Introducing Swedenborg

Introducing Swedenborg

London: Swedenborg Society, 2021. 74 pp., hardcover, $14.49.


Introducing Swedenborg: Correspondences

Gary Lachman
London: Swedenborg Society, 2021. 68 pp., hardcover, $11.95.

Emanuel Swedenborg has inspired lofty praise for over two centuries. H.P. Blavatsky called him “the greatest among the modern seers.” For D.T. Suzuki, he was “Buddha of the North.” Emerson ranked him with Plato, Napoleon, Goethe, and other “representative men”: a “colossal soul,” one of “the missouriums and mastodons of literature.”

Today writers in the Swedenborg cottage industry follow this pattern, frequently rehearsing the long line of greats who admired the Swedish thinker, from Blake and Yeats to Jung and the father of William and Henry James. At times, though, the one-upmanship of acclaim and the persistent name-dropping in secondary sources mask the fact that the primary sources, the actual products of Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century mind, are virtually closed books for most contemporary readers, even those well versed in Western esoterica.

Hence the need for more introductions geared to present-day audiences. These two slim volumes, both commissioned by the Swedenborg Society in London, address the need with great skill, and the authors, each according to his own lights, attempt to translate Swedenborg into terms citizens of the secular world can understand if not appreciate. In many ways, they are representative men themselves—Peter Ackroyd, a living mastodon of letters in his own right, and Gary Lachman, arguably the most consistently readable master of occult and offbeat biography on the planet. With predictable eloquence, expertise, and lightly worn erudition, they take on their challenging tasks.

The most formidable: demonstrating the relevance for the twenty-first century of the Enlightenment polymath, whose divine madness, despite its audacity, often seems a little too close to just another version of bourgeois eccentricity.

Ackroyd handles the life, while Lachman concentrates on the thought, particularly Swedenborg’s signature idea of correspondences. What emerges in the life is the portrait of a virtuoso of spirit whose genius was tuned more to the Baroque than the Classical or Romantic. In his wig and mismatched buckle shoes, Swedenborg lived comfortably in a society of unquestioned class consciousness; bareheaded and unshod, he entered the other world before terrestrial armies marched for liberty in American or French revolt. He worked for monarchs in expanding colonial empires, drafting designs for machine guns and airplanes, never imagining that his dreamed-of utopian age might actually include a Wounded Knee or Hiroshima.

Even when he turned from “worldly science” to mysticism in midlife, sustained by bread, milk, caffeine, and angelic conversation, Swedenborg’s visions of heaven took on the same unique blend of domesticity, aristocracy, and intricate ornamentation with which Vivaldi, Rameau, and Swedenborg’s fellow Lutheran Bach infused their chamber music. We congratulate him for envisaging sex in the afterlife, but his eroticism evokes too much of the snuffbox and powdered peruke to stir less polite postmodern libidos.

When it comes to Swedenborg’s thought, current readers may find more traction. Lachman’s account, informed by his trademark double commitment to empathy and critique, goes far to place Swedenborg in the context of the fullness of Western mystical speculation and experimentation. Lachman’s own virtuosity is on display as the book’s strings of Baudelaire, Blake, Boehme, Balzac, Goethe, Coleridge, Henry Corbin, David Bohm, and Andrew Jackson Davis all vibrate simultaneously and with equal resonance. From Lachman’s perspective, Swedenborg operated in a vast network of God-intoxicated sensibilities who sought universal truth in the twin books of nature and scripture, discovered secret codes buried in the matrix of biblical grammar, and discerned signs of continuity—correspondences—between seen and unseen in the great chain of being from mundane to miraculous.

Lachman also reminds us of the long legacy of nonliteral interpretations of the Bible, stretching from Philo of Alexandria and early church exegetes to early modern Kabbalists and left-wing sectarians. The problem is, he admits, that Swedenborg exhibited almost no interest in reflecting on his exact place in any lineage. He was on confidential terms with unfettered human souls in England and across much of Europe, Moravians, and radicals of various types, but when he did his thinking and writing, it was with sola scriptura on the desk and the voice of God in the ear—or cerebrum.

After Emerson generously hymned the person he named the modern world’s representative mystic, he expressed frustration that the expansive vision of Swedenborg’s inner world appeared on second thought to be little more than the conventional desires of a “Lutheran bishop’s son” projected onto a screen the size of the universe. Something similar, of course, could be said of the Concord sage and his life’s work.

But Swedenborg struck a chord: there is no doubt about that. Many other unleashed—or unhinged—imaginations have too. Some do it through the adventures of their lives, some through the magic of their words. Curiously, Swedenborg continues to attract and influence, but not through the contagion of his career or his many volumes on the shelf, which are largely unread. The Swedenborg of Ackroyd and Lachman is a mystery introduced and a mystery unsolved.    

Peter A. Huff