On first taking the plunge into Islamic esoteric thought a few years back, the concept I found most startling and initially most difficult to grasp was that of the “imaginal realm.” The term was proposed by the great French scholar of Iranian Shiite, Sufi and pre-Islamic thought Henry Corbin, who was translating an Arabic phrase dating from the Middle Ages, alam al-mithal. The imaginal realm, according to Corbin’s Islamic sources, is an aspect or domain of reality that we don’t recognize because it’s generally not perceptible by the five senses.

Yet it is a huge realm, at least equal to our own cosmos, with its own cities, animals, customs, what have you. It is not imaginary in the way that we usually use the word, meaning fantastical, unreal. It is real, and indeed has a crucial relationship to our world as the intermediary between it and the world of pure ideas. Existing beyond the measures of historical time, it is the place where “events of the soul,” dreams both individual and collective, and incidents like many of those described in the Bible take place–or rather, take form.

To read about the imaginal realm and hear it described as absolutely real is like encountering a news report that says, “Scientists today announced that there is a continent lying between the United States and Europe, full of its own populations, languages and industries. The reason you didn’t know of it until now it is that, being invisible, it had not been named or officially recognized.” Could Corbin’s Islamic cosmic equivalent of this be, in any sense of the word, true?

If it were wholly fictive, or of import only to students of medieval Islam, surely it would’ve remained confined to a few dusty books. But that’s not what happened. In the few decades since Corbin coined the word “imaginal,” it has, with an alacrity that would have amused Borges and Calvino, infiltrated a host of disciplines including art, psychology, and, most intriguingly of all, quantum physics.

These days, it seems, certain theoretical physicists can’t describe their own vision of reality without invoking this concept formerly espoused only by Persian and Arab Gnostics like Avicenna and Ibn Arabi. In his book, The Dreaming Universe, physicist Fred Alan Wolf recounts how he decided to embrace Corbin’s formulation: “[B]eing influenced by [Werner] Heisenberg and [Neils] Bohr, I came to this conclusion as a result of dealing with quantum mechanics. It is perhaps strange, but quantum physics actually describes the possible objective qualities of things in this realm rather than either objects or subjects. Quantum physics doesn’t describe the realm of subjective experience or the realm of objective experience. … Instead, quantum physics describes the realm of imaginal experience that is potential material experience.”

Wolf defines consciousness as “a field that exists in an arena called the IR [imaginal realm]. The objective world ‘out there’ and the subjective sense of ‘in here’ are by-products of that IR. The qualities of these by-products are matter, energy, and meaning. … This implies that there is a deep connection between the observer and the observed. So deep, in fact, that we really cannot separate them. What causes us to feel that they are separated is an illusion, a necessary illusion, a lucid dream of the universe.”

Such ideas have fascinating implications for an imagination-dependent, image-based art like cinema, yet it must be granted that many of those implications don’t jibe smoothly with either the medium’s mechanical nature or the ways it has been used as an art till now. The technology of film, after all, was a product of 19th-century science’s efforts to control nature by objectifying and materially manipulating it. Moreover, filmmakers’ miming of the cause-and-effect formal logic of novels and theater gave the art a set of conventions that looked back to Newton rather than out past Einstein, and that precluded many other possibilities in doing so.

Especially given the mechanical nature just alluded to, the idea expressed by the words “quantum cinema” is perhaps no more than a chimera, or a tantalizing contradiction. Yet it makes sense that as the mechanism of film prepares to leave the world stage, a few filmmakers would probe its dreamlike propensities and missed potentialities from the perspective of post-Einsteinian thought.

Of their creations, arguably the most impressive and surely the most fun are Richard Linklater’s acclaimed 1991 indie-film debut, Slacker, and its brand-new follow-up, Waking Life. Both films wander about, with a seeming aimlessness, listening to various characters talk about subjects that range from the very mundane to the incredibly high-flown. Beneath their aleatory surfaces, though, both posit a number of correspondences or analogies connecting film-viewing and dreaming, reality and the processes of narration.

Slacker opens with a young man played by Linklater himself waking up on a bus as it pulls into Austin, Texas (the filmmaker’s home). Taking a taxi into town, the young man regales the silent cabby with a long spiel about the vivid dream he just had, which seems to have come from a book he was reading. The book proposes that “every thought you have creates its own reality. It’s like every choice or decision you make … the thing you choose not to do, fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on there, forever.” This multiple-universes idea, which will be familiar to fans of quantum theory, suggests a semi-whimsical cinematic correlative: If every scene or character suggests an endless number of possibilities, why can’t the filmmaker, rather than following the most obvious or conventional (chronicling the actions of the main character, say), explore certain of the other deviating paths?

That, of course, is what Slacker does. When that cab arrives in Austin and comes upon an accident, the film leaves Linklater (the main character till then) and simply skips off into another character’s story. No doubt, much of the movie’s original popularity was owed to the sociological comedy that followed; a portrait of one college town’s overeducated, underemployed demimonde, Slacker gave the world the word “slacker,” along with a razor-sharp snapshot of a zeitgeist haunted by JFK assassination theories, the eminence of Madonna, and other curious enthusiasms. At the same time, its “quantum” structure suggested the film was not only about the lives it depicted, but about cinema and its philosophic “place.”

Waking Life in certain ways deliberately resembles Slacker. Following a brief prologue that ends with the words “dreaming is destiny,” it opens with a young man (played by Wiley Wiggins) waking up on a train as it pulls into town. Outside the station, he’s offered a ride by a man driving a car shaped like a motorboat; the other passenger is Linklater, who spontaneously decides where the young man–who is never named–will be let out. Again, there’s an accident, and the story spins off in an unexpected direction.

The main character, though, is retained. We follow him through a series of experiences in which he listens to or overhears a number of other characters, and talks with some of them. These interactions seem to fall into two categories. In one, the characters, whether speaking emotionally (an angry man in a jail cell) or cerebrally (a philosophy professor discussing existentialism), offer descriptions of objective reality–the “out there,” in Wolf’s term. In the other type, the main character gradually deals with his perception that he is in a lucid dream, or a series of them. Every time he wakes up, he seems to emerge into another dream. Characters inform him that he can tell it’s a dream by the fact that he can’t read clocks clearly or adjust the light levels in any space. Thus does the film also meditate on its own dimension of subjective reality–Wolf’s “in here.”

While Slacker gave a quantum spin to the familiar idea of film-as-dream, Waking Life goes a step further by invoking the experience of lucid dreaming, in which the subject is conscious of being in a dream and to an extent can control his actions. Lucid dreaming–which seems like nothing more than a modern term for the visionary experiences testified to by Ibn Arabi, Swedenborg and others–is of great interest to quantum thinkers like Wolf because it offers a potential way of scientifically, or at least consciously, exploring the geography of the imaginal realm. Additionally, where Slacker‘s main “quantum” metaphor was its divagating narrative, Waking Life‘s is its amazing visual surface.

Unlike its predecessor, which was shot on film, Waking Life was shot on video and then put through a process (interpolated rotoscoping, developed by computer animator Bob Sabiston) wherein each image was “painted” over by one of more than 30 animators. The result, which straddles the worlds of photography and illustration, presents us with a colorful universe where every image seems constantly shifting, pulsing, moving, breathing. This serves several purposes at once. It rivets our gaze and makes the long sequences of talk far more involving than they would be otherwise. It makes us forever aware of the unreal, dreamlike nature of the image, something most films take pains to disguise. And it stresses that, as Linklater has said, the story we’re watching does not take place in Austin. It transpires entirely in the imaginal realm.

The image’s protean quality constitutes an unbeatable correlative for that domain’s visual instability, an aspect of what philosopher Michael Grosso calls its “ontological ambiguity.” Wolf coins a friendlier term in describing its appearance of “fuzzy reality.” Clocks can’t be read, one gathers, because neither time nor visual perception have the fixity that they do in the material world. And lights presumably can’t be adjusted because the imaginal realm–like movies–is itself composed of light.

Of course Waking Life, like every movie, delivers us not into the imaginal realm but into an earthly simulacrum of it; its distinction comes from the fact that, like a lucid dreamer, Linklater is aware of what he is doing in both creating and reflecting on an elaborate philosophic analogue linking cinema and quantum reality. Some of this process’ resonances are fascinating. Near the film’s end the main character re-encounters Linklater, who, while standing at a pinball machine, delivers a long monologue that mentions, among many other things, the Book of Acts. This is one place in the film where we’re reminded that the imaginal realm constantly impinges into our world: With its manifold “signs and wonders,” the Book of Acts is a dazzling wall-to-wall example of that.

Yet the film’s main metaphysical gist comes in an earlier sequence that is set apart from its surroundings by being a film-within-a-film (titled The Holy Moment) and by containing the only character who is named. He is Caveh Zahedi, a real-life San Francisco filmmaker of Iranian descent, who discourses to a friend on the sacred nature of cinema. He cites the great French film critic André Bazin, explaining that, as a Christian, Bazin designated every moment of (filmed) experience a potential vision of God.

This monologue is very curious in that it puts a Christian veneer over what are essentially Islamic esoteric and gnostic ideas. Bazin actually drew a comparison between the material film image and Veronica’s Veil recording the suffering of Christ. The idea of appearances as theophanic, God-revealing, belongs more to Islam, as does the notion that this possibility is renewed at every instant. As Norman O. Brown put it: “In fully developed Islamic theology only the moment is real. There is no necessary connection between cause and effect. The world is made up of atomic space-time points, among which the only continuity is the utterly inscrutable will of God, who creates every atomic point anew at every moment.”

The applicability of that idea to cinema–which likewise creates its world anew at every moment, and depends on an illusion of continuity–has been noted by other writers. Its resonance with quantum theory not only suggests why our secular humanists rage (poor things, they are still living in Newton’s clockwork universe) but returns us again to the imaginal realm, which in traditional descriptions owes its existence to a dual sine qua non: the individual soul and God. Indeed, their inextricable bond is the sum of cosmology. As Henry Corbin put it, summarizing Ibn Arabi: “God has created for each soul a universe corresponding to that soul.” EndBlock