This article of Ron’s appeared in the journal Psychotherapy and Counselling Today, the journal of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA), No. 1, 2022.
“To be a philosopher is to take to the road, never settling down in some place of satisfaction with a theory of the world, not even a place of reformation, nor of some illusory transformation of the conditions of this world.” (Corbin, 1998, p. 140)
Corbin and Taking to the Road
Last year (2021), influenced partly by the pandemic and by lockdown, I took a recent, powerful dream of mine and decided to “take it to the road”, to see where it might go. In the spirit of Henry Corbin, I wanted to amplify the dream, to enter its imaginal world.
Henry Corbin was the French philosopher, Iranologist and mystic who influenced the post-Jungian James Hillman, among others, with his idea of the imaginal.
And in my art practice I have been influenced, for some time, by the idea of the imaginal. I wrote my MA Hons thesis in 2001 about a series of art works that explored landscape as symbol of imaginal spaces. (Dowd, 2001)
At the time of writing that thesis I didn’t realise how much debt Hillman owed to Corbin for the latter’s rich involvement in ideas of the imaginal. But reading, more recently, some of Corbin’s (admitting sometimes difficult) texts has lead me to a great respect for his world view. And respect for his thesis that culturally we have lost reverence for this important “third realm” (the imaginal) and been left, to our detriment (and that of the planet) with the mere duality of mind and matter.
In my psychotherapy practice, I could say “the proof is in the pudding” – what I’ve learned from Hillman and from Corbin, and from my art making practice, has had a significant effect in how I work with the fantasy images and dreams of my clients.
What started me off on this track was four years of therapeutic work, back in the 1990s, with a Jungian analyst who worked from an Hillmanian standpoint. This work included weekly sandplay sessions, coming back to the image repeatedly and developing a respect for introspective exploration.
The Imaginal – Hillman’s “Bridge”
To give a sense of the imaginal, here is James Hillman in Chapter 1 (“Bridge”) of The Dream and the Underworld (Hillman, 1979, all p. 5):
“The image has been my starting point for the archetypal re-visioning of psychology.”
“The claim that images come first is to say that dreams are our primary givens and that all daylight consciousness begins in the night and bears its shadow.”
“… the sudden shaft of insight that occurs when the bridge is struck between an ordinary event or a concept and its mythic resemblance can yield startling new perspectives in the taken-for-granted psychology of our own experience, as well as the all too familiar psychology of our contemporary theory.”
For Hillman, this “mythic resemblance” may invoke known, well-documented myths such as those of the Greek realm, alive in the underworld of the Western psyche. For him, it is the “resemblance”, or reversion, that is important. This reversion is to that which enables an event to be connected to a “suffering of the soul”, an “imaginal mystery”.
In this way we are able, intra-psychically, to inhabit realms that would otherwise not be available to us. Our conscious world becomes enriched and extended. The alternative, says Hillman, is the killing of the image:
“The heroic ego literalizes the imaginal. Because it lacks the metaphorical understanding that comes with image-work, it makes wrong moves, and these violently.” (Hillman, 1979, p. 115).
As Christopher Bamford says in the Introduction to Corbin’s The Voyage and the Messenger:
“One of Henry Corbin’s central concerns was the acknowledgement of a third realm between the intellect and the senses. Just as objective and real as the latter two, this mundus imaginalis was delineated in the doctrines of [the Islamic philosopher and mystic] Ibn ‘Arabi” (As cited in Corbin, 1998, p. xiii)
Corbin’s view is that the mundus imaginalis (imaginal world) is available to us, and we can take it seriously and work with it. It consists of taking the imagination as “an organ of perception” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 40). And then the imagination truly can become an organ of creation.
The Islamic Sheikh ‘Abd Al-razzaq Lahiji (died 1072) was one of the mystics that appealed to Corbin. Here is the Sheikh speaking of the mundus imaginalis:
“The Oriental theosophists and the Sufis agree in affirming the following: between the intelligible world, which is the world of entirely immaterial pure Intelligences, and the sensory world, which is the world of purely material realities, there exists another universe. The beings of this intermediary universe possess shape and extent, even though they do not have ‘material matter’”. (As cited in Corbin, 1977, p172.)
A principle that Corbin championed, during his life-long investigation of Islamic and pre-Islamic thought, is ta’wil. Here is Christopher Bamford again:
“Ta’wil is what saves appearances by returning them to – that is, symbolizing them with – their original form. But, more than that, ta’wil, as mystical hermeneutics or spiritual exegesis, also saves, that is, returns to his or her source, the person practicing it.” (As cited in Corbin, 1998, p. xviii)
And Tom Cheetham, quoting Corbin (Corbin, 1969), says the following about it:
“The action of ta’wil ‘is essential symbolic understanding, the transmutation of everything visible into symbols’. It involves ‘carrying the symbol back’, towards the divine ground from which it derives and which it symbolizes.” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 46)
So returning to the dream I mentioned above, I decided to take it as a starting point for a ta’wil, a reversion to the imaginal realm, to the mundus imaginalis, that stands as the living entity behind the dream.
The Dream of the Romani Master
The dream was as follows:
I am in a large crowd outdoors. People line both sides of a cordoned off walkway. A great master is expected to come down this walkway. We wait. Finally he comes, and he stops as he passes me. I am behind many people. But he looks towards me and the crowds melt away and we are standing face to face. He has long jet-black hair and beard, with gold earrings and necklaces. He is dressed in dark robes. He has an exotic feel about him. I think he must be Romani. He looks into my eyes and I am deeply moved. I feel he is seeing into my core, and expecting something of me.
The Folio “haunts of a romani master”
For a couple of years before having the dream, I’d worked in my art practice on the happenings in an imaginal realm called cerebria.
I imagined cerebria to be a realm inhabited with folk who live from higher brain functions, using predominantly the cerebral cortex, in which sophisticated information processing generally occurs. See my web site for more details on cerebria (Dowd, 2022).
After having the dream of the Romani Master, I decided to make a folio of paintings that could say something about this Master and about his ways as an itinerant of cerebria.
I invite you to peruse the folio haunts of a romani master on my web site (Dowd, 2021). The folio consists of small oil paintings and text fragments that show some of the activities of the Romani Master, during an ambulation he made from the port to the mountains of cerebria.
I decided that the best approach was to hold a reverent attitude towards the initial dream image, and an intuition that it carried with it an entirely different and augmented world view.
By so doing, the initial dream led to further dreams and introspections. These led to the development of the complete folio of 18 images and text fragments.
Over the four month period of making the paintings, I came to feel that I was being “pulled along” by the process. I was surprised by some of the twists and turns that occurred along the way. Significantly, I found towards the end of the process that a death / rebirth theme arose. I’m not sure whether that keyed into the collective archetype, or was an aspect of my culturally western Judaeo-Christian template; and it doesn’t matter which it was. The interest for me was in the creative process that was the outcome of handing over control – “taking to the road”.
The creation of the haunts of a romani master folio was, for me, an example of taking a dream image imaginally and performing a ta’wil upon it, a reversion to the mundus imaginalis. The experience of working this way was one of enrichment and a sense of life being much more than the mundane. (And more than the pandemic!)
It deepened my understanding of what it means, imaginally, “to take to the road”.
Undertaking the process has given me greater confidence, too, in trusting the imaginal processes of my clients, and supporting them to amplify their imaginal realms.
Cheetham, T. (2012). All the World an Icon. California: North Atlantic Books.
Corbin, H. (1969). Alone with the Alone. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Corbin, H. (1977). Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Corbin, H. (1998). The Voyage and the Messenger – Iran and Philosophy. California: North Atlantic Books.
Dowd, R. (2001). An Inquiry into an Imaginal Landscape. MA (Hons) thesis. Western Sydney University: Penrith.
Dowd, R. (2021). haunts of a romani master.
Dowd, R. (2022). celebrating cerebria.
Hillman, J. (1979). The Dream and the Underworld. New York: HarperPerennial.