December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
On April 5, 1772, the author of The Wisdom of Angels Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom and Heaven and its Wonders, and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen was buried in three coffins, the innermost of soldered lead, in the vault of St George’s in the East, Princes Square, London – “an obscure little Swedish church in an East London slum”. When Blake and his wife Catherine attended the conference of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in 1789, the Swede was still at rest in his crypt. As J. V. Hultkrantz’s polemical study of Swedenborg’s bones (1910) emphasizes, it was in 1790 that the rot set in. In the early 1790s, as the Revolution Controversy gathered momentum, Swedenborgian ideas circulated as part of wider speculative discourses. Swedenborg’s emphasis on divine humanity, on the ossified dogmas and hypocrisies of established religion, and on an “internal millennium” that guaranteed access in the here and now to visions of Eternity, clearly boosted the intensity of radical debate.
Hultkrantz quotes two versions of the bizarre sepulchral events of 1790. According to Gustav Broling (who was there), Swedenborg’s coffin was opened “merely to satisfy the curiosity” of an “American physician” who had “hit upon the idea that a man so much associated with the spirit world . . . must have been removed thence in some extraordinary manner, and not have died and been buried like other human beings”. With the help of a prominent Swedenborgian, “a kind of burglary was made into the dwellings of the dead”, and the three coffins were opened. A grave game of Russian dolls disabused the American of his esoteric faith. When the lead coffin was broken into, “there issued forth such effluvia . . . that the candles went out, and all the observers were obliged to rush head over heels out of the burial vault”. As Broling wryly remarks, “What kind of philosophical considerations as to the materialism and correspondence of Swedenborgian spirits were now awakened in the American no one knows”. The church having been “fumigated with vinegar”, the harrowers of Heaven and Hell returned to gaze on the perfectly preserved body of Swedenborg.
Another version of the story tells how a Rosicrucian claimed that Swedenborg had discovered “an expensive elixir” of youth, and had “withdrawn to some other part of the world, causing a sham funeral to be performed to avoid discovery”. As with the physician, so with the Rosicrucian: mortal remains proved the vanity of arcane belief. Poor Swedenborg suffered the further indignity, it seems, of being exposed to prying eyes a few days later; this time, when the investigating officer, Robert Hindmarsh (publisher of the Swede’s writings) touched the dead man’s forehead, the flesh crumbled into dust, leaving the bones that would now begin their cultural journey. It can be suggested that Blake’s decision to make Swedenborg an angel at the tomb of Christ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–3), and his writings the (discarded) wrappings of the risen spiritual body, was motivated in part by his knowledge of the recent raids on Swedenborg’s tomb and of the materialist debate surrounding its contents. Moreover, the event gives contemporary edge to the design that accompanies Blake’s concerted assault, later in the same work, on Swedenborg as an unoriginal recycler of “all the old falsehoods”: a naked figure whose knee rests on “a skull of dead thought”, in David Erdman’s phrase.
The violations continued. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Kristie Muller