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Saturday, April 18, 2009

this beatitude comes in terror


It would be impossible to film this. It would be impossible that is to score the film to a proper time. There is the rhythm of time given by the historian, with its units – “the age”, for instance – of varying duration in which the content somehow determines the boundaries of the unit, and there is the real time, which opens up, upon being represented, to an audience who must trade their own real time for it, and there is slow mo and fastforward, which operate on the object of representation, the film, to create a difference in the content that picks up things unseen in real time.

This is a site and an occurrence. The site is London in the eighteenth century – a time cue. Three things happen. One, William Hogarth publishes The Four Stages of Cruelty in 1751. It is another of Hogarth’s series of etchings, this one depicting Tom Nero’s inevitable ascent into murder. The first of the etchings depicts acts of cruelty to animals. The Tate has a succinct description of the etching: “The worst abuse is being inflicted by Nero, who pushes an arrow into the anus of a terrified dog being restrained by two other boys. Another youth is distressed by what Nero is doing and attempts to stop him by offering a tart. To the left of Nero, a boy draws a hanged man on the wall and points at him, underlining the inevitable: that Nero’s behaviour will deteriorate further and cost him his life.” Lichtenberg will write about these etchings. So will Kant, in his most extended consideration of animals as the Analoga of humans in the lectures on moral philosophy, where he writes, for instance, that “when, for example, a dog has long served his master truly, so that is the analogon of service [Verdienstes]; for this reason I must reward it and sustain the dog until the end, when it can no longer serve.”



Two, in 1745 or thereabouts, in Princess Street, Emmanuel Swedenborg has his first vision. This post is about that vision… But wait…

Third event, if we want to call these things events: John Long publishes his book, John Long’s Voyages and Travels in the Years 1768-1788 in 1791, and in one paragraph, he quietly introduces a new word into the English language:

“One part of the religious superstition of the savages consists in each of them having his totem, or favorite spirit, which he believes watches over him. This totem, they conceive, assumes the shape of some beast or other, and therefore they never kill, hunt or eat the animal whose form they think this totem bears.”

Explaining this savage belief, Long delves into civilized history:

‘This idea of destiny, or, if I may be allowed the phrase, “totemism”, however strange, is not confined to the savages; many instances might be adduced from history to prove how strong these impressions have been on minds above the vulgar and unlearned. For instance one in the history of the private life of Louis XV, translated by Justamond; among some particulars of the life of the famous Samuel Bernard, the Jew banker of the court of France, he says that he was superstitious as the people of his nation are, and had a black hen to which he thought his destiny was attached; he had the greatest care taken on her, and the loss of this fowl was, in fact, the period of his own existence, in January, 1739.” (112)

Long himself was assigned a totem, the Beaver. It was tattooed on his body.

So, let us turn to Swedenborg. Two totemic quotes, incised in this non-space, to begin with:

It often happened to me subsequently, he said, to have the eyes of my spirit open, to see in full daylight what happens in the other world, and to converse with angels and spirits like I speeka with men.
- Jacques Matter, 79

This path is difficult, secret and beset with terror. The ancients called it ecstasy or absence,- a getting out of their bodies to think. All religious history contains traces of the trance of saints,- a beatitude, but without any sign of joy; earnest, solitary, even sad; "the flight," Plotinus called it, "of the alone to the alone"; Muesiz, the closing of the eyes,- whence our word, Mystic. The trances of Socrates, Plotinus, Porphyry, Behmen, Bunyan, Fox, Pascal, Guyon, Swedenborg, will readily come to mind. But what as readily comes to mind is the accompaniment of disease. This beatitude comes in terror, and with shocks to the mind of the receiver. – Emerson, Swedenborg, the mystic

Swedenborg was the son of a bishop, an expert on metals (just as Newton worked at the Royal English mint , Swedenborg was apparently called in by the Swedish treasury to work on the silver purity of the coins), and a general polymath. Long after his death, his posthumous papers on the brain were published. Together with the Animal Kingdom, a book he published in the 1740s, these, according to Charles Gross, in his history of the neuroscience of vision, show that somehow, Swedenborg made certain deductions about the division of labor of the brain that were amazingly prescient. He not only suggested the existence of neurons, but made a number of pronouncements that were confirmed only much later:

Swedenborg’s view of the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid was not surpassed until the work of Magendie, a 100 [sic] years later. He was the first to implicate the colliculi in vision, and in fact the only one until Flourens in the nineteenth century. He suggested that a function of the corpus callosum wasw for “the hemispheres to intercommunicate with each other.” He proposed that a function fo the corpus striatum was to take over motor control from the cortex when a movement became a familiar habit or “second Nature.”


This is all the more remarkable in that Swedenborg seems not to have dissected or at least experimented himself. It has been speculated that he observed Pourfour du Petit’s experiments on dogs in Paris. But there is no hard evidence for this. (128-129)

What we do know is this. Swedenborg, at some point in the 1740s, traveled to London. Being a wealthy and famous savant, honored in Sweden with a seat in the Parliament, his travels were always apparently punctuated with visits to other savants and important people. This is what he told a director of the bank of Sweden. He had come back to his lodgings for the night. He ate with a great appetite that evening. Then, he experienced a disconcerting thing. His apartment seemed to fill with fog. The floor seemed suddenly covered with reptiles. “I was all the more taken by the fact that the obscurity kept getting thicker. However, soon it thinned out, and I saw, distinctly, a man sitting in one of the corners of the apartment at the center of a lively and radiant light. The reptiles had disappeared with the shadows. I was alone, and you can imagine my horror when I heard him, the man, in the kind of tone that would inspire terror, pronounce these words: Don’t eat so much. At these words, my view was clouded again. Little by little it came back, and I saw myself alone in my apartment.” (63)

Now, it is easy to understand the terror. If this happens to me tonight, I will be a raving lunatic tomorrow. But why the words, don’t eat so much?

It is a very strange way to enter into the numerous heavens and hells that surround us, and through which Swedenborg was able to communicate, like some kind of code going through the corpus callosum.

It wasn’t until the next day, when the man reappeared again, that he explained that he was god, and that Swedenborg was his man for writing down the proverbs of heaven and hell.

“Don’t eat so much.” The sentence seems to come out of Gogol, or Kafka. That it is in the highest degree banal, and in the highest degree terrifying – that it seems to attach to no symbolic system (though Matter does try to find one), is what makes it so uncanny; this is the tyrant’s banality, which the courtier endlessly interprets. It is like the story about Potemkin with which Benjamin introduces his essay on Kafka. In that story, Potemkin is in one of his depressed states, confined to his room, and won’t sign any paperwork. The council, meeting in an antechamber to his room, is in an uproar, when a lesser functionary, Shuvalkin, tells them he will easily set things right. He takes the papers and boldly goes into Potemkin’s room, sees the great man sitting in the half darkness, biting his nails in a threadworn sleeping outfit, and presents the papers to him for signature:

“Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign – first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councilors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again, Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One document after the other was signed Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin.” (795)


The devil is in the banal, and the devil may be the Lord. Such is the rule of ambiguity in the great cosmic tyrannies. Indeed, Swedenborg’s journeys through heaven and hell have that same mix of the celestial and the utterly banal, from what I have read of them. The law of analogies is unfolded without any more to do than Swedenborg took in unfolding the laws of the brain. One wonders whether, in fact, after all, perhaps Swedenborg’s analogies were all travels in the brain… the brain… the brain…

But to our donkey business. As is well known, Swedenborg believed that we are all doubled – our images exist in another realm, and their images are us. He could converse with those images. But there is a twist to his belief. There are three heavens, but every heaven corresponds to a part of the human body. And every part of the human body is a society of angels. We know what part of the body this society is by its position in regard to other societies of angels. In a sense, this is a vast fractal, the body composed of self-resembling bodies, and so on to infinity. The substance of these bodies seem to be a sort of entelechy of affection, and affection connects man, beast and plant. What distinguishes man and beast and beast and animal in this scheme is not reason, but degrees of affection, with man being closer to the center – God – and plants being further out.

Although this retains the traditional hierarchy, it retains it in a much different way than Kant. In fact, it is similar to Mary Douglas’ notion of how meals gain their meaning – “ The smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal – or the meanest meal. The perspective created by these repetitive analogies invests the individual meal with additional meanings. Here we have the principle we were seeking, the intensifier of meaning, the selection principle. A meal stays in the category of a meal only insofar as it carries this structure which allows the part to recall the whole. “ (1972, 67)

Enough and too much for today!

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