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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 28000

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Visions of Emanuel Swedenborg

In mid April of the memorable year 1745, two men, hastening through a busy London thoroughfare, paused for a moment to follow with their eyes a third, whom they had greeted but who had passed without so much as a glance in their direction. The face of one betrayed chagrin; but the other smiled amusedly.

"You must not mind, dear fellow," said he; "that is only Swedenborg's way, as you will discover when you know him better. His feet are on the earth; but for the moment his mind is in the clouds, pondering some solution to the wonderful problems he has set himself, marvelous man that he is."

"Yet," objected the other, "he seems such a thorough man of the world, so finely dressed, so courtly as a rule in speech and manner."

"He is a man of the world, a true cosmopolitan," was the quick response. "I warrant few are so widely and so favorably known. He is as much at home in London, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, Amsterdam, or Copenhagen as in his native city of Stockholm. Kings and Queens, grand dames and gallant wits, statesmen and soldiers, scientists and philosophers, find pleasure in his society. He can meet all on their own ground, and to all he has something fresh and interesting to say. But he is nevertheless, and above everything else, a dreamer."

"A dreamer?"

"Aye. They tell me that he will not rest content until he has found the seat of the soul in man. Up through mathematics, mechanics, mineralogy, astronomy, chemistry, even physiology, has he gone, mastering every science in turn, until he is now perhaps the most learned man in Europe. But his learning satisfies him not a whit, since the soul still eludes him,-and eludes him, mark you, despite month upon month of toil in the dissecting room. If the study of anatomy fail him, I know not where he will next turn. For my part, I fancy he need not look beyond the stomach. The wonder is that his own stomach has not given him the clue ere this; for, metaphysician though he be, he enjoys the good things of earth. Let me tell you a story-"

Thus, chatting and laughing, the friends continued on their way, every step taking them farther from the unwitting subject of their words. He, for his part, absorbed in thought, pressed steadily forward to his destination, a quiet inn in a sequestered quarter of the city. The familiar sounds of eighteenth-century London-the bawling of apprentices shouting their masters' wares, the crying of fishwives, the quarreling of drunkards, the barking of curs, the bellowing of cattle on their way to market and slaughter house-broke unheeded about him.

He was, as the gossip had put it, in the clouds, intent on the riddles his learning had rendered only the more complex, riddles having to do with the nature of the universe and with man's place in the universe. Nor did he rouse himself from his meditations until the door of the inn had closed behind him and he found himself in its common room. Then he became the Emanuel Swedenborg of benignity, geniality, and courtesy, the Swedenborg whom all men loved.

"I am going to my room," said he to the innkeeper, in charming, broken English, "and I wish to be served there. I find I am very hungry; so see that you spare not."

While he is standing at the window, waiting for his dinner, and gazing abstractedly into the ill-paved, muddy street illumined by a transitory gleam of April sunshine, let us try to gain a closer view of him than that afforded by the brief account of his unrecognized acquaintance. The attempt will be worth while; for at this very moment he has, all unconsciously, reached the great crisis of his life, and is about to leave behind him the achievements of his earlier years, setting himself instead to tasks of a very different nature. We see him, then, a man nearing the age of sixty, of rather more than average height, smooth shaven, bewigged, bespectacled, and scrupulously dressed according to the fashion of the day. Time in its passing has dealt gently with him. There is no stoop to his shoulders, no tremor in the fingers that play restlessly on the window-pane. Not a wrinkle mars the placid features.

Well may he feel at peace with the world. His whole career has been a steady progress, his record that of one who has attempted many things and failed in few. Before he was twenty-one his learning had gained for him a doctorate in philosophy. Then, enthusiastic, open-minded, and open-eyed, he had hurried abroad, to pursue in England, Holland, France, and Germany his chosen studies of mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy. Returning to Sweden to assume the duties of assessor of mines, he speedily proved that he was no mere theorizer, his inventive genius enabling the warlike Charles XII. to transport overland galleys and sloops for the siege of Frederikshald, sea passage being barred by hostile fleets. Ennobled for this feat, he plunged with ardor into the complicated problems of statecraft, problems rendered the more difficult by the economic distress in which Charles's wars had involved his Kingdom. Here again he attained distinction.

Yet always the problems of science and philosophy claimed his chief devotion. From the study of stars and minerals he passed to the contemplation of other marvels of nature as revealed in man himself. And now behold him turned chemist, anatomist, physiologist, and psychologist, and repeating in these fields of research his former triumphs. Still, indomitable man, he refused to stop. He would press on, far beyond the confines of what his generation held to be the knowable. "The end of the senses," to quote his own words, "is that God may be seen." He would peer into the innermost recesses of man's being, to discern the soul of man, mayhap to discern God himself.

But, if he were scientist and metaphysician, he was also human, and that pleasant April afternoon the humanity in him bulked large when he finally turned from the window and took his seat at the bountifully heaped table. He was, as he had told the innkeeper, very hungry, and he ate with a zest that abundantly confirmed his statement. How pleasant the odors from this dish and that-how agreeable the flavor of everything! Surely he had never enjoyed meal more, and surely he was no longer "in the clouds"; but was instead recalling pleasant reminiscences of his doings in one and another of the gay capitals of Europe! There would be not a little to bring a twinkle of delight to his beaming eyes, not a little to soften his scholastic lips into a gentle smile. And so, in solitary state, he ate and drank, with nothing to warn him of the impending and momentous change that was to shape anew his career and his view-point.

Conceive his astonishment, therefore, when, his dinner still unfinished, he felt a strange languor creeping over him and a mysterious obscurity dimming his eyes. Conceive, further, his horror at sight of the floor about him covered with frogs and toads and snakes and creeping things. And picture, finally, his amazement when, the darkness that enveloped him suddenly clearing, he beheld a man sitting in the far corner of the room and eying him, as it seemed, reproachfully, even disdainfully.

In vain, he essayed to rise, to lift his hand, to speak. Invisible bonds held him in his chair, an unseen power kept him mute. For an instant he fancied that he must be dreaming; but the noises from outdoors and the sight of the table and food before him brought conviction that he was in full possession of his senses. Now his visitor spoke, and spoke only four words, which astonished no less than alarmed him. "Eat not so much." Only this-then utter silence. Again the enveloping darkness-frogs, toads, snakes, faded in its depths-and with returning light Swedenborg was once more alone in the room.

Small wonder that the remaining hours of the day were spent in fruitless cogitation of this weird and disagreeable experience which far transcended metaphysician's normal ken. Nor is it surprising to find him na?vely admitting that "this unexpected event hastened my return home." Imagination can easily round out the picture,-the rising in terror, the overturning of the chair, the seizing of cocked hat and gold-headed cane, the few explanatory words to the astonished innkeeper, the hurried departure, and the progress, perchance at a more rapid gait than usual, to the sleeping quarters in another section of the town. Arrived there, safe in the refuge of his commodious bed-room, sage argument would follow in the effort to attain persuasion that the terrifying vision had been but "the effect of accidental causes." Be sure, though, that our philosopher, dreading a return of the specter if he permitted food to pass his lips, would go hungry to bed that night.

That night-more visions. To the wakeful, restless, perturbed Swedenborg the same figure appeared, this time without snakes or frogs or toads, and not in darkness, but in the midst of a great white light that filled the bed chamber with a wonderful radiance. Then a voice spoke:

"I am God the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. I have chosen thee to lay before men the spiritual sense of the Holy Word. I will teach thee what thou art to write."

Slowly the light faded, the figure disappeared. And now the astounded philosopher, his amazement growing with each passing moment, found himself transported as it seemed to another world,-the world of the dead. Men and women of his acquaintance greeted him as they had been wont to do when on earth, pressed about him, eagerly questioned him. Their faces still wore the familiar expressions of kindliness, anxiety, sincerity, ill will, as the case might be. In every way they appeared to be still numbered among the living. They were clad in the clothes they had been accustomed to wear, they ate and drank, they lived in houses and towns. The philosophers among them continued to dispute, the clergy to admonish, the authors to write.

But, his perception enlarging, Swedenborg presently discovered that this was in reality only an intermediate state of existence; that beyond it at the one end was heaven and at the other hell, to one or the other of which the dead ultimately gravitated according to their desires and conduct. For, as he was to learn later, the spiritual world was a world of law and order fully as much as was the natural world. Men were free to do as they chose; but they must bear the consequences. If they were evil-minded, it would be their wish to consort with those of like mind, and in time they must pass to the abode of the wicked; if pure-minded, they would seek out kindred spirits, and, when finally purged of the dross of earth, be translated to the realm of bliss. To heaven, then, voyaged Swedenborg, on a journey of discovery; and to hell likewise. What he saw he has set down in many bulky volumes, than which philosopher has written none more strange.[E]

With the return of daylight it might seem that he would be prompt to dismiss all memory of these peculiar experiences as fantasies of sleep. But he was satisfied that he had not slept; that on the contrary he had been preternaturally conscious throughout the long, eventful night. In solemn retrospect he retraced his past career. He remembered that for some years he had had symbolic dreams and symbolic hallucinations-as of a golden key, a tongue of flame, and voices-which had at the time baffled his understanding, but which he now interpreted as premonitory warnings that God had set him apart for a great mission. He remembered too that when still a child his mind had been engrossed by thoughts of God, and that in talking with his parents he had uttered words which caused them to declare that the angels spoke through his mouth. Remembering all these things, he could no longer doubt that Divinity had actually visited him in his humble London boarding house, and he made up his mind that he must bestir himself to carry out the divine command of expounding to his fellow men the hidden meaning of Holy Writ.

Forthwith, being still fired with the true scientist's passion for original research, he set himself to the task of learning Hebrew. He was, it will be remembered, approaching sixty, an age when the acquisition of a new language is exceedingly difficult and rare. Yet such progress did he make that within a very few months he was writing notes in explanation of the book of Genesis. And thus he continued not for months but years, patiently traversing the entire Bible, and at the same time carefully committing to paper everything "seen and heard" in the spiritual world; for his London excursion beyond the borderland which separates the here from the hereafter had been only the first of similar journeys taken not merely by night but in broad daylight. To use his own phraseology: "The Lord opened daily, very often, my bodily eyes; so that in the middle of the day I could see into the other world, and in a state of perfect wakefulness converse with angels and spirits."

His increasing absorption-absent-mindedness, his friends would call it-his habit of falling into trances, and his claim to interworld communication, could not fail to excite the surprise of all who had known him as scientist and philosopher. But these vagaries, as people deemed them, met the greater toleration because of the evident fact that they did not dim his intellectual powers and did not interfere with his activities in behalf of the public good. True, in 1747 he resigned his office of assessor of mines in order to have more leisure to prosecute his adventures into the unknown; but as a member of the Swedish Diet he continued to play a prominent part in the affairs of the Kingdom, giving long and profound study to the critical problems of administration, economics, and finance with which the nation's leaders were confronted during the third quarter of the century. So that-bearing in mind the further fact that he was no bl

atant advocate of his opinions-it seems altogether likely his spiritistic ideas would have gained no great measure of attention, had it not been for a series of singular occurrences that took place between 1759 and 1762.

Toward the end of July in the first of these years, Swedenborg (whose fondness for travel ceased only with his death) arrived in Gottenburg homeward bound from England, and on the invitation of a friend decided to break his journey by spending a few days in that city. Two hours after his arrival, while attending a small reception given in his honor, he electrified the company by abruptly declaring that at that moment a dangerous fire had broken out at Stockholm, three hundred miles away, and was spreading rapidly. Becoming excited, he rushed from the room, to re?nter with the news that the house of one of his friends was in ashes, and that his own house was threatened. Anxious moments passed, while he restlessly paced up and down, in and out. Then, with a cry of joy, he exclaimed, "Thank God the fire is out, the third door from my house!"

Like wild the tidings spread through Gottenburg, and the greatest commotion prevailed. Some were inclined to give credence to Swedenborg's statements; more, who did not know the man, derided him as a sensation monger. But all had to wait with what patience they could, for those were the days before steam engine and telegraph. Forty-eight anxious hours passed. Then letters were received confirming the philosopher's announcement, and, we are assured, showing that the fire had taken precisely the path described by him, and had stopped where he had indicated.

No peace now for Swedenborg. His home at Stockholm, with its quaint gambrel roof, its summer houses, its neat flower beds, its curious box trees, instantly became a Mecca for the inquisitive, burning to see the man who held converse with the dead and was instructed by the latter in many portentous secrets. Most of those who gained admission, and through him sought to be put into touch with departed friends, received a courteous but firm refusal, accompanied by the explanation: "God having for wise and good purposes separated the world of spirits from ours, a communication is never granted without cogent reasons." When, however, his visitors satisfied him that they were imbued with something more than curiosity, he made an effort to meet their wishes, and occasionally with astonishing results.

It was thus in the case of Madam Marteville, widow of the Dutch Ambassador to Sweden. In 1761, some months after her husband's death, a goldsmith demanded from her payment for a silver service the Ambassador had bought from him. Feeling sure that the bill had already been paid, she made search for the receipt, but could find none. The sum involved was large, and she sought Swedenborg and asked him to seek her husband in the world of spirits and ascertain whether the debt had been settled. Three days later, when she was entertaining some friends, Swedenborg called, and in the most matter of fact way stated that he had had a conversation with Marteville, and had learned from him that the debt had been canceled seven months before his death, and that the receipt would be found in a certain bureau.

"But I have searched all through it," protested Madam Marteville.

"Ah," was Swedenborg's rejoinder; "but it has a secret drawer of which you know nothing."

At once all present hurried to the bureau, and there, in the private compartment which he quickly located, lay the missing receipt.

In similar fashion did Swedenborg relate to the Queen of Sweden, Louisa Ulrica, the substance of the last interview between her and her dead brother, the Crown Prince of Prussia, an interview which had been strictly private, and the subject of which, she affirmed, was such that no third person could possibly have known what passed between them.

More startling still was his declaration to a merry company at Amsterdam that at that same hour, in far away Russia, the Emperor Peter III. was being foully done to death in prison. Once more time proved that the spirit seer, as Swedenborg was now popularly known, had told the truth.

A decade more, and again we meet him in London, his whole being, at eighty-four, animated with the same energy and enthusiasm that had led him to seek and attain in his earlier manhood such a vast store of knowledge. And here, as Christmas drew near, he found lodging with two old friends, a wig maker and his wife. But ere Christmas dawned he lay a helpless victim of that dread disease paralysis. Not a word, not a movement, for full three weeks.

Then, with returning consciousness, a call for pen and paper. He would, he muttered with thickened speech, send a note to inform a certain John Wesley that the spirits had made known to him Wesley's desire to meet him, and that he would be glad to receive a visit at any time. In reply came word that the great evangelist had indeed wished to make the great mystic's acquaintance, and that after returning from a six months' circuit he would give himself the pleasure of waiting upon Swedenborg. "Too late," was the aged philosopher's comment as the story goes, "too late; for on the 29th of March I shall be in the world of spirits never more to return."

March came and went, and with it went his soul on the day predicted, if prediction there were. They buried him in London, and there in early season, out of his grave blossomed the religion that has preserved his name, his fame, his doctrines. To the dead Swedenborg succeeded the living Swedenborgianism.

But what shall those of us who are not Swedenborgians think of the master? Shall we accept at face value the story of his life as gathered from the documents left behind him and as set forth here; and, accepting it, believe that he was in reality a man set apart by God and granted the rare favor of insight into that unknown world to which all of us must some day go?

The true explanation, it seems to me, can be had only when we view Swedenborg in the light of the marvelous discoveries made during the last few years in the field of abnormal psychology. Beginning in France, and continuing more recently in the United States and other countries, investigations have been set on foot resulting in the solution of many human problems not unlike the riddle of Swedenborg, and occasionally far more complicated than that presented in his case. All these solutions, in the last analysis, rest on the basic discovery that human personality is by no means the single indivisible entity it is commonly supposed to be, but is instead singularly unstable and singularly complex. It has been found that under some unusual stimulus-such as an injury, an illness, or the strain of an intense emotion-there may result a disintegration, or, as it is technically termed, a dissociation, of personality, giving rise it may be to hysteria, it may be to hallucinations, it may even be to a complete disappearance of the original personality and its replacement by a new personality, sometimes of radically different characteristics.[F]

It has also been found, by another group of investigators working principally in England, that side by side with the original, the waking, personality of every-day life, there coexists a hidden personality possessing faculties far transcending those enjoyed by the waking personality, but as a rule coming into play only at moments of crisis, though by some favored mortals invocable more frequently. To this hidden personality, as distinguished from the secondary personality of dissociation, has been given the name of the subliminal self, and to its operation some attribute alike the productions of men of genius and the phenomena of clairvoyance and thought transference that have puzzled mankind from time immemorial.

Now, arguing by analogy from the cases scattered through the writings of Janet, Sidis, Prince, Myers, Gurney, and many others whose works the reader may consult for himself in any good public library, it is my belief that in Swedenborg we have a pre?minent illustration both of dissociation and of subliminal action, and that it is therefore equally unnecessary to stigmatize him as insane or to adopt the spiritistic hypothesis in explanation of his utterances. The records show that from his father he inherited a tendency to hallucinations, checked for a time by the nature of his studies, but fostered as these expanded into pursuit of the absolute and the infinite. They further show that for a long time before the London visions he was in a disturbed state of health, his nervous system unstrung, his whole being so unhinged that at times he suffered from attacks of what was probably hystero-epilepsy.

It seems altogether likely, then, that in London the process of dissociation, after this period of gradual growth, suddenly leaped into activity. Thereafter his hallucinations, from being sporadic and vague, became habitual and definite, his hystero-epileptic attacks more frequent. But, happily for him, the dissociation never became complete. He was left in command of his original personality, his mental powers continued unabated; and he was still able to adjust himself to the environment of the world about him.

But, it may be objected, how explain his revelations in the matter of the fire at Stockholm, the missing receipt, the message to Queen Ulrica, and the death of Peter III.? This brings us to the question of subliminal action. Swedenborg himself, far in advance of his generation in this as in much else, appears to have realized that there was no need of invoking spirits to account for such transactions. "I need not mention," he once wrote, "the manifest sympathies acknowledged to exist in this lower world, and which are too many to be recounted; so great being the sympathy and magnetism of man that communication often takes place between those who are miles apart."

Here, in language that admits of no misinterpretation, we see stated the doctrine of telepathy, which is only now beginning to find acceptance among scientific men, but which, as I view it, has been amply demonstrated by the experiments of recent years and by the thousands of cases of spontaneous occurrence recorded in such publications as the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research." And if these experiments and spontaneous instances prove anything, they prove that telepathy is distinctively a faculty of the subliminal self; and that a greater or less degree of dissociation is essential, not to the receipt, but to the objective realization, of telepathic messages. Thus, the entranced "medium" of modern days extracts from the depths of his sitter's subconsciousness facts which the sitter has consciously forgotten, facts even of which he may never have been consciously aware, but which have been transmitted telepathically to his subliminal self by the subliminal self of some third person.[G]

So with Swedenborg. Admitting the authenticity of the afore-mentioned anecdotes-none of which, it is as well to point out, reaches us supported by first-hand evidence-it is quite unnecessary to appeal to spirits as his purveyors of knowledge. In every instance telepathy-or clairvoyance, which is after all explicable itself only by telepathy-will suffice. In the Marteville affair, for example, it is not unreasonable to assume that before his death the Ambassador telepathically told his devoted wife of the existence of the secret drawer and its contents; if, indeed, she had not known and forgotten. It would then be an exceedingly simple matter for the dissociated Swedenborg to acquire the desired information from the wife's subconsciousness. Nor does this reflect on his honesty. Doubtless he believed, as he represented, that he had actually had a conversation with the dead Marteville, and had learned from him the whereabouts of the missing receipt. In the form his dissociation took he could no more escape such a hallucination than can the twentieth-century medium avoid the belief that he is a veritable intermediary between the visible and the invisible world.

Not that I would put Swedenborg on a par with the ordinary medium. He was unquestionably a man of gigantic intellect, and he was unquestionably inspired, if by inspiration be understood the gift of combining subliminal with supraliminal powers to a degree granted to few of those whom the world counts truly great. If his fanciful and fantastic pictures of life in heaven and hell and in our neighboring planets welled up from the depths of his inmost mind, far more did the noble truths to which he gave expression. It is by these he should be judged; it is in these, not in his hallucinations nor in his telepathic exhibitions, that lies the secret of the commanding, if not always recognized, influence he has exercised on the thought of posterity. A solitary figure? True: but a grand figure, even in his saddest moment of delusion.


[E] The most complete enumeration of the writings of Swedenborg will be found in the Rev. James Hyde's "A Bibliography of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg," published in 1906 by the Swedenborg Society of London. Including books on Swedenborg, this bibliography contains no fewer than thirty-five hundred items. For a detailed account of Swedenborg's life the reader may consult Dr. R. L. Tafel's "Documents concerning the Life and Character of Swedenborg," or the biographies by William White, Benjamin Worcester, James J. G. Wilkinson, and Nathaniel Hobart. Of these, the White biography is the most critical.

[F] Illustrative cases will be cited in the discussion of "The Watseka Wonder" on a later page. For a detailed explanation of "dissociation" the reader is referred to Dr. Morton Prince's "The Dissociation of a Personality," or Dr. Boris Sidis's "Multiple Personality."

[G] This point is more fully discussed in my earlier book, "The Riddle of Personality."

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