Thursday, February 7, 2008

Virgil and the Homunculus

Years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I had a romance with a younger, very handsome English lad by the name of David Dalton. Today David is white-haired and married, writes about art and Pop culture, and lives in the woods in upstate N.Y. with a pet pig. Occasionally over the years we have been in touch via cyberspace. More recently, we have had an e-correspondence about the nature of Virgil, my savvy alligator blogging assistant.

David, who describes himself as an "indentured scrivener," claims that he, too, once had an encounter with a "homunculus,"--admittedly "not as exotic (or cute) as your dear totem animal"--but nevertheless a creature that he recognized at the time as being the internal engineer of his soul, a numinous entity that he experienced as quite objectively apart from himself. And it startled him greatly.

It intrigued me: the notion of the soul as having its own private "spectral engineer." So the first thing I did was consult the Thesaurus for the meaning of "homunculus," only to discover that it can mean anything from "small animal" to "dwarf" to "pipsqeak" to "runt" or "miserable specimen," exemplars being Pinocchio and Thumbelina. Even more intrigued by "that tiny spectator who lives inside everyman" of David's, I proceeded to question him further:

What do you see as differentials between, say, a "spirit guide," a "soul engineer," a "homunculus" and a private Mahatma blogging assistant? This character of yours, I asked him, was he benign or malign--or neither? Friendly or scary? Someone you'd want in your life or not?

David wrote back suggesting I read the essay he'd written about his encounter with the homunculus. It is called "The Off-Ramp Motel" and I will include an edited excerpt here. The essay begins with the author speeding along a six-lane "satanic freeway" in California in a rental car at 3 a.m., after a 7 1/2 hour flight to Los Angeles. He is on an undisclosed writing assignment, and is thoroughly exhausted when he finally spots his destination--the Terminal Motel, which he describes as "built on the Albanian model--cinderblocks, stucco--by contractors who had never heard of Albania."

"The room is edgy, on guard, as if braced for some coming insult to itself. The industrial strength carpeting is of a density and fiber calculated to defy any sort of abuse thrown at it—cigarettes, gum, tar, dog shit. Perhaps as a pre-emptive strike, it’s color and compacted weave mimic the filth it will be subjected to.
The furniture: standard dentist-office modern. Blonde wood, brown nubby fabric. A desk in the same nondescript style. As if insisting on its anonymity. There’s going to be no small talk here. Don’t try and get personal, bud. Just put the money on the dresser; this is a one night stand.
I turn on the TV and click through the channels. The phone rings. They’ve killed the story. Jesus! Why should I care? I should be glad, actually. I didn’t want the stupid assignment in the first place, but now that it’s been cancelled, the room is—how to describe it?—gloating.
Curtains, carpet, bedspread. Everything is either manic holding-tank yellow or thorazine brown. The bedspread resembles a freshly-dug grave mound, an Addams Family bouquet of dead flowers. The coverlet is suffering from bi-polar syndrome, now clearly in its depressive mode—the primary colors have run away in panic leaving only the drab, dowdy burnt umbers and raw siennas.
Bathroom. Brown alluvial tiles on the floor. The tiles on the bathroom wall are cream colored with rough brown oatmeal-textured surface. Oh, no. I begin seeing little troll faces in these tiles, needle-point eyes, alarmed O-shaped mouths screaming—Devonian demons trapped in the clay, sealed there for millions of years. The shower head, a long thin dinosaur snout bursting through the wall, an eyeless, rapacious chrome predator...

"I'm wondering if the patterns of the tiles possibly be Mayan calendrical signs predicting rain, sacrifice, volcanoes, UFOs, bird-headed snakes—when out of the side of my eye I catch sight of the homunculus of myself. He is also taking a bath and is pale as Lazarus in an early Netherlandish altarpiece, reflected in the chrome to resemble myself in the afterlife. One’s self as might be seen in a painting by Lucian Freud—worn out, the flesh as metaphor. Vaguely distressed, bewildered, a bit pathetic, unearthly. Ready for the embalmer. .. Who is this creature? ...

"A diminutive self-portrait in a convex chrome appliance. Hidden behind a silvery screen of false silver—the indifference of chrome. As substance, we are poles apart from wood or stone, but we can identify with their rough, organic planes. We can imagine being wood. But chrome—we will never be chrome.
My secret sharer, his skin’s surface as yellow as a leaf. He navigates my face in search of answers. He examines me with a calm, resigned look, like a 2nd century funerary portrait from Fayum, Egypt. .. My doppelganger is a creature of great melancholy and forbearance, miming my every action. Was he the one that ran the show, my engineer? My KA, as the ancient Egyptians would say, operator of my soul. Caught by surprise in a metal mirror. The desperate nature of the room, its brazen hideousness had startled him into existence. Aroused such pity and sadness in him he'd awoken with fright in his chamber in the hippocampus. The room itself had winkled him out."

So there it was, reflected in the chrome faucet while David is taking a bath, he discovers the homunculus of himself, also taking a bath: "One's self as might be seen in a painting by Lucien Freud," he writes, "worn out...vaguely distressed, bewildered, a bit pathetic, unearthly. Ready for the embalmer."

According to David, narcotic melancholy suits his view of life. "My homunculus, alas, is not a private Mahatma blogging assistant, as your charming reptile is. Perhaps you can tell me how to get one?"

I pass the question on to Virgil. I can't really speak for his suggestions, but it seems like there were several options. However, since I preferred the first, that is the one I'm offering here: "Ask Ezra Pound's girlfriend."

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