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Emanuel Swedenborg’s Lusthus and William Blake’s Universe 


Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and English polymath William Blake (1757-1827) share many things in common. In the first instance, the young Blake was a keen reader of the earliest translations of Swedenborg’s work: influenced by his spiritualism and vision of a divine love that would preside over a “New Jerusalem”, Blake produced a number of Swedenborg-inspired poems and prints, before turning his back on what he deemed the overly doctrinal nature of Britain’s New Church—a movement itself predicated upon Swedenborg’s radical biblical exegesis. In the second instance, both men are, coincidentally, subject of respective exhibitions, one at London’s Swedenborg House (until 5th April), the other at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (until 19th May). However, whereas Swedenborg’s singularity and enduring influence emanates, Blake’s undoubted visionary brilliance diminishes.  


Granted, the Fitzwilliam Museum has attempted to condense the ebullient mind of one of England’s greatest artists into some 180 paintings, prints, and drawings, spread across three or four rooms; and yet, that the exhibition should seemingly focus its energies on Blake’s contemporaries—hence its ambitious name, William Blake’s Universe, one supposes—overlooks the unique and vast totality of his visual and written art. Hung next to some 90 works by the likes of Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich, Blake becomes just another Romantic artist who, afflicted by the political and social upheavals of the age, seeks transcendence in solipsistic revery.  


The prophetic, otherworldly potency of his prints still astounds. Head of a Damned Soul (c.1789-1790) is particularly affecting, whilst some of his most iconic images are also present, such as Albion Angel Rose (1794-96) and Europe: A Prophecy (1794). No one is doubting Blake’s artistic vision. But by fixating on the historical context in which Blake was working, the exhibition scantly addresses the man himself, to the detriment of their thesis. Here, Blake is absent within his own nebulitic universe: the viewer is offered no central figure; the complexities of Blake’s response to the era are glossed over; and, indeed, the era itself is presented as a fixed, objective reality with little implication for the modern-day viewer.  Only one poem is presented from his literary masterpiece, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), namely the “The Little Black Boy”, upon which all-too-brief mention is made of the fact that Blake was an abolitionist who wrote in racist tropes. No mention is made at all, meanwhile, that Blake was a revolutionary radical who could still produce a troubling line like “One law for the lion & ox is oppression”. Why Blake, and why now?  

 



William Blake, Europe: A Prophecy, 1794; William Blake, Albion Angel’s Rose, 1794-96 


 

The title of Swedenborg’s Lusthus is comparatively esoteric next to Blake’s Universe. Though literally translated as “pleasure house”, lusthus is popularly translated as “summerhouse”: those rustic wood cabins lining the Nordic coastlines to which Scandinavian city dwellers sojourn in the summer. This modern appropriation, though, overlooks the lusthus’ genesis in the aristocratic formal garden of the 18th century. Indeed, described in 1766 as “a kind of temple in which [Swedenborg] often retired for contemplation”, it was this twelve-foot-square cabin at the end of his Stockholm garden that served as the site of Swedenborg’s visionary experiences and dialogues with the otherworld. The intimacy and radiance of such spaces are accordingly evoked in the exhibition through the photographs of Bridget Smith and Daniel Birnbaum, whilst the monochromatic, murky tones of Anonymous Bosch’s works elicit the otherworldly, if eery quality of the implications of Swedenborg’s work.  


Small the exhibition’s theme may seem. But the remarkable constellation of thinking behind the exhibition at Swedenborg House in London’s Bloomsbury is manifest in its excellent companion publication, described by editor Stephen McNeilly as “a kind of collage of tracings and visitations, a reconstructive palimpsest linking place and memory to the various forms of our re-imagining.” Bringing together commissioned texts by Deborah Levy, Chloe Aridjis, Iain Sinclair, and Ken Worpole, plus artworks and photographs by Arne Biornstad, Daniel Birnbaum, Anonymous Bosch, Bridget Smith, and Ben Wickey, this study manages to divulge the mind of one of Europe’s most distinctive thinkers, whilst providing a poignant reflection upon the interconnectedness of place and writing, realism and idealism, universalism and particularism. Swedenborg—and so much more—is found in the microcosm of his lusthus, whereas Blake is swamped amidst an incomplete rendering of his macrocosmic universe. 


Born in 1688, Emanuel Swedenborg’s early vocation as a successful scientist dovetailed with the expansion of a modern European worldview based upon reason, science, and material progress. But, in 1744, whilst travelling through the Netherlands, Swedenborg experienced a nocturnal vision of Christ and, henceforth, possessed the “gift of vision”, propagating spiritual revelations and controversial scriptural exegesis. Indeed, Swedenborg’s vision surpassed an ideal mysticism that had once been predicated upon rapture, Platonism, and ascent; rather, he disseminated prosaic accounts of communion with spirits through which he had been offered revelations concerning God, heaven and earth, the Last Judgement, and the afterlife. Swedenborg’s eschatological imagination thus put him at odds with a century that had imbibed Rationalism and Empiricism and increasingly beckoned the emergence of a secular post-religious order, erupting in the French Revolution in 1789. But, that Swedenborg’s standing amongst Enlightenment thinkers was damaged by Kant’s scathing Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766) did little to sully a reputation that continued to arouse fervent support during the decades after his death. Since, his lusthus—of which the original stands in Stockholm’s Skansen Museum, one replica in Stockholm’s Hornsgaten, and the other replica in the courtyard of Nya Kyrkans Församling in Stockholm—has become an object of pilgrimage and curiosity. Swedenborg’s Lusthus explores this legacy, whilst contemplating the connections between location, habitation, and our cognitive frameworks. 

 



Daniel Birnbaum, 2017, 2017; Anonymous Bosch, SPÖKSONATEN (GHOST SONATA), 2019 

 


That space and psyche are imbricated, and that their harmonious amalgamation might animate the creative potentials of the human mind, is an age-old idea popularised in the modern age by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), in which the delights of an ascetic, rural lifestyle are proselytised. Thoreau’s “hut philosophy” might be regarded as a peculiarly male phenomenon. His is a course followed by many: Wittgenstein’s cabin in Skjølden, Norway; Carl Jung’s lakeside getaway in Zurich; Heidegger’s Hütte in Todtnauberg, Germany; Orwell’s island retreat in the Hebrides, where he penned 1984. You might add suburbia’s “man cave” to this list. But women writers have also required a room of their own, from Christine de Pizan to Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf.  


Deborah Levy’s foreword to the book meditates upon her own integral experience writing in her London shed, a Parisian garret, and a Greek summerhouse: what it means to write in such proximity to nature and “see God in a squirrel or glimpse divine love in a lily”; what it means “to open oneself (like a mouth) and glimpse a vision for the future standing silently amongst the butterflies and nettles”; what it means to be “hospitable to the stranger dimensions of thought”.  


Ken Worpole’s “The Poetics of Small Spaces” and Stephen McNeilly’s “Concerning An Idea About Place” both lend credence to Levy’s musings. McNeilly’s title echoes Seamus Heaney’s The Place of Writing, in which he reflects upon Thoor Baylee, the fifteenth-century Norman keep in County Galway where W.B. Yeats lived and wrote—himself profoundly influenced by both Blake and Swedenborg. Here, Heaney speaks of how “the scene of writing” becomes a “locus of energy”.  


Meanwhile, Worpole’s title explicitly recalls Gaston Bachelard’s influential The Poetics of Space (1957), which applies phenomenology to architecture, and thereby reanimates Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Enlightenment practice that propounded against the Baroque style of elaborate architectural ornamentation in favour of a return to the fundamental requisites of lived space. Bachelard encourages us to find the immense in the most intimate, producing ever-relevant aphorisms such as, “[a] house allows the poet to inhabit the universe”, and, “[o]ur soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms’, we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves.”  Applied to Swedenborg, and we recognise that his lusthus is a simulacrum of his physical and textual presence, both embodying and structuring his oneiric, otherworldly thoughts.  


Such reflections are commonplace in a study that simultaneously manages to weave in the thoughts of Swedenborg himself. Chloe Aridjis’ short story, “Officina Typographica”, imagines a narrator-protagonist who works at Stockholm’s Skansen Museum as a costumed guide, where Swedenborg’s original lusthus is kept. Here, Aridjis’ fictional account of the pleasures of a life spent in this “great illusion, a vast phantasm of the past” contains some of the study’s lengthier quotations from Swedenborg, so that the man gains imminence and often frightening lucidity. We hear his conversations with spirits and his perception of “a representation of His quality, namely, that he dwelt in a long and, as it were, arched chamber, but of a green colour”; we also hear of the “fantasies, and ultimately insanities” which Swedenborg’s solitude exacerbated, and which have inevitably been yoked to his visions.  

 


Courtesy of Stephen McNeilly  

 


One of the things Swedenborg’s Lusthus does so well is to explore the cultural resonances of a man who influenced such a range of writers and thinkers. The list is extensive: William Blake, of course, but also Coleridge, Balzac, Baudelaire, Henry James, Carl Jung, D.T. Suzuki, Jorge Luis Borges. My favourite quotation from in the book is taken from Swedenborg’s Hieroglyphic Key (1744), in which he writes that we are “justified in believing that the whole world is filled with types, but we can understand very few of them”—in other words, objects are outward reflections of inner impulses, so that the world unfolds before us like a mutable, hieroglyphic text, giving temporality and spatiality to our thoughts and feelings. Some 170 years, Marcel Proust will describe reality as an “interior book of unknown signs” that it is his task to “translate” and “decipher”.  


Iain Sinclair’s extended account of his trip to Stockholm provides an expansive, if unique, “take” on Swedish culture, ranging from ABBA to Stockholm Syndrome. He is particularly good on Swedenborg’s counter-cultural influence on a largely rural country that arrived comparatively late to modernity, and which hung to its Lutheran Protestantism. Hilma af Klint, whose esoteric abstractions reflected her own interest in spiritualism, theosophy and, later, anthroposophy, spoke of abdicating control and painting the dictates of “The High Masters” in a manner redolent of Swedenborg’s own spiritual communion. Such “Powers” were equally central to the œuvre of August Strindberg (1849-1912), one of Sweden’s greatest novelists and playwrights. For much of his career, Strindberg maintained the Swedenborgian conviction that the connection between the transcendental and tangible realm was delineated through a sequence of “correspondences”, whereby everyday occurrences served as celestial messages that could only be deciphered by the enlightened poet.  


Sinclair goes on to attest that Ingmar Bergman’s films “[recomposed] Swedenborg’s afterlife with methods and attitudes derived from Strindberg.” Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) is well known for his interest in the mystic. His masterpiece, The Seventh Seal (1957) channels Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758), developing an expressionist allegory of existence and the potential for revelation through a vision that often subverts traditional Christian teaching. Meanwhile, the hypnagogic reveries of Wild Strawberries (1957) recall Swedenborg in more ways than one. Its original title, Smultronstället, literally means “the wild strawberry patch”, but idiomatically refers to a special, often covert place, that holds personal or sentimental value. Swedenborg’s lusthus is just that.  


In his study of Heidegger’s Hut (2006), Adam Scharr recognises the parochial connotations of the German philosopher’s rural getaway: it conjures the dark mythology of Waldeinsamkeit (“solitude in the forest”), and at least the medievalising pole of an otherwise mechanistic Nazi ideology to which Heidegger was an adherent and sometimes willing advocate. Hannah Arendt was just nineteen when she fell in love with Heidegger, a married man seventeen years her senior. She was also Jewish. After their four-year love affair ended, Arendt penned an allegory of Heidegger in his hut: like a fox who builds itself a trap, he cannot escape, and yet still insists on calling it home. Think Fantastic Mr. Fox. Such are the complexities of the solipsism that Swedenborg’s Lusthus seemingly advocates, and which undoubtedly resonate in our increasingly polarised age. One person’s rural hut may as well be the echo chamber of someone else’s digital chat room; alternatively, it is the wilful submission to those in the world with whom we most disagree. But, as Gaston Bachelard reminds us, “[a] lock is a psychological threshold”: in reality, all can cross that threshold, with or without a key, through violence or without. But that is not the point Bachelard is making. Rather, he cordially invites you into his little universe, so long as you can dream—so long as you can think the macro to his room’s microcosm. That room, however small, however remote, represents no more a cage than dreaming denotes escapism. To that extent, Swedenborg’s Lusthus, with its poignant account of its patron’s embodied visionary legacy, both recognises the human need for a centring datum that does not need to cast the other out. As Adam Scharr ends his study on Heidegger’s Hut, the challenge for all in the modern age is how that datum might be adapted—without exclusion—to the urban metropolis.  



By Tom Taylor 


 

William Blake’s Universe is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 19th May. Swedenborg’s Lusthus is at Swedenborg House, London, until 5th April 


The details of its companion publication, Swedenborg’s Lusthus (2024) are as follows:  


Contributors Chloe Aridjis, Arne Biornstad, Daniel Birnbaum, Anonymous Bosch, Deborah Levy, Stephen McNeilly, Iain Sinclair, Bridget Smith, Emanuel Swedenborg, Ben Wickey, Ken Worpole 

Editor Stephen McNeilly 

Publisher Swedenborg Society, London, February 2024 

ISBN 9780854482283 

Extent 325 pages 

Dimensions 229mm x 188mm 

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