On the night of April 6, 1744, one of the most remarkable thinkers of the eighteenth century underwent an astonishing spiritual crisis. That night, Emanuel Swedenborg, a fifty-six-year-old Swedish scientist and statesman, experienced a visitation by Christ. Swedenborg, who was living in London at the time, had already spent several weeks experiencing unusual states of consciousness, triggered by the kabbalistic disciplines he had learned from Rabbi Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk and by the erotic spiritual exercises he had gleaned through his association with the Moravian Chapel on London’s Fetter Lane. A no-nonsense scientist intent on pinpointing the soul’s location in the human brain, Swedenborg also had a long interest in the occult, and in the weeks leading up to his crisis, he had studied and practiced the sexual meditations—a kind of Christian Tantra—devised by the eccentric Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravians. Yet the strange altered states and remarkably vivid dreams familiar to Swedenborg didn’t prepare him for the events of that fateful evening. After a “psychic storm” erupted with great claps of thunder and a hurricane-like wind threw him from his bed—his own account suggests he had an out-of-the-body experience—Swedenborg found himself “face to face” with Christ. For a deeply religious man like Swedenborg, it was a powerful and disturbing encounter.
Looking at Christ’s smile, which Swedenborg thought was as it must have been “when he lived on Earth,” Swedenborg was surprised to hear the Lord ask if he had a “clean bill of health,” a reference to a time when Swedenborg was almost hung for breaking quarantine during the plague. Humbled, Swedenborg replied that he, Christ, knew the answer to this better than he did himself. Christ agreed and replied, “Then do.” Swedenborg took this to mean “Then do.” Swedenborg took this to mean he was to fulfill his promise to abandon his scientific work and to concentrate instead on investigating the spiritual worlds within.
Whether Christ meant this or not, Swedenborg took the injunction to heart. For the rest of his life, he mapped out the strange geography of the interior realms, covering a terrain that included not only other planets but also heaven, hell, and an intermediary sphere Swedenborg called the spirit world.
Although in his day he was fêted by nobility and he later inspired individuals as diverse as, to name just a few, the poets William Blake and Charles Baudelaire, the playwright August Strindberg, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and the Zen master D.T. Suzuki (who called him the Buddha of the North), outside the realms of parapsychology and the history of dissident Christian sects, Emanuel Swedenborg is little known today. This is unfortunate; his work, both as a scientist and as a religious thinker, deserves wider recognition.
If his name does ring a bell, it’s usually as the inspiration for an eccentric form of Christianity, the New Church, to which William Blake once belonged (and with which, incidentally, Swedenborg had nothing to do, as the church was founded after his death). Others may know that Swedenborg wrote dauntingly long books, depicting in precise detail the conditions of life in heaven and hell, information about both places reaching him through his many visits there, which were taken during the unusual trance states he had mastered. Still others may recall that Swedenborg provides some of the most convincing evidence for precognition and clairvoyance. Among other remarkable examples, he accurately predicted the exact date and time of his death. On another occasion, he “saw” a fire break out in Stockholm while he was at a dinner party three hundred miles away. His fellow guests were startled as Swedenborg reported the spread of the flames and shared his relief as he announced that the fire had stopped just doors away from his own home. Days later, Swedenborg’s report was confirmed by a messenger. In a time without telephones, email, or fax machines, how he could have known of the fire while he was hundreds of miles away remains a mystery.
Yet these sensational reports of Swedenborg’s psychic gifts, found in most histories of the paranormal, often overshadow his important philosophical and spiritual insights. Whether or not Swedenborg actually visited heaven and hell, his accounts of life in the angelic or devilish spheres, collected in his appropriately named Heaven and Hell, often provide profitable insight on how best to lead our lives here on earth. This is why people like Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz read him deeply and advised others to do the same. I took that advice myself and eventually wrote a book about Swedenborg. While researching an earlier book on the influence of the occult on Western literature, I found that more often than not, the trail linking a particular poet or novelist to the occult led to this Scandinavian Da Vinci. This happened so often that I decided to find out what was so special about him. I’m glad I did.
Although his religious and spiritual work receives the most attention today through scholars and groups dedicated to his ideas, Swedenborg’s scientific work still offers much reward, a point I argue in my book Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg. Born in 1688 into a deeply religious family, Swedenborg began his career as an engineer, and his practical hands-on work offers a good argument against the clichéd notion of mystics as inept unworldly types. The many practical tasks facing Swedenborg included designing the locks on the Trollhättan Canal, which links Stockholm with the North Sea; devising Sweden’s first saltworks; and a remarkable feat of engineering that had Swedenborg moving the Swedish navy some fifteen miles across land during a war with Norway. It was around this time that Swedenborg was made a special assessor of Swedish mines, a demanding position he fulfilled conscientiously along with his other duties as a member of the Swedish court. He also started the first Swedish scientific journal, Daedalus Hyperboreus, named after the mythical Greek inventor. It was a kind of Popular Mechanics of the day, to which he contributed articles on topics ranging from metallurgy to mechanical inventions. Swedenborg spent years traveling across Europe, meeting some of the most important minds of the time, and his reports thrilled the members of Sweden’s first scientific society, the aptly named Guild of the Curious.
Swedenborg’s more speculative scientific work led him to anatomy and the mysterious machinery of the body, as well as to the equally intriguing riddles raised by cosmology, the origin and structure of the universe. He wrote reams on both, and in several instances his insights anticipate many later discoveries. In his studies of the brain, for example, Swedenborg was the first to recognize the existence of neurons. He also recognized the importance of the frontal lobes for the higher psychic functions like reason and rationality, and he anticipated the findings of split-brain research, arguing that the brain’s left hemisphere was “masculine” and housed our rational minds, while the right was “feminine” and was the seat of emotions. As many have done after him, Swedenborg argued for the need to integrate these often opposing halves. He also noted the significance of the little understood cerebellum, the protocerebrum located at the back of the skull, which some theorists argue is the seat of paranormal and mystical experiences.