Imaginative Need: On the Mundus Imaginalis

Or we are shown that the other world may lie close at hand, and we often hover on its brink.

—Mark Valentine, Haunted by Books

The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter.

—Henri Corbin

The fabulists all inhabited a separate strangeness where the realms of Arcadia, Atlantis, Avalon, Shangri La, the Astral Plane, the worlds of Faery and the worlds of Dream seemed to describe something just the other side of our drab world… other authors spoke of other realms, darker places where the ruins of reality seemed to multiply into nightmare: Dis, Pandemonium, Agartha, Hel, Hell, Irkallah, Mag Mell, Kyöpelinvuori, Muspelheim, Tartarus and so many other places hidden in the Abyss. Whether of light or darkness all these zones were situated in that intermediate realm in-between the voids, where gods and demons dwelled like blood warriors in an endless war. Our boredom and ennui have driven both our hells and our paradises to the point of extinction. In this age when the human is no longer able to escape itself, no longer able to open those portals between the worlds, we are left with our own musings, our nightmares become all too real in a world where both paradise and hell commingle in a fluid world of non-human and post-human madness in which there is no where to go, no one to know, and no one to be. This pure and absolute world of immanence without escape. A world bereft of its dreams and nightmares alike. Left in a secular world on nihilism in which we have emptied ourselves of the other worlds, what is left for us? As Mark Valentine suggests:

But what of those who make it their work to seek entry into these stranger dimensions more definitely, who demand to go further from here? The authors of wonder are among such visionaries, and sometimes they try to bring back for us some flint-spark from the furthest dimensions, an evocation of what they have found. They may do this in hesitant sentences that can hardly carry the burden of what they must convey, or in sketches of unearthly scenes where the artist’s fingers have faltered at the last, or they may resort to geometric symbols or arcane formulae, which only have any sort of meaning for those who have already seen. Perhaps only one thing is clear: in order to walk in the other worlds, we ourselves must be changed.

If this is so then why are so many seeking such ancient fictions in the midst of a realm devoid of such access? In a meaningless universe of indifference we seem absolutely needful of such strange worlds as humans have populated for millennia. What drives us to immerse ourselves in these worlds of dream or nightmare? Were we born with a metaphysical need, a poverty of needful desires that drive us outside ourselves? Secular enlightenment for two hundred years has tried to scrape these metaphysical dreamworlds from our minds, sought to erase the past of its metaphysical traces; and yet… it persists. Why? What is there in us that will not go away, that pushes and tugs at us, seeks to nudge us into strange days?

Certain books harbor a magnetic pull on us, touch us with their strangeness in ways that keep us coming back over and over to plunge into its secret alcoves, listen to its myriad voices, ponder its impossible worlds as if knowing and reading it made things seem just a little more alive or different; as if something in these books holds us spellbound, enchanting us with some unknown force that acts on our minds, releasing some unusual biochemical signature, unsealing our inner sense to believe that such things could exist. Why? What if these other worlds of the impossible were pure creations existing as such in those blank spots of our mind, and all that is needed to walk between the worlds and into these realms was just a bit of imagination…

Jorge Luis Borges in an essay on The Postulation of Reality suggests that in the classical form reality takes on three forms, “which are quite diversely accessible”: The easiest consists of a general notification of the important facts. The second consists of imagining a more complex reality than the one declared to the reader and describing its derivations and results. The third method, the most difficult and effective of them all, makes use of the invention of circumstances. This final method entails Borges tells us the simple acceptance of an author’s words: “What is required is that we believe in his words, as we do the real world.”1 This simple notion that words invent the world, that the world is not some static and passive outward form sitting there like a toad waiting for us to decipher its croaks, but is rather a chaotic realm of non-sense awaiting sense baring imagination to invent out of its strange and bewildering array of chaos a human world we can inhabit. At the root of these two worlds approaches is the notion of causality. In our humdrum work-a-day world of scientific and utilitarian thought we are bound to a specific naturalist fiction that spouts facts and facticity at us in which everything we see is based on this reduced world of rational necessity; while, as Borges suggest, there is on the other hand the “invented” world, the world of magic… “in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think that the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.” (82)

The world as prophecy, not in the biblical sense, but in the etymological sense the Greek propheteia – the”gift of interpreting the will of the gods,” as in the Oracles. An oracle in antiquity, “the agency or medium of a god,” also “the place where such divine utterances were given.” Even our notion of Ventriloquists in ancient Greece were Pythones, a reference to the Delphic Oracle. (see: here!)

What if the author of such fabulist worlds were both an oracle and ventriloquist, a conjuror or worlds out of the abyss of imaginative need and poverty? One other factor is the twisted forms that such invention can take. Rather than as in most religious and mystical writings that seek to leave this supposed illusory world behind as some inferior realm thus dualizing it into two separate realms as in the old hermetic adagio of “As above, so below.” – what if this world is itself that realm seen from the power of imaginative need. What if what we are missing in the world is imagination itself? For centuries and millennia humans have slowly distilled a logical and calculated world of work and utility, reduced the world to a set of naturalist claims and ethical forms that have locked us into a supposed realist realm of guided by science and secular authority. What if this were just a mistake? What if the world as we know it is a very unimaginative place indeed, but that it was not always so? What if reducing the world to its present plight of meaninglessness and absolute indifference were but a POV a point-of-view; and, one that has led us into an end-game of truth and knowledge going nowhere?  What if rather than concepts (as the philosophers expound!) what we need is a return to images (as the imaginative artists, writers, and poets have prophesied!).

Henri Corbin once spoke of the Mundus Imaginalis:

I will make an immediate admission. The choice of these two words was imposed upon me some time ago, because it was impossible for me, in what I had to translate or say, to be satisfied with the word imaginary. This is by no means a criticism addressed to those of us for whom the use of the language constrains recourse to this word, since we are trying together to reevaluate it in a positive sense. Regardless of our efforts, though, we cannot prevent the term imaginary, in current usage that is not deliberate, from being equivalent to signifying unreal, something that is and remains outside of being and existence-in brief, something utopian. I was absolutely obliged to find another term because, for many years, I have been by vocation and profession an interpreter of Arabic and Persian texts, the purposes of which I would certainly have betrayed if I had been entirely and simply content-even with every possible precaution-with the term imaginary. I was absolutely obliged to find another term if I did not want to mislead the Western reader that it is a matter of uprooting long-established habits of thought, in order to awaken him to an order of things, the sense of which it is the mission of our colloquia at the “Society of Symbolism” to rouse. (here!)

Of course our heritage of fantastic literature in the 18th through now has centered in on this Unreal realm of the Imaginal. For Corbin there is from a sufic or Islamic mystical mode something even more specific: “In other words, if we usually speak of the imaginary as the unreal, the utopian, this must contain the symptom of something. In contrast to this something, we may examine briefly together the order of reality that I designate as mundus imaginalis, and what our theosophers in Islam designate as the “eighth climate”; we will then examine the organ that perceives this reality, namely, the imaginative consciousness, the cognitive Imagination; and finally, we will present several examples, among many others, of course, that suggest to us the topography of these interworlds, as they have been seen by those who actually have been there.” (ibid.)

I will need to take up this notion of interworlds and of imaginative consciousness as the organ that produces cognitive Imagination and allows us to perceive this Unreal surround us in another post… I’ll only leave one last quote from Corbin:

It should be acknowledged that forms and shapes in the mundus imaginalis do not subsist in the same manner as empirical realities in the physical world; otherwise anyone could perceive them. It should also be noted that they cannot subsist in the pure intelligible world, since they have extension and dimension, an “immaterial” materiality, certainly, in relation to that of the sensory world, but, in fact, their own “corporeality” and spatiality (one might think here of the expression used by Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist, spissitudo spiritualis, an expression that has its exact equivalent in the work of Sadra Shirazi, a Persian Platonist). For the same reason, that they could have only our thought as a substratum would be excluded, as it would, at the same time, that they might be unreal, nothing; otherwise, we could not discern them, classify them into hierarchies, or make judgments about them. The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter. There has always been something of major importance in this for all our mystical theosophers. Upon it depends, for them, both the validity of visionary accounts that perceive and relate “events in Heaven” and the validity of dreams, symbolic rituals, the reality of places formed by intense meditation, the reality of inspired imaginative visions, cosmogonies and theogonies, and thus, in the first place, the truth of the spiritual sense perceived in the imaginative data of prophetic revelations.

And, yet, for all that Corbin was in the main still a Platonist at heart, believing in a two-world system of “this world, that world” separation, etc. But what if instead of this transcendence into some other world we discovered it is our world here and now seen with other eyes, more imaginative and prophetic, even oracular in the sense of invention and continuous creation? What then? It’s in this sense that Corbin will ask:

… is it not precisely this postulate of the objectivity of the imaginal world that is suggested to us, or imposed on us, by certain forms or certain symbolic emblems (hermetic, kabbalistic; or mandalas) that have the quality of effecting a magic display of mental images, such that they assume an objective reality?

This notion that it is by an imaginative act in invention that these imaginal worlds manifest themselves in our objective reality and no other. Such worlds are all around us, but we have lost that ability to imagine them and have instead allowed our scientific and enlightened reductionism to scrape the universe clean of imagination and its inventions as if this act of erasure were more essential and needful for our species. Is it? What have we gained by our mastery of the natural order through technology and the sciences but the possible end-game for not only our species but all life on planet earth? Isn’t it time to rethink was imagination and the imaginal is, begin once again inventing the possibility of the impossible Unreal that would allow us to know and be in a world awakened by the imagination rather than deadened by rational reduction to a literal death?

In the end what is one such as I with my skeptical and pessimistic temperament to do? Should I accept all this with equanimity and let the pure idealism of such a philosophical outlook go by without a smirk, or just poofah! at the whole thing and assume such magical spells of imaginative need and poverty or mere fantasy after all, just the ramblings of academic and non-academic religious scholars and their ephebes? Or, should I assume another perspective and admit that for all my dark premonitions this notion of calling a world out of the abyss into our own through imaginative sigils and icons of power, magical relics of some intermediate zone of the imaginal suddenly become all too real; let this actually stand on its own? What if as all fictionists say it were in the end all true, but true not in the sense of a stone thrown across the water bouncing and bouncing and then plopping and sinking into the depths of our reality; but rather of a world that is pure imagination suddenly entering and overlaying our own drab and dusty world of pain and suffering and offering us the strange and disquieting revelations of the Unreal? Shall we… ?

  1. Borges, Jorge Luis. Borges: Selected Non-Fictions. Penguin (November 1, 2000) (p. 63)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s