Final Memories of Henry Corbin, November 1988
Translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle
To tear myself away from the disgust induced in me by the attitude of the “staff” of the Ismaili studies, and to deepen my resolve to keep my distance from that beautiful world of money, I have been trying to remember the year 1978, specifically from the date of our return from Teheran, on the 11th of January, after a very pleasant flight.
The preparation of the next conference at the Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, Constantin Tacou’s relaunching of the project for a Cahier de l’Herne consecrated to Henry, the new edition of Corps Spirituel… with its important “Prelude to an Imaginal Cartography” occupy the first months; but the classes are often cancelled due to a latent fatigue with which we are occasionally troubled.
There was the ever so lovely evening, on the 8th of April, hosted by Karim Agha Khan in his medieval manor on Rue des Ursins Demeure, one of the buildings restored by Pouillon. A lovely patio. Upon entering the dining room – a great, elongated space with large windows looking out on the Seine – I was struck by the contrast between the old ochre stones and the ivory white of the flowers whose succulent petals stood out sharply from the rugged stone background. Beauty of this contrast accentuated by candlelight.
And hosted by Andrée and Yves Jaigu, there was our meeting with the team from France-Culture, Nemo, Cazenave; and C. Jambet’s offer to transcribe the Philippe Nemo – Henry Corbin interview, which had come about following Heidegger’s death.
From the 26th of April to the 5th of May, séjour at Nyons, that place which so enchanted us, conjuring up the occasional impression of having returned to Iran. Twice in the garden of Saint Eutrope, we lived a floral dream among the flowering Judas trees, the lilacs, the iris. Every nuance of violet mixing together with the golden flare of the broom shrubs [Scotch Broom flowers]and the white of the hawthorn. The Montmirail lace , the Ventoux exerts upon us the same attraction. On a sunny day of the Ascension, we adventurously set out towards the mountains along the route of the Serres. Drawn by the Rémusat site, we have coffee in the central square? Speaking with the bowls players. On their advice we pursue our exploration of the narrow Oule river valley as far as Motte Chalançon. Steep slopes. Earth’s ochre striped with verdure. Imposing mass of the “Pas de l’Echelle” [The Foot of the Ladder] before which Henry recalls Jacob’s ladder and this biblical evocation accentuates the grandeur of the place. Late that evening we return regretfully, yet filled with the vision of our mountains bathed by the summer’s light.
Certain instants have such intensity that, years later, they appear to us as the heralds of a message or a sign.
The Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem conference, perhaps one such instant, was a veritable success. Henry gave a beautiful lecture, opening with the vision beheld by the servant of Elisha: Cavalry and chariots of fire, and ending on these words: “to know that which we are, who we are, to know a higher universe from which we have come, in which we have our origin, this is already to be saved”… and that is gnosis… Call forth a harpist, said the prophet. And even as the harpist played, even so, the hand of the Eternal was upon Elisha” (II Kings, 3/15) (How not to hear therein the echo of the phrase that Henry pronounced during one of his final days: “If you knew how it all sings, it all sings in my head”.)
Enthousiasm of Yves Jaigu; first lecture given by C. Jambet following which Henry would say to Gilbert Durand -the latter having reminded me of it most recently-: “could this be a spiritual heir?”
It’s just before summer that Henry tells me of two dreams that have left with him an impression of peace, of joy. In a vast place a celebration is under way… in his honor… Why for him? He asks himself, astonished but delighted as well. Many old friends, and some more recent, are there… some long since dead, others still in the world. Reunions, as amazing as unexpected.
The other dream: a beautiful liturgy is being celebrated, music, contemplative meditation. When Henry wishes to leave, he is held back but answers: let me return to tell Stella that the true Church is here.
Fatigue mounts; Henry plies himself wearily to thesis defenses: he displays a certain feverishness in his work to finish the complete dossier of the Cahier de l’Herne: selection of letters, of unpublished works, and writing of the Post-Scriptum, before our departure on holiday.
Nonetheless, at the beginning of July, we make the trip to Edinburgh, as Henry, disappointed by his Parisian experience, wishes to meet “the Scots”. A lovely reception stirring secret fibers within him: “a grand organ, choir of more than 200 men, overwhelming. It takes me back to my time in Germany 40 years ago (cf. his agenda of 1978). Sumptuous dinner, the evening finishing at Lord Eglin-Bruce’s chateau (the man from the Parthenon). We arrive in this splendid property at the end of our route after crossing through a countryside still illuminated by a summer sun which, like us, never tires of contemplating the earth or the Angel of the earth.
During the visit by Dory Nayrieri, who was accompanied by her charming daughters, I was struck by the calm assurance with which Henry declined an invitation to the Embassy in Cairo for the following September: “I know that I will not make it to Egypt!” Some few days later, returning from a stroll in the woods of Montmorency, while walking along the outer walls of the cemetery, Henry told me of his wish to finally take “time for himself”, to write more freely, to play music and to surround himself with only rare, true friends.
A doctor advises total rest and relaxation during our vacation in Jura, prescribes medicine for the circulation, and schedules an appointment for September should there be no visible improvement.
Loaded up with all these drugs, Henry longs for the scent of the pines; we thus set out, after much hesitation, on the 10th of August around 11 o’clock.
From then on real concern takes hold of me while Henry shows a tender attentiveness. Despite his resting in the garden, his condition shows no improvement. We decide against pursuing our trip towards Ascona, consult a doctor there, and call the one in Paris.
On a splendid full moon night, with both of us seated upon a garden bench, I hear a voice, ever so soft and low, telling me: “I know that my time is up –I know I shouldn’t tell you, but you deserve to know”.
The night prowls around us while the luminous sky shelters our love.
Doctors, calls to our friends in Ascona, preparations for our return, surrounded by the Mollard’s kindness, we leave on the 29th and make the trip non-stop from Champagnole to Paris.
The doctor asks for a blood sample; but the next day just as we are sitting down to dinner Henry remarks that he can “no longer feel his right leg”. Once again I call the doctor: femoral thrombosis –Call the ambulance- Surgical emergency. While the ambulance flies towards Cochin, Henry asks me to inform Richard Stauffer and Pierre Bordessoule. Painful wait in the Emergency, then transfer to the Pitié-Salpétrière where the operation takes place around 2 in the morning -despite it being noted that the lungs are in a miserable state. This leads Henry, whom nothing escapes, to ask the surgeon: “And such being the state of things, are you nevertheless attempting the operation?”
Solitary wait in the long hospital corridor, and around 4am a stretcher and Henry, whom I feel rather than see.
And so begins a waiting period for the patient, cause of a certain nervousness often attenuating the joy of having regained the use of his leg. Hope returning, he says to me: “Do you know why I asked you to inform Richard Stauffer? I wanted to ask him to say a few brief and lively words, and to indicate to him the three pieces of music I wish to have, at my funereal service: Haendel’s the Messiah, the first triumphant choir of the first part: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” ES 40 5/6. then, “I will see God” and “Parsifal, the Good Friday Enchantment” or the choir of the Saint Cène; and finally in parting, a Bach.
A third patient, in agony, is placed in the little room and the atmosphere becomes intolerable. I set about to obtain Henry’s transfer to either the pneumatology department or the University Hospital. At last, on the 13th, Henry is moved to the 1st floor of the pneumatology ward, into a large room with view onto an indoor garden. The room to himself, well aired, surrounded by all, Henry relaxes. His state of spirit, his ever watchful curiosity, astound all present and make me blush at my crestfallen state as, while making our way through the underground tunnel connecting the old buildings to the pneumatology ward, Henry, lain out upon his stretcher and bundled away beneath the covers, points out the tracery of saltpeter and the obvious age of the passage.
While examining the results of the medical tests, the scanner etc… Henry marvelling at the technological achievements, questions Doctor Gonnot: “Don’t you think we would have better understood the human mystery had we only applied ourselves with greater care to scrutinizing the thinkers of China and Persia?”
Doctor Gonnot: “Believe me, a doctor who would combine both scientific directions in his own person would go mad.”
And once again, Henry: “Never again will I see that Iranian land in which Ahriman’s power is presently loosing itself… The power of evil surpasses all that we are capable of imagining…”
“…but the inner esoteric temple of Israel rejoins the Temple of Buddha”.
“…four men from the funereal home came to see me this morning. They wanted to impose upon me Chopin’s funeral march during my funereal procession. I replied that, when the moment came I would indicate the music I wished… which, besides, I had already indicated to you.”
After the benediction of Richard Stauffer and the reading of Psalm 27… “This psalm is splendid. Everything’s set.”
One morning I find Henry already up and installed in his armchair as though impatiently awaiting my arrival, and immediately in relation to Moody’s book: La vie après la vie,, he says to me: “Last night I lived a similar experience. Death is nothing more than a transition. I had the impression one moment this last night that it would suffice for me, how can I tell you, that it would have sufficed for me to make a gesture, as for example touching an electric socket, to trigger my crossing the threshold. To pass over to the other side
There, I know now- all is ready to receive me. THEY are waiting for me.
S: Did you see your guardian angel?
H: That would have meant I had crossed the threshold… Why did I not cross it at that very moment?
S: Maybe because you still had a message to give me?
A smile, from far off, illuminates Henry’s face.
And then later: “It is perhaps a slow death that I must experience. Might I have excessively focused upon this problem and should I have to live its every stage?
One morning, around five, as I was about to return for a few moments to the apartment, kneeling close to the bed, his hand ever so light upon my hair, as though an ultimate benediction.
The 26th, the doctor authorizes the return to Rue Odéon. Henry, overjoyed, barely sleeps, plans to finish his works, and then, slightly troubled, asks the Doctor: “But do you think I can finish this book?”
Dr. Gonnot: “Oh! I know you. Even if you had 100 years ahead of you, you would ask me the same question. You would have yet another urgent book to finish… and many more besides.”
H: “That may well be! The thing is, you see, with my books, I am struggling against the same thing as you. Each in our own way, you as doctor, and I as historian of religions, are engaged in the same struggle, we are leading a campaign against Death.
Ephemeral well-being at home, visits, flowers in profusion. To my proposing some music: “Unnecessary, he responds, if you only knew how it sings, how it sings in my head.”
The night of Friday the 6th: terrible suffering, doctor, morphine, return to the hospital. As the ambulance attendants go to put Henry in the ambulance, he notices Cioran on the sidewalk, recognizes him, smiles… We are all dumbstruck with astonishment and pain. In the ambulance Henry says to me: “I have the feeling that a cycle of our life is coming to an end.”
Later at the hospital: “If you only knew with what joy I will take leave of the servitudes of this world!”
Swedenborg writes that at the moment of the exitus, two accompanying angels stand at the head of the bed, one on each side. Visible to eyes of fire, invisible to eyes of flesh.
When you hear the call for the changing of the guard –oh you who keep watch, rejoice in he who opens their true home to those he calls his own. For then, death is close.
6:53 in the morning
“… Send for a harpist…” (II Kings 3/15)