Swedenborg and the Madness Question

Swedenborg winking?! Yes, this tongue-in-cheek photoshopping of a well-known Swedenborg portrait is effective P.R. for an upcoming exhibit of contemporary artists in England that are using the old question of whether or not Swedenborg went through a period of temporary insanity as an opportunity for artistic exploration. Click here for more info. on the show, which opens in London this upcoming Saturday, and yet again demonstrates how the artistic engagement with Swedenborg (be it his persona or his ideas), is not something relegated to the nineteenth century: that he continues to remain a point of interest for a number of contemporary artists.

The madness question came up in our readings–however briefly–for this week as well. Though there are certain provenance and reliability issues with the original testimony of Brockmer (who apparently witnessed Swedenborg running around naked in the muddy streets of London, and declaring himself to be the Messiah), as Smoley admits, some more recent scholars have given some weight to Brockmer’s original claims. Van Dusen’s explorations of hypnagogia and trance states–and how important these were for ES–also point out that there “is a high correlation between the content of psychotic hallucinations and trancelike material” (28). And Smoley also remarks how “psychiatry has come to recognize the ‘spiritual emergency’ as a unique psychological category in its own right…. In traditional cultures, this can produce ‘shamanic crises,’ in which the aspirant may feel he is being attacked by spirits or even disassembled and restructured” (23).

At any rate, the ambiguity around the 1744 incident has provoked a fascinating reverberation in contemporary art, 268 years later.

Comments are closed.