Swedenborg's Rough Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Other Places
The following is excerpted from Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, available from Tarcher/Penguin.
The passage to heaven or hell lies through what Swedenborg called the world of spirits, an intermediate realm that roughly accords with the Purgatory of Catholicism. The world of spirits is rather like our own world, and the newly dead are often unaware of their transition, and linger on, still trying to gratify their carnal desires. Gradually the truth becomes clear, and the dead then come to terms with their "true affections." Swedenborg writes "the world of spirits is neither heaven nor hell . . . It is where a person first arrives after death, being, after some time has passed, either raised into heaven or cast into hell, depending on his life in the world." After confronting their true selves, the dead are "opened to their internals" and begin to drift to their rightful places. Human beings, Swedenborg said, possess two essential qualities or powers: intention and discernment, or love and reason. What is true about us is what we think from "intention" and really do, not merely what we "know." According to Swedenborg, "a person is a person by virtue of his intention and his resulting understanding, and not from understanding apart from intention." In a very real way, for Swedenborg, it is the thought that counts.
It is impossible to deceive anyone in the spirit worlds, as by definition these worlds are states of being. On earth we may be able to say one thing and think another, but this is not so in the spirit world. There, you really are what you are. Appearance and being are identical. "Absolutely everyone there is resolved into a state in which he speaks the way he thinks, and displays in his expression and gestures what his intentions are." In the spirit world there is no avoiding the truth. What we really are depends on what we really feel. If our true affections show a real love for others and a desire to transcend the self, then, after a brief period, we begin to move toward heaven. But if our true affections center on self-love and all that entails -- greed, envy, licentiousness, desire for power over others -- then, regardless of appearances, we make our way to hell. It is surprising who we would find there. Swedenborg himself often hobnobbed with bishops in the bad place.
And a bad place it is. Although, as Czeslaw Milosz points out, "Swedenborg's detailed descriptions of beautiful gardens, their trees and their flowers in Heaven, and of slums, dirt and ruins in Hell do not mean that he believed they existed other than in imagination," this "imagination" is "the most real existence." For Swedenborg -- and for the poet William Blake who came after him -- this "other" world is more "real" than any physical "place," if only for the simple reason that any place we might physically go to has its roots in the imaginative realms. Swedenborg's heaven and hell exist in what the philosopher Henry Corbin calls the "imaginal," which is reached via what Corbin calls the "imaginative consciousness" or the "cognitive imagination." But to say that hell exists in the imagination, does not make it any less tangible, or, by Swedenborg's account, any less repellent.
Many readers otherwise open to Swedenborg's thought are put off by his accounts of hell. This includes figures like William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a pointed criticism of Swedenborg's vision, which separates the two realms. For Blake, Swedenborg's heaven is a very dull place, while Blake's own account of hell makes it attractive: angels are rather staid bores, but the devils are lively, vital characters. Emerson, who called Swedenborg a "colossal soul" and "one of the mastodons of literature," also remarked apropos of Swedenborg's hell that "A vampire sits in the seat of the prophet and turns with gloomy appetite to images of pain."
It is not difficult to see why Emerson felt this. Swedenborg's hell is an unremittingly revolting state of being, a nightmarish blend of Hieronymus Bosch and some of William S Burroughs' most paranoiac visions, and one cannot be censured for wondering if Swedenborg derived some gratification from knowing that the souls whose true affections brought them there deserved their fate. As in the case of Dante's Inferno, there is a hint of sadism in Swedenborg's account of the punishments inflicted on the damned, even if, as he maintained, punished and punisher are the same. Ordure, vomit, unspeakable stenches, insatiable desires, gnawing hungers, interminable darkness, the constant harangue of petty, bickering souls await hell's inmates. "In some hells," Swedenborg tells us, "one can see something like the rubble of homes or cities after a great fire . . . In milder hells, one sees tumble-down huts, crowded together . . . Within the houses are hellish spirits, constant brawls, hostilities, beatings . . .There are robberies and hold-ups in the street . . . In some hells there are nothing but brothels that look disgusting and are full of all kinds of filth and excrement." (Even granting that street crime was far worse in Swedenborg's day than in ours, it is surprising how reminiscent this description is of much of our own modern cities.)
There are other hells too. Forests filled with dangerous beasts, dark dank caves, arid wastes and other equally undesirable places await those who belong there. These and all the other unappetizing landscapes are the result of the choices the hellish souls have made in life and although Swedenborg's hell is unmistakably nasty, the damned suffer even more, if by chance the light of heaven falls on them. They belong in hell, and miss it if they are away from it. And in a sense, they existed there for some time before their deaths. Given that the hells Swedenborg describes are really reflections of the inner states of the souls who inhabit them, these unfortunates have carried their own, personal hell around with them for many years. And again, this is something we can find in our own experience. We all know what it is like to be consumed by envy, rage, lust, greed or any of the other hellish emotions. We know how easy it is to give way to these, and how difficult it is to resist them and our own justifications for them. To go to hell or not is a choice we make every day. Jean Paul Sartre may have famously believed that "hell is other people," but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he tells us, is ourselves.
This is true also of heaven which, to go by Swedenborg's description, is a state of almost unimaginable fulfilment. A reader first coming to Swedenborg's account of heaven may find it difficult to see this: what first strikes us is the description of heavenly houses, gardens, parks, and erotic relationships. Blake once complained that the accepted notion of heaven was of an "allegorical abode where existence hath never come," and one suspects that, having been a reader of Swedenborg, he knew better. Swedenborg's heaven is nothing if not substantial. It has the kind of corporality we find in some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of the afterlife, when mediums assured bereaved parents or spouses that their loved ones were enjoying themselves amidst a heavenly counterpart of their life on earth. In 1916, for instance, the scientist and paranormal investigator Sir Oliver Lodge published a book about his dead son. Raymond or Life And Death told its readers that "the other side" was not very different from our own world. There people wore white robes, could eat, smoke cigars, and even have a whisky and soda. Other accounts painted a similar picture. It was Swedenborg's "concrete" vision of heaven that the theologians of his time railed against; and even for readers who are sympathetic to his ideas, accounts of angels sharing meals or fulfilling their domestic duties can seem a bit much to swallow. For many, these accounts of angelic homes, clothes, and sexual activity seem a simple-minded transference of earthly life into a heavenly setting, where everything is just as it is here, only better.
Others, however, see it differently. Given Swedenborg's description, the higher worlds seem not so "other," and as far as our own lives are directed toward the good and the true, we can participate in their significance while here on earth. Yet the familiar setting afforded by Swedenborg's heaven is deceptive. There, things are not really the same as here. For one thing, time and space do not exist in heaven as they do on earth. Time there is not measured in days, weeks, or years, but in changes in state. "Regardless of the fact that everything in heaven happens in sequence and progresses the way things do in the world," Swedenborg tells us, "still angels have no concept of time."
Time in our world is measured by the sun's apparent progress around the earth, producing what we know as the seasons. But in heaven, the sun is different. It does not produce days and years, but changes of state. Time is so alien to the angels that eternity for them does not imply an infinite time, but an infinite state, the "timeless" condition described by mystics throughout the ages. Space is likewise absent in heaven. "In spite of the fact that everything in heaven seems to be in a place and in space just like things in the world," Swedenborg informs us, "angels have no concept or idea of place or space." To travel in the spiritual world is accomplished by changes of state. "All journeys in the spiritual world occur by means of changes of state of more inward things." "Being taken to worlds in space," Swedenborg says, "does not mean being taken or traveling in bodies, but in spirit. The spirit is guided through varying states of inner life, which appear to him like travels through space," a remark that sounds very similar to accounts of "spirit journeys" in shamanism. In heaven distances are measured not by physical location but by degrees of empathy. Spirits of like mind are near each other in heaven, whatever their "location." One beautiful way of expressing this is Swedenborg's claim that in heaven, no matter which way they turn, angels always face God, an insight that meant a great deal to the composer Arnold Schoenberg. In his unfinished oratorio Jacob's Ladder, Schoenberg, who came to Swedenborg via Balzac's novel Seraphita, has the angel Gabriel announce that: "Whether right, left, forward or backward, up or down -- one has to go on without asking what lies before or behind us."
There are in fact three heavens: the celestial, the spiritual, and the natural, each successively at a further distance from what Swedenborg calls "the Lord's Divine." Each participates to a greater or lesser degree in divine truth and love. Most ineffable is the celestial heaven, which participates directly in the will or intention of the Divine. The spiritual heaven participates in this less fully, but has an equal share of the divine understanding. The natural heaven, the lowest, has a small share in the divine discernment, and, by heavenly standards, very little of the divine intention. This arrangement makes clear that even in heaven, Swedenborg's notion of "degrees" holds sway. This gap between one heaven and another has real consequences; for instance, angels from one heaven cannot understand the language of those from the others, and if an angel from a lower heaven is brought into a higher one, the change in spiritual state is often too much to bear.
All of the heavens, and all of their many angels -- who, according to Swedenborg, are transformed human souls -- come together to form the Grand Man, the vast image of the Universal Human, which makes up the body of the universe. The effect of reading Swedenborg's account of heaven is of something like a double exposure. There are the often pedestrian descriptions of "life in heaven," but through the reports of angelic "day-to-day" activities, one catches glimpses of a vibrant, complex, radiant world, a kind of supernal mosaic whose parts infinitely reflect each other. It is a cliché by now to say that Swedenborg's vision is on a par with Dante's; but if it is, it is nevertheless true.
Copyright Gary Lachman 2012.