that take off in Green Man and culminate in After Prophecy.

The brief biography of Corbin, together with the backdrop sketches describing Zoroastrianism, Shi’a Islam, and the roots of the European traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology, are a small part of the book, but vital to contextualizing Corbin’s complex hybrid vision.

The scene set, we embark upon a brief, dense, but always readable tour of the key motifs and perceptual tactics found in Corbin’s idiosyncratic but rich and important spirituality. The mundus imaginalis, ta’wil, the hierarchical angelic cosmos, and the visionary fusion of immanence and transcendence, all are given an evocative, erudite treatment. Specific theological and philosophical debates around Corbin’s work are duly noted, with references to further reading for those wanting to dig further. Others are drafted in to set things into relief: the work of Corbin’s contemporaries, such as James Hillman, and occasional illuminating comparisons with those not overtly related to Corbin, such as the animist David Abram.

Cheetham furnishes his survey with a number of striking insights. As a novice to Corbin’s writings, it’s hard for me to say where the line is to be drawn between “inspiration” and a more direct exposition of Corbin’s ideas. But in a work designed to introduce Corbin’s ideas written by someone thoroughly and creatively soaked in his subject, this hardly seems to be relevant. In any case, I’m sat here now in Seville, whose Muslim phase fell to the Christian Reconquista in the 13th century, and whose cathedral houses Christopher Columbus’ tomb. Under such circumstances, a particular insight that Cheetham offers couldn’t fail to resonate powerfully.

Cheetham holds that the 12th century saw a shift in the Christian worldview, the seed of the modern split between consciousness and the experienced world. This seed presumably sprouted as the Copernican heliocentric cosmology shattered the heirarchical medieval cosmos (which situated the Earth at the centre of an angel-laden system of celestial spheres), flowered as Descartes formalized dualistic materialism, and bore its ambivalent fruit in the scientific Enlightenment. Most science advocates point to the liberating vision of modern cosmology, releasing us from the narrow constriction of the medieval view into the infinities of space, but Cheetham contests that this expanded view of literal, quantitative space came at the expense of an impoverishment of our imaginal, qualitative spaces:

The unbearable constriction of the Real that accompanies the loss of the hierarchical cosmos and the realms of the Imagination is impossible to underestimate. The Western world has been vainly struggling to escape the terror of that claustrophobia ever since. This goes a long way towards explaining our drive towards the Future and towards the New World, whether that is America, the Moon, or the virtual realities of the Internet. We can never after such a loss have enough space.

I read something recently, the source of which has scuttled away from my memory’s slippy hands, that pointed out the world-historical significance to be found in the fact that Islam—a crucial guardian of the medieval cosmos and its imaginal potential—was banished from Spain by the same people who went on to conquer and decimate New World, itself bearing a rich culture of imaginal immanence. Well, Columbus secured his 1492 financing from Queen Isabella in part because the Castilian crown was no longer under the stress of regaining Spain from Islam; Granada fell, and its mosque was reconsecrated as a church on January 2nd. Columbus set sail on August 3rd.

The World Turned Inside Out isn’t a world-changer, but it can ignite fiery new insights such as this. And it serves as a solid start to an excellent trilogy, which in turn opens out onto the fascinating spiritual cartography that Henry Corbin’s work represents.

See also: Green Man, Earth Angel and After Prophecy.

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