Sunday, February 22, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part II : Madness, or Rude Awakening?

That's right, angels (or would it be more proper to say Angels?). Emanuel woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of his 56th year and found himself in the presence of angels, who promptly told him he was to listen to what they would tell him and write it down for posterity. He spent the next 26 years doing exactly that, writing and publishing many volumes written in the same lucid and rational style he had employed in his scientific writings, albeit about the structure and meaning of heaven and hell rather than the structure and meaning of brain anatomy. He also spoke from time to time with the wandering souls of past acquaintances who were deceased. He developed some odd psychic-like abilities as well - once on a trip to visit friends in a city 300 km from his home, he suddenly became very agitated during dinner, exclaiming that there was a fire in his neighborhood and it was threatening his house. For two hours he paced about with anxiety, until finally he calmed, announcing that the fire had been stopped three doors down and his abode was safe. Remember, the quickest form of communication in those days was horseback, and 3 days later news finally arrived that confirmed every detail that he had described, to the minute!

But let's back up a bit. Emanuel Swedenborg was not exactly your typical Enlightenment Era scientist. For one, he kept a dream journal for most of his adult life. In those days that was, to say the least, unusual. Dreams conjured up biblical references, and that was a definite no-no in the Age of Reason; and besides, what's reasonable about dreams? He never published these, but after his death a nephew discovered them and had them published, causing quite a scandal since they included very detailed erotic descriptions from time to time - you know what I mean, don't you? To be keenly interested in dreams suggests a bit of woo-woo in Emanuel's nature. And, in some of his philosophical writings during the time he was studying brain anatomy, he revealed his intent with that pursuit - to find the location of the soul. Soul? You mean, woo-woo? Emanuel also had one very unusual practice he used from his teen years - when thinking on a subject or problem, he would hold his breath as long as he could while concentrating on finding the solution. This is, in fact, a traditional East Indian yoga meditational practice, one he would have no contact with but which he apparently stumbled onto and found quite useful. Obviously there was more going on with this man than one might assume (remember, always examine your assumptions!)

Being a practical man, Swedenborg had his angelically inspired writings printed in Germany so as not to alarm his neighbors and colleagues, but word got out, as it always does. Many of his scientific friends became extremely concerned, and some paid him a visit to see if he had indeed gone off the deep end. Every one of them came away shaking their heads, saying that he seemed not only quite functional and lucid, but that he appeared to be extremely happy and jovial. Now remember, he received no electo-shock treatment, lobotomy, Freudian analysis, anger management counseling, 12-step counseling, or prozac - yet he was perfectly happy, and talking with angels to boot! Damn, I gotta get some of that...

Not surprisingly, much of Swedenborg's scientific work was lost from the literature in light of the embarrassment within the scientific community over his later writings. He was only rediscovered early in the 20th century and is now regarded as a giant in the history of science. But what are we to make of the last 26 years of his life, the years in conversation with angels? Was he psychotic, hallucinating? If so, what exactly is...hallucinating? What are dreams, but sleeping hallucinations? Or are they? hmmmmmmmmmmm...........

To be continued