Kant’s Ghost: The Crooked Scales of Hope and Kant’s Attack on Emmanuel Swedenborg

“I do not find that any attachment or other inclination insinuated prior to examination has robbed my mind of its readiness to be guided by any kind of arguments, except one”, the Prussian Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in his attack on the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg:

The scale of reason is not, however, wholly impartial, and one of its arms, which bears the inscription “Hope for the Future,” has a mechanical advantage that causes even weak arguments that fall into the pan belonging to it to lift up the speculations that have a greater weight on the other side. This is the only inaccuracy that I cannot easily remove and that, in fact, I never want to remove.

While previous philosophers had delved a seemingly impassible chasm between the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal, even in his early writings the Königsberg professor sought some way to harmonize and unify them into a coherent world picture. To achieve this harmony it was necessary to demonstrate the errors of both base materialism and mystical idealism in order to demarcate the limits of human speculation.

However, as is apparent from statements such as that above, more than a refutation of materialism, it was the engagement with the mystical side of idealism, with its concurrent striving to engage in, and hope for, some future life that presented the most startling challenges to Kant’s balance between the phenomenal and noumenal. After all, that was the direction in which the scales themselves were admittedly rigged.

There is much to be learned about the development and direction of Kant’s thought from his stormy relationship to Swedenborg. The ridicule heaped up by Kant upon his contemporary belies a very serious difficulty he faced in attempting to distance the immortality and immateriality of the soul from the mystical or idealistic understanding of spirits. His ultimate answer to this was hope, a hope not found in experience, but in the realm of moral utility, or pure practical reason. Still, given the weight of moral or practical use in Kant’s philosophy, it is not immediately apparent why an investigation into the nature of spirits would provide nothing of value in considerations of the immateriality and immortality of the soul. From examining this position one learns a great deal about the Kantian definition of utility based on his earlier dismissal of spirits themselves as “useless”, as well as the moral utility of the soul’s immortality. In comparing these reasons we can begin to understand just how epistemologically threatening spirits could be to the subsequent balance of hope and experience, even as Kant could no more deny their rational possibility than the rational possibility of the immaterial soul he so wished to preserve.

The immortality of the soul stood alongside the existence of God and the freedom of the will as Kant’s three “proper” areas of metaphysical investigation. While unable to be demonstrated through syllogistic reasoning, because of the tendency of human thought to make errors of inference (paralogisms), we can be morally certain of them because they are postulates of pure practical reason. To understand how it is possible to be morally certain of something that is nevertheless indemonstrable, and how this relates to Kant’s rejection of spirits, we must first examine his reason for presenting the soul in this manner.

Rational Psychology was what Kant employed to set the limits of speculative reason in regards to the composition of the subjective self. In his own words it:

reminds us to regard this refusal of our reason to give an answer to those curious questions, which reach beyond this life, as reason’s hint that we should turn our self-knowledge away from fruitlessness and extravagant speculation toward fruitful practical uses, which, even if it is always directed only to objects of experience, takes its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience, and hence above this life.

In general, the soul was considered to be a simple substance; however, as Kant reminds us in space, and thus in experience, there is no substance that is simple. Even if there were some way to demonstrate this quality, it would nevertheless not be proof of immortality because of the logical possibility of the diminution of all simple substances into oblivion, thus: “the persistence of the soul, merely as an object of inner sense, remains unproved and even unprovable”. At best, all that can be gleaned from experience is the unity of consciousness that underlines cognition, but this is not a transcendental conception of the subject, nor do the principles of this subject come from some apparent “higher realm”. Instead, we must behave “as if” we took our moral principles from somewhere higher that implies, though can only ever imply, some future life. Rational psychology’s entire reason for being in the Kantian system is to explain why it is impossible to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, even as it hints towards this crucial principle of “as if”. Ultimately it is a kind of contradiction:

The problem of explaining the community of the soul with the body does not properly belong to the psychology that is here at issue, because it intends to prove the personality of the soul even outside this community (after death), and so it is transcendent in the proper sense, even though it concerns an object of experience, but only to the extent that it ceases to be an object of experience.

To demonstrate the immortality of the soul, in this regard, would by Kant’s definition be to show that which can not be shown. Yet he is clear that for this very same reason, the immortality of the soul cannot be so easily disproven. Indeed, the weight is on the side of the soul’s immateriality and immortality because despite the limitations of the understanding we live “as if” it were in fact a certainty.

It is instructive to note that just as rational psychology sets the limits of our understanding of the soul in experience, Kant counters the materialistic rejection of its immortality by appealing to quite a different limitation, that of the corporal body itself. In response to those who say that consciousness degrades alongside the degradation of the material mind and body, he claims:

You can weaken the power of this proof by assuming that our body is nothing but the fundamental appearance to which the entire faculty of sensibility and therewith all thinking are related, as their condition, in our present state (this life). Separation from the body would be the end of this sensible use of your cognitive power and the beginning of the intellectual.

Again it is space, as a category of understanding, which bars us from coming to any phenomenal conclusion. Yet here it is performing a different conceptual task, instead of challenging the notion of the simple, that which is not composed of any divisible parts, it argues from the perspective of the particular. That is to say, we can no more find evidence of the simple in experience as we can be sure that it may not in fact exist undetected in particulate beings, in this case the human animal, and by implication a kind of undetectable soul. However, at best such a defense is a mere heuristic exercise when compared to the demands placed upon us by pure practical reason, though it is important to keep in mind the balance of Kant’s argument.

Despite its indemonstrability in experience, Kant did in fact claim that he could be certain of the immortality of the soul. As he said:

this certainty of postulated possibility is not at all theoretical […;] it is not a necessity cognized with respect to the object but is, instead, an assumption necessary with respect to the subject’s observance of its objective but practical laws, hence merely a necessary hypothesis. I could find no better expression for this subjective but nevertheless unconditional rational necessity.

The conditions of the moral law that stand at the pinnacle of human worth, “to love God above all things and thy neighbour as thyself”, requires, a priori the three domains of metaphysics of which the immortality of the soul is one. The subjectively necessary, true and unconditional immortality of the soul causes Kant to dramatically personalize his position:

no one will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God and a future life; for if he knows that, then he is precisely the man I have long sought. All knowing (if it concerns an object of reason alone) can be communicated, and I would therefore also be able to hope to have my knowledge extended to such a wonderful degree by his instruction. No, the conviction is not logical but moral certainty, and, since it depends on subjective grounds (of moral disposition) I must not say ‘It is morally certain that there is a God,’ etc., but rather “I am morally certain’ etc. That is, the belief in a God and another world is so interwoven with my moral disposition that I am in as little danger of ever surrendering the former as I am worried that the latter can ever be torn away from me.

Moral certainty, in this case, is the ultimate “as if” in favour of the immortality of the soul, which has at its base the power of hope to bridge the gap between what is possible to understand in experience and what is possible to know through reason. In this exposition of personal certainty that goes beyond experience, but which nevertheless has the power to move him, as it were by force of the noumenal itself, there are echoes of his early encounter with another individual who did in fact claim a privileged access to this self-same noumenal realm: Swedenborg.

Kant published his work on Swedenborg, Dreams of a Spirit Seer, Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics in 1766, shortly before his famous “silent decade” in which he was to publish little until his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Writing in 1804 Kant’s friend and biographer Ludwig Ernst Borowski, commented that: “In general, every attentive reader finds already here the seeds of the Critique of Pure Reason and of that which Kant gave us in the future”. Thus it seems reasonable to investigate this text in order to gain a deeper insight into some potential tensions in Kant’s mature work.

Despite their admitted differences, there are also a number of striking similarities between the two thinkers, so much so that during his own lifetime Kant was concerned that their philosophies should be confused. He complained:

I have the misfortune that the testimony upon which I have stumbled and that bears such an uncommon likeness to my philosophical brainchild looks so desperately deformed and foolish that I would much sooner suppose the reader would, because of their affinity with such testimonies, regard my arguments as absurd rather than the reverse. Consequently, concerning such offensive comparisons, I bluntly state that I do not get the joke and declare in a nutshell that one either must suppose that there is more cleverness and truth in Schwedenberg’s [sic] writings than first appearances allow or that it is only by accident that his system coincides with mine, as poets sometimes prophesize when they rave, as one believes, or at least so they say, when they now and then coincide with what comes to pass.

Safe from accusations of materialism, it was a particular branch of idealistic mysticism in which Kant saw an apish image of himself. Yet what were these accidental ways in which Swedenborg’s system coincided with Kant’s that made it so offensive?

In Swedenborg’s system of morality we find that it is only through a good will, and not the execution of good acts, that one attains to a moral life, along with the intertwining of desire and thought itself, and the notion that the highest good for an individual is to love the “Lord above all things, and his neighbor as himself”. Likewise, while not used in exactly the same way, before Kant, Swedenborg was employing the language of the “kingdom of ends”, regnum finium to describe the ultimate value of human beings; however, with the added caveat that for him it was also associated with a “kingdom of uses and ends” that provided signatures in the phenomenal world that ultimately connected it to the noumenal in a way unimaginable in the Kantian system.

In both thinkers there was a developed sense of the limitations of human knowledge based on the structuring categories of understanding that were placed upon experience, yet for Swedenborg this would take on a notably different role, demonstrating, instead of refuting the possibility of some kind of encounter with the noumenal. As Kant understood it, for Swedenborg we can only perceive spiritual natures as filtered through our mental categories of understanding, and as such, do not see spirits-in-themselves, but only ever our representation of them. In this way Swedenborg’s account evaded several of Kant’s critiques of the impossibility of perceiving immaterial souls in space, since properly speaking, for both thinkers, souls, or spirits, did not occupy space at all. Instead, the “spiritual sense” was likened unto a category of understanding, though one not necessarily shared by all. This stands in a striking contrast to Kant’s mature position, not on the nature of spirits, but on how the understanding engages the material world through its structuring, universal categories. Instead, the problem with Swedenborg’s position here, for the young Kant, was that it was not useful. As he writes:

the property of developing in such a manner the impressions of the spirit world to clear intuition in this life can scarcely be useful, for by this the spiritual sensation becomes so closely interwoven with the figments of the imagination that it must be impossible to distinguish the truth in them from the crude illusions that surround it.

In agreement with his later philosophy, but notably different in the way he arrives at this conclusion, there were limits placed on speculation into these matters. The path he took to limit speculation in this case depended upon his belief that the person claiming to see spirits is sick because the vision “presupposes an altered balance of the nerves that are set in unnatural motion merely by the activity of purely spiritual sensations of the soul”. Here we see Kant entertaining, as a rational possibility, the existence of categories that are not necessarily universal in scope, but personal. True, these non-universal categories are signs of sickness in the constitution of the body, and at best were a source of confusion as to the validity of our intuitions, but the very possibility of them presented a challenge to the balance between idealism and materialism. Namely: how did this kind of irreducible uncertainty about the representation of the senses in the case of spirits compare to the same case in regard to the “thing-in-itself”?

In the case of Swedenborg’s spirit visions, while they could theoretically be present in experience, as a kind of non-universal category of understanding, the presupposed condition of seeing them, “an altered balance of the nerves”, would involve an inability to discern if they were actually from the noumenal realm, or creations of the subject’s own mind. Spirits would then be the very last thing a person could ever hope to see, for upon seeing them they could never be certain of any of their intuitions, even if the visions themselves could potentially be real. If Kant were to accept the possibility of non-universal categories as anything other than a sign of mental illness then it would cripple his ability to resist a purely idealist stance on the phenomenal world. For how does it follow that, admitting the logical possibility of spirit-visions, the potential spirit-seer would never be certain from whence any of his impressions came, while the experiences of person who was only ever a chair or table-seer would be validated by the supposed “coarseness” of their intuitions and comfortable ability to sit? In this way we begin to see just how much of a potential difficulty mystical idealism could present to Kant’s well-ordered distinctions between the phenomenal and the noumenal. While not rationally impossible, and indeed, necessarily possible for Kant’s project of establishing the immateriality and immortality of the soul, an investigation into spirit-visions would reap havoc with the investigator’s ability to distinguish between imagination and experience. It threatened to completely tip over the scales of reason towards the noumenal, which, as we have already seen, had a mechanical advantage in the hope for a future life.

Despite this potential pitfall, while making clear that he did not agree with the argument, Kant would go on to present a very similar image as Swedenborg’s in his critique of materialism. Despite expecting readers to lay aside such thoughts once their materialist foe has been vanquished, “we proceed quite rationally here, showing the opponent who thinks he has exhausted all of the possibilities [that he has not]”:

You could propose a transcendental hypothesis: that all life is really only intelligible, not subject to temporal alterations at all, and has neither begun at birth nor will be ended through death; that this life is nothing but a mere appearance, i.e., a sensible representation of the purely spiritual life, and the entire world of the senses is a mere image, which hovers before our present kind of cognition and, like a dream, has no objective reality in itself; that if we could intuit the things and ourselves as they are we would see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures with which our only true community had not begun with birth nor would not cease with bodily death.

Later in life Kant used the same inability to discern the boundaries between the mind and experience to weaken the materialist stance as he claimed was a sign of sickness in a potential spirit-seer such as Swedenborg. Not only this, but he uses the same language of the “dream” to describe this condition. Thus the first difficulty that Kant faces in his disregard of the existence of spirits is derived directly from his wish to argue for the immateriality and immortality of the soul, for how can the above argument, “quite rationally” show the impotence of the materialist stance and, with a like logic in the case of spirit-visions, maintain its force in the face of his refutation of mystical idealism? The answer to this rests in his concept of moral utility, a utility that was also jeopardized by accepting the potential existence of spirits. Kant could not accept the existence of spirits not in spite of, but because of how he sought to convince his contemporaries of the immortality and immateriality of the soul.

A sketch of Kant later in life mixing mustard to improve his memory.

Between Dreams of a Spirit Seer and The Critique of Pure Reason there is already a distinction to be made between what Kant considered rational and moral utility. In Dreams Kant considers utility largely in terms of what is rationally useful, writing at the beginning of the text that between looking for even one case of spiritual manifestations in this life and debunking their existence altogether: “there is, perhaps, a third position left, namely, not to meddle with such prying and idle questions, but to concern oneself only with what is useful”. According to this, the existence of spirits was as impossible to prove as it was to be used to prove anything else, and thus not worthy of consideration by serious minds. However, this is a position that, in and of itself, could equally apply to the immortality of the soul if simply left at that. Moving closer towards a sense of moral utility, Kant concluded his treaties on Swedenborg with the rejoinder that:

it would probably be best if [inquirers] would deign to wait patiently until they arrived there. But since our fate in the future world will probably very much depend upon how we have conducted ourselves at our post in the present, I conclude with that which Voltaire allows his honorable Candide, after so many useless scholastic debates, to conclude: ‘Let us look after our happiness, go into the garden, and work.

Here it is implied that while hope for a future life is an important guide to actions in this life, that it has a moral utility, the lack of rational utility present in the question of spirits makes it of some moral inutility. Here hope seems to be performing the logical function in the noumenal realm that the laws of nature perform in the phenomenal. Yet does this follow, and if so, why? To answer this we must now more deeply consider what Kant hand in mind by moral utility.

In his discussion of the three domains of metaphysics, of which the immortality and immateriality of the soul was a part, Kant stressed that these very concepts are lacking in utility, strictly speaking. As he said: “If, then, these three cardinal propositions are not at all necessary for our knowing, and yet are insistently recommended to us by our reason, their importance must really concern only the practical”. How is it that reason tries to induce us to admit principles about which it can never have any knowledge? It is perhaps more appropriate to say that hope, not reason, is the foundation of this “practical interest”, as Kant seems to imply when he asserts that:

“since the moral precept is thus at the same time my maxim (as reason commands that it ought to be), I will inexorably believe in the existence of God and a future life, and I am sure that nothing can make these beliefs unstable, since my moral principles themselves, which I cannot renounce without becoming contemptible in my own eyes, would thereby be subverted”.

From this we may consider hope to be the grounding principle of moral utility, indeed, that very thing which allows us to talk in terms of moral utility in the first place. It is that which allows the human beings to take heed of the noumenal realm and be aware of the three elements of metaphysics. Without it, admittedly, the arguments of materialism may be refuted, but nothing else could be erected to balance them, since the world of the noumenal itself would be silent. Yet this, for Kant, was chilling, alternating between a moral relativism, on the side of the materialists, or else “fanatical theosophic dreams”, on that of idealists like Swedenborg:

The proposition about the moral vocation of our nature, that only in an endless progress can we attain complete conformity with the moral law, is of the greatest usefulness, not merely in regard to the present supplement to the incapacity of speculative reason but also with respect to religion. In default of it, one either quite degrades the moral law from its holiness by making it out to be lenient (indulgent) and thus conformed to our conveniences, or else strains ones’s [sic] calling as well as ones’s [sic] expectation to an unattainable vocation, namely to a hoped-for full acquisition of holiness of will, and so get lost in enthusiastic theosophical dreams that quite contradict self-knowledge.

In this anxiety then, we find a potential answer to the question raised earlier. Both the immortality of the soul and the existence of spirits lack a substantial rational utility; in the phenomenal realm they can be neither proven nor disproven. Yet the immortality of the soul has a moral utility for Kant, since it forms the basis of a hope that ultimately joins the two realms. In contrast, the existence, or the acceptance of the existence of spirits, would in fact be detrimental to this very same hope, for it would co-mingle the noumenal and phenomenal in such a way as to make certainty of either seemingly impossible, for then there would be no way of telling what was a construct of the mind, and what a visitation from the noumenal realm. Perhaps paradoxically, anything resembling a promise of phenomenal evidence for the immortality of the soul would in fact destroy the principle of hope upon which Kant would spend his entire life employing to connect the two realms of existence, a hope that by its very limitations makes our appreciation of these realms possible.

In his writing and in his thought, Kant had no difficulty in distinguishing himself from the materialist position, yet the pull of idealism was much stronger and for that same reason potentially more destabilizing to the uneven balance that he wished to maintain. There was a double difficulty inherent in the existence of thinkers like Swedenborg, whose system of mystical idealism also chose as its main topics God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will. Firstly, in terms of rational utility, both spirits and the immortality of the soul shared the same inherent inability to be proven or disproven. Yet the consideration of spirits along Swedenborgian lines presented a grave problem, for Swedenborg’s spirits acted upon the understanding in much the same way as the thing-in-itself, and thus partially bypassed the limits that Kant set up for what experience could or could not demonstrate. Yet because of this they only served to sow uncertainty about the source of our intuitions, and had the potential to collapse the distinction between imagination, the noumenal and the phenomenal to the confusion of all. The second difficulty that Swedenborg’s system presented was the way in which this potential confusion about the sources of our intuitions subverted the role of hope upon which the moral law was founded. How could practical reason be said to take “its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience”, if the very hope upon which this “as if” rested could be logically realized in a way that pushed our uncertainties back, not into the domain of a clear and particular hope, but into that of an irresolvable distrust of all our intuitions? It is conceivable that we could see spirits, and thus have no way of ever trusting our knowledge again, or else be forced to accept any construction of the mind as valid. Such a state may very well result in the Kantian nightmare scenario, of a kind of relativism, or mystical idealism that could offer no certain footing for any system of morality. Thus Swedenborg and other “visionaries, enthusiasts, etc.” were very important targets for attack, not despite, but because of the similarities between their systems and Kant’s and especially on the subject of the immortality and immateriality of the soul, the uneven balance for which he sought no solution.

Kant’s ghost, the one which he could not do without, whose very existence was a paradox because it could not be realized without destroying its own foundations was nothing more, and nothing less, than hope  itself. He’d have rather had a certain absence of proof, than an uncertain presence, for it would throw the rest of his system completely into the realm of the ideal, and hence of our wildest dreams.

For More Information:

Kant, Immanuel. 2002. Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings. Trans. Gregory R. Johnson and Glenn Alexander Magee. Ed. Gregory R. Johnson. Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation Publications.

—. 1999. Critique of Pure Reason. Eds. and Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—. 1997. Critique of Practical Reason. Ed. and Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. 1909. Arcana Caelestia: The Heavenly Arcana contained in the Holy Scriptures or Word of the Lord, Vol. 1. New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society.

The Codex Gigas

Legend attributes the Codex Gigas, the “Big Book” (Sometimes also called the “Devil’s Bible”), to one solitary and doomed monk, sentenced to death by entombment for some unnamed, unspeakable blasphemy. Pleading with his inquisitors for some chance to demonstrate his  repentance, he claimed that by a work of faith he would scribe in one night the largest bible ever to have existed. Intrigued, but confident, his inquisitors acquiesced; he could have his one night, and his sentence would be fulfilled should morning arrive and his task remain incomplete.

Working frantically into the night, the monk, it is said, seeing that he was running out of time made a deal with the devil, the devil depicted in the Codex Gigas’ inner pages. He was thus able to complete his task, though not his repentance. Yet when morning came and his inquisitors saw what the monk had scribed they saw that it was a work of evil, and had his sentence carried out.


That is the legend of the Codex Gigas. Recent scholarship does point to one lone author, not a blasphemer entombed for his sins, but a religious recluse, possibly Herman the Recluse, who dedicated many years of his life to the work sometime in the 13th century. Sometime after it was created, it was taken to a chapel in Sedlec, now in the Czech Republic, where it remained until shortly before the black death tore through the area in the 14th century. Sedlec would later become famous for is Ossuary, decorated with the bones of some 40,000 to 70,000 people who had died in and around the area.

The Codex was eventually taken to the court of Rudolph II (1552-1612), that intriguing patron of all things occult in the 16th century. Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor was deposed by his family and political adversaries. During the subsequent conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century, the Codex Gigas was eventually captured by Swedish soldiers and taken to the court of yet another eccentric European monarch, this time Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), raised as a boy, patron of the arts, catholic ruler of a protestant country who abdicated her throne to move to Rome. Surviving fire and war, Sweden is where the Devil’s Bible has remained to the present day.

For More Information:

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/devils-bible/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Gigas

http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/mysteries-of-the-bible/3619/Overview15

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christina_of_sweden

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolph_II

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec_Ossuary

Therion

I happened upon the Swedish Symphonic Metal band Therion while researching the life and works of the naturalist and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. It is Fueled by mythology, occultism and the operatic metal that makes Nordic rock so interesting. The band takes its name from the Celtic Frost album To Mega Therion, yet the word itself comes from the Ancient Greek for “Beast”.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therion_%28band%29

The Monster You Know

Stirrup vase with image of an octopus, Rhodes, ca 1200-1100 BC (Currently in the Louvre).

If something is large, and from the darker corners of the deepest oceans, people tend to call it a sea monster, or, if it is vaguely tubular in shape, a sea serpent. It is a powerful and not entirely rational response to the strangeness, and yet also the familiar nature of marine life. In the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, there were three conceptual categories of sea creature, chimerical sea monsters, strange sea monsters, and familiar animals. Most interesting, however, is how strange, borderline sea monsters intersected with the familiar in a way that had definite consequences for how marine biology was explored and recorded. The ancient Greeks and Romans generally excluded marine invertebrates from their list of sea monsters because of their familiarity with them. However, the very category of sea monster could itself become something familiar. Historically, the feeling that sea monsters were prevalent off of their shores caused the people of many Scandinavian nations to see them less and less as something truly monstrous, and more as objects of national pride.

There were two kinds of sea monster in the ancient world. The first kind was described when strange creatures were discovered to have washed ashore. The earliest written records of these kinds of encounters come from the Greeks and Romans, most noticeably in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23 to 79), but also in the writings of Aristotle. Pliny attests that: “During the rule of Tiberius, in an island off the coast of the province of Lyons the receding ocean tide left more than 300 monsters at the same time, of marvelous variety and size, and an equal number on the coast of Saintes”. Furthermore, “Turranius has stated that a monster was cast ashore on the coast at Cadiz that had 24 feet of tail-end between its two fins, and also 120 teeth”. While Pliny is known to have accepted second and third hand accounts in his study of the natural world, there is some consistency in the manner in which most of the creatures he described were discovered. Those that bear some resemblance to the living but strange things we recognize today all washed ashore. The second kind, whose stories lack this costal caveat, tend to be of a composite nature (Mermaids, Tritons, Nereids, the hippocampus and their ilk).

Cephalopods, in particular octopi and squid generally transcended both of these distinctions though, since they were so familiar to those living around the Mediterranean. Though a partial exception to this is an anecdote that is generally seen as featuring a giant squid. One was found stealing salted fish out of the fish ponds in Carteia on the Atlantic coast of Spain. According to Pliny the guards that came to protect the fish stores were held at bay for some time, as the creature used its tentacles as clubs before being dispatched. While the behavior is hard to account for, the physical description as well as the creature being designated as a polyp, rather than merely as a monster, would seem to indicate that it possessed a cephalopodan nature of immense proportions. They were “astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well […] who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny”. Thus even in this case, the story of the sea monster is almost of something familiar, strange only in virtue of its size and colour.

Unlike later interpreters, the ancient Greeks did not possess a strong aversion to cephalopods, and indeed even considered them a delicacy. As C. P. Idyll noted in Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It: “The ancients of the Mediterranean region considered cephalopods choice morsels. […] Pliny tells us that the gourmands of Rome ate every variety of octopus known in the Mediterranean”. Also, some of the earliest know depictions of cephalopods on pottery and other crafts emerge from this region. Thus, the appearance of a giant squid or other similar cephalopod would not have been as difficult for the ancients to comprehend, and such creatures fit easily into the taxonomic classifications of that time. This ancient familiarity with large aquatic invertebrates was what allowed Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) to characterize the giant squid teuthos along with its smaller brethren teuthis without defaulting to assigning it a monstrous status, unlike other cultural groups. It was this same familiarity that allowed Pliny to characterize the creature in Carteia as a polyp, rather than a monster. As the lessons of the ancient world show, we are really always talking about a continuum of strange, but familiar creatures, oddities that wash ashore and fantastical chimeras when attempting to understand the nature of sea monsters. For this continuum to appear in such a definite form in western literature after this time, we must next look to the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, and the writings of the Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490 to 1557).

The Malstrum, in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina

Magnus’s Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, Vandals and Other Northern Nations records the existence of sea monsters. In it he describes creatures which have “horrible [forms], their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes”. It is now generally considered that the creature Magnus is describing was a giant squid, and that the “horns” were a complete misunderstanding of where the creature’s head was supposed to be. Richard Ellis points out that this can be a problem even for modern day observers: “Architeuthis is assembled of a strange collection of parts that bespeak an alien creature rather than one we are used to”. There is no ready frame of reference for some of the creatures of the deep, no common ground telling us what is front to back, or what is head from tail.

Interestingly, the quality of familiarity that we saw in the ancient world takes on a different aspect in Scandinavia, appearing not largely in the form of the culinary arts, but as a defining aspect of national and regional identity. Magnus’ account appears in a history of the northern nations, and he would not be alone in paring this history with a rich collection of benthic monstrosities. Bishop Erik Pontoppidan of Bergen, Norway (1698 to 1764), Magnus’ intellectual descendent in matters relating to sea monsters, was also a part of this tradition.

Despite Pontoppidan’s use of first hand accounts in his Natural History of Norway, he was largely recognized through most of the 20th century as an unreliable source for natural historians because of his seemingly fanciful descriptions of sea serpents and the notorious kraken. Most seemingly absurd was one of the accounts he collected from local fishermen, which stated that the kraken’s: “back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference, (some say more, but I chuse the least for greater certainty) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats […] like seaweed”. In 1941 W. Ley writing in the Natural History Magazine criticized this description, and chided the Bishop for his uncritical acceptance of unskilled witnesses, saying: “It was because of this story that the existence of giant squids was doubted and ridiculed for more than a century after the first printing of Bishop Pontoppidan’s book”. However, most of the Bishop’s methods for collecting his data were sound, even by today’s standards. He used first hand accounts and described cases in which the creatures had been well documented as having washed ashore. He discussed the existence of sea serpents and krakens with reputable captains who had claimed to have seen such creatures, including one Capitan von Ferry, who sent a description of his encounter to the Court of Justice in Bergen by Pontoppidan’s request. Here we begin to get a picture of how strange biology can become familiar through regional traditions, even when there is no daily contact as in the case of the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. This same source of knowledge is also highly susceptible to criticism attacking its seemingly bucolic origins.

Yet while tradition can be undermined by those who denigrate the quality of witness testimony, in the study of sea monsters we can also see how strangeness, unified with this very same sense of familiarity, can nevertheless produce definite agendas for exploration. It did so in the Scandinavian nations from the middle ages to the present. Conversely, in the case of the world around the ancient Mediterranean, the message is different, showing how not only are we what we eat, but we also ingest a large portion of our view of nature and the world around us from the comfort of our dining tables.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaus_Magnus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontoppidan

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder

The Letters of Madness

The correspondences between the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg have long held my mind in curious fascination. Not only because they took place during the period of Nietzsche’s deepening insanity, but because the ostensibly sane Strindberg does not seem to have noticed this, or else, even rejoiced in the fact.

In what I believe is their final correspondence, Strindburg writes entirely in the form of a Latin poem in which he exclaimed “Jelw, Jelw manhnai!” I want, I want to be mad! and “Interdum juvat insanire!” Meanwhile, it is a joy to be mad!

I have to, in my own eccentric way, appreciate a mind that can so sympathize with another that is perched upon the very edge of reason, and still converse in kind.

While I believe Strindberg’s sometimes spotty reputation is more deserved than Nietzsche’s, I find both to be intriguing and worthy of further investigation for any adherent of the eccentric and spectacular. I’m currently writing a PhD disseration on the topic of Nietzsche and science, and hope one day to pick up more of Strindberg’s works.

 

I’ve seen an English translation of the Swedish film “The Freethinker” that documents Strindberg’s life along with his creative output. It is a more than surreal experience in places and the narrative of the “documentary” spins imperceptibly from biography, to fiction, to the actors describing their roles and interviewing members of the Swedish public about their views on the writer.


For more information:

http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/nilett4.htm
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109849/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nietzsche
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strindberg

And no further information would be complete without:

http://www.strindbergandhelium.com/