I use the word “imaginal” to mean something far beyond the Webster’s definition, “of or relating to imagination, images, or imagery.” I mean it in the sense defined by the great scholar of Islamic mysticism Henry Corbin:
…alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception, or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with “fantasy” and that, according to him, produces only the “imaginary.”
Corbin explores the imaginal primarily as it appears in the Islamic mystical traditions of Shi’ism and Sufism, but he finds it as well as in the Western mysticism of Swedenborg. All these systems—and many more besides—posit a dimension of reality that is not accessible to the senses, but only to the spirit. If you’re comfortable with this notion already, then you won’t find it too great a leap to accept the reality of the imaginal.
I myself had to find another avenue into the imaginal because I don’t believe in the supernatural. More precisely, I believe that Nature is everything, including what we call “the supernatural.” And you may be closer to this view that you think. Here’s what I mean. Everyone reading this essay, I think, accepts the notion that the world we see is made up of atoms and that atoms are composed of even smaller particles; and since we are incapable of sensuously perceiving any of these particles, we must agree that the visible depends on the invisible. This is certainly a core tenet of physics.
What’s more, cosmologists—in wrestling with the implications of quantum mechanics—now speak of the multiverse (as MSN Encarta describes it, “a hypothetical cosmos that contains our universe as well as numerous other universes and space-times”). They argue, though, that the human brain is limited in its ability to perceive these other universes (most of us have trouble enough perceiving this one), but are unclear as to what those limits are. I’d like to suggest that what we call “mystical” experiences are in fact sudden or sustained glimpses into these other dimensions of the multiverse, and that this is what the great Surrealist poet Paul Éluard meant when he wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Isn’t this exactly the insight that led Jung to his vision of an ever-shifting, ever-evolving Collective Unconscious consisting of transpersonal archetypes?
Whatever terms we use to discuss it, the imaginal is above all real, not the unreality we’re taught to associate with the word imaginary. I would argue that the moments of illumination that great poetry brings us are exactly the kinds of “glimpses” I mean. I would also argue that the greater the poet, the more coherent we’ll find the glimpses scattered throughout his or her work. Dante‘s extended exploration of “the other world in this one” is an example; Blake‘s visionary poems are another; Yeats‘s are yet another. And a poet doesn’t need to have a mystical bent to achieve this kind of coherence. Rilke‘s Angels, for example, are not religious figures, though intensely imaginal. And Wallace Stevens, surely not a religious poet, nevertheless posits “the other world in this one” in poem after poem; consider his famous lines from “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:
Beauty is momentary in the mind–
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives….
Without a grasp of the imaginal a reader would have to take this line as nothing more than pathetic irony, or vacuous rhetoric.
Ultimately, the imaginal is what makes any art more important than the materials its made from (paint, stone, sounds, words) or the craftsmanship applied to those materials. It’s what allows poems in particular to speak across the boundaries of culture and language. To borrow from Robert Frost, the imaginal is what isn’t lost in translation. It’s the reason we mourn the slow destruction of Lascaux, or the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddha of Bamiyan statues, or the reduction of Sappho from a reputed nine volumes to a few pages of scattered fragments.
Poetry, more than any other kind of writing, creates the imaginal space in which the communion I talked about in my previous post can happen. Helping the reader enter this space calls up the reader’s own imaginative power, which is why reading even poems that are foreign in detail and context can inspire us and illuminate aspects of reality–and of ourselves–that we’ve never been aware of before. Poetry can be about many things, but if it doesn’t create imaginative space and call us into it, it devolves into an emotional or intellectual game–into sentimental propaganda or descants on Derrida. If poets can resist the gamesmanship that seems so prevalent in the poetry of our moment, the art may eventually find a new audience among non-specialist readers.
At least we can fantasize about it….