The Imaginal World
(This essay was first published at Paganarch.com)
Morning and my husband woke me, told me to shove off all my work and come on an adventure with him.
“Okay, where?" I asked.
“I'm not telling. Just get ready."
He doesn't try to surprise me much, because I guess too well.
Most of my cynicism about the world derives from this fact. I follow what appears to be obvious patterns and state what I imagine to everyone would be the obvious conclusion. “Trump will get elected," for example, something I repeated against every poll to the contrary. And he did, and thus I became Cassandra, those around me not only refusing to believe my prediction but also hating me for its content, as if the statement itself proved I actually wanted such a thing to happen.
But I didn't guess where my husband wanted to go, and anyway I wanted to be surprised. Too much of my life has become rote, too predictable. An invitation to meet up with friends ends with them being too drunk within an hour for interesting conversation; a political group I supported begins to eat itself from within through internal call-outs obscuring overblown egos; a critic on the internet who harasses me for my ideas a year later begins to state the same ones. It's all the gods-damned same.
I needed something different, needed a surprise, needed something I couldn't predict.
We arrived an hour later at a small medieval village called Rochefort-en-Terre. My husband's pace was a little disconcerting, too fast to take in the quaint stone streets filled with tourists eating Breton pastries and artisanal ice cream. I asked him to slow, he refused. “We can look later. You need to see this first."
When we arrived at an old stone gate through which the rehabilitated castle of the town waited, I relaxed. Old stone makes me happy, eases me at its mere presence. Everything in the city where I live is too new, but not new in that interesting way. I love Rennes, or think I do, yet sometimes the 1700's and 1800's can feel just as fake as a mid-western shopping plaza, especially when you've seen 1200 year-old chapels and 6000 year-old standing stone circles. So the chateau's stone gate felt good, “more real" as it were. Not entirely unpredictable, but at least a change.
But we weren't going to through that gate, either, or not yet. Instead, I followed him with my eyes as he walked towards what looked first like a gift shop or tourist center. I stood, a bit frozen. I wanted old stone, not postcards and shop windows.
He turned, noting I hadn't followed. “We're going here. Come on."
I approached, downtrodden. It all looked too predictably new. New windows, new awnings, everything too shiny, clean, and not at all surprising.
When I got closer I read the sign and sighed. A museum, “of imaginary arts," it claimed. Naïa, it was called, a name that felt familiar but I couldn't remember from where. Anyway, he was already inside (you enter through the gift shop), so I followed him to the desk. He paid for us both, and we turned and walked through a thin red curtain into everything I forgot actually matters.
The Alien Familiar
To describe what I saw within requires a short side story.
You know how you see things that someone “made up" but you recognize it as true, regardless of its impossibility? But more than mere “suspension of belief," that temporary state you enter when reading fiction or watching a film; rather, the sense that the thing that was made-up is actually more true than the world you know?
I first felt that feeling when encountering images of floating mountains, plateaus or islands drifting above the surface of the earth. No such thing exists, and yet each new image I come across depicting such places fills me with a sense somewhere between longing and relief. This despite knowing no mass of land can ever float thusly, despite knowing I've never seen with my eyes anything other than fantastical depictions of such phenomena, and despite anyway not necessarily being keen on living below or atop a massive chunk of rock.
The problem is that they're familiar. Like, I've seen them (but obviously haven't). I encounter such images and nod along a little happy, as if I'm looking at someone else's photo of my favorite cafe in Berlin or a vista from a mountain I once hiked. Perhaps if I tried very, very hard, I could shake from my soul this familiarity, train myself not to recognize such places as real, but since I'm hardly evangelizing their existence to others or trying to lead blind followers to such a place, there's really no harm done.
Almost everything in the Naïa Museum has this same quality, artifacts created by people who've voyaged to the same dream lands you have. A close friend described this experience as “recognition," which always has the extra connotation of “realize" (to make real), “acknowledgement" (to bring to knowledge), and “honor" (as in, “received recognition for her work").
That is to say, the paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other works in the Naïa Museum play with the very ancient human act of recognizing things, not just in finding them familiar but finding them real, making them knowledge, and honoring those things because of their ability to evoke these sentiments in you. Unlike Classical, Renaissance, or Modern art, each of which we “appreciate" (give value to) according to the skill of their creators or the emotions they invoke in the receiver, questions of skill or emotion feel too alien a paradigm to invoke.
Alien is a good word for this, but scrub from your mind all of Hollywood's colonization of that term. Alien as in foreign, strange, alienating: an encounter separating yourself suddenly from everything you know to be normal and real, all your cognition suddenly invaded by a wholly-Other. That Alien, or Other, has its own logics which feel somehow to predate (in both senses of the word) the orders of meaning from which we constellate our own worlds.
The Horror of Forgetting
If you're familiar with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, for example, what I'm explaining won't seem too foreign. But rather than ancient unspeakable horrors from before time began, imagine Lovecraft writing about the Fae and without all the boring nods to pseudo-scientific theories and radio signals.
But keep the horror.
See, it's a bit of a joke amongst those who've encountered faeries that anyone who claims to have encountered them and isn't warning you off hasn't actually met them. Fifteen years ago a lover and I encountered a korrigan just after sunset by an old cromlech. We were quite naive back then, very love-and-lightish, which made the look of abject terror on his face (and certainly reflected back from mine) when we'd realized we were NOT WELCOME probably all the more amusing to that being.
The Other or the Alien is terrifying, but the more accustomed to the terror you are, the less you need to run, the more directly you can look at the thing from elsewhere, and the easier it is to communicate with it (not that this is often a very good idea). Regardless, that other (be it Fae or otherwise) is still “not from here," still wholly alien, unable ever to fit into our reality, It's from elsewhere, or we are.
The sculptures in the museum which particularly invoke this alien/other quality are all by the same artist, Patrice Hubert, who also co-founded the museum four years ago. His works (all from a series entitled Kinetik Mechaniks) use polished steel, colored lights, and glass to create jarringly "real" pieces that look like what aristocratic fae are using to illuminate their gardens either aeons ago or aeons hence.
The time ambiguity here in that sentence is important, because it's precisely the uncertainty as to whether his art looks Atlantean or post-Earth that creates the sense of Alien or Other. But despite that alien-ness derived from their a-temporal nature, the feeling of familiarity is almost uncomfortable. It's again like the floating mountains: things you're certain that exist, but you don't know where that existence could possibly be possible.
The impossibly-possible and alienatingly-familiar sense of all these sculptures (and other such art) has a quality of horror like that of the encounters with Fae or other Other/Alien experiences. Not that you're terrified of the thing itself, but rather find yourself gripped with a fear that something has gone wrong with your cognition. Not the cognition slippage of the schizophrenic or delusional (who usually doesn't recognize something's wrong at all, thus making their condition more horrifying to observers than to themselves), but rather the slippage of the amnesiac or the sufferer of dementia.
It's the sense of having forgotten something you absolutely know you once knew, recognizing a face but not remembering the person who wears it. The more familiar the person feels, the greater the horror at having forgotten, the anxious grasping for an entire life that seems to have disappeared from your own.
That is, the horror isn't that the thing is Alien or Other, but that it's become Alien or Other to you and you're not quite sure how that happened, nor when, nor especially by what mechanism the thing was ever once known to you.
The Country of Nowhere
There's actually a rather simple explanation for this problem, simple at least at first. An historian who primarily studied Persian theory and metaphysics (Iranology), Henry Corbin, proposed that the Order of Things constellated through Enlightenment thought created a kind of spiritual deadlock by posing “imaginary" as the opposite of “real." This dichotomy was absent in Persian and Islamic--as well as other non-Western (and also pre-modern European)--thought.
Corbin created the term “imaginal" to get around a problem he'd encounter when trying to translate a crucial aspect of Persian metaphysics in French or English. The best available word was imaginary, yet for the mystics he was translating, “imaginary" didn't mean fantasy or unreality, but rather a third realm accessed outside of intellectual cognition and sensory cognition. Particularly a problem was the term Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd, a place that mystics would visit which literally translated to “the country of nowhere." The problem was that Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd was not an “imaginary" place, but rather a “real" place that was only accessible through mystical visions. Others had translated Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd as “utopia" (which means “no-place"), but the Western tradition of a utopia being a fantasy place (that might one day later exist when created) and a political metaphor didn't describe what the mystics actually meant.
In calling Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd a “real" place that mystics visited, I've here encountered the same problem he did. Because it's neither real (as in a place you can visit by automobile) but also not a place created through the imagination. The truest description would be “a place accessible through mystic journeying, but not created by mystic journeying."
To distinguish between the Western “imaginary" and this Persian concept, he created the term mundus imaginalis, the world of the imaginal. I'll let his words describe the reasons further:
The reason why I absolutely had to find another expression was that, for a good many years, my calling and my profession required me to interpret Arabic and Persian texts, whose meaning I would undoubtedly have betrayed had I simply contented myself — even by taking all due precaution — with the term imaginary. I had to find a new expression to avoid misleading the Western reader, who, on the contrary, has to be roused from his old engrained way of thinking in order to awaken him to another order of things. In other words, if in French (and in English) usage we equate the imaginary with the unreal, the Utopian, this is undoubtedly symptomatic of something that contrasts with an order of reality, which I call the mundus imaginalis, and which the theosophers of Islam designate as the "eighth clime"
But what is much more interesting than his reasons for this terminology is what he later does in exploring the terms themselves, which is to identify precisely what faculty the Persian mystics claim to possess which enables them to visit “the country of nowhere" and find it, relatively speaking, the same “nowhere" that others have gone. In the Order of Things which constellated Persian mystic thought, the sensory world and the cognitive world are not the only two realms through which humans experience things. A third one, the imaginal realm, intersects the others (and exists, according to these mystics, at an intersection of all other realms) and is accessed through the imaginal (not imaginary) capacities of humans.
Before we get too lost, we should distinguish this from what many Wiccan/New-Age practioners mean by “astral realm" or whatever. The mundus imaginalis is neither that nor the Jungian collective unconscious, and anyway both terms are clumsy Modern attempts to posit a pseudo-scientific theory upon a pre-Modern understanding of what composes reality. It isn't a realm shaped by us, nor is it a massive storehouse of everything humans have ever imagined.
Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman's Sandman series might find some parallels here: the mundus imaginalis is like “The Dreaming," a realm populated by the dreaming of every being, living or dead, god or human or plant, where each “place" has a geography only inasmuch as it's necessary for those who visit to travel within it and find the same place again (or visit a place another once visited). In fact, Gaiman likely stole the entire idea for his cosmology from Corbin's essay.
Gates of the Other
But two crucial things distinguish the mundus imaginalis from Gaiman's creation. Unlike “The Dreaming," the mundus imaginalis isn't actually accessed by dreaming (though perhaps occasionally glimpsed), but rather the in-between state that exists just before and just after sleep, through direct meditation, or the act of active-imagining. Also, Corbin makes particularly clear that the imaginal realm isn't an accidental place, nor one that exists as a mere storehouse of discarded dream-images or the archetypes with which humans populate their waking world. The imaginal realm is accessed through our imaginal cognition, which is essentially a spiritual cognition: what brings the shaman into contact with the ancestors or the witch into contact with gods and the dead or with devas.
And though Corbin doesn't draw this connection, its existence as a sort of pinnacle (beginning at “the convex surface of the ninth sphere") is perfectly in line with the mountaintop or “top of the world" experience reported by many other spiritual traditions outside of Persia: a place outside of all other places from which one can see all the others.
More so, it can be accessed in physical places as well, and here's where Henry Corbin's discussion of the Persian understanding of the mundus imaginalis intersects with all the reported and literary accounts of meeting with fae, gods, or other alien/Other beings:
Topographical correspondences can, of course, exist between the sensible world and the mundus imaginalis, one symbolizing with the other. However, it is not possible to pass from one to the other without a break. This is pointed out by many reports. One starts out, but at some point there is a break-down of the geographical coordinates found on our maps. Only the "traveller" is not aware of it at that moment. He realizes it — either with dismay or amazement — only after the event. If he did notice it, he would be able to retrace his steps at will or indicate the way to others. However, he can only describe where he has been; he cannot show the road to anyone.
The imaginal realm, the mundus imaginalis, describes better than anything else I've seen that alien familiarity of certain “imaginative arts," and also the sense of recognition when I first encountered images of cloud mountains. In both situations, the familiarity comes from having been in the place where such things exist, while the alienation derives from not being able to quite place precisely where it was located because in that place maps are useless.
This concept also greatly expands our often shallow Western concept of “inspiration." For instance, the Irish term Imbas and the Welsh term Awen (both often translated flatly as “inspiration") more accurately describe the act of a human (be they poet or prophet) channeling something from another realm into this one. That other realm is the imaginal realm, traveled through the imaginal faculty of the inspired, in a moment of seizure during which the person is both here and also elsewhere, bridging for a moment the multiple realms at the “convex point of the ninth sphere," birthing something wholly new into this-world from the place where all worlds meet.
And we can posit without too much of a leap that what makes the rest of us acknowledge such acts of “inspiration" as being deeply profound, haunting, horrifying (in the Fae sense, but also perhaps in other senses), and most of all world-changing is that we recognize the art as having come “from elsewhere." We recognize (again, all meanings of that word) the thing as being Alien/Other yet also again familiar, from a place (or a memory, or a dream) that we cannot quite identify, like a face whose name we've forgotten.
In the land of the blind...
Shifting focus away from the artist and towards the receivers of the art, we then have to ask precisely how it is that an audience would resonate this way, because of course art only is art when it is experienced by others. The obvious conclusion here would be that those experiencing the art would have also had to have experienced the imaginal realm to recognize its provenance. Those without such experience will encounter it as something merely interesting, or perhaps overly-focus on technique or emotions or its potential utility (“is it danceable?" or “where would I hang this in my bedroom?").
For any of you, mystic, Pagan, or radical, a few questions are probably arising in your mind. First, I suspect you might be wondering what precisely is the difference between those who experience art through the imaginal and those who do not, with the nagging fear that this implicates a division of humanity with the “mundanes" on one side and the “dreamers" on the other.
I think you should cultivate this idea and not fear it. Were you to truly observe all your interactions with others, you'd find that some of the people in your life seem to “get" your dreams and visions, while the vast majority not only do not resonate them but seem sometimes to actively mock and fear them. The reason why “muggle" became such popular currency isn't due only to the vast media empire propagandizing J.K. Rowling's work into your everyday life, but rather that many of us recognize a sense that some of us see magic while most of us are caught in the mundane world of capitalist, commercial, “normal" life.
But before you get on thinking there's something special about you and not special about others, redirect your attention to the societies created through post-Calvinist capitalism and its demands. Dreaming, fantasy, imagination, and any spiritual endeavour outside of the demands of the Market have been civilized out of you and your ancestors over the last three hundred years, so much so that we've forgotten these things can be anything more than personal leisure activities.
That is, the imaginal has been disciplined out of most of the world, at least within Liberal Democracies. “Muggles," or more properly people stuck in the mundane, aren't incapable of experiencing the imaginal realm, they just haven't gotten to do so yet. Boring schooling and life-sapping employment doesn't allow for much time and even fewer opportunities to directly engage the imaginal. Worse (and more to blame I think) is the capitalist industry which feeds us imaginary (not imaginal) material to supplement what we're lacking. It's a hell of a lot more profitable for the capitalists that you explore Skyrim than the mundus imaginalis. It's also a hell of a lot safer for them, since nothing in an Elder Scrolls game can be channeled into disruptive or revolutionary art.
This brings us to the larger historical trajectory of capitalist civilization, in which deviance, ancestral traditions, rough language or thought, and all other things various thought “barbarous" or “primitive" are socially-engineered out of our lives. Here we must speak this aloud: magic and the gods are literally being disciplined, educated, civilized, medicated, droned, and amused out of our consciousness, all to keep our modern capitalist Liberal Democracies from disintegrating under the multiplicity of truths we humans might otherwise experience.
A fellow polytheist whom I never speak to anymore once called this process “the filter," and while she never really iterated an explanation as to how such a thing exists, the experience she described is fully correct. But let's instead call it a “screen," which really has two meanings, each apparently contradicting the other. A screen is something upon which something is projected, shown, revealed, such as the screen by which you are reading this essay. Yet a screen is also something that obscures and filters out; you can conceal something behind a screen, or block out flies and debris if you hang a screen in a window.
We stare at screens which display to us images but conceal from us the sources of those images. To look at a screen is to not look at the rest of the room around you. Upon a screen you see projected an “outside" vision that, while apparently external to your reality, shapes the way you see reality. But beyond mere propaganda and social programming, the problem here is that the entire media/mediated realm takes the place (as in the way nicotine takes the place of the chemical neurotransmitters acetylcholine and glutamate) of the active-imagination (imaginal cognition), giving us the sense that we've been to another world and related to other consciousnesses, though we actually haven't.
Spectres of Desire
Perhaps worst of all, few even have the worldview to use as a framework for any experiences they might have, something which I suspect has given us many of the reports of alien (in this case, little green men or the “greys") encounters obviously screened/filtered through mass media's scientism. I'm sure I'm not the first who has noticed more than a few reported sightings of extra-terrestrial beings parallel mythic (and non-mythic) encounters with the Fae, devas, landwights, demons, and others. But “alien encounter" not only sounds a lot more credible in a society which has consigned all ancestral stories to the trash heap of superstition, it's also the only allowable Alien/Other that secular Liberal Democracies can now countenance.
Corbin hints at this problem towards the end of his essay:
Unless we have access to a cosmology structured similarly to that of the traditional oriental philosophers, with a plurality of universes arranged in ascending order, our imagination will remain out of focus, and its recurrent conjunctions with our will to power will be a never-ending source of horrors.
The problem here is also one which both Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard addressed in their discussion of the effect mechanical reproduction of images has had upon our ability to conceive of the world around us, but the most poignant analysis comes from Peter Grey in Apocalyptic Witchcraft:
We are pitted against an industrial industry which fabricates our dreams for us and insinuates them through our culture and our language. How can we dream when our vocabulary of symbols has only the nuance of newspeak? These are spectres of desire and though marked for sale, remain unattainable
If you have ever tried to trance in order to travel through these realms, you know this problem already. Our fantasies (which are not always or even often ours) not only get in the way of seeing clearly, but also shape what it is we even look for. If you expect to find your “spirit guide" or to meet Merlin on a journey, you won't come back disappointed but also won't have left at all.
This is the “will to power" Corbin warns against, a popular theme in his works because of his focus on undermining fundamentalism within religious and anti-religious thought. Besides the obvious fundamentalisms of strict textual interpretation (be that monotheist or otherwise) and that of the rabid anti-theists, there is the just-as-dangerous (though with fewer bombs) fundamentalism of the new initiate who is certain the vistas they encounter must look like what they believe they must.
We should remember (as Corbin points out also): the mundus imaginalis is inhabited. Persian mystics encountered “angels" and human teachers, just as Christian mystics encountered angels and saints. The imaginal is where the shaman or the witch finds the animal and plant spirits, the devas, the ancestors, the daemons and gods. It's where the Fae and the gods are found in Celtic myth, just past crossroads of mounds, stones, and mist. It's where the alchemist or the magician finds the goetic spirits, and maybe possibly where the few non-charlatan New Age teachers (I imagine there must be at least one or two) are finding their guides.
According to Corbin, the Persian mystics saw these beings as also-travelers of such realms, though some also live there and some dream up the topography. The point to remember here is this is all external to the human mind; unlike Jungian theory, the mundus imaginalis isn't an inner terrain of the human (collective or otherwise) psyche, but rather an exterior realm accessed by a facility we Moderns have come to believe is only interior to our imagination.
Here a folksy saying one hears often among mystics who've actually done this work is quite useful: if the gods (or spirits or ancestors or whatever) tell you what you want to hear, you're talking to yourself. Or as Judith O'Grady puts it much more politely, “you're probably just telling yourself a story." The imaginal realm is inhabited (or at least populated) with beings with other consciousnesses who don't exist for you, anymore than anyone else does (which is not at all).
That is to say, a great deal of decivilizing has to be done to encounter the Alien/Other as it desires to appear and chooses to appear, rather than how we want it to. Mystics in cultures with long traditions of mysticism obviously has a much easier time with this sort of thing, but we have no such tradition and a vast machine of corporate myth-making against which to contend.
Interrupting the Mundane
So the mundus imaginalis is the Otherworld, and also the Underworld, and the Dreamtime, and also the Heavens, and really every place mystics have claimed to visit and from which they've brought back visions, wisdom, invention, and inspiration. It is where the gods are met, and the saints, the ancestors and spirits, whether that be in ecstatic trance or in the thin-veiled sacred places where that realm somewhat intersects with ours.
The question to ask here is, how do we access the imaginal without the pale cultural trash we are daily fed? And more so, how to we re-awaken the imaginal in others?
The easy route is to not do so at all, and rather rely on creating our own fantastic stand-ins--borrowing heavily from capitalist mass-media--for the imaginal. That's what most of Neo-Paganism is doing anyway, and not only is it not liberating anyone but it's further inscribing Pagan belief into the wheels of corporate meaning-production.
Rather, I think the answer is more art. That sounds glib and simplistic (and as trite as “all you need is love"), but actually it's much harder than it sounds. We need more imaginal art, imaginal fiction, imaginal music, stuff which jars the viewer, reader, or listener with the horrifying sense they've forgotten something. Like the work I viewed at the Naïa Museum, we need to pursue, experience, and create the sort of stuff which shocks people out of the drab and mundane certainty that everything's been done, everything's been seen, the future's already written.
Our imaginal cognition atrophies when we believe that everything left to explore has been explored, everything that can be known is now known. It's beaten into a coma when we stare endlessly at screens in search of something to satisfy our deep longing for wonder. And it's menaced, abused, violated, and even possibly murdered by every disciplined act of obedience to the capitalist Order of Things which tells us there is only work, entertainment, and then death.
The ascetic path (avoiding all capitalist art) is hardly possible unless you have no desire to communicate with anyone in the world anymore. To cut oneself off from society is certainly a traditional path for the mystic, and one that will definitely hone your capacity to journey to the country of nowhere. But personal revelations remain only personal until they are communicated, and the goal for any who wants to stop the nightmare of Empire is to bring those visions from that other world into this one.
So instead we must have more alien visions and make more art, enough first to signal to our kindred that we've seen what they've seen. The art we make must also startle and horrify those who've forgotten how to see, a “short-circuit" of the mundane into the more-real currents of the Other. Our work must haunt, just as these visions haunt, just as the dead and the gods haunt only a little out of the sight of mortals. Art and artful lives with archaic logics, foreign symbols, anachronistic rituals, alien aesthetics and brutal, primitive desires.
If this seems overwhelming, or if you don't feel yourself an artist, then I suggest you expand a little your idea of what such an art might mean. This is anyway already the work of the witch, whose life embodies the Other and its alien familiarity.
And here I can note why the name of the museum was familiar when I encountered it. Naïa is the name of the last known witch of Bretagne, a woman who lived in the ruins of the castle (and indeed, in the very same space) where the museum is located. Encountered by a travel writer at the turn of the 20th century, her photos and story circulated widely through the “civilized" world as an uncomfortable interruption to the secular capitalist narrative of progress. A healer and oracle consulted by “modern" French people from the surrounding villages, she became for a time a symbol for a sudden resurgence in spiritualism and the occult.
That is to say, the interruption of the imaginal into the mundane need not be a painting, sculpture, film or novel. The witch, the mystic, the artist, and the dreamer themselves can be that interruption.
Rhyd is a druid. A gay punk gardener. A gym bro. An occasional nomad. A theorist and a poet. A publisher and editor. Sometimes an anarchist, sometimes a Marxist. He’s devoted to Brythonic and Gallic gods and some local land spirits and ancestors. He’s mostly on the side of good.