The Cosmic Crypt: The Stranger and the Guide

~Henry Corbin

If the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzan appears to us the one that should stand first in the "cycle of recitals," the reason is that the initiation that it re-cites—that is to say, "again puts into the present"—teaches the fundamental orientation. It expounds that in relation to which it first becomes meaningful to speak of an Occident and an Orient of the cosmos. The possibility of this orientation once given, it likewise becomes possible to answer the question "where?" by indicating a meaning, a direction, that situates human existence. Here the answer will simultaneously orient the soul in the meaning, the direction, of its condition of Stranger and toward the necessity of an Oriental philosophy. Precisely this attests the permanence of an Image motivating an interpretatio mundi that corresponds to and expresses it; its recurring projections permit one to trace the perpetuity and the palingeneses of the world of the Gnosis. 

The idea of this Orient is already formulated in the celebrated "Hymn of the Soul" in the Gnostic Acts of Thomas. If the chronological succession does not suffice to give us knowledge of a causal historical filiation between these recurrences, at least we see arising between them the continuity of a "hierophanic time," which corresponds not to the external history of the sects and schools connected with the Gnosis, but to the cyclical presence of their "archetype," to their common participation in the same cosmic dramaturgy.

This dramaturgy can itself undergo corruptions and variations, expressing the more or less radical degree of pessimism that marks the Gnostic's particular experience of the world. The fact remains that the cosmogonic myth of all Gnoses has nothing to do with any attempt at a "prescientific" explanation of the system of the universe. If such a rationalizing reduction of myths could prevail for a certain period, it was doomed to fail lamentably of its object. The cosmogonic myth that returns with variants in all Gnoses propounds an interpretatio mundi—that is, a mode of comprehension, a fundamental and initial interpretation that goes beyond and precedes all external perceptions. Rather, this initial interpretation is what makes possible and orients all these perceptions, because it begins by situating the interpreter in a world, in the world that he interprets to himself; it is this interpretation that initially determines his experience of cosmic space.

Here the structure of space reveals to phenomenological analysis a particular sense of the cosmos, which experiences this world as a crypt. Above the earth, heaven curves like a dome, enclosing it, giving it the safety of a habitation, but at the same time keeping it as it were in a prison. It is this sense of the cosmic crypt that, architecturally, has found expression in the symbol of the dome; and this intuition of the world as a crypt differs as much from that which apprehends it as a "distance" offered in depth to passionate impulse (the endless space of the Faustian soul) as it differs from the antique intuition of the world as the sum of forms or of corporeal objects.

Now, in this sense of the world there can be an ambivalence that, as in the Babylonian cosmology, projects the world as a structure of seven stories. From Posidonius on, and under Oriental influences, the enthusiasm of an astral mysticism compensating for the miseries of the terrestrial condition had risen toward just such an edifice. On the other hand, an opposite feeling can keep the edifice intact, but make wholly different signs appear in it by projecting upon it the light of a wholly different interpretatio. Instead of appearing as the supreme expression of the divinity, the regularity of the cosmos—that is, the ineluctable necessity governed by the course of the planets—will become an expression of the Antidivine. The planets, instead of concentrating the impulse of piety toward them, will impart a panic terror. This change in the sense of cosmic space will be motivated by the perception of a drama brought about in the pleroma of celestial beings. The catastrophe can be perceived as more or less radical as one passes from the Mazdean myth to the myth of Valentinian or Manichaean Gnosticism and arrives, for example, at the "drama in heaven" of the Ismailian Gnosis.

There is every reason not to conceal but to emphasize the profound variants of the myth and, with them, those of the experienced situation. The fact remains that the cosmos, the astral region with all its apparatus of power, will no longer constitute the totality of being. Even in Avicenna's cosmology, the Angels or Animae coelestes who move the spheres are also Strangers who have entered the "celestial Occident," just as the animae humanae are Strangers exiled in the "terrestrial Occident." The realm of Light begins beyond, where the apparatus of cosmic power ends.

Hence all this edifice is there to announce and denounce his captivity to the human being, to stimulate him to awaken to consciousness of his origin. The magnificent dome becomes a cage, a prison from which he must escape. The cosmic frontier of the celestial spheres is no longer experienced as unifying from within outward, but as constituting an increasing burden from without inward.

Under this burden a foreign life agonizes, and the sense of being a Stranger is certainly the dominant feeling in every gnostic, the feeling that gives his consciousness its power of exaltation. "There was I, sole and solitary, a stranger to the other dwellers at the inn." 

Suhrawardi, the "reciter" of the Recital of Occidental Exile, will find himself cast into the bottom of a dark pit. The prisoner of the Avicennan Recital of the Bird will cry out his distress. The same dominant: "estrangement," the feeling of not belonging here, of being an "allogene."

It is by awakening to the feeling of being a Stranger that the gnostic's soul discovers where it is and at the same time forebodes whence it comes and whither it returns. 

As Suhrawardi says in his Risalat al-Abraj (Epistle of the Towers): the idea of Return implies a previous presence, a pre-existence in the country of origin, for "woe unto thee, if by thy country thou meanest Damascus, Baghdad, or any other city of this world!" This motif of Return presents two implications: in the first place, the feeling of a kinship with the divinity, with celestial beings, forms of light and beauty, which for the gnostic are his true family; in the second place, and in consequence, the soul, which thus at last finds itself, experiences itself as exiled, terrified and disoriented by and among the common norms, which assign to human beings reasons for existence and goals that are completely
strange to its true condition of Stranger. 

For the very idea of celestial origin and kinship, individually raising each soul that becomes conscious of it to a unique and privileged rank, is intolerable to the world of common norms. Through their leveling tendency, these norms cannot but fail to know this or must make every effort to do away with all recollection of it. Then too, the soul that has awakened to its individuality can no longer be satisfied by common rules and collective precepts. It is not chance if the figures paired in the third Avicennan recital, Salaman and Absal, correspond to those of Prometheus and Epimetheus as they were interpreted by alchemical and Hermetic Gnosticism. The Promethean element obeys the individual soul, never bows to collective rule.

Hence the soul must find the way of Return. That way is Gnosis, and on that way it needs a Guide. The Guide appears to it at the frontier where it has already emerged from this cosmos, to return—or, better, to emerge—to itself.

From: 'Avicenna and the Visionary Recital'