Academic journal article PSYART

Emanuel Swedenborg, Transpersonal Psychology and the Literary Text

Academic journal article PSYART

Emanuel Swedenborg, Transpersonal Psychology and the Literary Text

Article excerpt

This article examines how Swedenborgianism linked the conscious and unconscious mind through the literary symbol. It has long warranted critical attention that Swedenborg, nearly two centuries before Jung, launched an exploration of archetypal images. What I will attempt below is a study of the reception history of Swedenborg, or, more precisely, an examination of how the psychological and literary dimensions of Swedenborg's writing have been a significant attraction to readers.

The theosophist and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was undoubtedly the most influential spiritualist on both sides of the Atlantic during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He has influenced a wide number of philosophers, psychologists and thinkers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, D. T. Suzuki, and William James and the reverberations of his teachings are still discernible in many New Age movements. There is a salient influence of Swedenborg to be found among a number of well-known artists. These include William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac, Walt Whitman, August Strindberg, Willam Butler Yeats, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Jorge Louis Borges, A.S. Byatt, and the list goes on (see further list in MacNeilly, xxii). Most of these names were never confessors to the Swedenborgian Church, but seem to have been attracted to Swedenborg since he allowed art to have a psychological dimension, linking it to man's inner quest for spirituality and transcendence.

This article progresses in three stages. (1) I will first examine the early and still ongoing recovery of Swedenborg as a pioneer of psychological theory. It is possible to document how early developments of transpersonal psychology were in fact responding to Swedenborg's works. (2) I will then train the lens on Swedenborg's theory of divine archetypes. Swedenborg and his followers took a pluralistic interest in world mythologies. The spiritual investment in non-Christian images was based on Swedenborg's notion that myths harboured archetypes capable of effecting psychic transformation. (3) Finally, I will focus on the reception history of Swedenborg's own visions. Even when commentators rejected Swedenborg's claims to map Heaven and Hell as factually untrue, his figurative scenarios have often been accepted as constructive allegories for fantasy formation and utilization - capacities to be activated (it is believed) to heal mankind's fractured psyche. I will trace how continuous attempts at reading Swedenborg as essentially a literary writer in this respect have contributed to sustaining an interest in his highly eccentric writing.

Swedenborg and the "Internal" Mind

To begin with, a brief introduction to Swedenborg and his work is in order. Emanuel Swedenborg was born as the son of a Lutheran bishop in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688. During the first 56 years of his life, he pursued a career as a scientist and inventor with numerous publications on scientific, civic, and philosophical subjects. Among Swedenborg's published works, his contribution to the field of brain science, especially neuro-localization theory, is increasingly being recognized today. Swedenborg was particularly prescient about the functions of the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, and the pituitary gland (see e.g. Norsell; Gordh et al.; Gross; and Akert & Hammond). But Swedenborg's life took a dramatic turn in the year 1744, when he began to have a series of strange dreams. Over time, these dreams developed into full-blown visions. In his later theosophical works, Swedenborg claimed that he was able to travel to the spiritual world, where he would encounter spirits of the dead living in communities (or even cities) of Heaven and Hell.

Central to Swedenborg's teaching is the idea of psychic growth. This hinges on the science of what he terms Correspondences, which is one of the most developed and applied ideas in his works. …

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