This article is about the value of Swedenborg writing’s for the purpose of mentoring and healing those who have suffered crisis and depression. This article may especially be useful for those who struggle with intellectual pride and a love-hate relationship with God. In my own experience Swedenborg was like a ‘life boat’ that helped my mind and soul to heal after a deeply traumatic experience in a cult. I may include a follow up article to this which describes my own experience of healing with Swedenborg. It is little known that Swedenborg had a big effect on many major figures in literary history, such as Coolridge, Gothe, Kant, Emerson, Henry James the elder and his sons, Whitman, and many others. In this article, I will examine the influence he had on August Strindberg, who had a deep disturbance in his mind that reading Swedenborg helped to heal. (Henry James the elder also had a deep disturbance that Swedenborg healed, which is a fascinating story, but that will have to be a separate article).
Strindberg is a fascinating case in the history of people who became followers of Swedenborg. On the surface the two are strange bedfellows. Strindberg was a national hero in Sweden known as a genius who was the ‘standard bearer of the school of decadent realism’.
Strindberg was brought up in a thoroughly Lutheran home by his parents and schooling. As a young man he was religiously committed and even preached in the pulpit with permission, but his family life is generally characterized as gloomy and unhappy; he was never really understood by his family. He was very knowledgeable about the Bible and the undercurrent of his life was deeply influenced by the dogma of sin (Bergquist, 61-62).
He was noted for religious brooding and cynical frankness, and this tendency stayed with him to a degree for most of his life. He was a very sensitive man who excelled in science and literature. He became prominent as a dramatist and in this capacity possessed brilliant originality and a satirical wit. He tended to rail against the ruling forces in his social and moral world, hoping to better society, but was criticized for not offering tangible solutions for the conditions he condemned. For a time, he supported socialism and atheism, but later rejected these.
In his autobiographical book, Inferno, Strindberg tells how he entered a period in his life where he was tormented by dreams and evil forces. He loathes himself as a sinner due to real or perceived transgressions against women, family, and friends. He suffers a dark struggle with spirits and in his dreams, and can find no peace, no safe place to land.
For a time he dedicates himself to the study of alchemy. As did the philosophy of Alchemy, Strindberg seeks a fundamental belief in the unity of the material and the spiritual worlds. He believes he can discover the process to turn lead into gold, because even in the material he believes there is an inherent kind of life, a sort of marriage that allows the material to transmute its lower nature (Bergquist, 63). When his experiments fail he turns to an occult way of thinking, looking for signs and omens in small details.
In 1995 Strindberg suffered an acute spiritual crisis, in which his sense of being assaulted, and deserving to suffer was intense. For instance, he imagined, in a delusional way, that he was being persecuted by feminists (Campbell, 108). This is because at several points in his career he railed against women, even using Swedenborg’s idea of correspondence to claim that women represented ‘self-love’. He also imagined, with little basis, that the novelist, Prsybyszevski, who had married his mistress, was stalking him. He was convinced Prsybyszevski was crazy with revenge and wanted to kill him. He also writes of being tormented by an electric current at 2:00 in the morning many times during his two-year crisis (Campbell, 109-110). But the primary source of his sufferings was from what he called demons and invisible beings. Night after night he was tormented and could not sleep because of these nocturnal battles, from which he felt much abused. There are many examples of this in his autobiographical writings; here is one from Inferno:
As I opened the door of my room I could sense that it was occupied by living and hostile beings. The room was full of them, and it was like fighting my way through a crowd to reach my bed, upon which, resigned and resolved to die, I eventually collapsed. But at the supreme moment, when the invisible vulture was finally squeezing the breath from me with his talons, someone tore me from the bed where I lay, and the furies began to harry me all over again. Vanquished, routed, beaten to my knees, I quit the battlefield and felt myself weakening in this ill matched struggle against the invisible powers (Strindberg, 247).
In Paris he associated with occultist, spiritist and quasi-scientific friends. Intellectually, he and his associates tried to prove the essential unity in the cosmos. These quasy-scientific efforts were primarily contemplations of the imagination. He spent much of his talent seeking to find a sense of unity in the universe by his scientific, alchemical, and occult work, yet he also spent much thought railing against religion, natural science, and authority in general. These were genuine explorations of truth, but also served as elaborate distractions from dealing with his internal self. His aggravated and intellectual rejection of the moral structure of society, overlaid on his own deep sense of sin, caused a distancing from the foundation of his being. It seems this void opened the door to spirits, which so abused his sensitive nature. He was at a loss at how to deal with his problem and suffered terribly. (Stockenstrom, 62-63).
Strindberg’s, The Occult Diary, is comparable to Swedenborg’s Dream Diary, in that both chronicle disturbing dreams and encounters with hellish spirits. But there are important differences. Swedenborg’s objective was to interpret and find the meaning in his dreams, for the sake of regeneration. He does not believe that dreams are actual, but that they are symbolic and influenced by spirits. (He also of course had many wonderful experiences recorded in his Journal of Dreams that encouraged him, some of which sound like spiritual ecstasy). Strindberg believed his encounters with hell were facts, and that they were confirmed by his observations and experience in external reality. Stockenstrom writes that “Swedenborg never seriously considered his experience in terms of madness”, while madness is an intense and real fear for Strindberg. As part of his effort to find relief Strindberg studied the symptoms of insanity in both medical and occult literature, and consulted physicians to assess his psychotic and suicidal thoughts (Stockenstrom, 63). Strindberg later writes extensively about his crisis in Inferno, Legends, and Jacob Wrestles, which are autobiographical works.
Strindberg first encounters Swedenborg in Balzac’s novel Seraphita, and writes of the novel, “Swedenborg is very important here…How great and wonderful it is” (Stockenstrom, 63). He next reads Heaven and Hell and is at first terrified by the depictions of hell because he fears that his torments are eternal. He begins to perceive that hell is used to bring people closer to God, and gains a glimpse of a new meaning of the grace and love of God. In 1897 Strindberg sees the value of Swedenborg’s writing and reads Arcane Celestia and the Spiritual Diary. He interprets his experience as a vastation, where there is ultimately a purpose for his suffering (Campbell, 269: Stockenstrom, 64). Strindberg scourers Swedenborg’s writings looking for corroboration and meaning in his experience. He found images and experiences everywhere in Swedenborg’s writing that gave meaning to the images in his visions. He recorded a great deal of these, some of which may be a stretch, but they have great meaning for his wearied psyche:
“I found all the enigmas of the proceeding two years explained in Arcana Celestia with such overwhelming precision of detail that I retain to this day, even though I am a child of the latter half of the 19th century, the unshakable conviction that hell does exist here on this Earth, and that I had just passed through it. For example.., Swedenborg also interpreted the meaning of the hundred water closets (toilets) I could see from the Hotel Orfila: they were the excrement hell” (Strindberg, 268).
All of this had an enormous healing effect on Strindberg’s mind. Strindberg lived in a chaotic world where he felt subject to invisible forces. He saw no purpose to his suffering and bitterly railed against it. He railed against his Lutheran heritage, and rejected ecclesiastic organizations as dogmatic, anachronistic and decadent. He often railed against the natural scientist as not having the answer either. In Swedenborg, he found a mentor who studied the spiritual world with scientific discipline, a trustworthy soul who expressed his observation with empirical precision. Strindberg began to look at the cosmos not as a fractured, chaotic place, but a place of order, that is founded on the Divine good of the Lord.
For Strindberg, Swedenborg was a lifeboat. Swedenborg’s ideas became the fundamental root of his thinking. He accepted that the power of good was the most powerful force in the universe, and even the actions of spirits and demons were a means to bringing about suffering for the sake of the good of his soul. In Inferno, Strindberg calls Swedenborg his ‘redeemer’, and throughout his books for the rest of his life he acknowledges himself as a disciple of the master. After his crisis Strindberg went on to write his greatest dramas, without which, he would not have been considered one of the greatest literally figures in Sweden, if not Norwegian history (Stockenstrom, 51).
Strindberg’s healing was gradual, and far from complete. It came fairly late in life (he died 15 years after the crisis), and he continued many of his mental habits. He never seemed to fully understand some of the internal meanings of Swedenborg’s theology. For instance he interprets Swedenborg’s description of hell as applying to life on earth, not understanding that it was also in the spiritual world. He also holds on to a belief in reincarnation, an interpretation he gleans from Origen and finds agreement to in Swedenborg’s writing, (which is not there). It was a long-standing trait of Strindberg’s character to expect suffering, and rail against authority; he never seemed to fully let go of these. For instance to the end of his life he held on to his repugnant anti-women views. Stockenstrom writes, “His subjective adherence to these theological and philosophical (his old beliefs) systems allowed him to continue to play hide-and-seek with the specter of personal guilt” (Stockenstrom, 64).
Strindberg’s greatest difficulty centered on giving up spiritual and intellectual pride. He is very honest about this, and it is a recurring theme for him. From his reading of Swedenborg over and over he comes to the conclusion that he must repent for his sins and his loathsome way of living and thinking. Upon realizing this in the same breath he counters with various intellectual considerations:
“By enlightening me as to the nature of the horrors I had met with during the previous year, Swedenborg had freed me from the electrical machines, the black magicians, the sorcerers, and from madness. He had pointed out my only road to salvation: to seek out the demons in their lair, inside myself, and to kill them by…repentance.
Repentance then! But did that not mean repudiating providence, which had chosen me as its scourge?
What can one do? Humble oneself? If you humble yourself before men you will awaken pride in them, because they will think themselves better than you. Humble yourself before God then! But it is an outrage to drag the Supreme Being down to the level of a plantation owner who must keep the whip hand over his slaves!” (Strindberg, 272-274).
Strindberg’s relationship to Swedenborg is intensely personal, and idiosyncratic. He describes himself in this way: “In certain ways, I am a Swedenborgian, but not according to Vera Christiana Religio, where the theology starts again”. But he felt compelled in the last three books of his life to prove the ‘axiom of God’s existence’, and describes these books as ‘a Swedenebogian fugue with preludes’. In these books he makes constant reference to Swedenborg’s authority, even though he doesn’t always agree. It is clear that Swedenborg’s influence extends to the foundation of his being (Stockenstrom, 69). In 1910 he writes to his friend, Nils Anderson, “It is only Swedenborg and the Bible that give me courage. It seems hopeless here in hell. As Origen understood, the world was created for the mortification of the wicked, who should torment each other forward to the cross” (Stockenstrom, 70).
In The Gothic Room, Strindberg has one of his characters explain: “You don’t read Swedenborg, but you receive him through grace, for he can only be understood by those who have similar experiences” (Strindberg, 259). While this statement is far from an exclusive truth, it underlines the significance of being ‘cracked open by experience’ so that we are receptive to spiritual truth.