Myth and Creativity: The Role of the Artist and the Sufi Tradition

Myth and Creativity: The Role of the Artist and the Sufi Tradition

Arts January 29, 2014 / By Allison Stieger
Myth and Creativity: The Role of the Artist and the Sufi Tradition

A look at the connections between the Sufi traditions and the between spaces of art.

One of the most fascinating ideas that is generated for me in the study of myth is the concept of the between spaces. All cultures seem to have some concept of a way to negotiate the feeling of infinite possibility that can come over anyone who gets lost in a particular (mostly creative) space. The Greeks spoke of being visited by the Muses. The Aboriginal tribes of Australia refer to the "Dreamtime" in their mythic system. The Christian mystics spoke of communion with the Holy Spirit. All of these very different ideas try to capture the same sensation of being in communion with something greater than ourselves, something divine. This communion allows for connection with God (however that is understood in each culture. I also believe that artists find the sources of inspiration here. This is where the stories live. I wrote about this for The Creativity Post a month or two ago, but now I'd like to expand the idea in a slightly different direction.

As a fiction writer and storyteller, I've long struggled to understand what it is about the artistic process that makes storytelling possible. The famous and common question that is asked of all fiction writers is this: Where do you get your ideas? Most writers are at a loss to answer this, because for most it remains a mystery. We read, and think, and sometimes thrash about, but the inspiration does eventually come. In studying mythology, I believe I've come closer to an understanding about the problem of inspiration, its origins, and the impact that its had on our human culture since the beginning of time. Carl Jung, Henry Corbin, and other writers have made some interesting observations about the between spaces, and the mystical system of Islam, Sufism, has a few other ways of knowing in this vein that I would like to explore. Ultimately, what I'd like to discuss here is the seeking and finding of the margins between consciousness and unconsciousness, why those margins are important, and how artists of all cultures are often the trailblazers who guide us into explorations of that space.

The Sufi tradition is very interested in exploring the visionary states that can be achieved through the negotiations of what Henry Corbin calls the "mundus imaginalis". Corbin describes this space as an order of reality that corresponds with the Islamic theosophers designation of the "eighth clime". The eighth clime goes one step beyond the seven climes of geography, or, in other words, it exists at the margins of the known world. This eighth clime is not explored in the visual world. It is "explored in a visionary state, i.e., the intermediary state between waking and sleeping". Corbin goes on to explain that:

"the world of the image, the mundus imaginalis: a world that is ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect. This world requires its own faculty of perception, namely, imaginative power."

By negotiating this space, both/and is achieved. Corbin explains it like this:

"when, at the climax, the lover has become the very substance of love, he is then both the lover and the beloved. But himself will not be that without the second person, without the thou, that is to say without the Figure who makes him able to see himself, because it is through his very own eyes that the Figure looks at him." (Man of Light 9)

In the Sufi tradition, the eighth clime was achieved through the movement of the body; namely, the whirling dervishes. The word Sufi means "awareness in life, awareness on a higher plane than that on which we normally live". The aim of the dervish is to:

"Open the eyes of the heart and see infinity in eternity His goal is to loosen himself from the earth's glue which binds him and become one with God, to become a channel for His Light, and enter the realm of no boundaries."

The dervish uses both the music he is dancing to and his own breath to rise above earthly situations. Dancing allows him an opportunity, if done correctly and with a pure heart, to break through to the eighth clime, the realm of the imaginal. The dance allows him to move from the center to the margins, so that the mundus imaginalis may be reached. This is the place of chaos and power.

Space at the margins is highly desired by the artist, as by the dervish. "At the margins, the edge, rigidities get broken down and one is closer to the Source". "Where ever there is a pushing of the boundaries of what is allowed, there is likely to be some breakdown and then a new configuration is possible."

Carl Jung teaches us that "when the gods left Olympus, they went into the unconscious and reign now in the solar plexus of the individual". It is in this space that art that has been created through contact with the mundus imaginalis affects us. Everyone has had the experience of a piece of art (whether a painting, story or film) that affects us to such a point that we feel it in the body. True art has its affect in the body, and the part of the body where that feeling comes is the solar plexus.

These images in the margins can be infinitely receding. So, therefore, how do we bridge the gap between ourselves and that space, between the world of ordinary geography and the eighth clime? How do we leap into the margins?

According to Hollis, we connect with this space through the medium of our "daimon". "The daimon is the intermediary agency, yet it is experienced in intensely personal ways." The daimon is the interior other, "the individual yet transpersonal dimension which drives us, wants something of us, and constitutes our linkage to largeness."

Artists must continually court their daimon to gain access to that bridge to the imaginal realm. The daimon can prove the gatekeeper to that space, but cannot be forced or commanded to perform.

The Sufi poet Rumi spoke of this realm in many different ways in his poems. As Coleman Barks says in an introduction to his translations, Rumi "arrived at a place where the ego dissolves and a resonance with universal soul comes in". In turning, the dervish "becomes an empty space where human and divine can meet". This is also the space where true stories live. All artists seek desperately for entrance to this space, and if they're lucky they will find it.

We need artists and shamans, dervishes and priests to sometimes negotiate that between space for us. As Rumi tells us in his poem Story Water:

A story is like water

That you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire

And your skin. It lets them meet,

And it cleans you!


Water, stories, the body,

All the things we do, are mediums

That hide and show what's hidden.


Article featured imageWhirling Dervishes by Vladimer Shioshvili (Wikimedia Commons) 


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