Recently, I was reviewing class notes from university courses I took, now over a decade ago. I came across this little gem on a panel discussion on the Mundus Imaginalis or imaginal world. James Hillman credits Henry Corbin as the source of this notion. Corbin, a French philosopher, is principally known for his interpretation of Islamic thought. From Corbin comes from the idea that the mundus archetypalis is also the mundus imaginalis. The mundus imaginalis offers an ontological mode of locating the archetypes of the psyche as the fundamental structures of the imagination or as fundamentally imaginative phenomena that are transcendent to the world of sense in their value if not their appearance. (This from James Hillman’s book: Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).
Hopefully this little summary of the panel discussion will open up the notion of “imaginal” for you and help you to differentiate it from “image” or “imaginative”. And, remember: The primary and irreducible language of archetypal patterns is the metaphorical discourse of myths.
Panel Discussion of the “Mundus Imaginalis”
Our group discussion fairly immediately came across the first obstacle regarding the imaginalis, that of language. The difficulty of translating the experience and the “language” of the imaginal into everyday reality is much the same as attempting to fit a mystical shape into a practical mold. (The group also did not overlook the aspect of translating Arabic terms into English, which is already one step removed from the original translation of mystical to “sensible”). The danger of misinterpretation lies deep in the heart of any translation. When we talk about the levels and layers of meaning within culture, we are immediately at the mercy of the danger of our own assumptions. These assumptions of course come from the core of our own cultural schemata and its inherent limitations.
The limitations of our scientific civilization – which is said to have gained mastery over images, and is even referred to as the “civilization of the image” – are in its radical misunderstanding, or complete misapprehension of the image (the root and vehicle of the imaginal). Instead of the image being raised to the level of the world to which it belongs, instead of being invested with a symbolic function that would lead to inner meaning, the image tends to be reduced simply to the level of sensible perception and thus to be definitely degraded. Might one not have to say that the greater the success of this reduction, the more people lose their sense of the imaginal and the more they are condemned to produce nothing but fiction. In other words (worlds), the image/imaginal is brought down to the lowest common denominator and thus completely loses its potency.
If all is thus lost in translation, how can the imaginal be communicated? Perhaps this is entirely the wrong question, the wrong approach. At one point in our group discussion a subtle shift occurred that we might not have been quite conscious of at the time. This shift revealed itself in the realization that one cannot truly communicate one’s imaginal level of experience fully, directly or even clearly. But that we may be able to “read” or receive another’s experience of the imaginal as it connects to our own. The other’s experience/communications then acts as a trigger for us to enter our own imaginal experience. In other words, the memory of our own experience of the imaginal can be triggered by that of the other person’s; can create an entry point to the imaginal. And that creativity could in fact be a process of the magneticism of these entry points; invitations to the openings, so to speak.
From this vantage point we may be able to admit that we cannot communicate the imaginal because of the limitations of our “language”. But that this limitation is certainly not imposed on the imaginal, as it communicates to us constantly through forms that exist within and without us. And that truly our task and desire, even compulsion is to give shape to its integrity; To give color to its ecstasy; To know its gnosis; To step into the dimension of non-duality; To step out of time. And to do all of this we must access a certain kind of vulnerability that is a suspension of all we know yet maintaining a sense of all knowing. The quintessential paradox that creates an incredible surge of energy that may override the sense of helplessness we are confronted with in our constant struggle to give form to the formless, fitting the mystical into the sensible. Perhaps if we were to magically pull a mystical shape out of a practical mold we might finally be making meaning rather than just making sense.