Heaven and Hell are Conditions of the Soul: The Abiding Presence of Swedenborg in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges

Abstract by Dr William Rowlandson | Talk | 11 July 2013 | Swedenborg Hall, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1A 2TH | Free Admission | BOOK YOUR PLACES NOW

JORGE LUIS BORGES admired Swedenborg and wrote extensively about him, paying close attention to his otherworld journeys, communication with angels, demons and the discarnate souls of the dead; indeed the many mystical and anomalous features of Borges’ works are greatly influenced by his reading of Swedenborg. Borges repeatedly defended Swedenborg against charges of insanity, arguing that the man was remarkably lucid, that his accounts were the product of a profoundly intellectual mind, and that his voyages constituted journeys of discovery akin to Swedenborg’s Viking ancestors. ‘Swedenborg,’ wrote Borges, ‘is the first explorer of the other world. An explorer we should take seriously’. Whilst the reader of Swedenborg is presented with challenges to assumptions about life, death, angelic beings and the divine, the reader of Borges’ texts concerning Swedenborg is presented with an equally challenging set of questions concerning the relationship between fact and fiction, realism and fantasy, voyages of discovery and poetry, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Expanding this, it becomes clear that all of Borges’ writings concerning the ill-defined traditions of mysticism are characterized by equally puzzling questions of the nature of the real derived in large measure from Swedenborg’s works.

However, beyond the many references, and beyond the employment of Swedenborg in his critical reflections on mysticism, to what extent was Borges’ poetic and fictional aesthetic influenced by Swedenborg? In this presentation I concentrate on the narrative space of the tales and poems in order to investigate the abiding presence of Swedenborgian ideas of heavens and hells, the persistence of the soul after death, the landscape of the visionary world and the symbolic aspect of dreams. Importantly, and surprisingly given Borges’ seeming disdain for the moral aspect of theological works, I intuit in Borges’ work a strong ethical dimension that bears visible hallmarks of the heavenly ethos of Swedenborg, in particular, his strikingly Swedenborgian perspective that heavens and hells are states of the soul that surround us even in life, and that the ethical instinct within us encourages us to choose those pathways most appropriate to our moral state. The work of Borges, I argue, is most profoundly Swedenborgian. Further information

Borges, Swedenborg & Mysticism by Dr William Rowlandson (Peter Lang, 2013)