I have not posted anything on this blog for a while as I was racing, racing, to meet several important September 15th deadlines before I left Stockholm for a week-long vacation with my family in Munich, Germany (where my partner is from). It was a spectacular time going off-grid in the Alps, and seeing dear family and friends, and even enjoying the start of Munich’s annual Oktoberfest (yes, that is me, wearing Lederhosen):

Auf der Wies'n in Munich

However, much of my time here has been overshadowed by the omnipresence of the refugee crisis that is presenting the European Union with its greatest challenge since, perhaps, its political inception. The Munich central train station (Hauptbahnhof) has been a kind of ground zero for immigrants arriving from Austria, Hungary, and elsewhere, with thousands coming in from trains over the last two weeks. On our way from the airport to get to the mountains, I watched border controls search trains arriving from Italy and Austria, and groups of newly arrived refugees sprawled out on the floor of the train station, fitfully sleeping on their belongings, seemingly waiting for one thing or another.

Detained Refugees at Munich's Central Station

It was a jarring feeling to have the freedom to simply walk by these people–thinking of the thousands of miles they had traveled to land here, in a likely bureaucratic limbo, the horror and atrocity of war and displacement that pushed them here, to some dirty train station floor with so many future unknowns–with my little roller suitcase, easily traveling on my American passport from Stockholm, to Munich, and now onto a nice holiday in the mountains. The jolt was partially feeling the arbitrariness of being born into a particular citizenship and inhabiting a certain skin and body, and realizing how little more than the paper fictions enabled by my passport separated me from these other lives. As the video below so powerfully brings out, what has happened in Syria to displace millions could ostensibly happen anywhere, and has happened before in the heart of so-called civilized Europe not so very long ago (as unfortunately some EU member states seem to have forgotten, in their brazen demonization of Syrian refugees as lazy “illegal immigrants” who have come to Europe in order to lap up easy social benefits):

As I am thinking and writing a lot about Swedenborg during this sabbatical year, the visible and invisible borders in an EU country like Germany that are now so apparent, controlling where my (white, able-bodied, American and privileged) body can move and go, and where all these others (usually brown, always religiously “othered”) cannot, have reminded me of those points in Swedenborg’s life that were intersected by similar borders and political crises.

Portrait of Swedenborg as a Young Man

As a young, smart man in the first decade of the 18th century, Swedenborg felt suffocated by the remoteness and comparative provinciality of Sweden, and longed to get to cosmopolitan London. He was hindered, however, by great waves of social unrest–simultaneous outbreaks of the plague, rampant currency inflation, and the constant, disastrous wars that had been undertaken by the Swedish King which had severely taxed the population. In a village not twenty miles from where Swedenborg was living (in Skara), an attempt to conscript more people into the king’s army broke out into riots and lynching. A housewife and peasants were murdered by the mob; the town bailiff was shot a hundred times until “hardly anything whole was left of him,” Swedenborg reported to his brother in-law in a letter, “and they would have had the pigs eat him had not the pastor reprimanded them.” As clergy were representatives of the state church and its proxy to the king, Swedenborg’s family (his dad was a bishop) were at great risk from such outbreaks of discontent. The sophisticated intellectual cultures of Paris and London that Swedenborg had heard about, that he longed to partake in himself, must have seemed quite distant from the threat of illiterate mobs breaking out in the Swedish countryside.

When Swedenborg finally got underway to London in 1710, two years later than originally planned, his ship was shot at by the French navy, then attacked by privateering pirates, and then faced a plague quarantine at the London docks, once the ship limped into English waters. A group of young Swedes already in London approached the Swedish ship by rowboat, and encouraged Swedenborg to jump aboard and join them. He did, breaking the quarantine. He was then quickly arrested by the 18th century equivalent of England’s Border Force, or Immigration Control. The penalty for being an “illegal immigrant” and breaking the naval quarantine was death–hanging, to be more precise. It was only through his family’s high-level political connections (it helps to have a father as a bishop in the state-controlled Swedish church) that Swedenborg avoided becoming executed at age twenty-two.

This incident seems to have perhaps haunted Swedenborg, to a certain extent. Many decades later, when he began keeping his so-called private “dream diary” to document his troubled, intense dreams during his existential crisis in the 1740’s, Swedenborg noted an intense vision of Jesus Christ. Swedenborg “sat” on the lap of Christ, who then asked him if he had a “sundhets pass” — a passport documenting a clean bill of health, precisely the kind of necessary documents he would have had to have shown during the plague quarantine in London, in 1710. Swedenborg interprets the dream (or vision) allegorically in regards to his current research project, but one wonders if there looms behind the question of health, and the request for official documents, this earlier moment of illegal border crossing–when his life was marked by the biopolitical power of the English state.

I may write more about the refugee situation down the road, as it has also continued to affect our life in Sweden. Though I have my Swedish residence permit for myself and my family, you also need in Sweden a separate identity number – the personnummer — that even more than the social security number in the U.S., is required for absolutely every level of civic transaction: you need it for a rental contract, a phone, to have packages sent to an address in the mail, for library cards, for after-school care, and ostensibly for access to Sweden’s public health care system. Getting a personnummer (from the skattaverket, or tax office) should take 1-2 weeks. We are now entering week seven, and still no personnummer — the tax office has told us they are so overwhelmed with the refugee situation, that there is an enormous backlog, and it could take 2-3 months before a number is issued for us. While it is frustrating to be in this bureaucratic limbo, I applaud Sweden for taking in a proportionately high number of refugees (equivalent to 1% of its total population — for the United States to do something comparable, it would need to allow three million refugees in, something staggeringly far above and beyond its current number of 1,500). We chose to be in Sweden for my research; we did not have to flee here because our homes had been burned, and there was no place else to go.

Written by devinzuber

Associate Professor for American Studies, Religion, and Literature at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at Berkeley, California.

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