Ta’wil and the Ideas of Henry Corbin

“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.”

File:A Sufi in Ecstasy in a Landscape LACMA M.73.5.582.jpgThe 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:


Colour My World, Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

One of my favorite James Hillman books is his, “Alchemical Psychology,” which I have just recently read. The book is a fascinating tour of the alchemical process and its correlative psychological journey as told to us by the Alchemists of old. Yes, they weren’t only interested in literally transforming substances, but about experiencing the transformation of the psyche and finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Hillman begins by suggesting that one of the primary sources of neurosis is a deficiency of imagination which can be heard in the one-sidedness of the language we use – which is an important means to understand ourselves and the world.

“My neurosis resides in my mental set and the way it constructs the world and behaves in it. Now, the essential or at least an essential component of every mental set, of every personality, is language. Thus language must be an essential component of my neurosis. If I am neurotic, I am neurotic in language. Consequently, the one-sidedness that characterizes all neuroses in general is also to be found specifically as a one-sidedness in language.”

He goes on to talk about the similarities in what drives people to therapy to what drove the alchemists to their work. It doesn’t matter so much what you want to change, but that you want to change something. The work, whether on ourselves or on physical materials, generates a psychic response. Hillman suggests that the difference for the alchemists was that they did not conceptualize their mental states in the way that we do today, but lived them through the work. In Alchemy there is what is referred to as the Opus, the Great Work. Hillman refers often to C.G. Jung’s writings on alchemy in which he refers to the Opus as the Opus Contra Naturam, a work against nature, which I understand to mean against the inclination towards entropy. The alchemical stages are experienced as colors:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Silver/White
  • Red
  • Yellow

Each color represents a phase that is entered into in the work:
The first four color terms – black, white, red, and yellow – are also the primary color terms embracing the entire alchemical opus: nigredo, albedo, xanthosis or citrinitas, and iosis or rubedo. These color terms describe: (1) stages of the work; (2) conditions of the material worked on; and (3) states in the psyche of the artifex or worker-alchemist.”

He then notes that the idea of the color in each stage that we move through as we make our way through life is sensate and naturally embedded with images and ideas as compared to conceptual notions that especially modern psychology would use. In the black or nigredo phase of the work Hillman says:

“First, as non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world. Second, the blackening negates the “light,” whether that be the light of knowledge, the attachment to solar consciousness as far-seeing prediction, or the feeling that phenomena can be understood. Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning. We are thus benighted.  Third, the two processes most relevant for producing blackness –putrefaction and mortification – break down the inner cohesion of any fixed state. Putrefaction, by decomposition or falling apart; mortification, by grinding down, as seeds in a mortar are refined into ever thinner and smaller particles.”

I hope to continue on this theme and at least run through each stage of color and briefly describe them. I will leave you with one more quote from the book:

“This is the Nekyia,  the night sea journey through the underworld made also by Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, and by Eurydice, Inanna, Persephone, Psyche, by Orpheus, by Christ. Whether this underworld is frigid and ghastly or burning with the hots of hell, it is a realm characterized by temperatures suitable only for demons, ghosts, heroes and heroines, goddesses and shades who are no longer altogether of the upper world. Outsiders. Marginals. Alchemy is a profession of marginals; those at the edge. Those who live from their own fires, sweating it out, self-sustaining their own temperatures which may be at variance with the collective climate.”

All quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 292-293). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thanks to Chicago for this lovely tune:

Links to all posts in the series: Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7 Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1