The following is excerpted from Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, available from Tarcher/Penguin.
The passage to heaven
or hell lies through what Swedenborg called the world of spirits, an
intermediate realm that roughly accords with the Purgatory of Catholicism. The
world of spirits is rather like our own world, and the newly dead are often
unaware of their transition, and linger on, still trying to gratify their
carnal desires. Gradually the truth becomes clear, and the dead then come to
terms with their "true affections."
Swedenborg writes "the world of spirits is neither heaven nor hell . . . It is
where a person first arrives after death, being, after some time has passed,
either raised into heaven or cast into hell, depending on his life in the
world." After confronting their
true selves, the dead are "opened to their internals" and begin to drift to
their rightful places. Human beings, Swedenborg said, possess two essential qualities
or powers: intention and discernment, or love and reason. What is true about us
is what we think from "intention" and really do, not merely what we "know."
According to Swedenborg, "a person is a person by virtue of his intention and
his resulting understanding, and not from understanding apart from intention."
In a very real way, for Swedenborg, it is the thought that counts.
It is impossible to
deceive anyone in the spirit worlds, as by definition these worlds are states
of being. On earth we may be able to say one thing and think another, but this
is not so in the spirit world. There, you really are what you are. Appearance
and being are identical. "Absolutely everyone there is resolved into a state in
which he speaks the way he thinks, and displays in his expression and gestures
what his intentions are." In the spirit world there is no avoiding the truth. What
we really are depends on what we really feel. If our true affections show a
real love for others and a desire to transcend the self, then, after a brief
period, we begin to move toward heaven. But if our true affections center on
self-love and all that entails — greed, envy, licentiousness, desire for power
over others — then, regardless of appearances, we make our way to
hell. It is surprising who we would find there. Swedenborg himself often hobnobbed
with bishops in the bad place.
And a bad place it
is. Although, as Czeslaw Milosz points out, "Swedenborg's detailed descriptions
of beautiful gardens, their trees and their flowers in Heaven, and of slums,
dirt and ruins in Hell do not mean that he believed they existed other than in
imagination," this "imagination" is "the most real existence." For Swedenborg —
and for the poet William Blake
who came after him — this "other" world is more "real" than any physical
"place," if only for the simple reason that any place we might physically go to
has its roots in the imaginative realms. Swedenborg's heaven and hell exist in
what the philosopher Henry Corbin calls the "imaginal," which is reached via
what Corbin calls the "imaginative consciousness" or the "cognitive
imagination." But to say that hell exists in the imagination, does not make it
any less tangible, or, by Swedenborg's account, any less repellent.
otherwise open to Swedenborg's thought are put off by his accounts of hell.
This includes figures like William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a pointed criticism of Swedenborg's
vision, which separates the two realms. For Blake, Swedenborg's heaven is a
very dull place, while Blake's own account of hell makes it attractive: angels are
rather staid bores, but the devils are lively, vital characters. Emerson, who
called Swedenborg a "colossal soul" and "one of the mastodons of literature,"
also remarked apropos of Swedenborg's hell that "A vampire sits in the seat of
the prophet and turns with gloomy appetite to images of pain."
It is not difficult
to see why Emerson felt this. Swedenborg's hell is an unremittingly revolting
state of being, a nightmarish blend of Hieronymus Bosch and some of William S Burroughs'
most paranoiac visions, and one cannot be censured for wondering if Swedenborg
derived some gratification from knowing that the souls whose true affections
brought them there deserved their fate. As in the case of Dante's Inferno, there is a hint of sadism in Swedenborg's account of the
punishments inflicted on the damned, even if, as he maintained, punished and
punisher are the same. Ordure, vomit, unspeakable stenches, insatiable desires,
gnawing hungers, interminable darkness, the constant harangue of petty,
bickering souls await hell's inmates. "In some hells," Swedenborg tells us,
"one can see something like the rubble of homes or cities after a great fire .
. . In milder hells, one sees tumble-down huts, crowded together . . . Within the
houses are hellish spirits, constant brawls, hostilities, beatings . . .There
are robberies and hold-ups in the street . . . In some hells there are nothing
but brothels that look disgusting and are full of all kinds of filth and excrement." (Even
granting that street crime was far worse in Swedenborg's day than in ours, it
is surprising how reminiscent this description is of much of our own modern
There are other hells
too. Forests filled with dangerous beasts, dark dank caves, arid wastes and
other equally undesirable places await those who belong there. These and all
the other unappetizing landscapes are the result of the choices the hellish
souls have made in life and although Swedenborg's hell is unmistakably nasty,
the damned suffer even more, if
by chance the light of heaven falls on them. They belong in hell, and miss it
if they are away from it. And in a sense, they existed there for some time
before their deaths. Given that the hells Swedenborg describes are really reflections
of the inner states of the souls who inhabit them, these unfortunates have
carried their own, personal hell
around with them for many years. And again, this is something we can find in
our own experience. We all know what it is like to be consumed by envy, rage,
lust, greed or any of the other hellish emotions. We know how easy it is to
give way to these, and how difficult it is to resist them and our own justifications
for them. To go to hell or not is a choice we make every day. Jean Paul Sartre
may have famously believed
that "hell is other people," but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he tells us, is
This is true also of
heaven which, to go by Swedenborg's description, is a state of almost
unimaginable fulfilment. A reader first coming to Swedenborg's account of
heaven may find it difficult to see this: what first strikes us is the
description of heavenly houses, gardens, parks, and erotic relationships. Blake
once complained that the accepted notion of heaven was of an "allegorical abode
where existence hath never come," and one suspects that, having been a reader
of Swedenborg, he knew better. Swedenborg's
heaven is nothing if not substantial. It has the kind of corporality we find in
some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of the afterlife, when
mediums assured bereaved parents or spouses that their loved ones were enjoying
themselves amidst a heavenly counterpart of their life on earth. In 1916, for
instance, the scientist and paranormal investigator Sir Oliver Lodge published
a book about his dead son. Raymond or Life
And Death told its readers that "the other side"
was not very different from our own world. There people wore white robes, could
eat, smoke cigars, and even have a whisky and soda. Other accounts painted a
similar picture. It was Swedenborg's "concrete" vision of heaven that the
theologians of his time railed against; and even for readers who are
sympathetic to his ideas, accounts of angels sharing meals or fulfilling their
domestic duties can seem a bit
much to swallow. For many, these accounts of angelic homes, clothes, and sexual
activity seem a simple-minded transference of earthly life into a heavenly
setting, where everything is just as it is here, only better.
Others, however, see
it differently. Given Swedenborg's description, the higher worlds seem not so
"other," and as far as our own lives are directed toward the good and the true,
we can participate in their significance while here on earth. Yet the familiar
setting afforded by Swedenborg's heaven is deceptive. There, things are not
really the same as here. For one thing, time and space do not exist in heaven
as they do on earth. Time there is not measured in days, weeks, or years, but
in changes in state. "Regardless of the fact that everything in heaven happens
in sequence and progresses the way
things do in the world," Swedenborg tells us, "still angels have no concept of
Time in our world is measured by the sun's apparent progress around the
earth, producing what we know as the seasons. But in heaven, the sun is
different. It does not produce days and years, but changes of state. Time is so
alien to the angels that eternity for them does not imply an infinite time, but
an infinite state, the "timeless" condition described by mystics throughout the
ages. Space is likewise absent in heaven. "In spite of the fact that everything
in heaven seems to be in a place and in space just like things in the world,"
Swedenborg informs us, "angels have no concept or idea of place or space." To
travel in the spiritual world is accomplished by changes of state. "All
journeys in the spiritual world occur by means of changes of state of more
inward things." "Being taken to worlds in space," Swedenborg says, "does not
mean being taken or traveling in bodies, but in spirit. The spirit is guided
through varying states of inner life, which appear to him like travels through
space," a remark that sounds very similar to accounts of "spirit journeys" in shamanism.
In heaven distances are measured not by physical location but by degrees of
empathy. Spirits of like mind are near each other in heaven, whatever their
"location." One beautiful way of expressing this is Swedenborg's claim that in
heaven, no matter which way they turn, angels always face God, an insight that
meant a great deal to the composer Arnold Schoenberg. In his unfinished
oratorio Jacob's Ladder, Schoenberg, who
came to Swedenborg via Balzac's novel Seraphita, has the angel
Gabriel announce that: "Whether right, left, forward or backward, up or down —
one has to go on without asking what lies before or behind us."
There are in fact
three heavens: the celestial, the spiritual, and the natural, each successively
at a further distance from what Swedenborg calls "the Lord's Divine." Each
participates to a greater or lesser degree in divine truth and love. Most
ineffable is the celestial heaven, which participates directly in the will or
intention of the Divine. The spiritual heaven participates in this less fully,
but has an equal share of the divine understanding. The natural heaven, the
lowest, has a small share in the divine discernment, and, by heavenly standards,
very little of the divine intention. This arrangement makes clear that even in
heaven, Swedenborg's notion of "degrees" holds sway. This gap
between one heaven and another has real consequences; for instance, angels from
one heaven cannot understand the language of those from the others, and if an
angel from a lower heaven is brought into a higher one, the change in spiritual
state is often too much to bear.
All of the heavens,
and all of their many angels — who, according to Swedenborg, are transformed
human souls — come together to form the Grand Man, the vast image of the Universal Human, which makes up the body of
the universe. The effect of reading Swedenborg's account of heaven is of
something like a double exposure. There are the often pedestrian descriptions
of "life in heaven," but through the reports of angelic "day-to-day"
activities, one catches glimpses of a vibrant, complex, radiant world, a kind
of supernal mosaic whose parts infinitely reflect each other. It is a cliché by
now to say that Swedenborg's vision is on a par with Dante's; but if it is, it
is nevertheless true.
Copyright Gary Lachman 2012.