Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life & Death: Finishing School

Emanuel Swedenborg suggested, based on his visits to Heaven, Hell, and their vestibule, that we arrive intact into the spirit world. Being intact, he continued, it's quite natural that angels (and devils, too, I assume) have sex. Their offspring are souls, he explained, thus clearing up another mystery. If we accept his account, then what passes for reincarnation in other traditions becomes, plausibly, a kind of finishing school for the souls that arise in the spirit world. And although neither time nor space exist there, he also assured us, we can imagine that the souls incarnate here form a sort of cohort. This could explain the uncanny sense of familiarity we sometimes have on meeting someone new.

Swedenborg wrote that God loves every creature equally. God condemns no one to Hell, but people find their way there anyway, despite the best efforts of angels to dissuade them, attracted to a hellish existence by their love for it. Heaven is the same story. Just as the saved save themselves, the damned damn themselves, and God's love comes to appear to them as an intolerable light.

Part of Swedenborg's persistence as a thinker, despite the questionable nature of his tale, is the soundness of the underlying human psychology that he laid out. We may reject his account, but if Heaven and Hell exist, it's entirely likely that this is its dynamic. And while Emerson chided him for publishing a farfetched account of the souls on other planets, there is something inherently believable in his reports, which are set down in a deadpan style that reflects his long background as a government adviser and mining engineer.

If we take his account seriously, then our lives on earth provide the kind of leavening we get from travel or from a stint at a university or in prison. Perhaps they also reflect the hierarchies of Heaven and Hell - they're definitely there, Swedenborg reported, with each group of spirits finding its particular place in the pantheon or the hellish domains.

This suggests that the offspring of the downtrodden and oppressed among Hell's denizens may arrive here unsupported, succumbing prematurely or, less frequently, clawing their way into life, for better or for worse. Perhaps it's God's mercy to grant every new soul the opportunity to start anew, but not without the karma of parental transgressions. As in Heaven and Hell, so on earth, as the saying goes. 

Correspondence is Swedenborg's great theme. Whatever exists on earth has its spiritual cognate in Heaven or in Hell, he wrote. I think of this sometimes when I dip into George Gurdjieff's All and Everything, with its account of Beelzebub, an envoy of His Endlessness, as Gurdjieff styles God, exiled at one point in his career and sent to minister to our benighted planet, an adventure that he recounts later to his young grandson. Gurdjieff puts our planet in perspective by describing it as a backwater, subject to Heavenly interventions that, while well-intentioned, go seriously wrong, condemning its unfortunate three-brained creatures - that's us - to lives of neurosis and worse.

Like Swedenborg, Gurdjieff has his man visit the moon and other populated stopping points as he crosses the universe. The distinction between flesh and spirit is glossed over - when Beelzebub descends to earth, he does so as a man. For Gurdjieff as for Swedenborg, man is the measure of all things - Swedenborg even depicts Heaven as forming the body of the Lord, in whose image we are made.

Reading Swedenborg, who painted Hell as a very hellish place, I sometimes wonder if God's grace ever extends to this or that miscreant who sees the light sufficiently to climb out the darkness. Part of the Christian mystery is an insistence that life on earth is a one-way journey. In the spirit world, Swedenborg wrote, Hellish spirits appear ugly and misshapen to angels, although not to themselves - another instance of God's mercy. No one can dissemble there, he goes on to say, yet the demons can apparently dissemble to each other. Or at least can try to do so, and perhaps tolerate each other in this. Yet even they may eventually tire of the game. Is it really no exit, then? This has always struck me as a contradiction.

This gap year, this grand tour, this stint on earth is where we acquire the loves that carry us to Heaven or to Hell. Swedenborg made it clear that there's no escaping them, once acquired, even if the angels instruct us. We spend a certain time in the vestibule of Heaven and Hell, and then make our way, following our hearts. Just like here.