Mysticism and Humor

~Henry Corbin

What is the connection between humour and mysticism? To begin with, I agree with the general opinion that there is no possible definition of humour. Even our British friends, despite their familiarity with the subject, have long ago given up trying to find a truly accurate definition. I shall therefore not make yet another vain attempt. But even though there is no satisfactory definition of humour, it may be possible to ascertain some of its effects. So I will suggest that humour implies the ability to establish a certain remoteness, a certain distance towards oneself and the world. That distance enables one to appear not to be taking quite seriously that which one's inner self takes, can-not but take, terribly seriously, yet without betraying the secret. Without that distance towards the object, one is in danger of becoming its captive and prey. Conversely, if the necessary distance is maintained, all the tension in features and gestures, the defensive and aggressive attitudes, may give way to a smile. 

This brief indication may already suffice, or so I hope, to point out that the connection between mysticism and humour resides in the fact that humour may be the safe-guard of the mystic insofar as it protects him from the double hazard which I have described as "subjective peril" and "objective peril". And we may appeal to Sohrawardi himself to illustrate this statement. 

Rather, I shall propose both the testimony of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and of Sohrawardl since this first example comes from the "Recital of the Bird", written in Arabic by the philosopher Avicenna and translated into Persian by Sohrawardi. This "Recital of the Bird", as a mystical narrative, is one of Sohrawardi's small masterpieces. Its translation is in a book on Avicenna (1) in which I tried to show its place within the cycle of Avicennian stories — that is, situated in the context of what Avicenna's Oriental Philosophy would have been had its manuscript not been destroyed during the sack of Ispahan, and had Avicenna had the time to write it over again. Better still, this tale finds its place in the cycle that developed around the symbol of the Bird from Ghazali down to the great mystical epic of 'Attar. Its origin is remote. The first reference that comes to mind is Plato's Phaedrus where the soul is imagined in the likeness of an Energy whose nature would be incarnated by winged horses driven by a charioteer who too is winged. Also, we find there the splendid image of the celestial procession of souls following the Gods, and of the fall of some of these souls. "The natural property of a wing", writes Plato, "is to raise that which is heavy and carry it aloft to the region where the gods dwell, and more than any other bodily part it shares in the divine nature."(2)  So much for the symbol of the bird, other magnificent examples of which are to be found, for instance, in certain Manichean psalms.

Let us now turn to Avicenna's story, translated by Sohrawardi. Its prologue is full of pathos. "Is there none among my brothers who will lend me ear for a time, that I may confide some part of my sorrows to him?", asks the author ... "Brothers of Truth! Strip yourselves of your skins as the snake casts his ... Love death, that you may still live. Be ever in flight; choose no settled nest, for it is in the nest that all birds are captured .. ." (3) There are two splendid pages in this same style. Then the narrator tells his story : a party of hunters spread their nets and caught him together with the troop of birds to which he belonged. During his captivity, he forgot everything — his origin, his relation to another world and he eventually lost consciousness of the very shackles that bound him and of the narrowness of his cage. Then one day he noticed other birds who had managed to free themselves; he eventually joined them; they flew away together, cleared the highest peaks and travelled through the high valleys of Mount Qaf, the psycho-cosmic mountain, at the cost of exhausting efforts. They met their brothers near the City of the King, and in that very city the King whose beauty amazed them, received them; they made their way back escorted by the King's messenger who was bearing an order for those who had tied the bond and who alone could unbind it. I cannot insist on any detail, only on the sudden change in tone that occurs at the end of the story.

The reader was enraptured by his vision of "He who is all a Face that thou contemplatest: all a Hand that bestows", (4)  when all of a sudden the narrator, anticipating the gentle irony that will greet his story, takes the place of the sceptics and writes the following lines: 

How many of my brothers will there not be who, my recital having struck upon their ears, will say to me: "I see that thou art somewhat out of thy wits, unless sheer madness hath fallen upon thee. Come now! It is not thou who didst take flight; it is thy reason that has taken flight. No hunter ever made thee his prey; it is thy reason and naught else that has been hunted down. How should a man fly? And how should a bird fall to speaking?... 'Twere well to diet: drink a decoction of thyme dodder, take frequent hot baths, take inhalations of oil of water lily. Then go on a light diet, avoid sitting up late; and, above all, no over-exertion of mind. For in the past we have always known thee as a reasonable man, of sound and penetrating judgment. God knows how greatly we are concerned over thy state. Seeing thee thus deranged, we feel utterly sick ourselves!" (5) 

I believe that these lines in which Avicenna the physician's humour runs free have an exemplary quality; the mystic has spoken; he has tried to relate his adventure. But he knows beforehand how "rational" people will accept it; they will accept it in the same way many historians of philosophy received the teachings of the Neoplatonists — Proclus, lamblichus, and their disciples. If he tries to confront them, meeting argument with argument, he will become infinitely vulnerable; he will convince none of the sceptics but he may increasingly convince himself of the excellence of his case. And then he will be lost, frustrated, ready for schizophrenia. On the other hand, if he is capable of taking that distance, of clearly and consciously formulating the objections that the sceptics and the agnostics will raise, then, what would have been negative, aggressive criticism is transformed into an achievement of humour that permits him to slip through their fingers. Humour is his double safe-guard, for while it protects him from ego-inflation and excessive exhilaration, it also obliterates the effects of what might have been an infringement of the discipline of the arcanum. Only he who is worthy and able will comprehend; the others will perceive nothing. But despite all and everything his message will have been transmitted. It is thus simultaneously that the mystic finds his protection against both the subjective peril and the objective peril that threaten him. This protection is offered by the language of symbols. And it may occur, as in the case of Avicenna and of Sohrawardi, that this language is inspired by a superior humour. 

But then, what exactly is a symbol? In order to explain it strictly, it would be best to return to the meaning of the Greek word symbolon. In Greek, the verb symballein means to agglomerate, to join together. For instance, two men, quite by chance, happen to be fellow-guests. Before taking leave of each other, they break a ring or a potsherd in two; as each man takes one half, each of the two pieces becomes the symbolon of the other. Years may go by with all the changes they bring, but it will suffice that the owner of one symbolon joins it to the other in order to be recognized as the fellow-guest of old, or at least his deputy or friend. In the case of our mystical metaphysicians each symbolon belongs to its respective universe: the invisible world of Malakut on the one hand, the visible world of sensible perception on the other. The symbolon of one world joined to the symbolon of the other form a superior unity, an integral unity. Because the fact, in this context, that one symbolon conjoins the other proclaims that the visible world symbolizes with the invisible one — if we use the language that Leibnitz still knew how to speak. Here is the very source of Goethe's famous phrase at the end of Part Two of Faust: 
"All things ephemeral are but a symbol". (6) (We might even say: nothing less than a symbol.) The difference between "symbol" and what nowadays is commonly called "allegory" is simple to grasp. An allegory remains at the same level of evidence and of perception, whereas a symbol guarantees the correspondence between two universes belonging to different ontological levels: it is the means, and the only one, of penetrating into the invisible, into the world of mystery, into the esoteric dimension. 

When I speak of the importance for a culture of having a philosophy that guarantees the function of symbols, it is the ontological, "objective" validity of the intermediary world, between the intelligible and the sensible, that I am referring to. The idea of this intermediary region implies the triple articulation of reality with the world of the Intelligible (Jabarut), with the World of the Soul (Malakut) and with the Material World. The anthropological triad — mind, soul, body — corresponds to this triad. The day that philosophical anthropology is reduced to a dyad, be it soul and body or mind and body, that day signifies the end of the noetic, cognitive function of symbols. That triad, which has been suppressed in the West since the ninth century, has only survived in philosophical and theosophical schools mistakenly considered to be "marginal". Cartesianism recognizes nothing but thinking and extension. Sensible perceptions and abstract concepts of understanding alone remain. Then the vast world of Imagination, the world of the Soul proper, falls into disgrace; it is identified with the imaginary, with the unreal. 

It is very striking to note how carefully Sohrawardi and the Ishraqiyun applied themselves to a metaphysics of Imagination. Because they realized its ambiguous role, they maintained it firmly centered between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. Its function in serving the intelligible, that is to say, the Intelligence — nous in Greek — is to present the Veiled Idea in the form of the Image, that is, of the symbol. The characters and events in a parable are all symbols, and that is why a parable is also the only story that is true. In return, when Imagination allows itself to be entirely caught by sensible perceptions, fluttering from one to the other, it is literally "off center" and loses itself in unreality. In the first case active Imagination is the organ of penetration into a real world which we must call by its proper name, to wit: the imaginal; in the second case, Imagination merely secretes the imaginary. For Sohrawardi, Imagination in the first case is the celestial tree at the top of Mount Sinai, from which the Sages pick the high knowledge that is the "bread of Angels". In the second case, it is the accursed tree mentioned in the Koran. There is a great deal of talk at present of a civilization of the "image"; in this respect, I believe that we have much to learn from our philosophers, the Ishraqiyun and other masters. It is certainly a most complex subject, which makes me fear to appear obscure where I would only be concise. For time obliges me to stick to essentials only. We have here reached the source of Sohrawardi's genius, the source of an inspiration that enabled him to move from one register to another as if playing upon a grand organ; that is to say, to present through the media of the symbols and parables of initiatory tales what he expounded elsewhere, in his major works, in a theoretical and systematic form. 

I shall restrict my choice to three examples only, culled from a treatise of Sohrawardi's. Its form is not that of a continuous narrative, but rather that of a rhapsody linking together several symbolic stories. In it appear the Tortoise People, the Fairy People, and the Bat People. The subject is obviously not zoology — these are symbols of humans spiritually ignorant, the blind men of the soul. They are recognizable in their symbolic form because their hidden inner form, therefore their true form, symbolizes with these manifestations. And therein resides the whole difference from their daily life, which reveals only their apparent form. In displaying themselves in symbolic forms, they appear to us as they really are in the imaginal world, in which their ignorance or their blindness fixes them in a wholly negative relation with the Malakut, with the world of the Soul. It is their truth, or rather, their inner falseness which bursts forth when projected against the background of superior evidence, and here precisely a great mystic like Sohrawardi gives full vent to his humour. 

A first example: what is at stake is Na-Kojd-Abad, "the country of nonwhere", removed from the dimensions of sensible space. (I discussed this "place" in “Mundus Imaginalis: or The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” Spring 1972, pp. 1—19.) One could write a scholarly metaphysical dissertation on hyper-space. But the doctrine may also be experienced, no longer a theory, but instead a real event of the soul. We see the mystic at grips with the Tortoise People. 

One day the Tortoise People were watching from the shore the wheeling round of a many-coloured bird at the surface of the sea: sometimes it dived underwater, sometimes it surfaced. One of the tortoises asked: "Is the nature of that bird aquatic or aerial?" Another replied: "If it were not aquatic, what would it be doing in the water?" But a third one said: "If it were aquatic, it could not live out of the water." Among the tortoises lived a wise judge whom they questioned. He answered: "Study that bird carefully. If it can live out of the water, that means that it does not need it. For proof, take the fish who cannot live out of the water." Just then a strong wind arose; the lovely coloured bird soared and vanished into the clouds. Did the tortoises understand? Far from it. They began to ask the Sage to explain himself. He answered them allusively by quoting a few of the great spiritual masters' sentences, culminating with the declaration of the mystic al-Hallaj concerning the Prophet: "He blinked His eye outside of the where", meaning that his inner vision removed him from the dimen-sions and orientations of sensible space. The tortoises became enraged: "How", they asked, "could a being who is localized in space go out of place? How could he remove himself from the directions and coordinates of space?" (We may recall the end of the "Recital of the Bird".) The Sage replied: "But that is precisely why I told you all I have been saying." Whereupon the indignant tortoises threw dirt and rocks at him: "Be gone! We remove you from office; we no longer acknowledge you as our judge." 

Here is a second example. The issue this time is the connection between night and day. What appears as daylight to the blind men of the soul is nothing but darkness for him who possesses spiritual vision; and conversely, what is full daylight for him seems like dangerous and threatening obscurity to those who do not have spiritual vision. 

Thus a hoopoe (wise Solomon's bird) in the course of one of its journeys stopped off with the Fairy People. And, as everyone knows, the hoopoe is endowed with remarkably sharp vision whereas fairies are totally myopic. The hoopoe spent the night chatting with the fairies, and at dawn he wanted to set off again, but the fairies violently opposed this plan: "You poor wretch! What kind of new-fangled idea is this? Since when does one travel by day?" The hoopoe replied that the time had come to leave precisely because it was light. The fairies answered: "But you're quite mad! How can one see anything during the day since the day is dark while the sun is passing through the regions of gloom?" "But it is exactly the opposite", said the hoopoe. The discussion turned vicious and the fairies demanded an explanation, provoking the hoopoe to a formulation in which we hear the profession of faith of a great mystic: "Whosoever sees during the day can only testify as to what he sees. Here am I, myself, I see! I am in the world of presence, in the world of direct vision. The veil has been lifted. I perceive the radiant surfaces like so many revelations; doubt does not encroach upon me." Whereupon the fairies, exasperated by the behaviour of this bird who claimed he could see in broad daylight, fell upon his eyes with their nails and teeth, screeching at him derisively: "Hey, you who-see-clearly-during-the-day!" 

The hoopoe finally understood that there was no way out — what he knew to be the broad daylight of supra-sensible universes was nothing but darkness, bewildering those who see no further than their carnal eyes can perceive. He realized that the fairies would kill him since they were attacking his eyes, in other words, his inner vision, and that a mystic could not survive in this world without the power of his inner vision. The hoopoe knew that he must revert to the discipline of the arcanum, following the wise rule: "Address people only according to what they are able to understand." So, in order to free himself from his enemies, he told them: "Of course I am like you. Just as everyone else, I see nothing during the day. How could I see in broad daylight?" Whereupon the fairies were soothed and stopped torturing him. The hoopoe pretended blindness until he managed to escape, although this caused his soul to suffer a thousand torments. For it is hard not to be able to communicate to others the wonders one beholds. But the author reminds us of a divine law that admits no breach: "To reveal the divine secret to the unworthy is a crime of impiety (kofr)." The necessity for esotericism is founded on that very law. 

The theme of the last example accentuates the story we have just read. This time Sohrawardi's parable introduces an innocent chameleon and the Bat People. How their quarrel began is left to our speculation. But the bats' hatred for the chameleon grew such that they plotted to imprison him under cover of darkness and to seek revenge by putting him to death in one way or another. They set off on their expedition and managed to drag their unfortunate enemy into their house of woe. They kept him imprisoned all night and consulted him in the morning. "How shall we punish this chameleon? What will be its death?" The worst torture for a bat would be to have to endure the sight of the sun, so they decided to punish the chameleon in this way. But what their bat minds could not even begin to apprehend was that this was exactly the kind of death the poor chameleon had hoped that God would send him. And here the author interrupts the bats' discussion with two of the mystic al-Hallaj's most famous distichs: "Do kill me, O my friends. In killing me you shall make me live, since for me dying is to live and living is to die." At sunrise the bats threw the chameleon out of their house of woe so that he should be chastised by the radiance of the sun. What they could not know was that the very thing that seemed like a torture to them was precisely the chameleon's resurrection. 

Here are three mystical parables, at once very similar and very different. They draw upon the wealth of humour specific to Sohra-wardi, a humour that conceals in its depths a profound sadness. It is the sadness of "he-who-has-understood" in the face of his impotence to overcome most men's incapacity to comprehend, because this incapacity is the "secret of destiny" and no human being can resolve that particular secret. I had been careful to warn you that there is no possible definition of humour. In trying to analyze Sohrawardi's humour too minutely, we would be sure of losing its presence. 

But, what we can do before ending is to follow our sheik along the path of symbols. He was able to create marvellous ones, because he was endowed with the interior vision of the figures with which they symbolized. Perhaps a man must reach the summit of spiritual maturity — which bears no relation with his actual age — in order to create his own symbols. This summit is the self-knowledge which, as we noted, pervades Sheik al-Ishraq's spirituality from beginning to end. The attainment of this self-knowledge blossoms in a visionary experience whose memory recurs throughout his tales. And this visionary experience gives shape to the most beautiful symbol of the Self that the philosopher goes in quest of, the Self of his transcending Ego, the celestial Ego that symbolizes with his terrestrial Ego. That symbol is the Figure of light, dazzlingly beautiful, with whose vision several of Sohrawardi's mystical tales open or close. It is the Figure of the Angel who, in Avicennian philosophy is the Angel of Humanity, Tenth in the Hierarchy of Intelligences, and whom theologians call the Holy Spirit. The remarkable thing is that this same Figure in the Western world also polarized the interior vision of those known as "fedele d'amore", chiefly Dante's companions who had read Avicenna and Averroes; they named that Figure of the Angel Madonna Intelligenza

Sohrawardi always calls the Figure of the Angel encountered in initiatory recitals a sheik. "Why a sheik?" asks Mosannifak, one of the commentators of these mystical recitals. The term has no bearing on years or old age, since the youthful features of the apparition are almost always underlined. The commentator goes on to explain that sheik means morshed, spiritual guide, and that the Ishraqiyun (the philosophers and spiritual masters belonging to Sheik al-Ishraq's school) have no morshed other than this Angel of knowledge. That is precisely where they differ, he says, from the Sufis who proclaim the need for a sheik or a human master. In any case, for the Ishraqiyun this master could never be more than a temporarily necessary intermediary because their sheik, their morshed or spiritual guide, is the Angel himself, the Angel of their vision and their nostalgia. Thus, we may say that this experience of the Angel for the Ishraqiyun is very close to the experience of the personal interior guide, the invisible master called sheik al-ghayb, ostad e ghaybi in the school of Najmuddin Kubra. And this is also why this Figure of light, who rules the mystic's inner horizon, is the symbolon par excellence, the Figure with whom one's most intimate personal being symbolizes; it is the Self reached through self-knowledge by the subject who is its mere earthly counterpart. Here we touch on a fundamental inner experience that could be illustrated with a great number of texts; the entire Valentinian gnosis could be cited in confirmation. 

By the same token, one may catch a glimpse of Sohrawardi's "actuality". I apologize for using the word "actuality" in this context, as it is really too full of unpleasant associations. I would prefer "presence, urgency" ... In saying this, I am thinking of a man who died recently (7), a playwright and a novelist, who at first sight might seem as far removed from Sohrawardi as possible, but a particular page of his suggests the comparison with which I would like to end this talk. I am thinking of Audiberti, whom most of you probably know, and whose extremely diverse works are admired by an equally diverse public. But any reader of a book such as Les tombeaux ferment mals (8) will agree that he was a mystic and something of a visionary. Yet, I am referring to an episode from another book, a book called Dimanche m'attend (9) This episode is set in one of Paris' many churches, the Eglise Saint-Sulpice. The architecture of this monument may not be altogether admirable, but it contains two treasures: its great organs and, in the first lateral chapel to the right of the entrance, Eugene Delacroix's huge painting of Jacob's struggle with the Angel. That is doubtless what suggested the comparison to my unconscious, although Sohrawardi's experience of the Angel is a struggle for the Angel rather than with the Angel. Nevertheless, without having read Sohrawardi, whenever Audiberti happened to be in the neighbourhood of the church, he was wont to go meditate before Delacroix's picture for a few minutes, and his meditation readily turned into a visualizing experience. This is how he ends the account of one of his visits: 

Jacob and the Angel, after bending sarcastically over my confusion, regain their attitude ... I begin to feel the cold, the church grows empty. Outside, rain glazes the square. Between the stopped cars (stopped but not arrested) walks a young girl in boots, wearing a toque and a grey coat whose sleeves are replaced by wing-shaped cloth. Her eyes are very slanting and her hair blonde. I gaze at her in wonder. But, come to think of it... believe me if you will, I rushed into the church. "The Angel was still there ..." 

Well then! Here again is an example of the sui generis humour that belongs to a somewhat visionary mystic. How could he tell us what he saw, not merely what he thought he saw, without admitting that he went back into the church to check if Delacroix's Angel was still there? Here all philosophical reflexion must stop, for it would destroy precisely what gives value to this humour. There is only one last thing we must do before parting, and that is to recall this verse of Rimbaud: "J'ai vu parfois ce que l’homme a cru voir." (10)

Translated from French by Cornelia Embiricos Schroeder. 


1 H. Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, trans. Willard R. Trask, (Bollingen Series, LXVI) New York and London, 1960. (Orig.: Avicenne et le recit visionnaire, Departement d'lranologie de 1'Institut Franco-Iranien, Teheran, and Librairie d'AmeVique et d'Orient Adrien Maisonneuve, Paris, 1954). 
2 Plato, Phaedrus 246e (Version used by the translator of this article: The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, New York, 1961, p. 493; Phaedrus trans. by R. Hackforth). 
3 Corbin, Avicenna, pp. 186—87. 
4 Ibid., p. 192. 
5 Ibid., p. 192. 
6 Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act V: ("Alles Vergangliche/Ist nur ein Gleichnis"). My translation of the author's: "Tout l'éphémère n'est qu'un symbole". 
7 Jacques Audiberti died in 1965. 
8 J. Audiberti, Les tombeaux ferment mal, Paris: Gallimard. 
9 J. Audiberti, Dimanche m'attend, Paris: Gallimard, 1965. 
10 "I have sometime seen what man believed he saw" would be the literal rendering of Rimbaud's line.