Sunday, August 14, 2016

Visionary religious or ghostly dreamer?

Swedenborg is often feted by his followers as a scientific genius whose findings anticipated any number of new discoveries in the many areas of his interest. Turning visionary, it is implied, he carried this genius with him and, thus, must be taken equally seriously as a prophet of a New Jerusalem.

Lars Bergquist patient, clearly constructed, if a touch pedestrian, biography is a sobering response to such breathlessness that, however, does not leave Swedenborg anything less than a remarkable figure.

As a scientist, Swedenborg was a highly gifted synthesiser of current knowledge always with a speculative twist towards questions as yet unanswered. He was a highly practical man who became, from his position on the Swedish Board of Mines, an expert in mining and mineralogy to valued effect. But, for example, his suggested solution to the problem of how to fix longitude (on which dangled a fat £25,000 prize) was never accepted for it being too complicated and depending on measurement of the phases of the moon only truly possible until much later. This was not so much a brilliant anticipation of future possibility as, frankly, a dead end! He was too, after his family's ennoblement, a valued politician of eminently sensible and peaceable views - though his political career, possibly beneficially, was stymied by his speech defect (that also kept him from any teaching post).

None of this would he be remembered, however, except in the dustier annuals of eighteenth century Swedish or scientific history, if he had not undergone his crisis of 1743/44 that culminated in his vision in Amsterdam on the night of the 27/28 October commissioning his vocation, following a prior one at Easter of that year, when he had met Christ. His vocation was nothing less than to provide a 'true interpretation of the Bible' so that a New Jerusalem could be initiated (beginning in 1757) and unfold over time's course. This he set out to do over the remaining twenty seven years of his life with calm, controlled, diligent energy, embodying it in a remarkable series of texts, accompanied by an equally remarkable private set of diaries. In spite of his modesty, his public works he published anonymously, his reputation slowly built and divided opinion. Was he genuine or a charlatan and if the former was he sane or was he mad? Even as notable a figure as Immanuel Kant was drawn in, fascinated and repelled in equal measure, who wrote a book, 'Dreams of the Ghost Seer', acknowledging yet refuting the possibility of Swedenborg's visionary journeys.

For not content with patient Biblical exegesis, Swedenborg liberally illustrated his texts, with his accounts of visionary journeys to the afterlife and his encounters there with everyone from Old Testament patriarchs, ancient and recently deceased philosophers and his contemporaries in Swedish political and social life. Like Dante but with multiple guides (some of disreputable destination) and with all the acute observation and pedestrian detail of a scientist and engineer rather than a poet.

Nonetheless those that thought him either a charlatan or mad have is wholly blameless, calm, cheerful life to contend with in which he functioned with an exceptional normality touched with a quiet saintliness and that all of his claims (whatever their status) put his own reputation at risk. He had a name and position already why risk it?

But why pay it any serious attention either?

First because you would be in good and interesting company - not especially amongst scientists but certainly amongst artists - Blake most notably was an acute reader of Swedenborg, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure, but then too there is Balzac, Baudelaire, Borges, Strindberg and Yeats to name but a few.

Second because, as Bergquist makes clear, his Biblical exegesis is radically focused on the transformation of a person's quality of life, here and now, as well as hereafter, and are psychologically and spiritually acute. They too can be read separately from the more occult happenings that may or may not have informed their acuity.

Third you might be attracted to occult happenings and you can see where Swedenborg sits within the unfolding traditions of Western esotericism (though you will not get much help from Bergquist in this as it is a subject that mostly passes him by, wanting to align Swedenborg with more familiar intellectual trends - in science, philosophy and theology notably pietism).

Fourth you will be reminded of the power of the imagination (whatever its ontological status) either as a way of knowing that genuinely complements, even exceeds reason, or as a remarkable tool of exploring our interior states of mind. And further reasons could be happily multiplied.

This time round I was struck by Swedenborg's sense that everything must be of 'use'. This, at first sight, repels as too utilitarian but grows on you as you see it at depth. Every moment Swedenborg sees as a moment of decision. Each and every action can be turned outwards as it were to the good (exemplified in love of God and of neighbour) or can be turned inwards as it were to evil (exemplified in our capacity for manipulation, power, disregard for neighbour). Every moment whether these be major moments of decision or action or minor, say, how to act at the supermarket checkout - so that life needs to be lived with open yet rigorous attention suffused with intention after the good.  There is in Swedenborg no shades of grey (that can be a bit daunting) either good or evil and now, here this moment, your whole life weighs in the balance (though, of course, each next moment offers an opportunity for a different, renewing decision). And not only your life because each decision for the good is, as it were, assembling the kingdom of God in which every person potentially has not only a place but a particular, unique place that is their's. It strikes you as a call to remembrance and to action - and strikingly Swedenborg experimented with techniques - of breathing, hypnagogic awareness, dream interpretation - to help deepen this capacity of awareness to live graciously into each moment.

Meanwhile, Swedenborg did not offer the New Jerusalem as something that was simply going to happen to us because he believed that God never violates our freedom. His renewing kingdom was fashioned only by each person choosing to summon it forth out of their own goodly acts responding to the graceful invitation. It would take a significant animosity out of the practice of religion if that was always seen as the essential deal (however otherwise constructed), a recognition that Swedenborg too had, carrying it with him, into a hoped for future (yet to come).

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