Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Rimbaud and Swedenborg — two of a kind?

The current issue of the Gay and Lesbian Review includes an interview with Edumund White about his new biography of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (right).

If you know Rimbaud’s work, you already know I’m a huge fan. The name of my blog, “Sacred Disorder,” is taken from a line in his long poem, “Une Saison en Enfer” (“A Season in Hell”). Rimbaud’s story is fascinating for many reasons, much of it outlined in the interview with White.

One rather incidental mention in the interview took me by surprise — the speculation that Emanuel Swedenborg’s work indirectly influenced Rimbaud, via Balzac and Baudelaire.

I grew up on the periphery of the Swedenborgian church. My father spent his childhood in Bryn Athyn, Pa., a community originally founded by members of that church. I was born there but my parents moved south soon after my birth, first to Charlotte and later to Atlanta. There was no Swedenborgian church in either city, so I got very little exposure to the religion, except during the few years we moved back to Bryn Athyn when I was about 11.

We did sometimes meet with other families in Charlotte and Atlanta to listen to tape recordings of services in Bryn Athyn. My father usually led these. Also, a minister of the church visited several times a year, like a circuit preacher, to conduct services and show us slide shows about the life of Jesus. But, for all practical purposes, I didn’t have most people’s exposure to religion and I’ve always thought that was mainly a good thing. I’ve seen many clients — gay ones in particular — whose lives were made miserable by religious upbringings.

Despite that, I have been continually amazed how often it turns out that writers and thinkers I admire have been influenced by Swedenborg. I think part of this is simply the fact that Swedenborg’s influence has been much broader than is popularly known, especially on the Romantics like Blake and Whitman. But he also turns up as a serious influence on favorites of mine like D.T. Suzuki, Jorge Borges and Jung. He influenced many others.

I’ve thought a good bit about why I end up drawn to writers who themselves were drawn to Swedenborg and I think it probably has to do with his so-called “language of correspondences” by which an “internal sense” of the Word [Bible]” emerges. This is something like a language of metaphors or mythopoetic exegesis — a poetic way of seeing the world. Indeed, it’s not unlike the way depth psychology approaches the psyche. Gaston Bachelard, another favorite of mine, put it this way: “The psyche’s reality is lived in the death of the literal.” I think Rimbaud is expressing much the same idea when he talks about the way “disorder” is essential to apprehending reality, as I’ve written in an earlier paper.

Swedenborg had other qualities that I think many of these writers admired. Principally, he was also a scientist — an important one — and he did not find the mystic’s path incompatible with empirical analysis.  This was also Jung’s position — and Freud’s if you substitute “artist’s path” for “mystic’s path.” (And Freud was Rimbaud’s contemporary.)  Also, Swedenborg was remarkably frank about sex; he wrote extensively about it.  (See Freud again.) And he understood the importance of dreams. (Ditto.)

I think it would be accurate to say that Swedenborg’s opus — of metaphors and myth, of visitations by angels, of tours of other worlds, of looking behind the seen world to the invisible, of attention to the body and its appetites and dreams — is consistent with James Hillman’s description of our task to sort through the “pandemonium of images,” a phrase he borrowed from Jung.

Still, it astonishes me every time I encounter Swedenborg’s name in the context of a favorite writer. But it’s also a good feeling, reminding me of the times I spent in Bryn Athyn, the happiest periods of my childhood.

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