“Ta’wil, the archetypal act of hermeneutics, that primary human activity overseen by Hermes who carries messages between the gods and mortals, is life lived at its highest pitch of intensity. It is the archaic and primordial experience of enacting meaning in the world. It is life lived in the full blaze of reality.” Tom Cheetham
Philosopher, theologian and professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Henry Corbin was also an acquaintance of James Hillman and C.G. Jung. All three had lectured at the Eranos Foundation Conferences during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and were familiar with each other’s works. Their influence on each other can be seen particularly in their writings on myth, symbol and archetypes, and although I am familiar with Jung and Hillman, it has been more of a challenge to find Corbin’s works.
I did however, recently discover a book devoted to Corbin’s ideas written by Tom Cheetham titled, All the World an Icon, Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings. This book is perhaps the best book I have read this year, and will forever remain near and dear to my heart. I would still love to read Corbin’s works, but Cheetham nicely condenses his ideas, adding his own insights that in no way detract or interfere with the complexity and beauty of the ideas presented.
Corbin was a Parisian, fascinated by what he saw as an underlying ecumenical thread between the religions of the Book; Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was particularly interested in the similarity of the direct experience of the divine found in the mystical and contemplative traditions of all of these religions but particularly within the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Avicenna.
Underlying the religions of the west and perhaps in human nature itself, is a move toward finding or creating a bridge from the individual to the divine and back again. It is through our work and our devotion that we experience glimpses of the divine and move toward becoming our true nature. Corbin says that whether we are aware and attentive or not to the presence of the Divine, there’s an angelic function that connects us to a divine image of ourselves as a whole and true but individual being. Through the repeating themes and desires within our hearts we can sense this image, but it is always remembered and kept by our angel. Reading about this idea reminded me of Hillman’s Acorn Theory described in his book The Soul’s Code and spoken of here:
“It is a worldwide myth in which each person comes into the world with something to do and to be. The myth says we enter the world with a calling. Plato, in his Myth of Er, called this our paradeigma, meaning a basic form that encompasses our entire destinies. This accompanying image shadowing our lives is our bearer of fate and fortune.” James Hillman
We are then, as the title of Cheetham’s fourth chapter of his book says, “in search of the lost speech”, and the Ta’wil, as Corbin says, involves an ability to hear language as one hears music:
“The ta’wil, without question, is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.”
The prophet, Cheetham reminds us, is not one who foretells the future but a messenger just as angels are understood to be. So perhaps a prophet is one who hears their angel, and in the religions of the book, the Word is then the voice of the Divine which comes to us and speaks through us when we are able to perceive and understand this mode of language. Fragmentation, literalism and Fundamentalism hinder our ability to open up to receive the messages of the divine without which our experience suffers from the “lost speech” where hearing becomes reduced to that of one voice, one truth. In the drama of lost speech an ear for harmony, metaphor, symbolism and poetics is devalued, ignored, forbidden or forgotten. Says Corbin:
“from the instant that men fail to recognize or refuse this interior meaning, from that instant they mutilate the unity of the Word … and begin the drama of the ‘Lost Speech .’”
The symbol in particular carries a message for each of us as we privately experience the power that comes from its numinous quality. We know it’s important even before we can say anything about it as we sense interiority and depth from the way in which we are touched by it. Cheetham writes:
“The encounter with a symbol is essentially an individual experience. This is the kind of meaning that Corbin calls “interior.” It cannot be made public. You can describe it, but only someone who has had a similar experience will know what kind of event you are talking about.”
Inner meaning is perhaps fragile, elusive and susceptible to our doubt or inclination to ignore it because of the fact that it is unverifiably your experience alone. Cheetham, in the quote below, nicely states our apprehension and our struggles with these events, but also pleads for the importance of the understanding of a speech as containing the depth and richness that is transformative when we can hear it.
As this post is getting long and there is much more to the Ta ‘wil to ponder, I’ll end here with this wonderful quote:
“The interior meanings are necessarily plural and in perennial conflict with every social and political will to power and domination. But whether we refuse it out of fear or ignore it out of inattention, willfully suppress it in the interests of political power, or miss it for some other reason, the interior meaning is hidden under the public meaning, and it is easier to leave it there. And yet the literal meaning is only the shell of reality, and in the long run it is not enough. For with only that public meaning available, the world loses its depth and mystery.
We lose contact with our individuality and are prey to totalitarianisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds—intellectual, spiritual, and political. And once totalitarian domination— the reign of Terror, and the dominion of Death— has obliterated the inner meaning of the word , once access to the heart of language is well and truly lost, its recovery, its re-creation, lies at the very limits of human capacity. We are fated to be actors in the grand drama of the Lost Word, the lost speech.”
Except otherwise noted, all quotes from Cheetham, Tom (2012-07-03). All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
A link to Cheetham’s website dedicated to the works on Corbin:
And an interview here: