The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 3, Carl Jung and Esoteric Sufism
This is the latest in a series exploring the journey into the underworld of the psyche. My inspiration is my fascination with Carl Jung’s so-called ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ as described in his Red Book, and also in a summarised, sanitised version in one chapter of Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
This is not the next article that I had planned. Since I wrote the last one, however, I’ve come across some relevant material which is worth introducing. As I noted earlier, critics have called this period in Jung’s life schizophrenia or madness, and therefore suggested that his subsequent work, inspired by this period, can be discounted. The question therefore arises, what was really going on, how seriously should we take it?
Before I describe this new material, I’ll give the background to how I came across it, since this is interesting in itself. I’ve recently been reading two books by Peter Kingsley — Catafalque, and Reality. The first is his attempt to reveal to us the true Jung, what he was really like behind all the smokescreens created by his followers, family, and indeed Jung himself. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Kingsley is especially interested in the Greek pre-Socratic mystical philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles, who made journeys into the Underworld similar to that of Jung, who was aware of both of them, and recognised them as precursors of his own experience.
Kingsley also notes that Jung was a close friend of Henry Corbin, whom he describes as “one of the greatest living experts on Sufi mystical tradition and a scholar who, almost single-handedly, introduced the sophisticated realities of Persian spiritual wisdom to the West”. For Jung’s part, he confirmed “in no ambiguous or uncertain terms that Henry Corbin was the one person who understood him far better than anybody else: that it was Corbin who had given him ‘not only the rarest of experiences, but the unique experience, of being completely understood’ ”.
Kingsley also refers frequently to the Sufi mystic Shihâb al-Dîn Yahyâ Suhrawardi, who died a martyr’s death in 1191, but whom Corbin considered to be his invisible sheikh, a figure similar to Jung’s inner guru Philemon. Suhrawardi claimed that prophecy had not ended with Muhammad, but “was still alive within him”, and he traced this tradition into the distant past, back to the earliest Greeks and Persians, specifically to Empedocles. One can easily understand why he was considered a heretic in the eyes of orthodox Muslims, and he was executed by an order of Sultan Saladin.
Learning all this led me to start reading a book that I’ve owned for some time, but which has remained unread on my bookshelves for several years, Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī¹. Although his main focus is the mystic Ibn ‘Arabī, he also makes frequent reference to Suhrawardi, whom he places in the same spiritual family.
I was hoping to gain more insight into the nature of Jung’s journey. The burning question is, how real were his visionary experiences? Were they in any sense objectively real? Or were they illusions, hallucinations, madness, as modern psychiatry might claim? What follows are the views of Henry Corbin, elucidating the Sufi mystics.
He begins by saying: “Here we shall not be dealing with imagination in the usual sense of the word: neither with fantasy, profane or otherwise, nor with the organ which produces imaginings identified with the unreal; nor shall we even be dealing exactly with what we look upon as the organ of aesthetic creation. We shall be speaking of an absolutely basic function, correlated with a universe peculiar to it, a universe endowed with a perfectly ‘objective’ existence and perceived precisely through the Imagination”.
For the Spiritualists for whom he intends this book “the world is ‘objectively’ and actually threefold: between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception (the universe of the Cherubic Intelligences) and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtile substances, of ‘immaterial matter’. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual’, a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtile and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active Imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear (his italics) in their true reality… (In relation to this universe) the word imaginary (his italics) will never be used, because with its present ambiguity this word, by prejudging the reality attained or to be attained betrays an inability to deal with this at once intermediate and intermediary world”.
It is interesting to note that Corbin uses the same term as Jung — active imagination — to describe the means of entering this inner world. (He calls it an organ of perception, whereas Jung describes it as a technique.) He does so again here: “We shall try to show in what sense this Imagination is creative: because it is essentially the active Imagination and because its activity defines it essentially as a theophanic Imagination. It assumes an unparalleled function, so out of keeping with the inoffensive or pejorative view commonly taken of the ‘imagination’ ”.
These Sufi mystics believe therefore “in the existence and ontological consistency of an intermediate world” “where prophetic inspiration and theophanic visions have their place”. Corbin therefore concludes: “Iranian Islam preserved the objective existence of the intermediate world, the world of subsistent Images or immaterial bodies… it preserved the prerogative of the Imagination which is the organ of this intermediate world, and with it the specific reality of the events, the theophanies, enacted in it, a reality in the fullest sense, though it is not the physical, sensory, historical reality of our material being”.
It seems therefore that these mystics would have had no problem in understanding what Jung was going through, that his experiences were real. As Corbin says: “We shall be dealing with an effort to utilize the image and the Imagination for spiritual experience”.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.
1. Princeton University Press, 1997, originally 1969