Two weeks ago I was at the University of Erfurt (Germany) as part of an all-Swedenborg panel at the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). It was an invigorating and thought-stimulating group of presentations, with probably over twenty people in attendance at our particular session, with nary an empty chair available in the classroom.
Jane Williams-Hogan (Bryn Athyn College) began the session with a provocative talk continuing her idea about “the charisma of the book” in Swedenborg’s writings, and how this textual charisma functioned as an agent of (re)enchantment for a number of artists and writers facing the “iron cage” of secular modernity (in Max Weber’s sense of this process). Her talk touched on the different relationships to reading Swedenborg exhibited by George Inness, Jose Luis Borges, and Helen Keller.
Bernhard Lang (University of Paderborn, Germany) then talked about the textual evidence and arguments for locating Swedenborgian eschatology in Charles Dickens’ most famous story, A Christmas Carol—Lang began by discussing a well-known letter Dickens sent to the London Swedenborg Society acknowledging their gift of a copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (Swedenborg’s perennial nineteenth-century “best-seller”), with Dickens’ promise to read the book soon. Did he or didn’t he? Lang—the “historian of heaven,” a renowned expert in cultural representations of the afterlife—presented a convincing argument for why and how A Christmas Carol contains Swedenborgian echoes and refractions.
Tiine Mahlamäki (University of Turku, Finland) opened new insights for me on the life and work of Kersti Bergroth, a prolific Finnish novelist and playwrite who Tiine is currently writing a biography of. I knew nothing about Bergroth prior to Tiine’s talk, and was fascinated to learn how Bergroth’s novel, The Living and the Dead (1945) used familiar Swedenborgian-topois of a doctrine of correspondences, a world divided into spiritual and natural realms, and communication with spirits. Bergroth came to Swedenborg vis-à-vis Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy, and it was really surprising to see a theosophical fiction, tinged with Swedenborgian hues, appearing as late as the end of World War Two – elsewhere in Europe and the United States, the heyday of Theosophy and Anthroposophy tended to be much earlier in the 20th century.
My talk rounded out the session, and I tested out a hypothesis for a typology of four kinds of reception of Swedenborg in the nineteenth century, giving special attention to a category of writers and artists who read Swedenborg literarily (not literally), as a titan of world literature. For Emerson, for Henry James Sr, for August Strindberg (among others), I argued, Swedenborgian theology was transposed into projects of literary re-enchantment, whereby the aesthetic became endowed with a spiritual authority that many such figures felt could no longer be maintained or held by organized religion. Not quite Matthew Arnold’s nineteenth-century “replacement thesis” (the idea that poetry must replace religion), nor a literary place-holder for some kind of inchoate “spiritual-but-not-religious” fuzziness, I argued that these writers appropriating Swedenborg in this way typified some of the remarks that have been made by Colin Jager and other literary critics who have responded to the critiques of secularism made by Charles Taylor: that literature in the nineteenth century operated as a kind of third space, in-between the forces of secularism and institutional religion. Literature’s aesthetic ambiguities and imaginative deferrals allowed it to be neither wholly secular, nor a replacement for religion, but “able to stand within and beside both categories” (Jager) of religion and the secular simultaneously. In particular, it was the lubricity of Swedenborg’s correspondence theory that enhanced the enchanting ambiguity of poetic language in this regard. Completely unintentionally, my discussion of (re)enchantment provided a nice full-circle, back to Jane Williams-Hogan’s use of Weberian disenchantment at the start of the session.
All the talks aside, it was great to be in an epicenter of the Reformation, and to think of the ways Swedenborg himself would later ride out the ripple-effects of events that began percolating here, in the head of a young Martin Luther, as he went to the same university our conference took place at, and walked the self-same stone steps of the Cathedral as a young monk.