The Death of the Homunculus is the story of my encounters with two crazy people (one of whom I met in person, the other in a magazine article) and the problem it caused me when I noticed that each of them had moments of self-interested lucidity in the midst of their crazy talk.
Did that mean they were faking it? But they were so obviously seriously ill...
I brooded over this problem for a year or two—a period in which I myself could hardly be described as stable and well-adjusted. Eventually, I came to a realization that, for me at any rate, solved the puzzle. This realization wasn't all that profound—in fact it was fairly simple—but it involved a shift in perspective that changed a number of deep underlying assumptions about myself, the kind of being I was, and my place in the world.
Here's my definition of homunculus, transcribed from the fifteenth and final track of The Death of the Homunculus:
...the homunculus: the little person up there watching through the cameras of the eyes and listening through the stereo system of the ears, the ghost in the organic machine, the pilot of the ship...
More about the project below. Here's the complete audio playlist:
The Death of the Homunculus is also a remix of 15 episodes of Five by Five, a podcast which I produced in the ancient early days of podcasting—2005. The podcast episodes are all available on this site, as originally released. Years later, when moving my audio archives to a new website, I realized that a subset of this podcast constituted a single, sustained argument—a narrative of personal history—that mattered to me, and had only gained in power as the events described receded further into the past. I began thinking of the sequence as an endless loop, where the conclusion of the journey is mixed in with the beginning.
Although the remix works to increase the focus on the central argument of The Death of the Homunculus, I decided it was very important to keep some of the "unrelated material" from Five by Five in the sequence. In the first couple of episodes of this mix, for example, there a fragments of a previous episode, my reflections after watching a DVD of "Tarkovsky's Solaris." And more importantly, back in 2005, I was regularly producing episodes in which I did something I called "reading and reacting." I had a couple of books—somewhat difficult books—which I would read aloud for five minutes, interrupting myself whenever I felt the need, interjecting whatever thoughts I might have about the material, or indeed anything at all that might pop into my head. The two books were:
- The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa
- Science and Hypothesis, by Henri Poincaré, included in The Value of Science
Science and Hypothesis was, and remains, just over my head. As a hobbyist reader of the history and philosophy of science (that is, as a dilletante who has never mastered calculus—the guy who writes XKCD would rightly pillory me as a liberal arts major who seeks mind-blowing highs from science writing), I found I could just barely understand Poincaré if I read it really slow. But I tried. I really did. And I think there were moments when I almost understood. And Poincaré has a great prose style...
The Book of Disquiet presented a completely different challenge. Out of all the depressed writers struggling in unhappy day jobs who have sat in cafes and filled notebook after notebook with their melancholy musings, Pessoa achieved brilliance. His notebooks, collected as as the work of one of his heteronyms, a figure he called Bernado Soares, give us moment after moment of of transcendent, achingly poetical prose (unlike the many notebooks which I similarly filled, during the same years and months when I was brooding over the problem of the crazy people). The problem for me, as a reader, wasn't resentment or envy—no, not at all. I was, and remain, thrilled by what Pessoa accomplished. The problem (as I mention in the podcast) is that the book is isotropic—the same in every direction (Poincaré had obviously begun to influence my thought). The Book of Disquiet has no plot, no structure, no progression—nothing to offer on the next page except another brilliant poetic distillation of the alienated poetic soul.
In sum, I had two books by my bedside, which I found I could read for only a few minutes at a time. So I decided to make each attempt at reading exactly five minutes long, do it out loud, and include the recording in Five by Five. And now I'm including them in the remix. What did these two books have to do with The Death of the Homunculus? As it turns out, everything.