Neurology Gets Punked

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

Posted May 15, 2019

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.  

Caean is a closeted gay man living a skeletal life, mostly isolated, haunted by tragedy and trauma. Mitchell describes Anthem Homunculus as an "alternate autobiography." Caean is like a thought experiment. In Mitchell's words" "What my life might be like if I'd never left Kansas."
Technically, Anthem is a podcast, but it's more like a twenty-first-century reinvention of radio drama. It feels like a spiritual sequel to Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig never appears, but Caean lives in the trailer she once occupied. He wishes he could have met her. Like Hedwig, the story is narrated in the present, but digs into a past full of personal tragedy and iconic history—often through song. Like Hedwig, the show is a little bit punk, a little bit Broadway (and little bit gospel, a little bit Bowie). 
Th show was co-written by Mitchell and Bryan Weller during their stay at William Burroughs's house in Lawrence, Kansas. Burroughs becomes a key character, played by Ben Foster. Like Burroughs's work, Anthem Homunculus weaves biology through a deeply philosophical commentary on life in the U.S.—healthcare, political divisions, economic disparity, addiction, social media mania, race, religion, gender, sex, nation, and love. 

"I've always been obsessed with the brain," Mitchell told me. His first short story in high school was about a woman whose stroke connects her to God. Both his parents lived with Alzheimer's. "I saw a lot of brain stuff," he says. "And the evanescence of memory, how memory forges what we are but also in some ways limits what we are."

Like so many brain narratives—think Cervantes's Don Quixote, Oliver Sacks, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Michel Gondry, Killing Eve, or the Broadway hit Dear Evan HansenAnthem Homunculus reminds us that the personal is political is physiological. We are organisms, and our bodies are always on the line. 

 Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Glenn Close as Caean's mother
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast

That may be where punk comes in. The mosh pit is all about bodies smashing into each other—a living metaphor for the physiology of social and political life. From the beginning, punk was a call for an aesthetic that would upend the status quo—maybe change the world, depending on your ratio of idealism to nihilism. Surely the world is changed when Glenn Close, who plays Caean's mother, sings a rabid punk song about her failure as a mother, including the lines "mother is first lover . . . prick a hole in the rubber."

As Richard Hell (of Television and Richard Hell and the Voidods) puts it, punk "means anti-authority, independent, tricky, unsentimental, dirty, quick, subversive, guiltless. It means not accepting the ordinary terms of behavior. It also means resisting classification, which is a good paradox, since of course 'punk' is a classification." He could easily have been describing Anthem Homunculus—and much of Mitchell's work. 

 Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast
Cynthia Erivo, as Joan, gospel singer and cult leader
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy of Anthem podcast

Punk started with the idea that all you needed were three chords to make exuberant musical rage. From the beginning, though, punk traveled and mutated. The Clash and Patti Smith were never going to be limited by three chords or a single genre. In her book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American music, Ann Powers argues that our popular music was always "about mixing" genres, cultures, feelings, and ideas.

Punk sounds don't dominate. Anthem makes a method of mixing. "The real reason American popular music is all about sex," Powers writes, "is that we, as a nation, most truly and openly acknowledge sexuality's power through music. This music, infinite in its variety, is rooted in the experiences of people who made a new nation within a dynamic of unprecedented mobility, horrific exploitation and oppression, constant mixing, and the ongoing renegotiation of limits." Mitchell's characters break into song when they meet an impasse—an argument, a failing sexual encounter, a health crisis, a memory lapse, or angry debate about race or gender. Like the best punk, they push limits through music, through the bodily experience of singing or playing an instrument or chanting from the audience. 

Bryan Weller's music ranges through pop, rock, gospel, new wave, and punk. Mitchell's delivery is more Bowie than Richard Hell or Johnny Rotten. But like most of Mitchell's work, from the original stage Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) to How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017), the show lives at the aesthetic intersection of punk and queer politics. Episode 3 begins with a jerky punk-inflected song. Caean rhymes "remember" with "dismember" as he yells his way Touretically through a series of images of contemporary culture: demagogues, porn, ADD, ambien, gluten, empathy, the Aryan nation. In episode 7, Cynthia Erivo and Nakhane deliver a hybrid gospel-punk tune about the second coming, inviting a cult-ready audience to "smash the power"—and to believe. 

 Or Gotham, courtesy Anthem podcast.
Nakhane, as Caean's boyfriend Jairo
Source: Or Gotham, courtesy Anthem podcast.

As Mitchell explains, "It was after I came out I discovered punk—and the people who inspired punk like the Bowie and Iggy, who were their own version of punk. It was right for me, and it was right for the AIDS era, and it was right for Act Up. It was music that was aggressive but, also often in my view, political in the correct way—criticizing hatred and intolerance with humor and outrageous imagery to call attention to injustice and to censorship."

So what's punk about the brain? I have a theory: Punk and neurology both question, test, and challenge core assumptions about reality, identity, and social life. They both reveal the weirder realities under the surfaces of the status quo. Punk artists like the brain because it's bizarre. There's a genuine lineage from the proto-punk of William Burroughs or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to the cyberpunk of William Gibson's Neuromancer, Kathy Acker's wombs and brains, films like Brazil, Fight Club, and Lucy, and the band Die Antwoord's music video for "Banana Brain."   

Anthem Homunculus shares the neurological preoccupations of these experimental artists: The brain is plastic, constantly mutating; it makes us who we are but we don't know how. It gives us memory, but ensures we misremember our lives and history. It conjures alternate realities in the form of hallucinations; it's prone to seizures, strokes, clots—and tumors. It's right here inside our skulls, but still so remote. Its tissues and crevices are beautiful and creepy, tender and resilient. If the human brain is possible, perhaps anything is possible. 

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.