For the next two weeks I am hunkering down to finish my paper for Theosophy and the Arts: Texts and Contexts of Modern Enchantment,a big hoopla happening at Columbia University (New York) in October. Beyond the Columbia presentation, the two subjects of my talk–Philangi Dasa and Ivan Agueli–are likely going to figure into a new book project I am cogitating over on conversion, Swedenborgian thought, and aesthetics. I have written on Dasa elsewhere, but Agueli is wholly new: in part to get a sense of the places that shaped his unique style of painting, we spent last weekend in the medieval city of Visby, on the island of Gotland, where Agueli returned to paint, again and again.

Visby is an other-worldly place; there is a palpable closeness of the medieval and pre-Christian past in Visby, a feeling of a different space of time and belief, just one street away, around the next crooked little bend-in-the-lane or behind another church ruin. Here is one of Agueli’s beautiful panoramas of the town that captures something about the light and the sea, the way the clouds pile and story-up above the blue-gray-silver.

Ivan Agueli -- Motiv från Visby II / Theme from Visby (1892)
Ivan Agueli, Motiv från Visby II / Theme from Visby (1892)

Though they look nothing like Agueli’s paintings, I was further struck by the so-called medieval “picture stones” in Visby’s museum — a collection of some of the many hundreds of old stones carved with Viking runes and symbols that once could be found all over the island (they used to be everywhere, most are now in museum collections, with something only like four or five still in-situ). No one is really sure what the geometric abstractions are supposed to represent, or symbolize – there is almost a psychedelic, spinning pin-wheel effect–and these designs are found only on Gotland.

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And, here is provisionally what I am slated to talk about at Columbia in a few weeks —

The 18th century theology of the Scandinavian scientist-turned mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) substantially impacted various 19th century occult and esoteric contexts that gave shape to the rise of Theosophy. From Arthur Conan Doyle hailing Swedenborg as the “the father for our new knowledge in supernal matters” in his History of Spiritualism (1926), to Helena Blavatsky claiming Swedenborg as “the greatest among modern seers” and (somewhat anachronistically) a “theosophist” in Isis Unveiled (1877), references to Swedenborg form a consistent, if variegated, pattern across the diverse tapestry of Theosophical writings. In general, Theosophists like Blavatsky downplayed or critiqued Swedenborg’s Christological framework—thus reiterating Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier mid-century complaint that Swedenborg’s primary vice was “his theological determinism”—while appropriating and adapting his doctrine of correspondences, and his micro and macro-cosmic analogies of the universe.

This paper delineates one strand of this influence through an exploration of how Swedenborg’s writings facilitated what might be called transcultural mysticism for artists affiliated with Theosophy, often in ways that dovetailed and intersected with Theosophy’s own religious syncretism. On the west coast of California, for example, in 1887, Philangi Dasa—an ex-Swedenborgian minister formerly named Herman Vetterling—began publishing The Buddhist Ray out of his simple shack in the mountains above Santa Cruz. A magazine “devoted to Buddhism in General and the Buddhism in Swedenborg in Particular,” as every issue announced, The Buddhist Ray stands as the first bona-fide Buddhist periodical to be published in North America. Prior to this, Dasa had published extensively on Swedenborg in Blavatsky and Olcott’s Theosophist journal (in at least seven different articles), before effectively “converting” to his self-identified form of Tibetan Buddhism.

If Dasa (and slightly later on, D.T. Suzuki, who wrote in Japanese about Swedenborg as a “Buddha of the North”) model how Swedenborg could readily translate into Buddhist eclecticism, a different set of coordinates is suggested by the trajectory of the erstwhile Theosophist painter Ivan Aguéli. The Swedish Aguéli (born John Gustaf Agelii) became associated with radical Theosophical and anarchist circles in Paris in the 1890’s; his private mystical experiences led to a lifelong reading and interest in his fellow countryman, Swedenborg, and ultimately, a conversion to Sufi mysticism (all the while retaining his abiding interest in Swedenborg’s writings). Aguéli’s innovative use of Swedenborg for doing interreligious comparative hermeneutics with Islamic medieval mystics, such as Ibn Arabi, critically anticipates the later pioneering work of Henry Corbin by fifty years.

With this complex intercultural, interreligious dynamic taking place, my paper tries to address several related questions: What was it about Swedenborgian ideas that could “ferry” figures across Theosophical currents into particular nonwestern religious traditions—Aguéli’s Islam or Dasa’s Buddhism? Why did Swedenborg’s theology, in both cases, facilitate conversions out of (or away from) Theosophical eclecticism? With Aguéli, what are the visual analogues to this process—the “corresponding” colors, to paraphrase Swedenborg, of his conversion?

Written by devinzuber

Associate Professor for American Studies, Religion, and Literature at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at Berkeley, California.

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