I first met the mild mannered Poe at the bus-stop near the University where where we both worked. We had a lot in common. He was a teacher and a writer — an intellectual of sorts. He was from a small town in Ireland and we talked about Irish writers like Joyce and Becket.
It turned out we were neighbours, and glad to meet and talk ideas, we went out to the pub for a few pints. I told him that I had been conceived in Dublin and had an Irish grandmother, and I liked to think that my Irish roots ran deep. We got along like a house on fire. In the dim light I saw Poe’s true Irish colours — he could certainly drink me under the table.
I first pegged Poe as a typical leftist when he started talking politics—which weren’t really my thing. He talked about American imperialism, class struggle, the Palestinian occupation—the usual grab bag of leftist concerns. However, there was something different about Poe: he didn't look like the usual hipster leftist but more like an old school revolutionary, with his tweed cap, red tie, and suit jacket.
The conversation took a bizarre turn when he began to talk about Joseph Stalin in glowing terms—Stalin the statesman, Stalin the poet he called him. The 5 to 60 million corpses (take your pick) were merely imperialist lies, he told me. The Gulags were actually nice reform camps.
Poe had some weird ideas—to understate the case. His version of history was quite different than anyone else’s I knew—he lived in an alternative universe. Historical record didn’t really exist in his world — all that was made up by the imperialists. He believed himself to be in possession of the truth, the real story.
Where did he get his alternative information? I wondered. How could a smart guy who had read Michel Foucault and who spoke several languages really believe this stuff? What caused him to be engaged in such diabolical research? His whole world seemed quite intricate and uncanny to me, like a dark Alice in Wonderland.
After a couple of pints we took the conversation over to his place, and he pulled out the Irish Whiskey. We talked late into the night, and I am ashamed to say I got totally wasted that night—in a way I hadn’t been since I was a student. I’m sure I made a pretty sorry impression on his attractive young lawyer wife, when she came home and found her husband’s new friend passed out on the couch.
The wife was kind enough to drive me home, and I found out that she was not a ‘revolutionary’ like Poe but a seemingly ordinary woman. She was a bit concerned about her husbands revolutionary fervour. Therapy might be a good thing for Poe, she told me. They had a young boy who was four years old, and I imagine she was worried about his future.
My memory of that night is a bit wobbly, but I do recall a dark and slightly comical feeling rising up in me when Poe talked about ‘the true science of socialism’. Perhaps my puking in the toilet may have been more than a just a reaction to the cheap whiskey. There was something unwholesome about Poe—a dark aura that surrounded him.
To be honest, on a personal level, I liked the guy — his violent ideologies were at odds with his congenial personality. Or perhaps I was stupid enough to think I could show him the light. There was also a strange dignity to his fanaticism — an uncanny appeal. Poe’s motivations appeared to be pure, even if there was something clearly wrong with him.
That was the weird thing. That even though he was relatively sophisticated and came off as a pretty nice guy — he was a genuine idiot, a true imbecile. And by idiot, I mean someone severely blind to certain fundamental things. He didn’t seem to understand perspective, depth, and colour—which explained his love of socialist realist painting. On the other hand, maybe I was the imbecile, for tagging along with this somewhat dangerous fellow? Would any of his alt-left/alt-right slime rub off on me? Why did I attract such loonies in my life?
Perhaps it was because, as I had learned from psychology, I was high in ‘trait openness’ and had a hard time making boundaries. I tended to meet far out people — I studied them, I wrote about them. My wife, on the other hand, was conscientious and a bit conservative by nature, and wasn’t ready to invite Poe to diner. Growing up in communist Poland, she could smell the poison breeze of hard ideology from miles away.
We went out a couple of other times for more pints and he talked about ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘the deep state’ and other such things. He sent me some PDF books about the Russian Revolution, although I could tell by their tone that they were not really books, but pamphlets of propaganda.
Not wanting to be outdone by his geopolitics, I started reading contemporary leftists like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek — the ones I could stomach. But these guys were not the real ‘iron fisted revolutionaries’ — a phrase he liked to use in his articles—that Poe lusted after. He seemed to be quite fond of a certain kind of violent rhetoric.
Of course, I didn’t know if the ‘trotskyites’ (his favourite insult) like Chomsky or Žižek for example were all part of a global Zionist conspiracy. Or that 9/11 was the sole work of Israel, as he claimed. Or that Isis was a creation of the CIA. When he mentioned ‘The Jewish question’ maybe I should have done the normal thing: unfriend him on facebook and block and report him on Twitter and been done with it.
But instead, and when I figured out that he was a real anti-semitic — a term he actually took to be a compliment — I took it as my sacred duty to crush him with my more enlightened views. I sent him articles by Martin Buber, The Baal Shem Tov and various Rabbi’s on You Tube that my wife, who was obsessed with Jewish culture, listened to.
When Poe wrote a series of vile articles advocating conversion therapy for gays, I bared this insult to my own old gay mother. I loved my mother — I had nothing against Americans or the Jews—I didn’t give a shit about identity tribes, to tell the truth. I liked all kinds of people—I was interested in individuals. Why did I have any measure of affection this little fascist named Poe? Why did I tolerate him?
I should also say that Poe was a ‘journalist’. He worked for some obscure Russian and Iranian news stations which published conspiratorial articles of one kind or another. Poe was actually all over the internet—a real celebrity online—albeit in a small pond. People actually travelled to conferences to hear the same rants I had been subject to on the barstool.
Poe was also quite the traveler, but he didn’t go to the usual places on vacation. In fact, he wanted to start a travel company, which he was going to call, hilariously, ‘Alt Travel’. He went to places like Venezuela, Albania, Burma, and twice a year to Tehran, where he met The Ayatollah and Aleksandr Dugin. He was also interested in visiting North Korea, which he believed was a pretty nice country, contrary to imperialist lies.
It was quite extraordinary the depth of ‘alternative facts’ Poe had at his disposal—how he seemed to consider every wing-nut conspiracy theory as a bald fact. I was strangely fascinated when he told me that there were a huge number of political prisoners in Germany and that pedophiles ran the French and UK government. ‘It has been proven’, he would say. ‘Let’s talk about something else’, I would reply on the train on the way to work, feeling slightly sick to my stomach.
I had my theories about him. That the hubristic noise of his articles and YouTube rants — the fire and fury — were a way to fill that gaping hole in his heart. His father had died when he was young—he needed a daddy figure. That was why he liked dictators so much.
Poe was deaf in one ear which may have affected they way he processed reality: perhaps the right brain’s sense of depth and context wasn’t functioning correctly in him — schizophrenics are know to have deficiencies in the right hemisphere, which is connected to the left side of the body. When I was in high school I knew a schizophrenic guy who reminded of Poe a bit. The former friend had a certain verbal acuity but would suddenly say: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket?’ or ‘Am I the antichrist’? Did Poe had a mild case of schizophrenia, and was schizophrenia related to a conspiratorial fantasies? But all that is speculation.
One day, riding home on a train full of people, he began to explain to me in loud voice that the statistics about the holocaust had been fabricated. Ok, so he was holocaust denier to boot! Why did I just listen? Why didn’t I punch him in the face? Isn’t that what you were supposed to do these days when you met a real fascist?
Actually, a young guy who overheard our conversation did come over. He was trembling with anger. His grandfather had been in the holocaust and he wanted Poe to shut the hell up. Poe was cool as a cucumber. I just sat there watching the scene like one of the Germans who did nothing as they dragged the Jews away. Was I an enabler?
When Poe got fired from the first job, I helped him—believe it or not—to get another job. I naively believed that now that he was a Catholic convert and no longer a proponent of dialectical materialism—he might be saved. Maybe religion would temper his radical views. How dumb can you be!
And so Poe was set lose on a classroom of impressionable students to talk about ‘science’ — and guess what? Evolution was, in his mind, a conspiracy theory created by pseudo-scientists funded by George Soros. In any case, for obvious reasons, Poe got fired from that job too — when the students brought his writings to the attention of the administration. He had terrified some young girl in his class.
It turned out Poe couldn’t be an ordinary run of the mill Catholic. He had to be on the extreme end. The current Pope is the antichrist, he told me. We need to evangelise the Africans. If you aren’t a real Catholic, you will certainly go to hell, he told me without blinking.
It was a little strange to hear him talk about hellfire and damnation and his lord Jesus Christ. In six months, he had gone from being a true believer in Joseph Stalin to a true believer Jesus Christ. I preferred the latter, but it seemed to me that they were the same person in his case: Daddy.
In my mind’s eye I see him still sitting there, besides the corpse of the father. A scared little boy. Now in frozen terror. Now raving and alone. He would burn down the whole world for its sins if he could. Just like Uncle Joe had once tried to do.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits