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Jason Tougaw

Neurology Gets Punked

John Cameron Mitchell's 'Anthem Homunculus' stars a brain tumor.

Anthem Homunculus is a musical, narrative podcast about a guy living with a brain tumor—and crowdfunding his treatment from his trailer. The show's creator, John Cameron Mitchell , plays the protagonist, Caean (pronounced the Irish way, key-en). Laurie Anderson plays the tumor.

Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Glenn Close as Caean's mother
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Cynthia Erivo, as Joan, gospel singer and cult leader
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy Anthem podcast.
Nakhane, as Caean's boyfriend Jairo
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy Anthem podcast.

Enter homunculus. Definition: A tiny person, or "humanoid creature." (I'm not going to give the plot away here, but if you've finished all 10 episodes or don't mind spoliers, you can read more of my interview with Mitchell here .)

As Mitchell explains, "The original term came from the Faustian era of alchemists creating human life. In the original Faust , someone creates a homunculus, which later just became a little man, and Burroughs, as you know, expands on that: The sperm is a homunculus."

Caean develops a relationship with his tumor. It laughs, it talks, it judges and implores. It causes hallucinations, and in Caean's Burroughs-shaped world, a vision is reality. What could be more real than hallucinations manufactured by a tumor played by Laurie Anderson? Like Burroughs, Mitchell plumbs weird biological realities to startle his audience into returning to the big questions: How is life possible? What is consciousness? What happens when we die? What does sex mean? How can humans live together?

The homunculus also plays a big, vexed role in the academic study of consciousness. Neuroscientists and philosophers have spent the better part of a century trying to outrun the idea that consciousness is created by some kind of little person in the brain directing neural traffic.

In his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness , neurobiologist Antonio Damasio observed, "The failure of the homunculus idea to provide a solution for how we know cast doubt on the very notion of self. This was unfortunate." Damasio is responding a "homunculus phobia" —he fear in the scientific community of being associated with an outlandish theory about a little person inside a brain creating selfhood or consciousness. Damasio's point is that this fear steered scientists away from examining the relations between brain, consciousness, and self. When science avoids a topic, art tends to step in. John Cameron Mitchell has resurrected the homunculus.

I mentioned earlier that Mitchell and Weller lived in William Burroughs's house while they worked on the show: "I wrote in the garden while he wrote music in the living room, Burroughs's whole ethos, we were soaking in it. His Datsun is rusting in the bushes, and that's where the characters do ayahuasca. And the cat cemetery is here, and all of the thing that we mention, and so he is one of our spirit gods." Caean ends up in an intimate relationship with Burroughs. We listen in on their raucous, interrupted sex. In a glorious moment, Ann Powers writes, "An unfinished blowjob: in many ways that was the spirit of punk." You get the sense that she means it, but knows it's only part of the story. Like any genre, punk mixes. Burroughs was all about mixing, or polluting.

Courtesy of the Topeka Library
William Burroughs's House in Lawrence, Kansas
Source: Courtesy of the Topeka Library

Burroughs wrote about his own outlandish biological explanation of heroin addiction in his book Junky (1953). He believed the fluctuations of cellular life were attuned to the junk habit:

I have never regretted my experience with drugs. I think I am in better health now as a result of using junk at intervals than I would be if I had never been an addict. When you stop growing you stop dying. An addict never stops growing. Most users periodically kick the habit, which involves shrinking of the organism and replacement of the junk dependent cells. A user is in a continual state of shrinking and growing in his daily cycle of shot-need for shot completed.

It may have been the opiates that drove Burroughs’s physiological fantasy. It’s hard to imagine it’d be supported by hard data. But the biological fantasy is crucial to his aesthetic. In his writing, he strung together fragments of medical research, biological theory, personal experience, and conversations he had when he was high. The result is a high velocity portrait of reality that works like the best kind of drug trip—the kind shared by the characters in Anthem Homunculus , the kind that reveals new ways of thinking about the world.

Mitchell set out to write an alternate autobiography for himself. By punking neurology—in a way I'd imagine Burroughs would be down with—he may have written an alternate history of our time. Caean's tumor digs old memories and new ideas out of him. It brings him out of his trailer and into the world. He becomes a punk humanitarian, with friends, lovers, chosen family, and a decent relationship with his mother.

Anthem Homunculus reflects our cultural moment back on us. We're scared. The world feels like pure dystopia sometimes. Mitchell pollutes dystopia with heart and soul. Anthem becomes a thought experiment in living through troubled times with a punk ethic, with dignity, vulnerability, and humor.

Thank you to Stefano Morello for his insight on punk, and for pointing me in the direction of Richard Hell.

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