An excursion into the visionary worlds of Blake, Swedenborg, and Leonardo da Vinci. None of these great thinkers would have had any problems believing in a postmortem existence, given that they regarded death as a “continuation of life”.

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine,
it is stranger than we can imagine.” — Sir Arthur Eddington [1]

PART 1 : Weird Universe

Strange. Weird. Uncanny. Three sensational synonyms to lure us into the bizarre mind worlds of William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps they will help us to appreciate Hamlet’s observation to his friend Horatio that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy [2].

Eminent physicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), not content with saying that the universe was unimaginably strange, made the even stranger comment: “Something Unknown is doing something we don’t know what” [3]. Eddington was referring to “the Unknown God”, a conscious entity behind the physical universe—a universe so unimaginably strange that it is beyond the capacity of the human imagination to conceive it.

Both Blake and Swedenborg saw angels and communicated with them on a daily basis. This makes them pretty weird by all accounts. It’s all par for the course, however, in a universe that modern science itself, particularly quantum physics, admits is weirder than any universe that Galileo, Newton, or Darwin could possibly have conceived in their wildest dreams: a universe of virtual particles, dark matter, and extra dimensions in which physicists are creating lasers powerful enough to rip holes in the fabric of reality—a universe consisting of an infinite number of parallel worlds where something can appear out of nothing, where a cat (related to a Mr Schrödinger) can be both alive and dead at the same time, and where, according to the subtitle of a recent book written by two British scientists, “everything that can happen does happen“.

Here we have a multiverse so mindbogglingly strange that not only can time run backwards in it [4], but where those who died in the Holocaust in one universe did not in fact die in another parallel universe. In this particular universe we happen to inhabit, Hitler can indeed be said to have died in his bunker in 1945 after losing World War II. But in another parallel universe, Hitler apparently survived and triumphed—and the Third Reich won a spectacular victory over the Allies, with Churchill and Roosevelt coming to a sticky end.

Wild speculations? Conspiracy theory poppycock? I’m sorry, these are the inevitable corollaries of quantum physics in its most extreme manifestations.

The topics I am about to discuss—angels, demons, and the Cosmic Man as seen in the works of Swedenborg, Blake and Leonardo da Vinci—are small beer in comparison to the ideas outlined above. They are not even a nano-fraction as strange as the world of modern physics. So put your scepticism to one side for a moment and join me on this giddy-go-round of fascinating esoterica. It won’t be time wasted.

The World of William Blake

Take a step with me now into the minds of Blake and Swedenborg and savour their weirdness.  I will deal later with Leonardo who belongs in a different category, much more sober and scientifically advanced compared to any of his contemporaries.  Let’s begin with England’s most mystical poet and painter, William Blake.  Mull over these astonishing words—some would say ravings—and ask yourself, is this man stark raving mad? Either that, or he has eaten the same magic mushrooms as Hieronymus Bosch:

WILLIAM BLAKE:  An Angel came to me and said, O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity.

[H]e took me thro’ a stable & thro’ a church & down into the church vault at the end of which was a mill; thro’ the mill we went, and came to a cave. down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way till a void boundless as a nether sky appeared us, & we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity. I remained with him sitting in the twisted root of an oak, he was suspended in a fungus which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; & the air was full of them, & seemd composed of them; these are Devils. and are called Powers of the air.

My friend the Angel climb’d up from his station into the mill; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.

I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.

Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho’ it is only the Contents or Index of already publish’d books. Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods.

And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro’ his conceited notions. Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions.

Have now another plain fact: Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s. and from those of Dante or Shakespeare, an infinite number.

But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.

(Emphasis added and ellipses omitted)

Let’s treasure those memorable words: “A CANDLE IN SUNSHINE.”  The purport of Blake’s message is this:  all the scientific knowledge we have acquired since man invented the wheel is no more than a candle in sunshine. Human knowledge is a drop in an infinite ocean. It is the realm of the Known.  The rest of the ocean, stretching away infinitely beyond the reach of the human mind, is the Unknown and Unknowable.

Referring to the Unknown and the Unknowable, these modest words of Charles Darwin to his American friend Asa Gray strike a chord: “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

There will always be something God knows that no one else knows.

One cannot help wondering what the devoutly Christian Newton, who spent more time  on Biblical exegesis than he did on the scientific discoveries for which he is better known, would have made of Christ’s contradictory dictum: “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known.” [5]

Blake and the Doctrine of Salvation through Sex

Christian Rossetti (1830-1894), my favourite female poet, spent most of her life longing for heaven, sick to death of existence in this vale of tears. It can be said without exaggeration that Christina, like many Christian saints before her [6], regarded life on earth not so much as a complete waste of time but as a cross to be borne, a via dolorosa or sorrowful journey over rough terrain en route to one’s final destination in paradise. Let’s now consider what Miss Rossetti, chaste Victorian virgin with her head in the clouds all day, poring over the works of Plato and Dante, would have made of the bizarre visions of William Blake and his eccentric predecessor Emanuel Swedenborg.

The lovely Christina (pictured here) was a pious Anglican Christian who attended regular church services, as Darwin himself did for the first 40 years of his life. She would have completely rejected the heretical fringe Christianity of William Blake, a Christianity rooted in the esoteric teachings of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Though Blake launches a fierce attack on Swedenborg in the long passage quoted above, he was, paradoxically, a member of the Swedenborg Church in London.  If I mention Christina Rossetti and Darwin in the same breath as Blake and Swedenborg, it is not because I am straying from the point—it is simply to drive home the point that Christianity, like Hinduism and Buddhism, is, so to speak,  an extremely “broad church” accommodating within its ranks so many different sects and sub-sects that none would seem to have anything in common apart from a core religiosity that recognises the transcendence of the Logos — the idea that the universe, however incomprehensible, is rationally ordered and shows evidence of design and purpose. [7]

In a sense, Blake and Swedenborg were different sides of the same coin; and Blake’s paintings as well as his poetry were heavily dependent on the work of the Swedish mystic who had flourished in the previous century and died 15 years before Blake was born. (See Part 2 for more on Swedenborg).

Another reason Christina Rossetti would have run a mile if she’d ever been introduced to Blake, is that she was sexually inhibited to a fantastic degree, living the austere life of a nun, whereas Blake believed passionately in free love and tantric sex with multiple partners. Ecstatic sex was Blake’s entrance ticket to heaven on earth, and he advocated it openly as a way of union with God. Taking multiple concubines within marriage met with his full approval, as well as sexual threesomes in which his wife was theoretically welcome to partake as a blissful spectator—watching him sport with a nubile young beauty on an adjacent couch and achieve her own version of nirvana thereby.

Whether William Blake (1757-1827) actually practised what he preached is not clear, but he fervently advocated the most uninhibited sexuality. Had he been a Jew, he would almost certainly have been a disciple of Sabbatai Zevi , the self-proclaimed false Messiah of the Jews, who believed in salvation through sex.

Sabbatai Zevi (1627-1676)  was later denounced as a “manic-depressive” by Jewish academic philosopher Gershom Scholem who felt that Zevi was bringing Judaism into disrepute by his misguided attempt to spiritualise lust. It is doubtful if the sex-obsessed Blake, however, would have gone so far as to subscribe to the more extreme version of Zevi’s Sabbatianism, advocated by Zevi’s disciple Jacob Frank (1776-1791), who went on to preach “salvation through sin”. Far from regarding his sexual cavortings as “sinful”, Blake would have celebrated them as holy. He would have sung “Halleluiah!” every time he achieved an orgasm with an equally enthusiastic partner, both seeking divinity through sexual delight. As Adam and Eve wandered naked through the Earthly Paradise before the Fall, plucking fruit from the trees of Eden, they decided one day to pluck the Forbidden Fruit of sex. The rest we know.

According to Blake’s philosophy, Eve was right to listen to the wily Serpent; and Adam was equally right to succumb to her irresistible charms. This is the philosophy of tantric yoga, and it is also the philosophy underlying Sabbatianism. It is hedonism pushed to an extreme, in which sexual pleasure is seen as much more than a consolation for life’s inadequacies and becomes rather a sacred obligation leading to enlightenment and union with God.

Dangerous? Of course. That goes without saying. These toxic ideas, far from being dead relics of the past, swirl around us today like incandescent mind viruses. They have brought us to where we are right now: into  the midst of a roaring inferno. These edgy ideas, needless to say, would have been totally anathema to St Augustine with his doctrine of “concupiscence” — a technical term he was the first to use. [8]. They would have clashed with his basic core idea, on which orthodox Christianity is based, that Lust was the Original Sin (peccatum originale) of our First Parents, whether literally or allegorically, and that all subsequent generations are the products of primal lust, tainted even by the sanctioned sex of the marriage bed. Lust, according to Augustine, is the invariable concomitant of every act of sex; which would not be possible “without the ardor of lust”.  It is this self-evident proposition that makes man, in Augustine’s own words, “a lump of sin” — massa peccati.

“The problem,” according to a highly respected recent commentator on these ethico-theological minutiae, “is that even the most legitimate form of sexual intercourse—between a husband and wife mutually bent on engendering a child—is also corrupt. The current of sinfulness that courses through it is precisely the mechanism that carries the stain of evil from one generation to the next and infects the dreams of those most determined to keep themselves pure and chaste. Human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease.” [9]

From “Salvation Through Sex” to “Do What Thou Wilt”

It’s one small step from “salvation through sex” to anything goes.

Note that Jacob Frank’s bizarre doctrine of “salvation through sin”, later adopted by Aleister Crowley and his band of Satanists —”DO WHAT THOU WILT SHALL BE THE WHOLE OF THE LAW!—entered the dark stream of Judaism where it was  euphemistically known as  “purification through transgression.” [10]

One must take care not to be bamboozled by all of Blake’s seemingly sage pronouncements. Some of them frankly border on lunacy. What would you think of someone who advised you to strangle a baby in its cradle if you wished to experience an unforgettable high? Blake does this.  “It is better to strangle an infant in its cradle than to nurse an ungratified desire,” he advises us wackily. A doctrine that would certainly win plaudits from one class of criminal psychopath: the homicidal pedophile.

However silly you might consider such a maxim, Blake will attempt to silence you with the equally wacky maxim, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” to quote our eccentric seer again, but how many of us would choose to achieve wisdom through child murder?

“It is better to strangle an infant in the cradle
than to nurse an ungratified desire.” — William Blake

A word of caution. It can be plausibly argued that Blake did not intend his “Proverbs of Hell” to be taken seriously by the “children of light” but only by the “children of darkness”, the many deluded souls who belong, so to speak, to the Devil’s party.

One would have to be a full-fledged Satanist to believe that strangling babies is okay as a cure for depression and because it gives you a fantastic dopamine high. Blake himself admits that it is devils in hell who think like this, precisely because they are deluded and serve “the Father of Lies”; and humans, too, presumably, who have been infected by the same virus of diabolical evil.

“As I was walking among the fires of hell,” Blake recalls matter-of-factly, “I collected some of their Proverbs…” [11]

So that’s all right then.

Continued in Part 2 : We Are Meant To Be Here

Notes (Part 1)

[1] “The universe is not only stranger…” A sentence attributed also to English biologist J.B.S. Haldane and others,  (See here)

[2]  Hamlet to Horatio, Hamlet (1.5.167-8).

[3]  “Something Unknown…”. quoted in John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, Advanced Banter, Faber and Faber, 2008, p. 228

[4]  Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), noted for his contribution to quantum mechanics,  won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1965. He had much to say on time running backwards in different universes, producing elegant equations to propound his theories. (See James Gleick, Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics, 1992, index, time (reversibility), especially pp. 108-112, 118-20, 253-54, and 272-74)

[5]  Luke, 8:17

[6]  A passionately devout High Church Anglican, Christina Rossetti has now been honoured with a special feast day assigned to her on the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church (27 April).

[7]  ” . . . evidence of design and purpose.” See end of Part 2, the famous quote from the final paragraph of Professor Paul Davies’ ground-breaking book, The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (1992).

[8]  Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, The Bodley Head, London, 2017, p.108

[9]  “Human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease.” Stephen Greenblatt, ibid., pp. 107-108

[10]  Pawel Maciejko, The Frankist Movement in Poland, the Czech Lands, and Germany (1755–1816). Oxford University Press, 2003. (Cited in an excerpt from Gershom Scholem’s The Holiness of Sin).

[11]  John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, p.380