BY JOHN WORCESTER
MASSACHUSETTS NEW-CHURCH UNION
WE are in the habit of thinking of the skin as a covering for the body of a sort of delicate untanned leather, with no great vitality of its own, but serving to protect the more sensitive and important organs within. There is some truth in this, -- the skin does protect much nobler organs than itself; and the outer skin is not sensitive; yet no other part of the body is more sensitive than the inner skin; which possesses also a delicacy and complexity of structure which will excite our admiration. There exist in nature multitudes of little animals too minute for the unaided eye to perceive, endowed each with organs of sense, of digestion, of circulation, and of action, all contained within a compass too small for us to notice. From Swedenborg's marvellous description it would appear that there is not a point in the inner skin less exquisitely organized than these. [p. 227]
The outer layer of the skin, which is the part with which we are best acquainted, is composed of little horny scales laid one upon another like armor of mail to a greater or less thickness according to the exposure. This is perforated by the hairs and by innumerable little pores, which we shall consider hereafter. This outer skin is detached by blisters and chafings, and then we discover a most tender, sensitive surface under it, which we are glad to protect by a plaster till its proper coat of scales is repaired. Yet even these scales do not rest immediately upon the sensitive skin, though they are thrown into little ridges and spirals in accommodation to its papillae. They rest upon a soft, jelly-like vascular membrane (rete mucosum) which encases the papillae of the inner skin, protecting them and combining their sensations.
The surface of the inner skin, thus protected and encased by two outer layers, is composed of little papillae, finer than needle points, each of which under a powerful glass is seen to be a bundle of still more minute papillary fibres. In [p. 228] these papillae are seen looped nervous fibres, and also what are called "tactile corpuscles," both of which serve as organs of touch, and many more nerve fibres are seen splitting into almost invisible filaments. Besides these exquisitely sensitive papillae in which the touch resides, the skin contains the roots of the hairs, with their anointing glands, innumerable sweat glands, each one looking like a little convoluted intestine -- which unravelled, it is estimated, would amount to two and a half miles in length in a single person -- also arteries, which in states of inflammation are seen in a net-work over the papillary surface, and veins and lymphatics without number.
So much is commonly known of the skin, and not much more. Microscopic
investigation shows some of the nerve fibres ending in the papillae in
loops or "tactile corpuscles" but many more divide into little brushes;
and what they do there, or what becomes of them, modern science does not
know. And here Swedenborg's more than microscopic insight takes up the
The idea that the beginning of the arterial system is in the skin, not the heart, at first may seem surprising; but it is illustrated by the similar and well-known fact that the beginnings of the woody fibres of trees are in the leaves, not in the stem or the roots. Through the pith and [p. 230] the delicate fibres of the bark, nourishment ascends to expand the first tender leaves, and from these descend the first woody fibres between the bark and the pith, as well as new fibres of bark, and extend themselves to the extremities of the roots. Through these woody and cortical fibres sap afterwards ascends to the leaves, and by their means new buds and leaves are formed, which in turn send down other fibres, and thus the trunk of the tree grows in concentric layers of wood, every fibre of which has descended from the leaves.
In Swedenborg's view a similar process goes on from the membranes which are the ultimates of the body, and especially from the skin. Before the heart exists in the embryo, ramifications of blood-vessels are seen, which indeed soon unite in the heart and afterwards act from it; and these undoubtedly assist in the formation of other vessels and tissues, which are, however, everywhere woven from the nervous fibres, the blood-vessels cooperating and afterwards sustaining them. [p. 231]
It is a familiar fact that through the skin there are continual exhalation and absorption. There is exhalation of watery vapor, of fatty vapor -- as we see by touching the fingers for a moment to clean glass--of more subtile effluvia which affect the sense of smell, sometimes pleasantly as from an infant's skin, and of most delicate, perhaps magnetic influence to which some persons are very sensitive, and which is often used in relieving nervous pains; these exhalations are all of materials no longer needed in the body, but partaking of the life of the body, and capable of doing more or less use in the extremes or beyond the surface of the body.
There are also inhalations correlative to these exhalations. It is said that the thirst of exhausted men may be satisfied by immersion in the sea or by wetting their clothes. Nutritious vapors and steam are also absorbed, no doubt in quantities which go far to satisfy hunger.
The volatile oils of poisonous ivy and of dogwood, inappreciable by any conscious sense, are [p. 232] absorbed by the skin to its great discomfort. And more subtile still, the "animal magnetism," as it is called, the most active but delicate of the exhalations of a living body, is absorbed by the minutest pores of another body, and is a powerful agent in restoring disordered or tired nerves. These are things of common experience which show that the skin is a most active agent both in absorbing and in exhaling materials related to animal life of many kinds. Thus the skin has already, upon the surface of the body, some of the properties which are further developed in its continuations which line the stomach and the lungs.
Throughout the viscera, as well as upon the surface of the body, the mouths of the little pores are in the extremities of the little papillae of touch, which by their exquisite sense perceive the quality of the materials offered for their acceptance or rejection, and rule over the action of the ducts according to their perception and to the wants of the body. The knowledge they acquire they report in part to the cerebrum, in which [p. 233] dwells the conscious, thinking mind, but in greater part, especially from the viscera, to those nerve-centres which preside over the vital functions of the body without reference to our perverted sense or ignorant reason.
The sense of touch gives substance and reality to all our sensations. Sight and hearing and smell, without touch, would be almost like affections of the imagination; their objects would seem forever unreal, unsubstantial, unless they could be touched. By touch they are brought into substantial, satisfactory relations to us; by it we perceive their substance, their texture, their size, and hardness or softness, their general relation to ourselves. To the sense of touch we apply the term "feeling," which is also the name of the inner sensation produced in our mental organs by contact with thought and affection.
Sight is necessary to correct the very limited impressions of touch, and the inner feelings are modified by the understanding; but in both cases [p. 234] the sense of relation to us comes through the touch. Therefore it is that touch signifies in spiritual language communication of affection; for by touch the sensitive papillae are modified in form to agree with the object of contact, and they either extend themselves with pleasure and open their little pores to receive the influence presented to them, or they shrink with aversion and close their doors. Spheres of life, and of effluvia partaking of the quality and activity of the life, are both communicated and received through the skin; and the touch, including the delicate sense of the quality of spheres, guards all the doors.
At the approach of danger, real or imaginary, it orders the doors to be shut, the armor of the skin to be more firmly held, and even the little hairs to be erected and put forth as feelers. But when agreeable influences are felt, the armor is loosened, the advanced capillary guards withdrawn and laid down, and the doors thrown open wide for sweet interchange of congenial life. Hence the highest use of this sense is with two whose [p. 235] lives are one, and Swedenborg says that it is dedicated to marriage.
Swedenborg says that the coverings of the tabernacle of the Israelites, composed successively of fine linen, of goats' hair, of rams' skins, and of a coarser skin outside, represent the four layers of skin which cover the body. (A. C. 9632.) Here he treats as two the papillary layer of the corium, and the fibrous layer beneath. Upon the inner curtains of fine linen were embroidered cherubs, which Swedenborg says represented the guard of the Lord lest the Holy Divine should be approached except by the good of love. (A. C. 9509.) Applied to the heavens this would mean the sensitiveness of the heavens from the Lord lest they should be approached or entered except by those who are in love to the Lord and the neighbor. And this sensitiveness resides with those who constitute the inner skin.
I have been speaking of the spheres of the body and of the mind as if they always acted together as one and were received as one. This [p. 236] may be so and may not. In any case the sense of touch properly has to do only with the body and the spheres of the body; and spiritual substances and influences are perceived by the corresponding sense of the mind, which, indeed, is commonly called, in its nice discriminations of mutual relation, "tact" or touch. In the spiritual world, mind and body are in agreement; and those who have delicate tact, or perception of spiritual relations, have also delicate skins. Swedenborg says, --
"The conformation of the interweavings of the skin has been shown me representatively. The formation with those in whom those most external things correspond to the interiors, or the material things there are obedient to spiritual, was a beautiful weaving of spirals wonderfully intertwined in a kind of lace-work which cannot at all be described. They were of blue color. Afterwards were represented forms still more elaborate, more delicate, and more beautifully connected. Of such a structure appear the cuticles of a regenerate man. But with those who have been deceitful, these extremes appear conglutinations of mere serpents; and with [p. 237] those who have used magical arts, like filthy intestines." (n. 5559.)
Of the scarf-skin of the body, he says, --
"That skin is less sensitive than any other of the coverings, for it is covered over with scales which are almost like delicate cartilage. The societies which constitute it are they who reason concerning all things whether it be so or not so, nor do they go any further. [This is like the obtuseness of the cuticle which has no life or perception of its own, but merely collects impressions of all sorts, not discriminating among them itself.] When I talked with them, it was given to perceive that they did not at all apprehend what is true or not true, and they who have reasoned most apprehend the least. Still, they seem to themselves wiser than others, for they place wisdom in the faculty of arguing. They are utterly ignorant that the essential thing in wisdom is to perceive without arguing, that it is so or is not so. Many such are from those who in the world were made so by a confusion of good and truth through philosophicals; who have hence the less common sense." (n. 5556.)
This appears to be said of the horny scarf-skin [p. 238] proper. But in A. C. 5553, it is said that "the societies to whom the cuticles correspond are in the entrance to heaven, and there is given to them perception of the quality of the spirits who approach the first threshold, whom they either reject or admit; so that they may be called entrances or doorways to heaven." Apparently in "the cuticles" he here includes the whole skin in general, and also the linings of the stomach and intestines, and what is said may, in part, refer to these last. (Compare n. 8980.) But it is also true that the orifices of the minute ducts, as to their function, of absorbing ethereal aliment for the body, are like portals to heaven, through which they who die in earliest infancy and before the embryonic state is completed, are caught up by the quickest and shortest ways into their appropriate province in heaven.(1)
"There are very many societies who constitute the external integuments of the body, with [p. 239] differences from the face to the soles of feet; for there are differences everywhere. I have talked much with them. As regards spiritual life they are such that they allow themselves to be persuaded by others that a thing is so; and when they heard it confirmed from the literal sense of the Word, they altogether believed it, and remained in the opinion, and resolved upon a life, not bad, according to it. Intercourse with them cannot easily be had by others who are not of a similar disposition, for they adhere tenaciously to the opinions they have formed, nor do they suffer themselves to be led away by reasons. There are a great many such from this earth, because our planet is in externals, and also reacts against internals, like the skin." (n. 5554.)
The people of our earth are like the skin in this, that their whole natures are turned outwards to receive impressions from the world. Therefore the impressions of sense are here organized into sciences which do not exist upon any other earth. Therefore also the Word, by which the whole heaven is made, received its literal sense upon this earth; and this literal sense can be turned hither and thither, and is composed of facts of [p. 240] little or no spiritual life, which understood literally by us convey impressions of far different character to the angels, and serve to ultimate, generalize, contain, and suggest the wisdom and spiritual life of the heavens.
The order of development of the body, from the purest fibres by means of the extremities of the vessels in the skin, and then the interiors, must also be the order of development of the Greatest Man, consisting of the heavens and the church, and also of the Word itself. Swedenborg says, --
"The Lord flows in from firsts through lasts, thus from Himself into the natural sense of the Word, and calls out or evolves thence its spiritual and celestial senses, and thus illustrating, teaches and leads the angels." (S. S. Post. 18.)
"The Word in ultimates is the sense of the letter; the Word in firsts is the Lord, and the Word in interiors is its internal sense which is perceived in the heavens. . . . Man in ultimates is the church on the earths, man in firsts is the Lord, man in interiors is heaven, for the church and heaven before the Lord are as one man." (A. C. 10,044.) [p. 241]
Before there were angels, men were created upon the earths by the Lord, and by their interior development the heavens were filled with angels. And before the Divine truth could be taught to the heavens, it must have been taught in a very pure, simple, literal sense of the Word, given immediately from God to men. From this literal sense were evolved the spiritual truths which make the heavens; and these were received in the minds of men who became angels; and these angels were the mediums of making still further revelations of the Lord to men, which again were the beginnings of new heavenly forms; and thus the man grew, every new growth springing from life from God through the internal, first received, lived, and fixed in the external.
It is a knowledge of the mere letter of the Word which is like the insensible cuticle; a perception of the natural goodness of God in dealing with men, of His providence, and of His wisdom, belongs to the sensitive papillae beneath the cuticle. Of the varieties of these Swedenborg says [p. 242] nothing, and very little of their uses of absorption and perspiration; but I cannot doubt that they have relation to the loves of receiving the spirit which breathes through the letter of the Word, and which is genuine truth for the deepest thought; and of separating from the thought that which has done its use, and should no longer circulate in the thought.
Of the mode of action of those in the Greatest Man whose duty it is to accept the true and to separate the useless thought, Swedenborg says, --
"There are spirits who when they wish to know anything say that it is so, thus one after another in society; and thus, when they say it, they observe whether it flows freely, without any spiritual resistance; for when it is not so, they generally perceive a resistance from within; if they do not perceive resistance, they think that it is so, and do not know it in any other way. Such are they who constitute the glands of the skin." (n. 5558.)
Swedenborg often speaks of the skin as corresponding to those who are in truths of faith only, and not in goods of charity, and who act there- [p. 243] fore not from a love of good in themselves but by direction from without: "they who are such even to the end of life, after death remain in that state, nor can they be led out to a state in which they will act from affection of charity, thus from good, but from obedience. These in the Greatest Man, which is heaven, constitute the things which serve the interiors, like the membranes and skins." (n. 8990.)(2) For, after all, the skin is a passive sort of agent, which loves to absorb, to test, and to excrete, but not to do or to produce; and it must correspond to those who are of like character. As a covering, also, it goes where it is carried, touches what it is made to touch, and has no power of seeking or shunning, but merely of warning others.
Life is covered with forms and usages which are neither good nor bad in themselves. To do away with these neutral things, and make every thing a matter of conscience, is like removing the [p. 244] cuticle and exposing the cutis to pain from every touch.
If we are very sensitive about things which are of little importance in themselves, we are what is called thin-skinned, and in associating with others we are continually getting hurt. It is the wise way in such cases to withdraw our life from such really unimportant things, let them become dead and like callosities, which can bear friction without pain. But to become indifferent and callous about things of real importance to spiritual life is to become stupid.
2 See also n. 8588, 8870, 8980, 9959.