Victor Hugo and Swedenborg
by Alfred G. Regamey
From time to time we are asked if Victor Hugo knew the writings of Swedenborg and if he has been influenced by the latter in the composition of his own works.
In a little booklet called Testimony of Genius, Victor Hugo’s name stands out (on page 4) among those of other famous people who undoubtedly had been influenced by Swedenborg, but there are no extracts given to prove this in his case. It seems as though New-Church people have a tendency to claim all the great thinkers and renowned men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as adherents of his teachings, if they find them expressing an idea, even vaguely, which seems similar to one of Swedenborg’s.
An unexpected occurrence recently awakened our interest and led us to investigate as to how true this might be in the case of Victor Hugo; we now give the result of our research.
There is no need for us to enter into the many particulars of Victor Hugo’s life as we presume that most readers know the main facts of that life, so rich in events, so restless and full of constant change, as was that of this French poet and novelist. Born in 1802, Victor Hugo received a good education; at an early age he manifested a fever for versification. Being open-minded he was interested in all new ideas and studied fervently, one after the other, the different philosophies. Of a generous nature, he enthusiastically supported any social reform of his day, condemning injustices, and assuming the attitude of a defender of rights. A born fighter, he opposed superstitions, prejudices, false teachings; the sufferings and bad social conditions of the poorest touched and troubled his sensitive nature; he decided to consecrate his poetical talents to reminding those in power to realize their duty; to defending the weak; to educating the people and lifting the masses to a higher spiritual level by awakening in each one aspirations which lie dormant. In short, he believed in the social mission of the poet.
It is impossible to understand Victor Hugo’s works apart from the century in which he lived, because all his writings are mingled enthusiastically with political happenings of that time, to which he gave his whole being and which were embodied in his books. He himself became successively Bonapartist, then anti-Bonapartist, Royalist, then Republican.
Upon the overthrowing of the government in 1851, he became exiled and lived as an outlaw for about twenty years. First of all he took refuge in Brussels, then in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, declaring that only when liberty of thought and speech should be established would he return to France. In the latter part of his life he travelled a great deal. In 1870, during the siege of Paris, he was in that city; and died there fifteen years later in 1885. He received a national funeral and his ashes rest in the Panthéon.
As do other poets, so Victor Hugo often depicts himself in his own works: he expresses in them his emotions, his aspirations, his resentments, as in Les Châtiments; he lets us share the state of his feelings, at one moment far above the uproar and disturbance, as in Les Voix Intérieures, Les Contemplations; at another time he takes you with him into the very thick of the fight, as in L’Année Terrible. He unfolds before us his philosophical and social conceptions, as in Les Misérables. Nevertheless, he is always a faithful member of a party, sharing its glory when in power, but also falling with it. From this point of view his works will never reach the level of universality, such as those of a Balzac, who depicted human types which could just as well have been of any country; whilst everything in Victor Hugo’s work is very French and French of the nineteenth century.
To come now more directly to our first question, namely, as to how much Victor Hugo was influenced by Swedenborg, we state that it was no impossibility, for the first translation of the Swedish theologian’s works were already in print at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Moët Editions) when Victor Hugo was still a young child. Further, as the latter had a thorough knowledge of Latin, he could very well have read them in the original. He even translated pages of the classics, notably excerpts of Virgil’s Æneid for a French Review – Le Lycée Armoricain. Also, a contributor to this same Review was the charming author and writer of Nantes, Edouard Richer, to whom the New Church owes so much. He is the author of The New Jerusalem in eight volumes (Nantes 1832-1835). In fact, no other writer made so great a propaganda for the doctrines of Swedenborg in France, until Le Boys des Guays. Therefore, one is justified in supposing that Victor Hugo certainly knew about what his colleague was writing and, if not at first hand, surely through that channel he must have had knowledge of Swedenborg’s doctrines.
Further to this, among his personal friends, Victor Hugo counted Balzac, three years his elder, the author of Séraphita (1835), a novel of Swedenborgian inspiration which particularly calls to mind the life and gist of Swedenborg’s teachings. Even if this novel of Balzac does not reflect unadulterated Swedenborgian doctrine, in that it draws upon other theories, no one can read it without retaining some of the thoughts expressed therein. Well then, is it not very probable that Victor Hugo read the works of this friend of his, for whom, later, he composed the funeral oration? All those who have studied closely the possible sources from which Balzac could have drawn to write his Séraphita have arrived at the conclusion that he must have used especially the Abrégé des Doctrines d’Emmanuel Swedenborg (the Summary of Emanuel Swedenborg’s Doctrines), by D’Aillant de la Touche (Treuttel, 1788), and it would not be surprising, therefore, if Victor Hugo had also read this work.
Furthermore, the name of Catulle Mendès, certainly a much younger man (1841-1909), but with whom Victor Hugo had close contact, can be mentioned, for history tells us that Catulle Mendès was one of the twelve intimate friends of Victor Hugo who mounted guard around his body lying in state under the Arc de Triomphe during a violent storm.
Catulle Mendès wrote Hespérus, a poem which he published in 1872, by Fischbacher, with sub-title: "A Swedenborgian Poem", and which shows that he had seriously studied Swedenborg’s teachings.
Those are a few of the well-known people in Victor Hugo’s close circle and by whom he could have heard of Swedenborg. Besides this, there is no shadow of doubt but that the whole school of romanticism – and consequently Victor Hugo – has been under the influence of Swedenborg and other mystics to a certain extent. This is just what M. Auguste Viatte shows in his voluminous study, Les Sources occultes du Romantisme (2 vols. Champion Edit. 1928) even if the author is not entirely objective. But it is no reason for considering all romantic authors as disciples of Swedenborg. As far as our knowledge goes, Balzac is the only one who has openly declared, "Swedenborgianism is my religion", which is what he wrote in Louis Lambert. Nowhere does Victor Hugo make a similar statement. Certainly, some ideas of Swedenborg are reflected here and there in his books, but his own conception of religion and philosophy as expressed in his work as a whole shows that he could never be considered fully as one of his disciples.
Victor Hugo, like all other romantics, had great expectations for the century in which he was born. His description makes us think of that New Age proclaimed by Swedenborg as of the Second Coming.
To illustrate this we just quote three verses from one of his poems in Les Voix Intérieures (1837) (Inner Voices):
In an article in the New-Church Magazine (October-December, 1928), written by Mr Harry V. Noar, the author endeavours to prove a similarity of ideas between Victor Hugo and Swedenborg. Among other things, he points out that Victor Hugo believed in the existence of another world and the possibility of getting into communication with it, either when fully awake, or asleep when dreaming, and that he considered this present world as the ante-room to the next one. He showed also that Victor Hugo had a certain knowledge of correspondences, as, for example, when he wrote: "To hate is to be ugly in a spiritual sense." Also, what must one think of the following words said by Esmeralda: "Love…is to be two and yet only one, a man and a woman blending into an angel; that is heaven." Does this not read like Swedenborg himself? This last quotation is from the novel Notre Dame de Paris.
Some critics have brought forward the hypothesis that, in the latter novel, Victor Hugo’s inspiration for the character of Claude Frollo (the priest passionately devoted to and thrilled by occultism) was the Abbot Oegger, who had been the first vicar of Notre Dame and whose conversion to the New Church in 1826 had been much talked of. But this is pure supposition; for the actual fact is that the Abbot Oegger was of quite another nature, being a man of stable character, of even temper and of a gentle and amiable disposition; and it has now been proved that Notre dame de Paris is taken entirely from the work of Sauval: Les Comptes de la Prévôté de Paris. This is what Paul Berret demonstrates in his biography of Victor Hugo (Paris, Garnier, 1927). There are even others who believe that Victor Hugo took his character of Frollo from the notorious priest Mingral, whose doings filled the columns of newspapers and kept the courts busy some years before the Notre Dame de Paris was published.
Indeed, before writing this novel, Victor Hugo made innumerable visits to the Cathedral, either to scutinize it stone by stone, or to read Le Livre Moir, which contained the "Charte du Cloître (monastery charter) and could not be taken away, so that, most likely, he had met the Abbot Oegger more than once, and thus could have learnt to know of Swedenborg and the other reasons for the abbot’s conversion to the New Church. In his novel it is striking that he makes Frollo explain cathedrals by applying the system of symbolism commended by Oegger and in consequence by Swedenborg.
But to come now to what is indisputably the best proof that Victor Hugo had read Swedenborg, we present the fact that he devoted 37 lines of his posthumous work, Dieu et la Fin de Satan (God and the End of Satan), to him. The point in question is of recent discovery and is the reason for this article. Indeed, we believe that it is the first time that the attention of the New Church is being drawn to it. The discovery of yesterday is due to the fact that the lines devoted to Swedenborg (as also some of the other fragments of the work) have not appeared in the earliest editions of Dieu. Neither are they found in the "Ne Varietur" Edition, nor in that of Hetzel, 1891. In our opinion, the only way to explain this previous omission would be in the fact that these verses were discovered among miscellaneous papers of the author, some years after his death and that probably, not being satisfied with them, he had laid them aside. It is true that these verses are not of his best; nevertheless, they do show that Victor Hugo had read Swedenborg and accepted his claim to intromission into the other world.
Before going further and quoting the actual text, let us state the main ideas in this poem, which is sometimes called the "Metaphysical Views of Victor Hugo." It was composed in Guernsey at a time when the author was much taken up with the practices of spiritism and was endeavouring to penetrate the mysteries of the life after death. The theme as a whole is contained in the question: "Is it possible for man to know God?"
In deep meditation, the poet questions all those who, like himself, have tried to solve the mystery of God. Successively, 21 voices give him replies, and of these, the one of Swedenborg, but none of them gives him a satisfactory reply. Then he questions the various philosophic and religious systems, represented by some winged creatures, such as the bat for Atheism, the vulture for Paganism, the eagle for Judaism, the griffon for Christianity, the angel for Rationalism. Neither do these give him any satisfaction. They only bring forth further questions.
Then the accompanying spirit asks the poet if he wishes to understand even better than the prophets and seers of all time, and, whatever the cost, to receive full illumination? Upon his assent he feels as though he were being enwrapped in a veil, and he dies; which signifies that only by passing through the gate of death are we permitted to receive the full light.
Here following, we quote the 37 lines devoted to Swedenborg.
Though these verse sparkle with colour and wisdom they are, none the less, somewhat ambiguous and it is understandable that this poem is among those the least popular of Victor Hugo. Further, the whole of the text proves sufficiently that even if Victor Hugo knew Swedenborg, he was not influenced greatly by his doctrines.
Probably, what had attracted him to Swedenborg was the way the invisible was treated, and his own interest in psychic phenomena and all that Swedenborg has to say on the other life. For, without doubt, Victor Hugo believed in the life beyond and sought to understand and explain it to himself. He firmly believed that the dead are constantly present at our side.
It is well known that during his stay in Guernsey, Victor Hugo practised spiritism. In the above quoted biography, Mr Paul Barret tells us that in the poet’s own home, he kept a special chair which he called "The Ancestors’ Seat" (Sella Patrium Defunctorum), the seat of which was barred with an iron chain from arm to arm; no one was permitted to use it. On the back of the chair there was carved: "Absentes Adsunt" (the absent ones are present).
With regard to his other religious conceptions, Victor Hugo believed in a good and just God, who is to be found, not through reason or fear, but through love, for – "He has but one face: ‘Light’ and but one name: ‘Love.’" But this God of his, he not only sees Him as a personal entity outside of the universe, but sees Him in the whole of nature which he thus divinizes, so that he stumbles into pantheism, St. Simonism and many other kinds of ‘ism of that century. For him, everything has a soul, whether it be in a stone, in the branch of a tree, in a toad, as well as in man. He believes in a gradual evolution, in the ascension of everything, its elevation through suffering, science and love. It is what he calls the "degrees of the ladder." One can judge of this by the following little poem written in his own hand on a copy of Dante’s "Divine Comedy", which sums up his philosophy:
Death itself is but the rising of man to a higher step on this ladder. As the poet advances in age, through bereavements, the problem of the life beyond preoccupies more of his thoughts. He faces death calmly and with serenity, as being the means by which a much larger scope will be given to all his closest aspirations.
With regard to this, we will end by quoting some lines which are attributed to him and which could be called his spiritual testament:
In conclusion we might say that what Victor Hugo knew of Swedenborg, either directly or indirectly, it is mainly of what the latter has said on the life after death. But it would be wrong to consider him as one of his disciples.
Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 12 (Autumn 2003) pp. 40-43.