Mainstream philosophy and science at least since Aristotle have held to the view that each living body, under normal circumstances, should be inhabited by no more than one soul. If you don’t care for talk of souls, exchange that word for ‘individual’ and the point still stands: sharing bodily space is abnormal, a sign of pathology, to be corrected by flushing the worms out of your entrails, or by mulesing your sheep against flystrike.
It was this prejudice against mutualism that delayed by several years widespread recog-nition of the true nature of lichen: not a moss, not some low liverwort, but an intrication of two very different kinds of being, of fungus and algae, the former hosting the latter, as near as we can make out, farming it if you will for the miraculous calories it photosynthesises out of pure light.
We continue to act surprised even though in truth this is the regular course of things. The human microbiome is home to over 5,000 known species of microorganism, without which many basic bodily functions, notably digestion, could not continue. The baleen of a whale’s mouth constitutes a marine ecosystem more comparable to the biodiversity of a kelp forest than to a single animal’s body part. Biology furnishes us with abundant empirical examples of a truth that logic and metaphysics, in the form we have inherited them, still require us to reject on a priori grounds. If you do not wish to appear irrational, do not learn too well the lessons of natural science.
Consider poet Walt Whitman (1819–92), who did not mind being suspected of irrationality, and whose rejection of the law of non-contradiction – ‘You say I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself’ – occurs not at all far from his rejection of the idea that each body has room for only one self: ‘I contain multitudes,’ says the poet.
A vision of multitudinousness, somewhere between Whitman’s ecstatic polydaimonism and a protobiological theory of symbiosis, has always been around to countervail the mainstream view. In the Renaissance the occult thinker and physician Paracelsus entertained the idea that each bodily organ might be governed by its own subordinate soul, a little ‘kinglet’ as these were sometimes called: the cardianax for the heart, the gastrianax for the stomach and so on. The alchemists, among them Paracelsus, supposed that in bodies generally there must be ‘subordinate forms,’ such as the form of silver that may, experiment proves, be reobtained after dissolving it in aqua fortis. The water seems to have no properties of silver, and yet the silver must be in there somewhere, hidden in the properties of water, for how else could we get it back from its solution?
And what seems evident for ordinary forms in chemical mixtures, is all the more so in the organs and subsystems of living bodies. A century after Paracelsus, philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) speculated that when a worm is bisected, a previously subordinate helminthine soul rises up and comes to dominate in the newly liberated body.1 Before its separation, the soul was already there, but it had no power to move the larger worm, as there was another soul with more power keeping it down. Leibniz speculated that every living body is in fact an infinite ensemble of such subordinate souls, each one of which might, under the right circumstances, come to dominate an independent body of its own. ‘Vicegerents’ is the term philosopher Ralph Cudworth used to ridicule the idea of such subordinate spiritual forces in bodies, for which a rough contemporary equivalent might be ‘assistant managers.’
These representatives of the counter-tradition spoke of souls – whereas we feel more comfortable with ‘individuals’ – and invoked infinite numbers of such beings, which we lowered down to vast quantities. But with these small adjustments, the counter-tradition proves correct, even if we remain sentimentally attached to the ‘one body, one spirit’ formula. Acknowledging the swarm of microbes on another’s hands and face is still considered impolite in most contexts. This variety of biophobia has its spiritual counterpart in our effort to convince ourselves that Whitman’s ‘multitudes’ does not capture any real truth about humanity – that multiple personalities are the stuff of freaky fictions, that within the space of our own bodies, the ego has no amigo.
When we are compelled to acknowledge the truth of our cohabitative condition, we comfort ourselves with the thought that at least we ourselves maintain motor control over the body, while the others are just along for the ride. But that doesn’t explain the Dicrocoelium dendriticum, the parasite lancet liver fluke.
Its most stable home is sheep and cattle liver. First, Dicrocoelium dendriticum lays its embryonated eggs in faeces that are then ingested by snails who excrete cercariae (free-swimming fluke larvae) in a great slime ball, several hundred of which are consumed by ants. In the ants’ guts a single one seizes on a nerve centre beneath the oesophagus, taking control of bodily actions. The ants can go about their usual ant tasks, but come night fall, the flukes steer their ant hosts up to the tops of blades of grass. If they are lucky and the ants not, together they are devoured by a ruminant; if luck favours the ants, they return to their colonies for another day.
This is an unusually elaborate multispecies transit. What is most surprising is that the zombification of the ant is not nearly so rare as we imagine. Certain species of wasp effectively enslave cockroaches through transmitting neurotoxins. When the Sacculina barnacle inserts itself in larval form known as a ‘kentrogon’ inside a male green crab, it changes the appearance of the crab’s gender into that of a female, assisting the barnacle in finding a mate. One wonders whether pleasure enters into the experience of either host or agent at any stage of penetration.
This is, after all, an initial phase of an extended sex act, rather different from our own in important respects, but like it at least to the extent that it is generally difficult to get in there, where we long to be, inside the other. Nature rewards us with euphoria when we finally do manage the manoeuvre, and if eros is a trick nature plays to get even, calculating beings such as ourselves to see to our own succession, why shouldn’t an analogous sensation send barnacle larva in search of a suitable slit in the joints of a crab?
Closer to home, there is good evidence that the Toxoplasmosis gondii parasite has figured out how to use mice to get inside cats: first it enters the mouse brain and drives it crazy, rendering its motions erratic and making it easier prey. Some researchers believe humans might too wind up with T. gondii on the brain, driven mad by a parasite delivered by their beloved pets. ‘Crazy cat lady syndrome,’ the condition is disparagingly called. Whatever the case may be, seizing another organism’s motor control is only the most obvious way to get it to do your bidding. What if the domesticated maize plants are just using us to spread themselves around the world? This ‘whoa’ question seems one most likely asked by adolescents, maybe while on drugs, in line with asking whether the universe is a holograph. But it is no less serious for that, as we easily see if we substitute other species whose autonomy matters rather less to us than our own: What if algae are just using the fungi in their perpetual lichenous embrace? The answer: of course they are.
Fungi do not even have motor control systems, and yet the algae get everything they want out. We humans move our bodies – not due to externally imposed control, but what we take to be our own will – in ways that cumulatively contribute to the continued domination of the vegetal kingdom by a few harvested monocultures. We move our bodies to the store for Doritos, for example, doing our part to maintain the economy that maintains the ecology that, for now, allows us co-conspirators, the human and the corn, to enjoy our planetary condominium.
The corn, I mean, has found a way to seize upon our brains that is well-adapted to their particular complexities. Unlike the ant with its 250,000 or so neurons, which we can practically see the lancet liver fluke play like the strings of a harp, the human brain has around 100,000,000,000. This is what enables us to envision the future, or several different futures, and to act in accordance with our preferred vision. In the short term such a vision might involve popping out for a bag of tortilla chips. In the long term, and the one we like to imagine as more elevated and noble, it involves a sort of self-fashioning, a guided and teleological process of becoming who we feel ourselves, potentially, to be.
Here, too, I suspect, we do the bidding of others in a way that might not be totally distinct from varieties observed in nature.
Since childhood I have played a game with myself. By ‘game’ I do not mean to suggest that this is trivial to me. In it, I imagine that someone I have known in the past – an ex-girlfriend, a grade-school teacher, or some historical figure like Emily Dickinson or Thomas Jefferson – suddenly, for a reason they do not themselves understand, begins perceiving the world from my point of view as I go about my daily life in the here and now.
Sometimes the reason for these ‘visits’ was plain vanity. When I was in graduate school in New York, I took a weekly trip to 158th Street in the far north of Manhattan to see my kindly if condescending psychiatrist.
As I walked from the subway to the hospital I summoned the spirit of some person from my earlier life, where I had come from, my town of trailer parks, of dogs on chains and rusted cars on jacks, in the Central Valley of California – someone who had expressed to me in one way or another that I was destined to live out my days in that same town, with them. Yet now here I was, in New York! I recall how annoyed I would get during these visits if my glance would land on a parked car that had commuted across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey and brought that state’s less impressive license plates with it lest my visitor see the plates as well and be left with any doubt as to where I now resided.
Oh, vanity. A good number of my visits, I am happy to report, have been motivated by the nobler spirit of curiosity. Sometimes when I am in airplanes I summon the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci or Leibniz into my body. I think about what they see through my eyes and how long it will take them to understand what is happening: that we are within an artificial device, flying far above the clouds, just as they had dreamt might someday be possible.
These are two sorts of occasions on which I am visited: one, in which I ‘show people’ as in ‘I’ll show you!,’ which I can practically hear echoing in my mind when I am visited by my ninth-grade shop-class teacher, Mr. Disney, who did everything he could to keep me moving along the usual school-to-prison pipeline, but now finds me thirty years later a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris and a somewhat esteemed author, whose writing has been used as the sample text on Japanese university entrance exams, and who has a main-belt asteroid that bears his name; second, in which I invite someone I admire from the historical past to see things as I see them, and to allow me to reflect upon big questions, upon the nature of history and time and progress and consciousness.
There are two more principal occasions, moving as we are from the more frivolous to the less, from vanity, to curiosity, to, now, consolation over loss. I sometimes invite people I have loved to visit, to and into my body. I want to show them I am all right, or that not, to sympathize with my plight, my situation, to be drawn in so far from forgetting me that they become me, or at least come to share the same space as me, the same proportions of motion and rest.
Who are they? Lovers, mostly, a word I find I cannot use without a hint of parody, but, yes, lovers. Or people I loved, anyway (that’s the problem with that word, and the reason it cannot be taken seriously: it presumes a bidirectionality that you almost never get in this low world). I want my lovers inside of me, and I don’t believe I am the first person to imagine eros in this way, as total interpenetration: Humbert Humbert wanted to kiss Lolita’s nacreous liver and to caress her sweet twinned kidneys, to cite one such instance of the thought. But my fantasy is somewhat different, as it is usually concentrated in the visual and auditory apparatus, and in the experience of spatial orientation, rather than in any fire that may or may not be burning, at the time of the visit, in this gracious host’s loins.
I said ‘usually,’ and I will admit that such intimacy sometimes comes, for me, with just the sort of erotic frisson that you might be hoping for. Autogynephilia, the erotic charge that accompanies some men’s fantasies of themselves as women, has got a bad rap these days. For a person assigned ‘male’ at birth to conceptualise himself as a woman is supposed to occur only as an acknowledgment of bare metaphysical fact, and not to involve something as supposedly low as desire or phantasm. Yet what if the fantasy is not of being a woman, but rather simply of being coextensive with a woman, of having both the inviolate self, the autos, fully present, but also making room within that presence for a visiting gyn? This is perhaps closer to certain Indigenous North American cultural interpretations of non-binary identities. In these, both sides of the binary, rather than neither, can therefore contain ‘two spirits.’ Except that for me, the two spirits are not male and female in general. It is about this man, myself, and this woman, my current visitor, a long-ago girlfriend, say, or a patient unseen éditrice.
Whatever use such anthropological comparisons may be for us here, the experience, in its singularity, is felt in the cerebrum and the loins at once. It can migrate more to one region or another: now soaring into the stratosphere of pure brainy thought experiment, now descending downward like a katabasis deep into the secret shafts of glowing rock and rank, dangerous sulphur that constitute my substrata. I prefer to imagine that the experience of inhabiting my body must be pleasurable to my visitor too, that each small sensation must be charged with the generalised eros of the new discovery of the living body of another. Often, however, it seems more plausible that she would experience this new sort of embodiment, my sort, as a dull weight.
In truth I have not worked out all the details of the cohabitation. The visitors have no power to move my body, at least not directly, but they do have full access to all my sensory experiences, including touch; they too can feel a faint itch of the big toe, a newly formed axillary bead of sweat making its way down my flank, or innumerably other such emblems of embodiment. Yet the visitor would nonetheless retain, I generally think, her own thoughts.
She would be able to see and hear and feel the world from within my body, determine for herself whether sharing my body is a drag or a turn-on, and in general contemplate and wonder at this as herself. I doubt such a scenario is even coherent: if my body with its sense organs were to become her body, my brain would necessarily become hers, and she could hope to preserve no thoughts of her own.
Neural integration between visitor and host is not the only problem. Sometimes my visitor arrives from the present, and sometimes from the past (again, generally uncertain of how she has made this voyage, either in space or in time), from a moment of my own past in which I knew her. It is at least as impossible to travel in time as it is to share another person’s perceptions while keeping the rest of one’s own cognitive apparatus intact, so let us not be sticklers for consistency.
The fourth and final sort of visit brings us, from vanity, through curiosity, through the longing for sympathy (literally: together-feeling), to something like veneration. I am visited by my late father, who sometimes arrives straight from his 1970s moustache-man phase, and sometimes from whatever sort of afterlife he is currently enduring. He checks in on me, sees how I’m doing, registers with surprise the progress the internet has made over the most recent years. When he is there I adjust my behaviour. I go out of my way to use the new apps I think he would have liked, I try to conduct myself confidently and move through the world like it is mine. It is a bit embarrassing to have him in there, occupying the space often also visited by lovers, if that is what we must call them. But I imagine he is understanding, and able intuitively to grasp the spirit of our cohabitation: a thought experiment motivated by filial piety, not dark fantasies of unspeakable incest. But this is casuistry. In truth, our identity with our progenitors, discoverable in our genes, is not altogether different from that we long for later in life. The latter sends us out in search of whatever degrees of bodily interpenetration are permitted to us within the limits of our anatomy and the strictures of the law.
Both identities, the one we share with our parents and the one we seek out under orders from Eros, are sometimes called, rightly or wrongly, love.
I am visited by my grandparents too. They have been dead long enough that I experience their presence as partially hybrid. The visits are conducted in the spirit of historical curiosity. But I also want them to see what their descendant has become, how he moves so fluidly through the streets of Paris as if he belonged here. Their presence gives me the feeling of possession of a compound soul: a supercharged soul that is not just mine, that is not self-made, but is transduced across the generations.
This is a variety of what is properly called ‘ancestor worship.’ In a culture that has little place for such a thing, I have spontaneously channelled my experience through the naive therapy of imagined sci-fi scenarios and through what psychoanalysts would no doubt call the ‘symptoms’ imbued by ‘the father.’ This diagnosis makes the experience both more serious and less interesting than it really is. Creatures infest one another: that is the general rule that governs living nature. They get up inside one another, lay their eggs, instil their legacies however they can. Is it any wonder then that the dead stay with us the way they do?
There is, I mean to suggest, a noteworthy resemblance – whether grounded in natural selection or only contrived by the same force of imagination that invites Baruch Spinoza or Barbara Streisand to perch a while atop my brain-stem – between the seizure of a beast’s consciousness by crafty larvae and the seizure of this beast’s consciousness by the idea of other men and women I have loved, admired or envied. It has often seemed to me that even if it is I, and not they, who summons their presence, nonetheless to the extent that they are, or are felt to be, in there, inhabiting me, I am in a certain profound sense also doing their bidding. I am their host, and they are steering me.
One difference from the cases we have surveyed in the plant and animal kingdoms, of course, is that I am only visited by other human beings. This probably reveals only the limits of my own imagination. I have deep difficulty imagining the world from the point of a goat, so a fortiori I struggle to gain any semblance of an idea of what the world might look like from the point of view of a goat who suddenly and inexplicably finds itself sharing my body. All my visitors are human beings, and so this cannot be considered parasitism in the usual sense, where a being of one species uses a being of another for its own benefit. But if we recall that every individual organism is a vast community of species, then the manner in which my ancestors and past associates steer me, to the extent that it leads me to good or ill, to thrive or to an early demise, must be seen, too, as a multi-species affair.
‘I find I contain gneiss,’ Whitman wrote in the ‘Song of Myself,’ (1855) ‘coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots / And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.’ I find, I would add, that da Vinci, Disney, my father, my first girlfriend Kim – whose period was a week late after we lost our respective virginities, in the summer of 1988, though in the end some quiver in her linings must have detached the struggling blastocyst, and so detached our destinies too – I find that these are only the latest iterations, until at last we arrive at me, of the history of life on Earth. I find that I contain them, and that they move me this way and that, like a zombified ant, like the vessel of others that I am.
- In 1686 Leibniz discussed his theory of subordinate souls in correspondence with philosopher and mathematician Antoine Arnauld, and in this connection sought to explain how the two halves of a bisected worm can both go on living.