Sunday, August 5, 2007
Brian Is Real! Part One, or, Why I Read the Sufi Mystics
OK, so here’s the deal. As many of his fans have noted, Brian Kinney (the super-hot super-stud on Showtime's late-lamented series "Queer As Folk") has a kind of reality about him that approaches the degree of “real-ness” that we usually attribute to our waking-life, sticks-and-stones-world friends. Well, I’m here to tell all you rabid Brian fans that you’re not imagining things. Brian is real, he does exist as an entity independent of his “creators” at Showtime and, for that matter, his fans. Let me explain.
For those of my readers not familiar with Brian Kinney, I suggest you think instead of Sherlock Holmes, a character with a similarly intense and charismatic “presence.” I hesitate to discuss the two of them in the same entry, because I cannot help but sense the utter disdain they would have for each other if they were ever in the same room. Sorry, gentlemen; I didn’t say you had to be friends. Just bear with me.
Let’s take the briefest of detours into ancient Iran, land of the Sufi mystics. Their teachings described travels in a world between matter and spirit where they met with angels, devils, and mystical guides. This in-between world, said the Sufis, exists just as certainly as our waking world, but we can’t perceive it with our five senses. Also, time and space don’t mean the same thing as they do in everyday life. Things in this other world can appear and disappear, and people or objects can travel enormous distances in the blink of an eye. One might converse with a learned master from one’s own time, and also with an Imam who lived hundreds of years ago, all at the same apparent moment. Sounds like science fiction, eh? Actually, it sounds a lot like quantum physics.
Henry Corbin, the great scholar and student of Sufism, calls this place the mundus imaginalis, or “Imaginal World.” This is the only vocabulary word you need to learn, I promise: Imaginal. Corbin uses this word in contrast with “imaginary,” which in our culture has the meaning of “false” or “made-up.” You know, like children’s imaginary friends? There’s a faintly pejorative sense to it—those foolish children, believing in all that imaginary stuff. The Sufis, on the other hand, knew better. The children were right all along.
The Imaginal World is a world just as real as this one we live in day-to-day, but it’s imperceptible to the senses we normally use. How do we perceive it, then? According to the Sufis, we perceive it through the faculty called Active Imagination. This isn’t imagination in the sense of making things up, but rather, of perceiving things that actually exist and have reality, just not in our waking world.
Here’s an example. We’ve all experienced dreams. The images that appear in our dreams seem to us quite real while we’re dreaming—sometimes frighteningly so. We don’t control them, and we don’t consciously make them up. They just show up and do their own thing. For all we know in the dream, we’re characters in their dream, not the reverse! And in fact, the Sufis would say, that is true. In dreaming, because we “let go” of our conscious ego, we enter the Imaginal world, where the dream images dwell. We’re on their turf.
(Note: there are lots of theories of dreams and dreaming, and I’m presenting only one. It just happens to be the one I find most resonant with my own experience.)
For the Sufis, the Imaginal World and the Active Imagination were all about their religion. Later scholars, notably Carl Jung, understood the significance of the Imaginal World and broadened our knowledge of its qualities and its inhabitants. Since the (so-called) Enlightenment, we in the Western world have forgotten or denied the existence of the Imaginal, and this is tragic, because without the knowledge of this in-between place, our experiences become polarized into body versus mind/spirit, rational/literal/“real” versus imaginary, black versus white. If you can’t explain something rationally, it must be your “imagination.” We’ve gotten to the point where you can scarcely admit in public that you “just know” something you have no evidence for. We have to learn to doubt our own inner guidance system, and instead, everything we know and do and experience must be justified by means of outside rules of logic.
So. Back to Brian and Sherlock. Jung and other depth psychologists who have extended our understanding of the Imaginal World have described their experiences of Imaginal figures who most definitely have lives of their own, quite as independent as everyday friends and family. These figures come and go of their own volition, and certainly don’t take orders from the one who perceives them. It is my belief that literary characters dwell in the Imaginal World as well (this idea didn’t originate with me, by the way—I’m just passing it on). It’s the best way to explain how some of these folks sometimes get into your head and just won’t leave.
Some people are better at perceiving the Imaginal world than others. Artists and writers are often very sensitive. There are many accounts by authors who describe a character showing up with a story to be told, insisting that the author sit down and, in effect, take dictation. Brian does that kind of thing all the time. Brian in particular is an almost frighteningly charismatic fellow who sows obsession everywhere he passes.
Holmes, the great detective, has driven more than one person mad in his time—fans (there was a great NPR piece on a Holmes fan-gone-mad a year or so ago) and actors alike. The late, great Jeremy Brett had a nervous breakdown while filming the Sherlock Holmes series and was heard to shout, as he was carried off by the men in white coats, “Damn you, Holmes!”
Those of you to whom Brian or Holmes has spoken will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s definitely not the same as spinning a fantasy about someone. Rather, there’s a sense of someone other, someone else speaking, and there’s an element of unpredictability about what he says or does. Hard to describe it, other than to say that you know he’s there and you know you’re not making it up.
OK. So there it is, the first part of my little exploration of the Imaginal World. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences….
(Oh, and BTW, if anyone actually wants the references for this stuff, I can provide them….)
Brian Is Real! Part II, or, Talking With Dead People