Tuesday, November 11, 1989

Location - FNCA 1986

For about two years now, I have had a rising interest in Swedenborg's biography, and my explorations in the copious supply of documentary evidence are changing my view of him as a person. During the past year, I have had the particular privelege of reading the manuscript of Wilson Van Dusen's forthcoming commentary on the Journal of Dreams, which I believe will be a major addition to our collateral literature.

Van Dusen's treatment of the dreams fits very well into the emerging picture of Swedenborg's character and development. The Journal was written in a "small octavo" memorandum book whose first pages are devoted to a diary of Swedenborg's travels on the Continent in the summer of 1743. There are ten such entries, the last truncated by the removal of several pages. The Journal proper begins with brief notes on the themes of seven dreams, followed by three brief comments on his general state of mind, two more extended comments of the same nature, and notes of the substance of three more dreams. This material is undated.

It is worth looking at this initial material to get an image of where the whole process started.

The themes of the first three dreams sound very pleasant.

Then, however, the mood changes completely.

Then it seems to change again.

The subsequent comments on his spiritual state are largely negative. They include such remarks as "How I set myself against the spirit," and " . . . but I was a long way from finding out my own unworthiness, or being grateful for mercies." They also note the beginnings of change. "How I found . . . that my interest, and self love in my work, had passed away," and "How the inclination to the other sex so suddenly ceased which had been my strongest passion."

The first two of the following undated dreams are negative in tone. In one, because of his opposition to the Holy Spirit, he is faced with hideous specters and an attacking beast, and in the next he finds himself struggling to crawl up a slope which an abyss beneath it. The last of these dreams is less traumatic. A woman lies down beside him, telling him that she is pure but that he smells ill. He concludes that this is his guardian angel, since "then began the temptation."

If we survey this material, it looks very much like a classic case of "good news and bad news." The good news comes first, then the bad news. We should also attend to the note of promise, however. "The king that gave away so precious thing in a peasant's cabin" is an effective image of the Lord's generosity and Swedenborg's poverty, and the man servant who wanted him to start on a journey is a clear harbinger of changes to come.

The dreams make most sense if we take seriously Swedenborg's comments about his own unregenerate state. Biographers have tended to play down the evidence for his "self love" in his work, but there is evidence that he had been, to put it bluntly, a rather pushy young man with a high opinion of his own abilities. For example, the usual procedure for appointment to the College of Mines was for the College itself to screen candidates and make a recommendation to the king, the candidates being individuals who had served in responsible positions just under its own level of authority. Swedenborg, through Polhelm, apparently bypassed this procedure, and his appointment was resented by the College.

In the same vein, there was a regular ladder of seniority within the College, and it was virtually routine that when there was a vacancy, the next in line filled it. On one occasion, Swedenborg petitioned the king for promotion to such an opening, and there was an immediate protest to the king from the individual who was in fact next in line. Or again,while I have neither the time nor the technical knowledge to go into it, it seems that Swedenborg's method for finding longtitude by the moon was not in fact workable, and that his formal proposal contained significant errors in calculation; this at least is the burden of a long and detailed critique by Celsius. Yet Swedenborg felt unfairly treated when it was rejected, and continued to try to find an audience for it.

To me, it is important that we not minimize such evidence, that we not try to make Swedenborg a lifelong saint. It is always necessary to face facts, of course, and the story is certainly no less impressive if we discover that this man shared a number of our own failings, acknowledged them squarely, and was enabled to overcome them. There is real self love in his work at this point, and he does smell ill.

Following the material just cited, the dreams are described in some detail; and interpretations, or tentative interpretations, are offered. In the time available, all I can do is to offer samples from the begining, middle, and end of the period, with some general comments about the rest.

The first dated entry is from the night of March 24-25, 1744, and consists of five dreams, the first three involving respectivly fear of being caught in a great machine, a lovely garden infested with insects, and an abyss. The fourth involved an acquaintance, and left Swedenborg baffled as to its meaning. The fifth will be our sample, and reads as follows.

Came into a magnificent room and spoke with a lady who was a court attendant; she wished to tell me something; then the queen entered, and went through into another apartment. It seemed to me it was the same that had represented our successor. I went out, for I was very meanly dressed, having just come off a journey; a long old overcoat without hat or wig. I wondered that she deigned to come after me. She said that a person had given to his mistress all the jewels; but he got them back in this manner; it was told to her that he had not given the best; then she threw the jewels away.

She asked me to come in again; but I excused myuself on the ground of being so shabbily dressed, and having no wig: I must first go home. She said it was of no consequence. It means that I should then write and begin the epilogue to the second part, to which I wished to put a prologue, but it is not needed. I did accordingly. What she related about the jewels means truths, which are revealed to a man, but are withdrawn again; for she was angry because she did not get all. I afterwards saw the jewels in hands, and a great ruby in the middle of them.

At this point in his life, Swedenborg was working on The Animal Kingdom, that vast projected work on the body as the domain of the soul of which he published only a fraction before turning to theology. He had begun to have experiences of photism-- of a "light in the mind" signalling a particular insight as true-- and to attend to such signals. He was convinced of the worth of this work, and apparently wholly unaware that he would not find the soul in this way.

I would note at this point that it is appropriate to interpret these dreams on at least two levels. Swedenborg tended to look immediately for the practical application at this point. He was deeply committed to his work on The Animal Kingdom. He regarded it as important to the survival of religion in an age of science. But this work is the external manifestation of deeper and more universal processes. I am reminded of the saying, "I love humanity: it's people that I can't stand." The general love of humanity needs to issue in particular love for specific humans. In the present instance, Swedenborg's concern for elegance in providing a prologue to the epilogue may well be a particular expression of a deeper sense of inadequacy.

In more general terms, then, we may take the women in Swedenborg's dreams as embodying his own affections, the "love side" of his nature. Here at the outset, these are distant but not threatening, and Swedenborg feels inadequate in their presence. This is wholly in keeping with his own self-evaluation concerning the self-love in his work, and his unexpected experience of the abatement of that love.

A little less that two weeks later, during the night of the Monday after Easter, he reports the vision in which Jesus held him in His bosom and asked about his bill of health. He was immensely moved by this, and because it left him "purified and protected through the whole night by the Holy Spirit," concluded that it was indeed genuine. He writes in conclusion,

I asked for grace, for having so long doubted of this, and also for having let it come into my thoughts to ask for a miracle, which I found was unbecoming. Thereupon I fell to prayer and asked only for grace. More than this I did not utter, yet afterwards I entreated and prayed to have love, which is Jesus Christ's work, and none of mine. Meantime, shudderings often went over me.

. . . .

I have now learned this in spiritual [things], that there is nothing for it but to humble oneself and to desire nothing else, and this with all humility, than the grace of Christ. I attempted of my own to get love, but this is arrogant; for when one has God's grace, one leaves oneself to Christ's good pleasure, and does according to his good pleasure. . . . The Holy Spirit taught me this; but I, with my foolish understanding, left out humility, which is the foundation of all.

There is no reason to doubt the depth of this experience or Swedenborg's sincerity in recording it. This was a private diary, whose existence was not even suspected during his lifetime. The message of the experience is perhaps the most fundamental of all, and we might wonder what else there is to learn. Yet we are not quite a quarter of the way into the Journal: there is a great deal to happen still.

For some time, the dreams seem to vacillate between violent threats and wonderful reassurances. As the month of April progresses, he has several dreams about women which are overtly sexual, sometimes involving failure and sometimes success. This is a distinct change from the remoteness of the queen noted above, and provides appropriate images of the emotional upheaval he is involved in. He is no longer the detached researcher and writer. He is conscious of grace and of his need of love, but this has not yet been worked through or integrated into his everyday life.

From the middle of the process, I would select a dream from the night of April 21-22, which is described as follows.

And there was a large dog that got under the bed where I lay and licked me on the neck. I was afraid he would bite me, but nothing of the kind occurred, and it was said he would not bite me. Signifies the double thoughts I had, and that I was barred from thinking on holy things.

Having "double thoughts" is elsewhere described as being unable to think about anything without immediately having its opposite come to mind. What I would focus on in this dream is its vivid ambivalence. It portrays a sense of frightening vulnerability, lying there with a large dog at one's neck; and it cannot be completely reassuring that the dog has not yet decided to bite, or that a voice says that it will not. Late in his life, Swedenborg warned his friend Carl Robsahm that insanity could result if one "from his natural man and by his own speculations tries to fathom heavenly things which transcend his comprehension" (Tafel Doc's. I, 34). At point of this dream, Swedenborg is being kept safe, but there is still a very real danger.

Before turning to the close of the Journal, I would note briefly that four months later, in August, Swedenborg had a dream in which a dog ran toward him but did not hurt him, and showed the dog to another that was sitting beside him. There is still an indication of some danger, but Swedenborg is apparently in control of the situation.

The last dream I would look at is from the night of October 26-27.

When I went with my friend through a long passage, a pretty girl came and fell into his arms and as it were sobbed. I asked if she knew him. She did not answer. I took her from him and led her by the arm. It was my other work to which she addressed herself and from which I took her in this way.

This represents a complete change. By fairly routine correspondence, his affections are no longer threatening in the least. They are "pretty," but they have been misplaced; and perhaps most important, he is redirecting them to a new work in which, we may presume, they will find fulfilment.

The closing pages of the Journal are not without negative material, but the affirmative is clearly beginning to dominate. The last dream recorded involves a single image-- "It seemed that a rocket burst over me spreading a number of sparkles of lovely fire. Love for what is high, perhaps."

There is a dating problem with this dream, incidentally. The previous entry is dated October 26-27, this one May 11-13, the translator having put the word "May" in square brackets with a question mark to indicate difficulty with the manuscript. I find it unlikely, though not impossible, that Swedenborg picked up the ┼4Journal┼5 after having left in unused for more than six months, made a few brief entries, and then set it aside again.

It would be well before concluding to take brief note of what happened after the time covered by the Journal. On Easter 1745, a year after the initial Christ vision, Swedenborg had the experience which he later described to Robsahm as his actual commission to expound the spiritual meaning of the Word. That was the night, he told his friend, on which the spiritual world was first opened to him so that he had open conversation with angels and spirits. It led to a period in which he went back to work at the College of Mines, but dropped his work on The Animal Kingdom and instead embarked on an apparently intensive program of Biblical study.

During this time, the role of the Journal of Dreams was taken over by The Spiritual Diary, and a considerable amount of time was given to drafting the commentary on Scripture which has been posthumously published under the title, The Word Explained. Both of these show a good deal of uncertainly. We find him sometimes groping for interpretations, sometimes unsure of how to express what he has discovered. There was still a learning process going on, a process which will result in the assurance we finally find in Arcana Coelestia.

Let me conclude, then, with a kind of summary. At the beginning of the Journal of Dreams, I would see Swedenborg as a very capable, hard-working man with a rather high estimate of his own ability and worth-- an estimate with some very real evidence to support it. I would not see him as young and arrogant (he is after all fifty-five years old), but he is brilliant and successful and he knows it. He is probably not a demonstrative person, though there is evidence from late in his life that he had a bit of a temper. He has begun to have paranormal experiences, and he has paid attention to them.

This last point I think is important. Most of us have at least occasional dreams that we remember. Swedenborg paid attention to his. He not only tried to discern what they meant, he acted on his interpretations, as he had heeded and acted upon the moments of photism that preceded them. This led him into a period of intense and dramatic inner struggle, a coming to terms with his own hidden fears and loves, that eventually left him ready for the even deeper experiences of open communication with the spiritual world. If this does nothing else for us, it should help us to read the word "spiritual" with more meaning than we usually do, recognizing for example that when Swedenborg writes of "the spiritual sense of the Word," he is not referring to something abstract and intellectual, but something immensely powerful and profoundly moving.

-- FootNotes --

1. Dreamed of my youth and the Gustavian family.

2. In Venice, of the beautiful palace.

3. In Sweden, of the white expanse of heaven.

4. In Leipsic, of one that lay in boiling water.

5. Of one that tumbled with a chain down into the deep.

6. Of the king that gave away so precious a thing in a peasant's cabin.

7. Of the man servant that wished me to go away on my travels.

contact phil at for any problems or comments