The Imaginal World
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.
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.
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.
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.
https://abeautifulresis ... aginal-world