Monday, December 05, 2011

Mundus Imaginalis

Terry Gilliam's wonderful 2009 film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, introduces us to a traveling theatre troupe that invites people to take a walk into the mirror seen in this picture. When you walk through this fake mirror, you emerge into the world of your imagination. A place fewer and fewer people choose to visit in the modern world where the film takes place. For those who walk through (or stumble through inadvertently, as the case may be), there are many surprises, valuable lessons, and dangerous temptations.

The idea of an imaginal world, a mundus imaginalis, is old and has been taken quite seriously in times past. This is not the "collective unconscious" of Carl Jung, and not simply a world of fantasy made concrete; it is not even the personal cognitive realm Zen Master Seung Sahn placed at 270 degrees on his circle of awakening and enlightenment (an intriguing notion in itself, as it was thought possible for those sufficiently prepared to bend some of the rules of the material world), but an actual place. In Persian theosophy it was called hurqâlya, as Henri Corbin described: intermediate world, which our authors designate as '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."

A realm that is accessible through preparation, not to walk through a mirror or some other material gateway, but through the senses, past the particular personality and into an imaginal world that can be accessed by those whose faculties are prepared. Here, there is perennial inspiration, a riot of mythologies and images that speak in whispers intelligible to ears that are attuned, though they be fewer in number now than in other ages...

...especially in a world of men and women bent over personal electronic devices. In the dressing room of the theatre where I am currently performing in Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places, I'm damned if I did not witness the bewildering spectacle of two actors thumbing away at their little telephone computers simultaneously. One said, "I'm trying to find you on Facebook. Where are you?" The other spelled her name and the first said, "Nope, still can't find you." Were they seeking each other in some mundus electronicus, perhaps? Where would this be, in relation to the hierarchy of the material world, spiritual world, and the intermediary mundus imaginalis? It was a little bitchy of me, but I said out loud, "You know, she's right here in the room with you."

Yet minutes later, we were at play in a space shared by a playwright we have not met, we (a bunch of American artists), and those who occupy the audience. Fourth wall or none, what is the space that is viewed through the prism of a performance area?

Personally, I am not much interested in the ontology of these worlds. I don't literally believe much of anything about the world. I don't literally believe the ideas of Buddhism or acting or magic, tarot, or even ego. So much of my self is created by thinking, what would be the ontological basis of "I?" Much less a character I would play on a stage, a story, an image.

More important is our relationship to these things and how they affect us. Because in this world, regardless of its ontological "existence" as an independent place or a "collective unconscious" or whatever, there is ancient shared wisdom. There are also traps.

This is a beautiful, strange universe. There are also dangers. Make good friends, listen to old stories, and pay attention. And sing.

[Photo: Heath Ledger in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." He was working on this film when he died in January of 2008.]


Matt Basil said...
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Matt Basil said...
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