The Symbols of the North

~Henry Corbin

And so, if we found ourselves writing the words Ex Oriente lux as an epigraph, we would be completely mistaken if we imagined we were saying the same thing as the Spiritual masters discussed in this work are saying, and if looking for the "Light of the Orient" we merely turned toward the geographical east.

For, when we speak of the sun rising in the east, this refers to the light of the day as it succeeds the night. Day alternates with night , as two opposites alternate which by their very nature cannot coexist. Light rising in the east and light going down in the west are two premonitions of an existential option between the world of Day with its criteria and the world of Night with its deep and insatiable passions. At best, on the boundary between the two we have a twofold twilight: the crepusculum vespertinum , no longer day but not yet night; the crepusculum matutinum , no longer night but not yet day. This striking image, as we know, was used by Luther to define the being of man.

In our turn, let us pause to consider what a light can signify which is neither eastern nor western, the northern light: midnight sun, blaze of the aurora borealis. It is no longer a question of day succeeding night, nor night, day. Daylight breaks in the middle of the night and turns into day a night which is still there but which is a Night of light. Et nox illuminatio mea in deliciis meis . This already suggests the possibility of an innovation in philosophical anthropology : the need to situate and interpret in an entirely new way the opposition between East and West, Light and Darkness , in order finally to discover the full and unforeseen significance of the northern light, and consequently of Nordic man, the man who "is at the north ," or who is going toward the north because he has come from the north.
But the north can only attain its full significance by a mode of perception which raises it to the power of a symbol, to being a symbolic direction, that is, to a "dimension beyond" which can be pointed to only by something that " symbolizes with" it. And so we are concerned with primordial Images preceding and regulating every sensory perception, and not with images constructed a posteriori on an empirical basis. For the sense of the given phenomenon depends on the primordial Image : the heavenly pole situated on the vertical of human existence, the cosmic north . And even in geographic latitudes where we should hardly think it possible for the phenomenon to occur, its archetypal Image exists. The "midnight sun" appears in many rituals of mystery religions, just as it suddenly bursts forth, in Sohravardi's work, in the midst of an ecstasy of which Hermes is the hero. Later Iranian Sufi masters refer to the Night of light, the dark Noontide , the black Light. And in the Manichean faith it is the flames of the aurora borealis that are visualized in the Columna gloriae as composed of all the particles of Light reascending from the infernum to the Earth of light, the Terra Lucida , itself situated, like the paradise of Yima, in the north , that is, in the cosmic north .

Preceding all empirical data, the archetype-Images are the organs of meditation, of the active Imagination ; they effect the transmutation of these data by giving them their meaning, and precisely in so doing make known the manner of being of a specific human presence and the fundamental orientation inherent in it. Taking its bearings by the heavenly pole as the threshold of the world beyond means that this presence then allows a world other than that of geographical, physical, astronomical space to open before it. Here "traveling the straight path" means straying neither to the east nor to the west ; it means climbing the peak, that is, being drawn toward the center ; it is the ascent out of cartographical dimensions, the discovery of the inner world which secretes its own light, which is
the world of light; it is an innerness of light as opposed to the spatiality of the outer world which, by contrast, will appear as Darkness.

This innerness must in no way be confused with anything that our modern terms subjectivism or nominalism may be supposed to refer to; nor with anything imaginary in the sense of this word that has been contaminated for us by the idea of unreality. The inability to conceive of a concrete suprasensory reality results from giving too much importance to sensory reality; this view, generally speaking, leaves no alternative but to take the suprasensory universe as consisting of abstract concepts. 

On the contrary, the universe which in Sohravardi's neo-Zoroastrian Platonism is called the mundus imaginalis ('alam al-mithal) or the "heavenly Earth of Hurqalya" is a concrete spiritual universe . It is most certainly not a world of concepts, paradigms, and universals. Our authors never cease to repeat that the archetype of a species has nothing to do with the universals established in logic, but is the Angel of that species. Rational abstraction, at best, deals only with the "mortal remains" of an Angel ; the world of archetype- I mages, the autonomous world of visionary Figures and Forms, is on the plane of angelology. lo see beings and things "in the northern light" is to see them "in the Earth of Hurqalya," that is, to see them in the light of the Angel ; it is described as reaching the Emerald Rock, the heavenly pole , coming upon the world of the Angel.

And this presupposes that the individual person as such , irrespective of anything collective, virtually has a transcendent dimension at his disposal . Its growth is concomitant with a visionary apperception , giving shape to the suprasensory perceptions and constituting that totality of ways of knowing that can be grouped under the term hierognosis .

As a corollary, the terms of reference presupposed by the mystical symbols of the north here suggest something like a psycho-spiritual realm of three dimensions, which the ordinary two-dimensional view cannot account for, since it is restricted to contrasting consciousness and unconsciousness . To put it more precisely, it has to do with two Darknesses: there is one Darkness which is only Darkness; it can intercept light, conceal it, and hold it captive . When the light escapes from it (according to the Manichean conception or the Ishraq of Sohravardi) , this Darkness is left to itself, falls back upon itself; it does not become light. But there is another Darkness, called by our mystics the Night of light, luminous Blackness, black Light.

Already in the mystical Recitals of Avicenna, an explicit distinction, dependent on the vertical orientation, is established between the "Darkness at the approaches to the Pole" (the divine Night of superbeing, of the unknowable , of the origin of origins) and the Darkness which is the extreme occident of Matter and of non-being, where the sun of pure Forms declines and disappears. The Orient in which the pure Forms rise, their Orient-origin , is the pole , the cosmic north. Here al-ready the Avicennan recital explicitly shows us a twofold situation and meaning of the " midnight sun" : on the one hand , it is the first Intelligence, the archangel Logos, rising as a revelation over the Darkness of the Deus absconditus , and which , in terms of the human soul, is the arising of superconsciousness on the horizon of consciousness. On the other hand, it is the human soul itself as the light of consciousness rising over the Darkness of the subconscious. We shall see how, in Najmoddin Kobra's work, the colored photisms (in particular "luminous black" and green light) proclaim and postulate an identical psycho-cosmic structure. That is why orientation requires here a threefold arrangement of planes: the day of consciousness is on a plane intermediate between the luminous Night of superconsciousness and the dark Night of unconsciousness. The divine Darkness, the Cloud of unknowing, the " Darkness at the approaches to the Pole," the " Night of symbols" through which the soul makes its way, is definitely not the Darkness in which the particles of light are held captive . The latter is the extreme occident, and is Hell, the demonic realm. Orientation by the Pole , the cosmic north, determines what is below and what is above ; to confuse one with the other would merely indicate disorientation.

This orientation might well be what would enable us to validate what Michel Guiomar so admirably foresaw. Our classical oppositions expressed in the refusal of the hostile dawn or, on the contrary, in the distress of twilight, of the "refused evening," might well turn out to be nothing other than pairs become unrecognizable, that is to say the divergence, in Mediterranean and northern geographical areas, from one and the same great original myth. This would imply an explosion of this myth into two kinds of anguish, two refusals, two correlative kinds of powerlessness in the case of the man who has lost his "polar dimension," that is to say of man no longer oriented toward the heavenly pole and so faced with the dilemma of Day succeeding Night, or of Night succeeding Day.

To speak of the polar dimension as the transcendent dimension of the earthly individuality is to point out that it includes a counterpart , a heavenly "partner" , and that its total structure is that of a bi-unity, a unus-ambo . This unus-ambo can be taken as an alternation of the first and second person, as forming a dialogic unity thanks to the identity of their essence and yet without confusion of persons. This is why the polar dimension is heralded in the guise of a Figure whose recurrent manifestations correspond on each occasion to an absolutely personal experience of the spiritual seeker and to a realization of this bi-unity. So it is that in Iran in the twelfth century (sixth century of the hegira) this Figure reappears in contexts which differ but which in every case appertain to a metaphysics or a mystical experience of Light.

From: 'The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism'