Short Takes

Muttonchops and Horns

Horns pushed his way into the Senate Building with his flag-draped spear. He threatened Capitol police through a bullhorn, lounged in the Vice President’s Chair and called him a traitor. He left a threatening note. He posed for photos.

Later, Horns will claim that he was a late-comer into the halls of Congress, and that far from desecrating the space, he was performing shamanistic purification rites. This was on 60-minutes, from jail, where he has been languishing since January 9. The claims were easily refuted by video and phone evidence.

Horns is media flotsam. He has been coughed up from the depths of the churn and thrown onto the shores of our consciousness. He has been shaped and worn down, like a piece of sea glass, by the currents he entered but then could not escape. Horns was given the name Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley at birth. The “QAnon Shaman” was his nom de guerre. Self-published in 2020, One Mind at a Time: A Deep State of Illusion was issued under Horns’ nom de plume, Jakob Angeli. And he is an angel of a sort—a messenger from another world. Or from the otherness of our own world.

Muttonchops spied in horror a group of men hurrying up State Street: the ‘froth and scum of the meeting, the fringe of idlers on its edge,’ as he later described them. Muttonchops, at the head of the mob, hoisted a fourteen-foot wooden beam. The federal prison in Boston was being attacked. Someone inside began ringing the Court House bell. The men with the battering ram shoved forward; one of the door’s hinges tore; the door tipped to the side. Muttonchops elbowed his way into the room and fought bare-handed, unarmed as he was. The police were swinging swords and billy clubs, and Muttonchops received a cut, nothing severe, on his chin.

Muttonchops was charged with treason, but when the authorities realized that his charismatic whiskers might make him a martyr, the government reduced the charge to disturbing the peace. Unrepentant, Muttonchops went on to run guns to antislavery partisans in Kansas and later he was one of “The Six” funding John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. In the war, Muttonchops led the first regiment comprised of black soldiers.

Like Horns, Muttonchops was arguably a creature of media. He lived to write. He was a regular columnist for The Atlantic Magazine, and his “Letter to a Young Contributor” provoked Emily Dickinson to write to him, thus beginning an intense and strange 20-year friendship. He published many books over the course of his long life under the name of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. His friends knew him as Wentworth.

Horns has apologized for his actions, and he has pleaded guilty to a single count of obstructing a congressional proceeding. He has requested release while awaiting sentencing and is “very appreciative for the court’s willingness to have my mental vulnerabilities examined.” His lawyer has described him as “horrendously smitten” by Donald J. Trump.

Retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger.

Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

“The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” That’s Walter Benjamin, whose late essay “On the Concept of History” argues for an understanding of the past as a kind of “vision”—vivid and ephemeral. Benjamin “wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.” The moment and the image come together, linking a present and a past not in a chain of causes but in a juncture of compelling figures—notions, pictures, juxtapositions—that go off like a camera flash, both blinding you and securing the durability of the last thing you saw.

January 6, 2021 elevated the danger of the moment we live in. Like many, I found myself alarmed and angry, offended at the violence directed at the symbols of government. But why? I am no great supporter of the United States as a government, which I consider criminal in many of its actions. A couple of months after January 6, I read Brenda Wineapple’s very fine double biography of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The attempt to free the captured fugitive slave Anthony Burns—Wentworth at the front of it, hoisting the battering ram, struck me as a heroic action. I was not offended that a federal building was attacked. And then Horns flashed up, and my moment of danger bound itself in a “dialectical image” with Muttonchops.

I have not sorted out the workings of this dialectical image. But it did reveal that my sense of identification with the “state”—my being offended at the insurrectionists’ trashing of the halls of Congress—is a mystification, merely a way to puff up my politics without being fully clear about them. I believe in elections and I don’t believe in slavery. I respect the rule of law and I repudiate the prison industrial complex. But the “state” lies behind all of these positions; they are all articulations of the state and the lawlessness and violence it harbors within it, and that pound away like some infernal engine keeping the state’s carcass alive.

And the dialectical image brought into focus a constellation of class and media. Higginson was Boston blueblood, a fact that saved him from a full treason charge. And he was a denizen of the highest reaches of publishing, all the while imagining that his writing was the most private, least time-bound, affair. (It was this vision that attracted the non-publishing Dickinson). In Higginson’s hands, the media was a tool.

Horns is not so fortunate. There was no question of his being released, but having now pleaded guilty to one charge, prison time may be limited to only 41 months. Media is not the tool of Jacob Chansley, he is its tool. You think you express yourself in all your idiosyncrasy with you face-paint and shaman’s horns, but every selfie is your death mask.

NOTE: On November 17, 2021, Jacob Chansley was sentenced to 41 months in prison.