Monday, July 5, 2010

In Gardens of Imagination at McGill

A conversation that started with my article about Henry Corbin, the great French scholar of l'imaginaire inspires me to post this account from my 2006 journal of a charming sequence that unfolded at McGill University in Montreal, when I accompanied my youngest daughter there on a college tour:

I have to skip part of the tour of McGill to fix a parking problem. When I come back, I find I have time to explore a small corner of the campus by myself. I decide to check out the Arts Building, and then the Leacock Building, where the anthropology department is housed on the seventh floor. I'm planning to go up, but the elevators aren't running and the atmosphere in the lobby is already oppressively warm and stuffy and fly-blown. I'm drawn outside, to a high breezy terrace and across it, towards a handsome church-like building. I am intrigued by a discreet sign that announces that this is the home of the Islamic Studies Library.

I stroll in. The man at the desk looks up out of china-blue eyes.

"My daughter's on a tour of McGill. I thought I'd just snoop around. Mind if I take a look?"

"Go right ahead. You may want to start with the Round Room. Left, then right. It's quite beautiful."

The library is deserted apart from a few staffers and a couple of researchers in cubicles. I walk between open stacks. Most of the titles are in Arabic or Farsi. The "Round Room" is, indeed, magical - a two-level room with books stacked on the mezzanine as well as the ground floor, with divans set in bay windows, and in the center an array of books on gardens - Arab gardens, Persian gardens, the garden as a metaphor for paradise in Islamic traditions - on a round table. Our word "paradise", I am reminded, is derived from the Old Persian pairidaeza, whose original meaning is "walled garden".

I stroll back, glancing at titles and categories, wondering where I might find the works of those princely explorers of the imagination, Suhrawardi and Ibn 'Arabi.

A man is just closing up his laptop, rising from a table where he has evidently been doing research.

"The Round Room is beautiful," I remark.

"Oh yes, it is. It's an Octagon, actually. The whole place used to be part of the Presbyterian College of Montreal."

"Do you teach here?"

"I've just finished my PhD."

"What is the theme of your dissertation?"

"Arab historiography."

"Ibn Khaldun?"

"You know Ibn Khaldun?"

I explain that when I was casting around for a theme for my postgraduate work in history at the Australian National University, a Pakistani research professor introduced me to Ibn Khaldun, and I spent long nights poring over the available translations of his Muqaddimah , or "Introduction", to world history. Writing in the 14th century, in the midst of constant war and turmoil, Ibn Khaldun brought modern principles of evidence to the grand ambition of writing a universal history. He regarded dreams and visions as essential to the making of history as climate and geography. He explained how knowledge of the future, the realm of angels, and the Divine purpose become available through dreams and visions, and how in true dreams the soul travels outside the body.

"I nearly made Ibn Khaldun the subject of my PhD dissertation," I tell my new acquaintance. "But life called me a different way."

The new Ph.D. introduces himself as Sami; he's from Lebanon. We are soon engaged in lively conversation.

I express my interest in Suhrawardi. Sami is astonished. He gropes for a phrase in English to describe the Persian philosopher of Light. I offer his Arabic title, Shaikh al-Ishraq. Sami's face is a mixture of delight and incredulity.

For the next half-hour, postponing his appointment outside the library, he makes himself my guide, introducing me to the Acting Librarian, an Armenian woman from Iraq, and the stacks. I leaf through French editions of Henry Corbin, including his translations of Suhrawardi.

It only occurs to me later that this library is a very special one, supposedly closed to all but accredited scholars, and that its custodians are likely to be especially careful about letting strangers wander around under today's jittery circumstances.

The incident seemed like a fresh call to follow the roads to the Imaginal Realm, and to soul remembering, that opened in my encounters with the Princes of the East, and led to me writing sections on Suhrawardi, Ibn 'Arabi and Ibn Khaldun in my Secret History of Dreaming.

The books on gardens on display in the Round Room came to mind that evening, when I led a dream workshop in which a woman shared a dream of a numinous meeting under a tree in a magical garden. This inspired me to lead a group journey, an exercise in shamanic lucid dreaming, in which the agreed assignment was for all participants to travel to a garden of the imagination and locate their special tree.

"Glimpse of Paradise", ceramic tile, by Armenian artist Marie Balian.


Carol Davis said...

What a wonderful story. I give praise and thanks for gatekeepers who recognize those who belong and for the "fresh call" that beckons to soul remembering and adventures along the roads of the Imaginal Realm.

I cherish garden journeys and tree explorations. Today I brought pails of water to thirsty flowers outside of my office. The intense heat has increased their need for water. As I poured gallons of water on the flowers I could hear songs of joy as their roots lavished in fresh water. Later, their colors were brighter and they stood tall (for their size!) I promised them more tending in this heat. For the garden, I'll bring abundance of water in the dry times.

Thank you Robert, for the dreams you share, for the many ways you have helped so many travel to a special tree and to the ever growing gardens rich with beauty, healing, gifts and more in the Imaginal Realm.

Robert Moss said...

Thank you Carol - and thank you for tending to the thirsty flowers in the sweltering lay-you-flat heat of the Northeast this week.

Theo Huffman said...

Your story makes me wonder how it is that the xenophobes in the West and the Islamists in the East are succeeding so well in giving us such a narrow and frightening picture of what Islamic culture is all about. A friend of mine, a BBC reporter, is continually disabusing me of some of the silly propaganda I am being fed by mass media, by pointing out many of the breath-takingly sublime philosophers Islamic culture has given the world.

Thank you for keeping my mind and many others' open. This is and information war that must be won. Only light can dissolve the darkness.

Robert Moss said...

Scribbler - Thanks for this excellent reflection. When I consider the "what ifs" of history, I often think of how the world might be different had not Suhrawardi, a great guide for the Light in the world of Islam, been judicially murdered at the age of 38. The judges of Sharia law were put up to this by the famous Saladin, who feared that his son - the heir-apparent to the Caliphate - had been spiritually converted by the Sufi philosopher.