Emanuel Swedenborg: Borges’ Angel of Choice
The Swedish mystic used his oeuvre to approach the world of the invisible from the ruins of materiality in different ways.
Throughout his writing, Borges quotes, alludes to and paraphrases someone called Emanuel Swedenborg (Stockholm 1688 – London 1772). In Another Poem of Gifts, he says ‘For Swedenborg/ who talked with the angels in the streets of London.’ But why was Borges intrigued by this character? Perhaps because in 1744, the Swede had an epiphany on Easter and from that moment, he devoted his entire career as an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, biologist, geologist, physicist, etc., to the reception of revelations —which naturally implies, specific and personal dispositio and reflexio— and to recording them in writing. All his earlier publications in the aforementioned disciplines —perhaps a previous documentation of his different knowledge—, are forgotten, and all the texts we know today are those that he wrote after his first revelation, knowledge which has been compiled in different books where he recorded the different conversations he had with angels, treaties on the quality of the soul and a dream journal. In this sense, his body of work includes more than thirty books.
Swedenborg was an adamant note-taker, to the extent that these pieces are among his most memorable texts. In one of them, for example, he asserted that the Final Judgment had already happened in 1757 and that God had asked him to be in charge of the reconstruction of Christianity (which Swedenborg never did). In several books he also affirmed that an astral voyage had taken him from Heaven to Hell and that he had had many fruitful conversations with angels and demons.
From the vastness of his work, we can find a great variety of texts, for example, De Coelo et Inferno, where he describes the world after death and possible ways to inhabit it; Opera Philosophica Mineralis, which establishes a liaison between philosophy and metallurgy, a type of alchemic treaty that explores the universe’s materiality, as well as another treaty, Principia, which he uses to portray his philosophical theory. Regardless of the latter, Borges is responsible for bringing his texts to the light, and it is precisely Conversations with Angels and his dream journal, where we can find detailed descriptions of his epiphanies. This book was lost —or perhaps made accessible to a handful only— until 1850, when it was found, in a Borgean manner, in The National Library of Sweden.
If we were to ignore the period in which Swedenborg lived and worked, we could perceive him as a character from the Renaissance, an isolated one, a knowledge hermetically sealed by angels and visions. While he was alive however, he was considered a madman and a heretic. Fortunately though, the traditions of insanity and poetry do not allow for severe distinctions, and he was able to influence authors like William Blake, August Strindberg, Ralph Waldo Emerson and W. B. Yeats, among others.
Swedenborg skills were powerful: he could converse, according to his own texts, with creatures from planets like Jupiter, and creatures from the moon. His work reminds us of a book called The Inhabitants of the Moon, perhaps an unknown or forgotten author jotted down the Swede’s thoughts. For the time being, Swedenborg fits into the impossible taxonomy of enlightened beings like Da Vinci or Hildegard von Bingen.
An extract from De Coelo et Inferno:
When they are opened, something breathes out like the smoky fire we see in the air from conflagrations, or like flame without smoke, or like the kind of soot that comes from a hot chimney, or like a dark storm cloud. I have heard that evil spirits neither see nor feel this because when they are in it, they are in their element and therefore in the delight of their life. (1758)
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