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The Antifa Whisperer

Its no secret that the taxonomical spread of the American right is longing for an apocalyptic confrontation with antifa. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, like Louise Mensch and her agents of Russian influence, they see antifa everywhere. This is developing into an obsession. They think about antifa at the shooting range. They think about antifa at the gym. The nazis overestimate antifa, the antifa overestimate the nazis, and a general ratcheting up occurs until some moron fires the first shot. Large scale conflicts and civil wars often creep up this way, insidiously, everybody waiting for John Brown to pop out of the bushes and “accelerate the contradictions.” Fire the first shot of the race war, BABY! 
It has been bizarre to watch the American right discover and latch onto antifa in the past two years, as if they actually understood it or its premises. To hear Trump shout Aunttttieee-fa! with stank on his breath at a Phoenix rally and listen to the crowd of several thousand previously-normal suburban Republicans go wild, it’s hallucionagenic. For most previous presidential administrations, anarchists were a mosquito-like annoyance to be left to the police, but the Europe-watchers at Breitbart have imported that most "cosmopolitan" of European phenomenons across the pond and now Trump is talking about “black clad goons.”

Antifa as a thing on the US left is also a relatively new development. In the long hangover between the WTO riots of Seattle and Occupy, only a small clique talked about antifa; those that did were largely expats returned from extended European squatter vacations with mullets and St. Pauli t-shirts. Last August, 350,000 people signed a Whitehouse.gov petition calling for antifa to be re-classed as a terrorist organization. Politico has published a report citing anonymous sources that claims the Department of Homeland Security quietly put antifa on a domestic terror watch-list during the 2016 presidential campaign. About a year ago, a monument in Wisconsin to the republican volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, was graffiti’d with Antifa Sucks, Trump Rules and swastikas. 

Antifa has no reliable social base. In spite of all the videos and memes and the suddenly-fascism-obsessed Trump Resistance, they are self-marginalized, making them an easy scapegoat for an administration that has fought an uphill battle in their efforts to squeeze other groups.

Since Trump’s victory, we live in a golden age for totalitarianism experts. Previously-hermetic fascism scholars and commentators have been mainstreamed as sought-after public intellectuals and cable talking heads. Liberal commentators now casually debate the Weimar Republic and the abortive Spartacist uprising with red-rose DSA avatars on Twitter. 

Into this sewer, this state of social sepsis, enter Dartmouth antifa scholar and former Occupy organizer Mark Bray. After the riots in Berkeley and Charlottesville, the liberals badly needed someone to explain antifa for them. The antifa, of course, were unwilling to do this themselves. As a telegenic young lecturer with Ivy credentials and a perfectly timed book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, he was tapped by the producers to be the Official-Antifa-Whisperer. As both an ethnographer of the faction and a true believer himself, he offered a glimpse into the thrilling subculture of masked heroes, ‘brickbats’ and rationalized nazi-punching. He took on the unenviable task of explaining the motives of a media-allergic tendency to the liberal commentariat.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single expert appear and debate and be interviewed on such a wide range of media platforms in such a short amount of time. Bray performed his duties as unofficial antifa-spokesman admirably, sparring with skeptical magazine editors and pundits. The discourse around antifa’s tactics has been predictably binary, basically a re-hashing of the “black bloc anarchist” debate under a new names. Now that we live under “fascism” there’s a bit more public sympathy for “resistance.” Still, little interesting gets said and the bulk of commentary falls into two categories: condescending liberal pedantry (There’s no excuse for violence, the Civil Rights movement is a preferable model, these people are not representative) or dyed-in-the-wool triumphalism (brave antifa! brave nazi-punchers! Remember the Battle of Cabal Street!) “No platforming” is what the most vocal and angry ultra-radical faction are into, so who the hell are we to criticize the stupid things they do? Diversity of tactics!

There is nothing liberals like more than being explained a previously-unknown underground culture or tendency by an insider; they feel like they are getting in early on the Next Big Thing. And liberal public opinion compulsively assumes that whatever the telegenic young ultra-radicals have coming down the pipe must be cool new thing, must be correct, because its new and exciting. The ultras, being the youngest and farthest to the left, and most vocal, are automatically assumed to have the coolest and most exciting analysis.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is intended as a breezy historical primer for the uninitiated, who want to brush up on the origins and rationale behind antifa. Anti-fascism before 1945 is given a quick gloss, while the bulk of the book is dedicated to a lower-frequencies oral history of the subcultural skirmishes between the international, mostly Western-European antifa and neo-nazis since the 1970s. Even for someone familiar with the concepts and history, it is interesting to watch and read Bray, for how he so studiously toes the antifa line. There of course is no “official” antifa line, but you basically already know what it is: present antifa as a “self-defense” vanguard for marginalized people (using the relative diversity within coastal, insurrectionary anarchist circles to claim antifa speaks for the subaltern),  explain and rationalize their tactical decisions or lack thereof.  If there is an argument to be had, it is probably with a strawman non-violent liberal rambling on about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and democratic norms. When all else fails, just shrug and say: its autonomous, no one is in control, mistakes get made because people are angry. 

Bray claims that antifa’s hyper-vigilance springs from the fact that they’re aware that many leading fascists started out as laughable, marginal figures and they want to to reckon with them while they’re still in utero.

He also fetishizes the noble left-wing failure: Occupy, Paris 1968, Italy’s Autonomia, the banlieue riots, the periodic militant solar flares bursting out from Athens’ anarchist-controlled neighborhoods. The anecdotes and stories all follow a similar utopian story arc: some brave, autonomous souls in Italy, Germany, Utah, or Indiana anti-racists got together in their city and violently resisted fascists in the streets. By putting undecided local people into a polarizing situation, they even garnered a modicum of support from local shopkeepers and youths, who joined in the throwing of cobblestones and dumping of chamber pots. Then, they melted back into the alleyways and punk clubs, having driven the neo-nazi scourge back into their hives of villainy. Like a good movie plot, it pulls the heartstrings and checks all the boxes that make you feel good. 

Then, a brief, muttered footnote, like the ultra-fine-print at the bottom of a contract: The far-right actually temporarily harvested political gains from the aforementioned action or endeavor. The aftermath and success of these fleeting nazi-bashings isn’t seriously analyzed or reflected upon because the unpleasant truth is that it made fascists stronger. Oh well, onto the next barricade.

For many people with faith in antifa and nazi-punching, there is a premise that reactionary hate is a nearly protean force—it periodically rises inexplicably in society, like a malignant tumor, and the job of antifa is to be the white blood cells that put it down before it spreads. “How many murderous fascist movements have been nipped in the bud over the past seventy years by antifa groups before their violence could metastasize? We will never know,” he writes, with enviable optimism. This argument smudges and blots out the fact that reaction can be spurred forward by the political and strategic failures of the left.

Small groups of punks and skinheads beating and stabbing each other outside of Utah punk clubs in the 90s is interesting to me personally, but in this time of great political earthquakes and re-alignments, should the small and obscure be focused on and reified in such a way? The little skirmishes between pro-nazi punks and anti-fascist anarchists of the last 30 years are the faint burning embers and smoke in the aftermath of a great conflagration. It is unfortunate that Bray breezes so quickly over the most important period of anti-fascism, the 1930s and 1940s—when the stakes were the highest and anti-fascism ascended to the level of mass armed guerilla resistance and in certain countries was made official state ideology.

Fascism emerged in direct response to the tsunami of revolutionary ardor after the success of the Bolshevik revolution. All roads to fascism lead back to a panicked desperation of desiccated old regime elites, nationalist veterans, and industrialists as they struggled to contain the Soviet bacillus to Eurasia. Its hard to overemphasize the impact the Bolshevik revolution had Western European and American revolutionaries and the fear that must have gripped the hearts of elites when they realized that this problem wouldn’t go away in six months. The Bolsheviks were gambling and spending heavily so that Germany, Italy, Poland,  China, Hungary would all overthrow their regimes and the world revolution could link up in the rubble of empires. In 1920, Lenin wrote to Stalin that the “revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately… Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands, and Romania.” 

As Russia fought a grinding civil war and made pushes into Poland and Ukraine, a wave of strikes and uprisings tore across Europe in 1917-1919—the Spartacist uprising, Bienno Rosso in Italy, civil war in Finland, Hungary—it was precisely in this moment that what we know today as ‘fascism’ was born. The Bolsheviks were waiting on German revolutionaries to take over, opening the door to the rest of Europe. Armed young Great War veterans threw themselves into desperately snuffing out their local revolutionists, making inroads with old regime conservatives and industrialists; Social Democrats sold their erstwhile comrades down the river in an attempt to maintain order. Even after the German and Hungarian revolutions were put down with the help of proto-fascist World War I veterans, Lenin kept looking for a door or a window to ignite the Soviet wave in Europe. 

Just as there could be no Civil Rights Act without the black power movement, there would be probably be no modern European social democracy or its perverse doppelgänger—corporatist fascism—without the implicit threat of armed communists linking up with the Soviet colossus and taking power. Modern social democracy as we know it emerged directly from big bad Bolshevism banging at the door—suddenly, the industrialists and bosses were willing to share profits, make a class compromise with workers—it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it was heart-rending fear.

Strangely, Bray claims that left-wing violence played no part in the rise of fascism—this is a kind of whitewashing to make the modern antifa a bit more palatable to the faint of heart. Embedded inside of the communist risings was, of course, violence, the threat of violence, expropriation, armed communist bands and reactionary bands were in the streets. Fascists preyed on widespread desire for law and order. When push comes to shove, most average people want peace and stability and aren’t ready to get totally on board with revolutionary left-wing risings—they turn back towards moderates and reactionaries, back toward the warm embrace of comforting stability. Bray claims it wasn’t about left-wing violence, it was about communist electoral success. But fascists fed on both real and perceived fears of armed left-wing violence like yeast feeds on sugar—it was their central plank, their raison d’etre. Desiccated old regime elites and industrialists made a devils bargain and were ultimately outmaneuvered, blackmailed and won over by populist-fascist outsiders. Our populism is your best bet for survival. This was the reasoning and the implicit threat, and its not much different from the way the “good Republicans” are presently being held hostage by the Trump base.

Accordingly, the first partisan fighters and first victims of fascists were not just random citizens, they were communist party members. Other groups were smeared and subject to hate, but weren’t directly targeted and hunted until later, and at first for the reason of being potential communist collaborators. 

Fascism and communism were and are bound together in a cycle of action and reaction, that reached its Wagnerian crescendo in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a bloodbath unlike any the world has ever seen. Bray seems to think that part of the image issue antifa face is that people don’t understand they are socialists, communists, and anarchist revolutionaries. This doesn’t give people enough credit. People know what antifa is about behind the “anti-fascism”—they just don’t like it. 

Bray’s argument is at its weakest when he mounts a lengthy defense of “no platforming” fascist free speech and against legally restricting hate speech: Why be all worked up about antifa restricting nazi free speech, he seems to be saying, when American history is a history of speech denied to the marginalized. In the space of a couple of pages he goes into a relativistic rabbit-hole of American horrors: COINTELPRO, slavery, Dred Scott, the genocide of Native Americans, the Palmer Raids, Guantanamo Bay, Citizens United, Facebook, corporate control of media…did these not restrict speech? Its not that Bray is wrong. It’s that this argument is as politically unconvincing as going after Christopher Columbus. “America was never great” is almost as bad a rallying cry as “America is already great.” 

As Joseph Goebbels’ Brunhilde Pomsel said in a documentary just before she died in 2017: “People nowadays… say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.” Despite its shortcomings and an overall sense of whitewashing antifa as a knight in shining armor, Bray has done good yeomen work as an educator and popularizer with his books and public appearances. It is all food for thought, and given that the tit-for-tat media and street war between the left and the far-right in America is only growing more polarized, these are important questions to mull over. But the elephant in the living room is avoided: Did it actually do anything or did it just make people feel good? Did it build anything long lasting? ​Does this hurt or help?

In Sighisoara

I had finished reporting in Bucharest, and in the familiar anxious dance—like a prissy dog looking for the perfect spot to piss—was looking for a place to hole up and crank out a draft. “Why don’t you just write it here?” the people at the journalist collective in Bucharest where I was staying on a mattress by a big window in the attic said. The three-story house was cozy and familiar, like a big wooden pirate ship swaying in the waves, and each night in my weeks there I fell asleep comforted by the sounds of people living their lives below—smoking and drinking downstairs, the smell of food wafting up, sirens fading in and out of the open window. It was tempting to stay. I have long dreamt of being a mouse in the collective house, surrounded by but seperate from nearby human beings living their lives in common.

I wanted to see Transylvania. “Transylvania?” the Romanian journalists rolled their eyes. “Whatever you want to do, man.” I had never had any interest in going to Transylvania before, but a visit to the museum of medieval maps—most of them depicting the vast swaths of forest villages that made up Transylvania—piqued my curiosity. In his book In Europe’s Shadow, Robert Kaplan described spending a night in a 12th century clocktower, in a village called Sighisoara—it wasn’t as touristy as Brasov or as bleak as Sighetu Marmetei.

It sounded peaceful and quaint, a functional medieval village on an ancient hillock. I pictured myself there on top of the mountain, in some cheap garrett under the clocktower, my face glinting beatifically in a mote of morning sunlight like that painting “Wanderer in Sea and Fog.”

In the collective’s smoke-filled kitchen, Valentina advised against it. “It’s a weird medieval tourist town.” I asked her where I should go instead. “Sibiu,” she said. But Sibiu sounded to me like the constellation of a bear, and in Google images it looked surrounded by snow-capped mountains of madness, while Sighisoara looked peaceful and quaint, and I loved the way the name sounded in Romanian, soara, Schwaaaaraaaa, rolling off the tongue, lacivious, like an old rug. In Sibiu, I imagined checking into a pension on the industrial edge of town with a grumpy old man—I imagined him monitoring my comings and goings and yelling at me about how to properly drain the water from the tiny plastic shower. I would end up in some cool little bar with strange but friendly young people. I wanted to hole up against the world, shield myself from the world, not meet anyone.

Sighisoara it was. It was cheap, hidden, and exotic-sounding, like Fes, Cipango—I wanted to go to those places too. When travelling blind, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions like this, based on ridiculous illusions and intuitive caricatures. I left Bucharest’s Gare du Nord on an old, half-empty train at noon. The seats were blood-red and stained, and the only other passengers were elderly people in a kind of fugue, as if in suspension fluid. The gray early spring flew by out the window—shacks, cloddy flat fields, and one-eyed factories. We pulled through Brasov, a depressing-looking too-large town, and then left the mainline into alpine wilderness, where the escarpment of the mighty snow-covered Carpathians rose like the Paramount Pictures logo, behind the wooden Transylvania-style houses. At each village station we passed a handsome train signalman standing stoically in white gloves with his colored-paddle, like in the movie Closely Watched Trains. Transylvania really looked like Transylvania. Like a Hollywood sound stage of Transylvania, the Carpathians as awe-inspiring as the Rockies.

On trains, you often know you’re arriving at the destination by the stirring sense of anticipation that rises from the other passengers. We chugged into Sighisoara’s four-track canopied station. There is something eternal in it, the weary traveler arriving in the provincial train station at dusk, carrying a heavy backpack. Locals streamed onto the platform, the old train wheezed and croaked, and the fading light illuminated the dome of an Orthodox church set back in a fallow vineyard in just the right way. As Vasily Grossman wrote in Armenian Sketchbook:

Your first minutes on the street of an unfamiliar city are always special; what happens in later months or years can never supplant them. These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention. With penetrating insight and an all-pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe—houses, trees, faces of passerby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the color of the sky. During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being.

The journey had been long, and I felt tingly and expectant. I was relieved that it seemed to be a town of substance, with real neighborhoods and a river, not just a one-horse village. To get from the platform to the train station, I walked through a dark underpass that reeked of stale piss. This was the first thing I found strange about Sighisoara—in a provincial village, surrounded by eldritch woods and mountains, why did the tunnel reek of piss?

The tunnel came out in front of the stolid neoclassical little train station, like Jefferson’s Monticello. I set off walking, magnetized towards the mountain at the center of town, through empty neighborhoods where teenage boys stood on street corners, an old man bar, a sad little in-between graveyard, eventually arriving at a plaza and church by a reedy brown river. Parents pushed strollers and morosely watched their children stomp around. A footbridge went across the river and at the sheer base of the mountain, I found the little crumbling staircase up to the fortressed old city, passing by several empty tourist restaurants. Painted plastic waiter figurines were posted outside all the restaraunts like sentries. 

At the top of the fortress, I caught my breath. The center of town was completely empty. There was a BMW parked beside a wide-eyed statue of Dracula’s father, Vlad Tepes. There was an empty bar with a neon red sign. It was a tourist town I suppose in the summer but everything was closed down. When I did stumble on a resident opening or closing the door to a 12th century home, they averted their gaze, and went about their business—there was no provincial friendliness, no curiosity, no ‘are you lost.’

It is rare that one gets to experience UNESCO heritage completely alone, with no signs and audio tours and museums and guides and touts. The bells of the clocktower, an incredible gothic structure with painted figurines, rang out across the smoky valley. I wandered the perimeter of the fortress, inspecting the old walls and wooden guard towers at its corners.  I felt lucky and happy to see it, if a bit ill at ease. It was too quiet. 

As night fell, I wandered the entire old town as a completionist, feeling like I needed to cover every alley, every inch of its four corners. When I was done I stepped into the creaking wooden floors of the one open hotel, Hotel Sighisoara, and looked into its restaurant, considering having dinner—it was completely empty, all the tables perfectly set with glasses and silverware, but nobody was there. I have a phobia that there should really be a word for—“fear of empty restaraunts.”

Certain places all of a sudden become frightening—while technically you could adapt and stay put, you ache to leave immediately, to be someplace more soothing, if not some place more soothing, then on a train, that beloved in-between neutral place.Having seen the entirety of the old fortress in an hour and not seeing a soul I had to admit to myself that there was no way in hell I would stay for one night, let alone several days. I hate rural emptiness—empty restaraunts, empty plazas, the freezerburned bovine Midwest of the sol opening up a void of dread inside. The stone walls of the buildings would be unable to keep out the emptiness outside and the emptiness would slip in and overtake me. I realized that Valentina was right, and reproached myself for not knowing myself better, for leaving Bucharest, where life had been warm and interesting and had a point. 

 I descended the steps back to the new town, thinking that it might be better down there, hoping to find some more energy, more life. The new town below was completely different—cars, pedestrians, restaurants. Life, culture! There were glitzy pizzerias and patio bars with outdoor couches and firepits, provincial nouveau-riche spots, where bald men in track suits tried to impress their girlfriends. Through the windows of a business hotel, middle-aged men ate steaks and grew red-faced. But the whole place eaten through with a why-would-you-come-here-I’m-trying-to-escape-this-place attitude. Without my input, my feet started carrying me back towards the train station. I didn’t know where I would go or why.

The little white train station, which had seemed neutral at dusk, took on a more sinister look in the dark. The dimly lit marble lobby was empty except for two stone benches by the door, the kind of benches they have in graveyards. On each bench was an old person—a man and woman—in the fugue who stared into the nothingness and silence. The monitor displaying the train times was broken and flickering. The eyes of the old woman and old man followed my every move. I went over to the ticket window and tapped on the glass. A woman in her thirties or forties was sitting back on a couch in an office doing her nails. There was a train to Bucharest at two AM she told me, and a train to Budapest in a couple of hours. I thanked her and walked away to think about it. Overwhelmed by the empty strangeness of the room, I walked over to the train station bar, where I thought I might find some clarity.

The bar was a kind of still life, an Edward Hopper painting. There was no music. The woman behind the counter stopped polishing her glass and glared. A beaten down traveler sitting with a bottle of beer and a shot jerked his head up. There were three video poker machines all turned off. 

At a table littered with empty bottles and half-smoked packs of cigarettes were a rail-thin young Roma girl and two menacing-looking older provincial Romanian men, who all looked fucked up and had the eternal air of petty criminality about them, the bad guys in the Goonies—they were not travelling anywhere, just hanging out. They stepped out onto the patio to smoke. I went outside to smoke as well. The girl started talking to me in Romanian. “I don’t speak Romanian,” I told her. “Ah,” she wobbled, “English…Where you from? Cigarette?” she smiled, putting her hand to her lips. 

I gave her one and she turned back to her guys, who eyed me suspiciously, and the three of them went back to their table. Back inside, I sat down and nursed a bottle of beer, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to Bucharest but the shame of having come all the way out to Sighisoara and going back in the same day seemed like too much—no one would say anything, but it still struck me as wrong. The beaten-down traveller and the bartender kept looking between the table of three and me with disturbed looks on their faces. They looked scared of them.

I went out for another cigarette. The night was dark and the train station was set back from the road. Everything seemed moldy. A middle-aged man and an older man came up a staircase from town to the train station. The young man was berating the older man. Then they both disappeared. I looked inside the fluorescent grim little train station bar from outside. The three sketchy individuals were whispering to each other around the table, it looked like a painting.

From the trees came an insane racket of night birds, birds with a horrible cackle unlike anything I have ever heard before. It was like a foghorn ringing out, saying leave this place, leave this place. Sighisoara had been normal in daylight—what happened? Now it felt like a strange noir, the provincial fear of an eerie little place where children sit around decapitating butterflies. I did not know where to go or what to do but I felt a strong urge to flee—new town was too far of a walk, I had a terrible feeling at the bar, so I went back inside the main train station, taking a seat on one of the benches beside the elderly woman, who hadn’t moved.

The light was very dim and it was quiet. The old man stared at me and I stared back and he turned away and when he turned away I stared at the huge purple scar running from his temple to his jaw. The older woman seemed kind—she chattered to me in Romanian and I shrugged my shoulders. She made more space on the bench, but I waved her away, no, no, I don’t need more space, thank you so much. I lay my head against the wall and she moved further, making space for me to lay down, then came over to me and tried to say something I couldn’t understand. The old man watched. 

She got up and walked around then came back and tried to show me something, then seemed to ask me to watch her bag that she had hidden behind the bench, and I nodded yeah, I’ll watch your bag. A middle-aged man with dark hair and black circles under his eyes came into the station with his suitcase and sat beside the old man. All of us stared at the old woman who was pacing the floor and muttering to herself, then she came back to sit beside me—she pushed her bag into my face then pulled it away. I shrugged and made my best, “I’m a stupid American,” face, but she seemed to want to explain something very urgently. The middle aged man made eye contact with me from the bench on the other side and indicated, with the universal hand symbol, that she was “crazy” or not well. This made everything make more sense. 

The middle age man and elderly man began gesticulating and waving to me that I could come join them on their bench, but I waved them away, staying with the elderly woman but looking away as she talked to me. After a while, I got sick of this and paced the hallway, then went into the bar where the criminals glared, then went back outside where the evil birds mocked me, round and round in this circular round until I felt I couldn’t wait until two AM and had to leave as soon as possible and that Sighisoara was against me. I bought a ticket to Budapest at window. 

When the headlights of the train came out of that misty Eastern European darkness, I jumped aboard and settled in, grateful for a neutral place to exist for a while even if it was under bright fluorescent lights, and fell asleep. But all night, every hour or two, ticket controllers came by and jabbed a finger into my shoulder to check and recheck my ticket, even after it had already been scanned. They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in shaking the passengers awake, the way sadistic security guards do with homeless people sleeping in public places where you’re not supposed to sleep. People by and large do not want the best for one another.

The lights in the train wagon were very bright and it was hard to see out the window, but I drifted in and out of sleep, the landscape outside a kind of empty Martian landscape of a few dim bedraggled lights of factories or houses in the distance. It was misty and sad, the central European blood lands, the in-between zone of empires.

The train arrived in Budapest at 10 AM. The temperature but also the ambiance was much colder than warm, Latinate Bucharest. The coffee was four times the price of coffee in Romania. I hadn’t been to Hungary for years. I had fond memories of spending a night in a grand old worn-down hotel at the center of town, with a wonderful wood-panelled newspaper room in its lobby. I decided to go there. It was familiar. 

I arrived to the lobby under a slate grey sky and got a room. My room was not so different from the room all those years before, but as I got in and lay down my bag, I looked out the window, which looked on a concrete cornice of a nearby building that blended with the sky, and felt sad and ridiculous. The bathroom faucet sputtered brown water. A couple of gnats circled by the headboard of my little single bed-tomb. I lay down on the bed and watched the circling gnats. I pulled out my tape recorder and notepads and started the familiar work of composing a draft.

Bog Person

saw my first bog person on the windswept, rocky West Coast of Sweden.  Inside the white walls of a candleabra-filled, Valhalla-like bastion where Swedish kings had duked it out with the Danes for hundreds of years, I stumbled on Bocksten man.

He died sometime in the Middle Ages. The first thing you notice is his hair—lush, curly red locks on a skull, preserved as in life. Like most bog people, he suffered a gruesome death. First, he was killed by a blow to the head. Then, a stake was driven through his heart. Then someone impaled him so he would stay at the bottom of the lake.Thats right, they had gone through the effort of impaling him with spikes so his body would stay at the bottom. The reconstructed wax model of him was the spitting image of Frodo Baggins—the hooded cloak, the sheathed dagger. His brown, hair-shirt cloak survived in perfect condition. He was about six foot one and probably thirty five years old when he met his ignominous end. The idea was clearly to double-kill him so he wouldn't come  back to life and haunt or take revenge on his killers.

You respect him more when you think about the lengths they went through to keep him down even after death. A massive piece of building timber juts out of his exposed ribcage. And that beautiful hair. I wanted to break through the glass case and run my fingers through it.

Poor Bocksten man. What did he do? Why go through all that? Was he some kind of witch and they were worried he was going to reanimate if they didn’t fasten that body down with spikes? If you had stumbled onto this scene, you would have asked: What exactly is going on here? 

Bocksten man was discovered in 1936 by a Swedish scholar on his way to a midsummer party in the seaside village of Varberg. According to the Danish scholar P.V. Glob—whose name is so perfectly suited for his authorship of the seminal monograph The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved—he could have been a rabble-rouser killed by local peasants for trying to agitate against the Danish king. “The bog is the meeting point of four parishes and according to old beliefs he would not be able to escape from such a spot to revenge himself on his murderers,” Glob wrote.

After that I was hooked. In this time of Jamal Khashoggi, it is not hard to find oneself musing on the permeability of the human form. One day, you leave your wife and walk into the Saudi Embassy to deal with some bureacracy. Several hours later, you leave in the back of a black van, entirely reconstituted. Horrifying. Unconscionable. But real. Without the benefit of time travel or an Encino Man scenario, what other opportunity do we have to see a person from two thousand years ago in the full? For the body to survive almost totally intact over the centuries, tanned by bog acids, seems almost like a miracle of permeability. As the sweet, ever-sensitive and curious Glob wrote, “Death is the inescapable lot of man, and it comes in many guises. Among the Iron Age people from the peat bogs we have seen the signs of death in its grimmest forms… Yet these are the ones the bogs have preserved as individuals down to our own day, while all their relatives and contemporaries from the eight centuries of the Iron Age have totally vanished or at most only survive as skeletons in their graves.”

Bog people have been found across a broad swath of Northern Europe from 1450 to present. Many were discovered during the years of World War II, when the war-exhausted populations in Northern Europe were forced out into the bogs to cut peat for home fuel, like their ancestors from the Middle Ages.

Bog peoples hands and feet are delicate and smooth—they were unaccustomed to labor. The last meal found in their stomachs is often a specific combination of spring grains and seeds, lending support to the hypothesis that they’re sacrifices to spring. Many also have a special twisted noose tied around their necks, which serves no clear function.

The ancient historian Tacitus, in his writings on the Germanic tribes, suggested that bog people were human sacrifices. The victims were possibly chosen by drawing straws. He added that, according to Germanic law, “traitors and deserters are hung from trees; cowards, poor fighters, and notorious evil livers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.” This theory was taken up and utilized for other purposes by nazi antiquarians.

The most stunning of all bog persons is Denmark’s Tollund Man—his perfectly marbleized form, his serenely sleeping face, his well-kempt fingers and toenails, the delicate bit of stubble on his chin, the perfectly preserved noose around his neck that was used to strangle him. Nothing compares to him in terms of sheer preservation of an ancient person—not Pompeii, not the Egyptian mummies. At 2,300 years old,  the bog acids have made his head the best preserved in the world. 

I wasn’t necessarily seeking them out, but the bog people found me again in a dimly lit corner of Dublin’s National Museum.The Irish bog people were a different breed altogether. They were also around two thousand years old. But many had suffered unfortunate encounters with peat-cutting machinery or been otherwise decapitated or rearranged before their discovery. This has left them undefined and protoplasmic, chunks and sections of person, like grindhouse horror, or the thing coming out of the TV in that David Cronenberg movie.

Still, what is human is still discernible—Clonyclaven man’s flattened face is as immediately shocking and horrifying as coming upon a person who has just been hit by a car. You are hit with an immediate wave of empathy and worry for a fellow human. And that striking pile of beautiful red hair on his head, undying and ageless, not so different from our president’s. Researchers have found that he was wearing imported hair gel at the time of his death.

Old Croghan man too, reduced to just torso and arms. And yet, the arms are held out and flexing in a power pose of defiance—the skin is deflated and leathery, but you can make out all the strength that was there in life. There is even a lovely woven band wrapped around his left bicep.

I stood in the little altar-like nook with Clonyclaven man for a long time. Onlookers and children streamed past, each group shocked and awed. I felt like I was paying my respects to a dead relative. Reluctantly, indecisively, I exited the chamber and went to find my girlfriend. As soon as I left, I heard a little whisper over my shoulder. Thinking it was her, that she had gone in there and was looking for me, I went back into the prayer nook. It was empty aside from the man lying there in the glass case, mutely crying out, trying to send some message from across the millenia