by Roy Luna
I recently came into the acquisition of a fine collection of books, cheap, all by the same author, published by The Swedenborg Society from 1949 to 1966, beautifully printed on thick, creamy paper and bound, not in leather, but in sturdy boards nonetheless. They should last another hundred years, if they are well taken care of. That is part of the problem, I suppose. I took them in because no one else wanted them. I believe that my favorite booksellers, Cassandra, could have waited for years for some other buyer to come along, but the question remains: would there ever be such a buyer? Think of it: Swedenborg.
I only took them in and promised to give them a good, low-humidity home because I’ve had a passing curiosity about Swedenborg. Very passing; fleeting, even. It is difficult to realize that Swedenborg appears so early in history, 1688 to 1772. You would have expected him to be entirely of the 19th Century, along with Joseph Smith (1805-1844) with his visions; Mary Godwin, aka as Shelley, with her Frankenstein (1816); Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science religion that makes non-scientific claims about the nature of disease (1821-1910); Robert Louis Stevenson’s weird but beautiful Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886); and, indeed, the Romantics with their supernatural ghosts and their occult sympathies of spiritualism and miraculous magic also known as religion. In the 19th Century there was apparently something in the air, perhaps in the water, that people were inspiring or imbibing, in the days before Kool-Aid but after Mesmer, who also melded science with nonsense and drew the ire of the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, both of whom were in Paris when the German physician came to town touting his theories on animal magnetism. Both men of science and philosophy politely showed him the door.
Perhaps it could be said that Swedenborg was a man before his time since he prefigured the Romantic temperament. I, however, prefer to think that he was really very, very late, and that he truly belongs as a very lost, very anachronistic afterthought to the early Renaissance, someplace between Dante and Rabelais, with a passthrough into, but not quite out of, Hieronymus Bosch.
I can’t believe that Swedenborg belongs to my century! If you’ve read any of my past pages, you know that I’m a dix-huitièmiste, for pete’s sake! I am comfortable around Voltaire and Diderot and Franklin, as you can see from my other essays on this site, and I am even comfortable around Rousseau with his overwhelming fascination of the grandeur and divine nature of, well, Nature. Nature as proof of an omnipotent Maker makes sense, up to a point. As a matter of fact, when I was younger, and a tad more romantic myself, I preferred Rousseau over Voltaire. Jean-Jacques was my man, and we shared lots of ideas, especially that of the noble savage. (I even dated a few, when I lived in France in my youth.) I loved Rousseau’s idea of benevolent nature and feared the evil and dangerous city (especially the areas around the southeast corner of the Tuileries Gardens and the older part of Père Lachaise Cemetery; i.e., the greener parts of the city which served, then as now, as places of clandestine trysts and furtive romance. Rousseau and I also shared agoraphobia and paranoia, although the second occurred only the few times when I smoked weed.
But I digress. My Eighteenth Century abounded with philosophers and rationalists who, if they didn’t pray, at least meditated at Notre Dame de la Raison. I grew to love them for their hope and irremovable optimism that Science would help mankind rise out of the morass of the feudal Middle Ages and the internecine religious wars of the Renaissance and begin to discover solutions to all kinds of social ills. Science embraced methodically and encyclopaedically all other human endeavors, including politics, sociology, ethics, economics, education, law, to the point that progress was being accomplished and humanity could see, albeit faintly, a path to universal happiness. In spite of the slavers and the Mesmers and the Chateaubriands (Génie du christianisme; Mémoires d’outre-tombe) who wanted to keep huge segments of the population enslaved, ignorant, and impotent, by means of their greed, pseudoscience and religiosity, the Eighteenth Century did quite well in expanding the influence of Science at a time when it was sorely needed. Slaveholders looked to the Bible to justify their convictions; Science derailed both the Bible and the idea that slaves were inferior.
In the same manner, I still cannot come to terms with Swedenborg fitting in with the philosophers, scientists and my favorite writers of fiction from that century: Fontenelle, Marivaux, Le Sage, Diderot, Beaumarchais, and across the Channel: Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, Swift, Sterne. In his defense, Swedenborg began well, with a scientific career that was the equal of those of Antoine Lavoisier or Joseph Priestley. Emmanuel Swedenborg dealt with mathematics, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, later delving into studies of the cerebral cortex and the concept of the neuron. Good, solid stuff for a scientist. Then one evening, quite suddenly, at the age of 55, whilst dining alone at a tavern in London, science, along with the scientific method, fell away from his brain like a branch falling off a tree, and, in their stead, arrived an apparition, whom Swedenborg perceived through his visual spectrum and identified as a figure sitting alone in a corner of the room. The figure spoke, Swedenborg perceiving it this time through the aural spectrum, and the identification was more precise: it was a man, a man who had not been there before. If the vision was startling, the remark was downright frightening: “Don’t eat so much!” was the specter’s solemn pronouncement. Unlike a good scientist who would have continued a conversation with this fellow who, after all, might have been a prankster or maybe just an associate of the tavern, and, you know, asked at least a few questions, Swedenborg instead took flight in utter fright. The historical record does not reveal whether he had dessert. Later, while he slept that night, the stranger visited him in one of his dreams, telling him that He was the Lord, and henceforth, He would be telling the scientist what to think and what to write about. It never occurred to Swedenborg that indigestion might have generated his weird dreams.
For those of us who don’t have an accompanying, and manipulating, life companion (how else to put it?), especially One Who calls Himself ‘the Lord,’ it might seem a little strange, at first. But Swedenborg swallowed the entire phenomenon hook, line, and sinker. He believed—believed!—that his Heavenly Companion was indeed He Who has no name and Who is everywhere and everytime, and Who was before the universe began and will be after the universe will end. That’s pretty neat: we can ask God, “Who are You?”; and “Where are You?”; but also, “When are You?” In any case, as any experienced and legitimate scientist would do, Swedenborg resigned from all his serious and scientific duties, and began to transcribe the interpretation of the entire Bible, leaving no verse unturned. No slouch was he, for Swedenborg had to go back and improve his knowledge of Hebrew, which he did with uncommon alacrity; he had the cerebral cortex for it. The result was the Arcana Celestia, and it took seven years, 1749 to 1756, and eight volumes to publish it. This, for a dix-huitiémiste, is nightmarish.
Ask any dix-huitiémiste standing on a corner, or better yet, inside a corner bar, about the middle of the Eighteenth century. Watch how their eyes widen, how a smile spreads across their face. I know that a smile always beams across my own face. The big deal during those years, notably 1751 to 1772, the fantabulous news in the publishing world which took all of the world by storm and, since it provoked controversy wherever tyrants ruled, had to go underground and thus became—Götterdämmerung!—even more de rigueur, was Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. No arcana here, no messages from the beyond, no otherworldy visions or auditions; rather, practical, everyday science, knowledge and information, as it applied to mankind’s activities. The ‘Celestial’ component was here, in the form of Astronomy, Physics, Light, Optics, Vision, Anatomy. From the optic nerve to a faraway star, all was observable, measurable, experimentable, reproducible, and, importantly, self-correctable.
Swedenborg, I suppose, was imperturbable and unstoppable. He continued to publish his metaphysical and mystical notions to a public that was, thank Jupiter, a bit dubious about his dependability. One was not thrown into either the Encyclopedic camp or into the Celestial Arcana group. One was not forced to adhere to one or the other. Families were not torn asunder, brother separated from brother, daughter cut away from mother. Swedenborg’s arcana were so arcane that most people understood not a word of it.
But do not take my word for it! As a full-fledged wo/man of Science, you want to see for yourself what Swedenborg wrote. You are willing—no, adamant!—to take the test of comprehension yourself. Without having attempted to find the most recondite passages of the Arcana Celestia (I swear!), I reproduce here a smattering from the second volume, for your perusal and enjoyment. Please comment on how well you understand the passages.
If you don’t trust me to have chosen passages randomly, then by all means go look for yourself.*
I was desirous to know what kind of face and body the men
in the earth Mercury had, whether they were like the men on our
earth. There was then presented before my eyes a woman exactly
resembling the women in that earth. She had a beautiful face, but it
was smaller than that of a woman of our earth; her body also was
more slender, but her height was equal; she wore on her head a
linen cap, which was put on without art, but yet in a manner
becoming. A man also was presented to view, who was more
slender in body than the men of our earth are. He was clad in a
garment of dark blue color, closely fitted to his body, without any
foldings or protuberances. It was said that such was the form of
body and such the dress of the men of that earth. [Earths in the Universe (1758),
Genesis 11:9. For this reason he called its name Babel, because there
Jehovah muddled the language of the whole earth; and from there Jehovah
scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
For this reason he called its name Babel symbolizes this type of worship.
Because Jehovah muddled the language of the whole earth symbolizes
conditions in this ancient church, in that inward worship started to die
out; the earth is the church. And from there Jehovah scattered them over the
face of the whole earth means that inward worship became nonexistent.
The symbolism of for this reason he called its name Babel as this type
of worship—specifically the type symbolized by Babel—is evident from
what has been said so far. It is worship that has self-love deep inside
it and consequently everything that is unclean and profane. Self-love is
nothing but the conviction that we answer to ourselves alone, and the
filth and profanity of human selfhood can be seen from the explanation
presented earlier. [Secrets of Heaven, vol. 2 (1749-56), p. 1324]
It is also worth noting that when angels and spirits turn toward
us, they can talk with us even from a great distance. They have talked
with me from far off just as audibly as though they were nearby. Still,
when they turn away from us and talk with each other, nothing of what
they say is audible to us even though this is happening right next to our
ears. This has enabled me to see that in the spiritual world, all union
depends on the way people are facing. [Heaven and Hell (1758), p. 255]
The reason enlightenment comes only from the Lord is that the Lord
is present in every bit of the Word. The reason enlightenment happen
for people who love truths because they are true and who put them to
use in their lives is that they are in the Lord and the Lord is in them
In fact, the Lord is his divine truth. When divine truth is loved because
it is divine truth (and it is loved when it is put to use), then the Lord is
within it for us. [White Horse (1758), p. 47]
I will here add an arcanum confirming these things from heaven. All
the angels of heaven turn their forehead to the Lord as a sun, and
all the angels of hell turn the back of the head to him; and the latter
receive influx into the affections of their will, which in themselves
are lusts, and make the understanding favor them; but the former
receive influx into the affections of their understanding, and make
the will favor them. Hence these are in wisdom, but the others are
in insanity; for the human understanding dwells in the cerebrum,
which is under the forehead, and the will in the cerebellum, which
is in the back of the head. Who does not know that a man who is
insane from falsities, favors the cupidities of his own evil, and
confirms them by reasons from the understanding; and that a wise
man sees from truths the quality of the cupidities of his will, and
curbs them? [Interaction of Soul and Body (1769), p. 337]
*Go to the Swedenborg Foundation at www.swedenborg.com/emanuel-swedenborg/writings/or to books.google.com, write in “Emanuel Swedenborg” under the author heading, and read to your heart’s content. I just found a title I had not seen before: The Pathway of Angels: A Lecture by Spirit Emanuel Swedenborg, Delivered through the Mediumship of Mrs. Cora L. V. Richmond. Apparently, death has not stopped Swedenborg from publishing his own posthumous musings.
Mystic, mystical, mystery, mystify, mist, mistaken, mistrust. Mumbo jumbo, poppycock, malarkey, claptrap. The question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and its variants originated in the Middle Ages, but it can certainly be resuscitated and reinvigorated for casting doubts on Swedenborg’s straightforward declarations on the form, number, disposition, and characterization of the different types of extraterrestrial angels who manifest power and influence over human beings. Were he not talking about angels as inhabitants of other planets, I would have taken his treatise for a scientific enumeration of the intelligent life forms on those planets. That of course leads me to ask a thousand questions (How do they survive the heat of Mercury, the poisonous fumes of Venus, the lack of an atmosphere on Mars?, etc., etc.) but Swedenborg glosses over any other type of information because a) he doesn’t think to ask the angels, or b) he doesn’t know and doesn’t care, or c) the angels are truly spiritual in nature and therefore cannot be endangered by a lack of air, water, or balmy temperatures. I suppose they don’t even need gravity. And if a Venusian angel meets up with a Saturnian one, can they engage in intercourse to procreate little baby angels? Do they just split in two? Are they all females and products of parthenogenesis? Does evolution affect them? Do they live forever? Are they God’s minions? In the end, my questions are the only thing multiplying, while my reading loses momentum and eventually I stop and desist. Everything in me screams, “Absurdity! Hokum! Gobbledygook! Bullshit!”
You must enjoy the fine irony of an atheist reading Swedenborg’s books. I don’t believe in god, but here I am, reading about a galaxy-full of mystical beings who are allotted diverse functions and differing temperaments! Why do I do it, then? Why read these unbelievable stories of spirits who speak only to one human and to no other? They deign to appear to Swedenborg and explain the mysteries of angelology, but the rest of us must take him at his word? I’d rather think that he had gone off the deep end and that his visions, like Joan of Arc’s, came from within his own confused, or perhaps diseased brain. There might be another, darker explanation. Perhaps these stories came out of Swedenborg’s cynical, malevolent desire to—what?—create hope among the gullible, belief among the foolish, faith among the dupable? Even if his wish was one of beneficence and in his goodness he yearned to bring succor to humanity, if he knew that he was offering the credulous nothing but creative concoctions and baroque imaginings then what he did was immoral. He must have thought that some might want to believe in lies so long as they were consoling lies. Solace in the face of the suffering that is our lot in life is certainly priceless, but is it really worth it if at its center we find pure fiction, intricate, visionary and compelling as it may be, but still only fiction?
Caveat emptor! This applies, too, in a bookstore or library where attractive books tempt you with supple morocco leather bindings, beseeching you to reach for them and hold them, caress them, expose their frail white pages trembling in the air, and you admire their font, and you bring them close to sniff their aroma of ink and vellum and the dust of ages. Just remember, an old book that promises to deliver to you the wisdom of the fabled past may, in the end, be a fascinating read, not because of the truth it grants to you, but because of the diversion it brings with its fantastic reveries and mythological narratives based on nothing other than human imagination.
Finally, my favorite story about Swedenborg comes from the time in November of 1768 when a rumor was going around Europe that Voltaire had died. Swedenborg, who was at The Hague at the time, told the French ambassador that he had seen the French philosopher after his death and had been “shocked at his horrible condition in the World of Spirits.” When the rumor was disproved, by Voltaire himself who declared that reports on his death had been “greatly exaggerated,” Swedenborg quietly left town, “and will not venture there to be laughed to scorn as a false prophet, a dreamer, and a liar!”**
I ask you, do people still believe in Hieronymus Bosch’s fanciful creatures?
** From Emanuel Swedenborg, His Life and Writings, by William White. London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1868, p. 567.