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TOM CHEETHAM. Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World. Foreword by Robert Sardello. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Reviewed by Dennis Patrick Slattery
(In SPRING 76 – Psyche & Nature Part 2)
Tom Cheetham’s book could just as easily be titled: A Brief but Involved History of the Writings of Henry Corbin. Corbin (1903-1978) was director of Studies in Islam and the Religions of Arabia in Paris and held other teaching posts at the University of Teheran, lecturer at Eranos and others. Robert Sardello’s Foreword to Cheetham’s research and insights is on point in revealing the imaginal link between the thought of C.G. Jung to Corbin’s insights on Islamic mysticism. Where the two thinkers converge is in their respective explorations of the imaginal quality of psyche. Yet, as Sardello makes clear, part through his own teaching and writing on the soul of the world, the realm of spirit is that which separates Jung from Corbin’s interests: “the Mundus Imaginalis is the imaginal world of the spirit” (p. xiii). The five chapter titles, carrying initially their own cryptic weight, delineate the themes of this challenging text: 1. “We Are Now in Heaven”: The Mundus Imaginalis and the Catastrophe of Materialism; 2. Consuming
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Passions: The Poet, the Feast, and the Science of Balance; 3. Black Light: Hades, Lucifer and the Secret of the Secret; 4. Within This Darkness: Incarnation, Theophany, and the Primordial Revelation; 5. Harmonia Abrahamica: The Lost Speech and The Battle for the Soul of the World. This last carries the apocalyptic urgency of the subtitle, excavated from Corbin’s own world view. Nowhere does this far ranging and sophisticated survey of the loss of the world soul allow for easy summary; it is far too baroque in architecture and in thematic interests: history, religion, imagination, abstraction, language, culture, myth, poetry, alchemy, mysticism, depth psychology, philosophy, human embodiment—enough to rattle anyone’s caged thoughts into new territory. A glance at the extensive bibliography confirms such. I take as my platinum bar when I read a book the following: what does this work allow, coax, persuade, and provoke me to think about? What individual or sets of analogies begin to emerge and coalesce through the alchemy of this text? Cheetham’s excursus forced dozens of associations to the fore, most especially the poetic imagination’s workings. I say this because of Cheetham’s deft treatment of that space between psyche and myth: “we uncover here in mythic space, in psyche, the primal conjunction of the concrete and the uncertain; the fecundity of the void. It is just here, at
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this origin, where mystery and certainty coincide…it is here, in the realm of the inhuman, both divine and demonic, where meaning is born. This is the mundus imaginalis” (p.7). Influenced deeply, Cheetham admits, by the work of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, he is attracted to this morethan-human realm where the imaginal pulses, however weakly in these pedestrian times. At times too preachy for my tastes, and often with a predilection to use the pronoun “We” with strident abandon—and makes me wonder who this “we” refers to—nonetheless, as the subtitle of the book expresses without apology, the battle today is for the anima mundi as it is continually trodden by a world descending into further abstractions and its source, rationality, which Cheetham believes, ignores most of life’s weighty experiences. One of his clarion calls is to return to thinking as an imaginal act, and to ideas as “openings onto other worlds, tangential to ours. They demand the attention of the whole person; they demand attention to subtleties we have almost wholly forgotten” (p.11). This idea too I like: “Myths, or mythic moves, open spaces. Rational accounts limit them…Both are necessary.” (p.9). His call is not rabid; it is balanced but frequently hyperbolic in the way poetry is hyperbolic, full of exaggerations, even distortions, in order to bring attention to the insight. Cheetham’s approach,
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style and manner is scholarly-poetic for he calls on the reader to imagine his work with him, to be a traveler in tandem to his developing thesis and to imagine it for oneself. I enjoyed this participatory rhetorical angle he so cogently creates. He wishes us to become fellow hermeneuts of the Word, as he calls such a partnership in reading and thinking. A section of the book I found particularly provocative is his discussion of the Christian dogma of Incarnation, which he reimagines through Corbin’s thought: It is this fall of the divine into the historical, material world, which provides the necessary condition for the projection of God into matter in which Jung found the seeds of modern science. It is the dogma of the Incarnation that underlies the alchemist’s inabilities to distinguish spiritual birth and material transformation” (p.59). The limitation of such an act of divinity into the historical world, Cheetham asserts, is that it deified the human and demythologized the divine, eliminating effectively the intermediate realm “of the anima, of the elusive, symbolic soul” (p.59). The author agrees with Corbin that “idolatry” sprung from such a confusion of the two realms which has led the modern world into a split between two conditions: the person has “nearly disappeared in favor of biological and historical descriptions” at the same time “we fancy ourselves as Masters of the Earth in a final, fatal narcissistic frenzy of attempted control” (p.60).
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One way out of such a narrow porthole for Corbin and Cheetham is through a theophanic imagination originating in the “Abrahamic tradition” (p.77), so different in intention from “a dogmatic, literal consciousness” (83) which freezes thought and disallows insight. By contrast, and this is the heart beat of the book’s many themes, is that “the imaginal world is the realm of the symbolic, the alchemical, the visionary, the wonder-ful. The imagination is a mediating function, an organ of the subtle body” (p.83) that puts us in more, not less, intimate contact with the world of things. Cheethams’ development from here through most of the remainder of the text of epistemology and theoria is crucial to grasp for anyone interested in the most fundamental question: What does one know and how does one know it? For Corbin, as Cheetham adumbrates it, is through developing a “sacramental sensibility” or a “Catholic sacramental attitude toward the beauty of the earth”…that perceives the world as “’haunted by a sense that the objects, events and persons of daily life are revelations of grace’” (92). It is important for Cheetham to reveal the thought of Wolfgang Giegerich’s interpretation of the Christian myth as ending logically not only in the creation of modern technology but more devastatingly in the creation of the nuclear bomb (p.100). Corbin, Cheetham is convinced, would be horrified at Giegerich’s conclusions because it italicizes Giegerich’sfailed
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initiation” (105); Giegerich, Corbin would assert, fails to understand the “imaginal” for such a disposition in “Corbin’s theophanic cosmology, ‘image’ always implies an interplay between immanence and transcendence [which] guarantees the angelic function of beings and prevents idolatry” (p.105). To his credit, Cheetham names the enemy with civility; he then exposes, through Corbin’s mythos, what is lacking in the others’ point of view. As one who pays close attention to the magical, alchemical qualities of words, I enjoyed and learned from Cheetham’s riffs on language towards the end of his study. With the intention to words continually dissolving in a culture-wide pandemic, Cheetham takes up the cudgel of language’s “ontological force, its ability to transform the soul and the world” (p.112). Language offers, he reveals, a disposition towards things of the world that is nothing short of mythical. But language’s importance and its abilities will be retrieved, he believes, only if it is once again linked to “cognitive sympathy that lies at the root of religion” (p.112). He calls such an attitude “a poetics [that] could help us to live in the mythological present, in what Corbin called a realized eschatology: that is, one that occurs right now” (p.112). Further on he insists that “the language of poetry is as close as we can get to the
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language of the angels. It is a language of images, of imagination” (p.121) that is central to Corbin’s sense of a psyche-cosmology. The Western imagination has been the theatre, believes Corbin, “for the battle for the soul of the world” (p.121). The world, as he envisions it, will be redeemed only by the forceful mythic and imaginal presence of mind and its articulation in language that respects the innate now-ness of the world’s matter. Without this stance, as Cheetham argues, the world will continue to lose its place as something that matters to all of us. The world’s languages need to be heard once more by ears grown deaf by dogma, closed by arthritic credos and waxed over by wandering abstractions that bypass the world soul’s desire to be recognized on its own terms.
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., is Core Faculty, Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has authored or co-edited 9 books, including his latest publication: Harvesting Darkness: Essays on Literature, Film, Myth and Culture (2006). He is completing a second collection of essays: A Limbo of Shards: Essays on Memory, Myth and Metaphor for publication in 2007.