Right at the very beginning of his story The Adventure Of The German Student (1824), Washington Irving makes an explicit reference to Swedenborg in connection with the protagonist’s mystical leanings:
Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences, until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him (1).
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1722) was a Swedish mystical writer. But before he turned to mysticism, he had been a scholar, an engineer, and a philosopher. He had published many research works on astronomy, mathematics, mining, engineering, and physiology. His contribution had been greatly valued in scientific circles in Europe.
However, in 1744, during his trip to the Netherlands, he began seeing visions and keeping a spiritual journal. The result of these visions and visitations by supernatural beings (angels, souls of the deceased, etc.) was a whole new system of spiritual interpretation of the Bible and the world, which he recorded in his voluminous work. Finally, he resigned and devoted himself to spiritual life.
Those who knew Swedenborg considered him en eccentric person. However, his opponents explained his visions as being attributed to a mental disorder. Some scholars even thought that he was mad.
Irving’s protagonist begins with scholarly endeavors, too. Gottfried Wolfgang is a diligent student. But being a person of a mystical disposition at that, he dedicates himself to metaphysical speculations, which leads to the creation of an imaginary world not unlike that of Swedenborg’s books.
In this fanciful world, he meets a helpless woman wearing “a broad black band round her neck, clasped by diamonds” (1). Desiring to protect her, he takes her to his apartment, and there he finds her extremely attractive. He makes a declaration of his love to her.
But the next morning, he finds a corpse in his bed. As the police make inquiries, they find out that this woman was guillotined the previous day. As the officer undoes the black collar round the dead woman’s neck, her head rolls on the floor.
At the end of the story, we find out that the student
was possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted, and died in a mad-house (1).
So Irving’s mentioning Swedenborg at the very beginning of the story and drawing a parallel between the great visionary and the protagonist prepares the reader for the subsequent developments of the plot and gives the whole narrative a relevant interpretation. Imbalanced spirituality and untamed imagination lead to disastrous consequences.