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A Guest Essay from Renowned Parasitologist Quentin de Montempoivre†
Dear readers, I’m still enjoying my government-mandated month of vacation as a French civil servant, so I’ve handed the reins of my Substack over to my good friend Quentin de Montempoivre, a prominent parasitologist at the University of Paris XV (Ourcq — Aragon). You may have heard of Quentin from his important work in discovering the causes of the catbrain plague that disrupted life as we knew it just a few years back. But today he is going to be writing about something else, to be honest I don’t even know what exactly —as I said I’m on vacation!—, but coming from him you can be sure it will be fascinating (if also, no doubt, a bit unsettling). Anyhow, enjoy the end of your summer… I know I am!
Oh, just one more thing. I’m a bit uncomfortable about doing this, but I promised Quentin so here goes. My friend has been saving up for a new cold-storage freezer. Because this is for home use (he will not tell me exactly the nature of the research he is pursuing extramurally) it is not covered by his grant money. I promised him I would do what I can to raise funds for it here, so please, please, do subscribe if you want to help this great scientist, and great human being, to reach his goals. —JEHS
“Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigour?” — Édgar Poë, citing Joseph Glanvill
There is a fluke, the Dicrocoelium dendriticum, whose usual home is in the liver of sheep and cattle. But how does it get there, and how does it spread its offspring to still other livers of other livestock? It passes its embryonated eggs out in the faeces, which are soon ingested by a snail, who excretes the cercariae or free-swimming larvae of the fluke in a great slime ball that is in turn consumed by an ant. Several hundred of these cercariae move down into the ant’s gut, but a single one of them seizes onto a nerve center beneath the esophagus and takes control of the ant’s bodily actions. Throughout the day, the ant is allowed to go about its usual ant tasks, but when night falls the fluke steers its host up to the top of a blade of grass. If the fluke is lucky and the ant unlucky, they together will be devoured by a ruminant; if their fortunes are the reverse of that, the ant will return to its colony for another day at dawn.
This is an unusually elaborate multispecies transit, but the part that is most surprising to us, the “zombification” of the ant, the subordination of whatever will it has to the needs of its parasite, is not nearly so rare as we imagine. Certain species of wasp effectively enslave cockroaches by transmission of neurotoxins, to cite another well known case, and when the Sacculina barnacle inserts itself, in its larval form known as the kentrogon, into the body of a male green crab and transforms it, the crab, into what appears to be a female, this is all part of a broader scheme to help it, the barnacle, find a mate of its own.
Moving rather closer to home, the Toxoplasmosis gondii parasite, for all the destruction it has wrought, is to be credited at least for figuring out out how to use mice in order to get inside of cats. First it enters the mouse brain, and drives it crazy, rendering its motions erratic and making it easier prey for any nearby feline. As we know all too well today, human beings who wind up with T. gondii on the brain can be driven mad by the parasite delivered to them from their beloved pets. I will not recount here the horrors of the “Second Great Cat Massacre” of 2019. It will suffice to say that if you are still alive today, in 2022, you know all too well what a catbrain parasite can do to even the most level-headed people.
I had been warning about this for years, but no one would listen to me when I insisted we had to cull the global feline population immediately. They loved their cat memes too much, they couldn’t break themselves from their pathetic anthropomorphising baby-talk: “Ooh look at Mr. Mewkers!” “Awww, isn’t Señor Mustachio elegant today!” No, my friends, those cats were rotting your brains. It wasn’t until it was too late —I pinpoint the decisive moment to November, 2018, when it had become plain as day that the majority of people were no longer making any sense at all when they spoke, politicians were speaking only in grunts, talk-show pundits cackled like broody hens, dinner-table conversations degenerated into endless sequences of non-sequiturs—: it wasn’t until it was too late, I say, that the few people left who were not infected began to listen to me.
The cats are gone, and they were never my principal research interest anyway. I only began working on feline parasites as a matter of global urgency. And now that they are gone I’m free to return to my true passion — barnacles and their crab hosts.
I wonder sometimes whether pleasure enters into the experience of either the host or the agent at any stage of the one’s penetration by the other. This is, after all, an initial phase of an extended sex act, one rather different from our own in important respects, but similar to it at least to the extent that it is generally difficult to get where we long to be, in a condition of interpenetration with the other. Nature rewards us with euphoria when we finally do manage the maneuver, and if eros is a trick nature plays to get even calculating beings such as ourselves to see to our own succession, why should an analogous sensation not be supposed as the force that sends such a dim packet of appetite as a barnacle larva in search of a suitable slit in the joints of a crab shell?
I wonder, too, whether this pleasure is not wholly unrelated to a certain game I have played with myself since childhood —or at least I long thought it was a game—, in which I imagine that someone I have known in the past, a classmate or a teacher from the lycée, or some historical figure —some Théophile Gautier or Eleanor of Aquitaine—, suddenly appears and 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 is plainly vanity on my part. I can recall when I was a medical student living in the southern banlieue, and I took the RER into town once a week to see my kindly if condescending psychiatrist at the Hôpital Saint-Louis. And as I walked from the station to the hospital I summoned the spirit of some person from my earlier life who had doubted me, who told my overweening parents they’d have to keep me at home for the rest of my life — that is, if I managed to avoid being institutionalised. I had a demon in me, they said; I was a sadist towards cats, they said (in my defense, the hostility was something more like a premonition, and almost certainly had its aetiology in that selfsame protozoan against which, decades later, I would wage war). And yet here I am, today, I thought as I walked to my appointment, not locked up on the grounds of the domaine de Montempoivre, but walking, on my own and freely, through the streets of the metropole.
A good number of my visits, I am happy to report, have been motivated by a nobler spirit of curiosity. Sometimes when I am in airplanes I summon the ghost of Roger Bacon or Leonardo da Vinci into my body, and I think about what they are seeing through my eyes, and about 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.
And sometimes I invite people I have loved over for a visit, over to my body, into my body. I want to show them that I am alright, or that I am not alright, I want them to sympathise with my plight, with 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.
I am visited by my late father (yes, the Comte de Montempoivre, but also, as I knew him, a Monty Python fan, a ham-radio nerd, and an early adopter of the internet when most of our countrymen were still wasting their time on Minitel), who sometimes arrives straight from his youthful years, and sometimes from whatever sort of afterlife he is currently enduring. He checks in on me, sees how I am doing, registers with surprise the progress the internet has made over the most recent years. When he is there I adjust my behavior, 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.
I am visited by my grandparents too, who have been dead long enough for their presence to be experienced, by me, as at least partially hybrid with the visits 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 airports, how he summons up an Uber upon landing at JFK, how he orders ramen from a machine in Tokyo. Their presence gives me the feeling of possession of a compound soul, as it were, a supercharged soul that is not just mine, that is not self-made, but is transduced across the generations.
This is of course a variety of what is properly called “ancestor worship”. In a culture that has little place for such a thing, I have spontaneously channeled my experience of it through the naive therapy of imagined sci-fi scenarios and through what the Lacanians would no doubt call the “symptoms” imbued in me by “the father”. But 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 all of living nature. They get up inside one another, lay their eggs, instill their legacies however they can. Is it any wonder then that the dead stay with us the way they do?
All I have said so far has been preliminary to the relation of what is for me by far the most singular instance of the sort of visitation I have described — indeed the one that has forever changed my understanding of the underlying metaphysics that makes it possible.
I am, you may have discerned by now, an eternal bachelor, not quite right in the head, unable to relate to others in a “mature” way conducive to forming long-term intimate relationships, and in any case so devoted to my scientific career as to have little time for any regrets about my solitude. And neither, as you have seen, am I entirely alone. Over the course of my life I have had regular “dates”, in which I am visited by a woman and we spend time together, doing typical “date things” — it is all exceedingly normal, if you ignore the fact that, throughout the duration of the date, she and I remain perfectly corporeally coextensive. Some of my dates never return, and some I continue seeing for a good long time. But no one has been such a steady fixture in my dating life as the beautiful Kirsten Dunst.
Our story began in late October, 2005, when I was a postdoc at Cornell. One Friday evening I went down to the local Blockbuster and picked up a DVD of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I had never heard of her before, but I was a great admirer of the director Michel Gondry (whom I had known, if only casually, in my student days in Paris). It was surely the high-concept philosophical conceit of this entertainment, which imagines the possibility of cosmetically re-setting our memories, as much as it was the tender smile and delicate waist of the lead actress, and perhaps, too, it was my infinite loneliness during that sojourn in the United states — but whatever it was implanted Ms. Dunst into my head with surprising force.
And, as it would turn out, with surprising endurance too, for over the following several months she remained more or less always present. Other visitors generally only appeared when I was engaged in some endeavor I imagined they would want to see, but Kirsten stayed, day in and day out, through moments both shining and embarrassing. Still, I did my best during this time to shine as much as possible. I ate healthy breakfasts. I went on long… we went on long walks all around Ithaca. I can’t exactly say we did so “hand in hand”, as our hands were perfectly identical — but perhaps, I thought to myself, is not identity only the most perfect instance of containment, of being “in”?
What was most striking about Kirsten’s visitation was not so much how long it lasted, but how utterly real it seemed. Though I had long enjoyed meditating on the likely biological basis of the phantasmic interpenetrations of human beings, delighting in the thought that Leonardo da Vinci was guiding me the way a fluke might guide an ant, still, in the end I always remained lucid about the difference between phantasm and reality. Now, with Kirsten, I simply could not shake the feeling that she was really there.
You can easily imagine how difficult it was for me to learn anything about my visitor. Virtually all I knew was what I had seen in the Gondry movie. I could not simply look her up online, or go get an issue of People Magazine with her on the cover, since she was with me at every moment, saw the world through my eyes, and would surely find it strange to discover her host taking such an active interest in her. Yet after a few weeks of cohabitation it started to seem to me that Kirsten could sense that I was aware of her presence — she knew I knew. And if we were both aware of our shared predicament, what could be so wrong about learning, from public sources, what we can about one another? One Friday night in early Feburary, 2006, not without some trepidation, I returned to Blockbuster and I picked up a DVD of Bring It On, the competitive-cheerleading-themed vehicle that launched her into post-childhood stardom six years earlier. I have to say that was a good evening — a “date” you might call it. We had a riotous time watching the climactic cheer-off together. We agreed it was throw-away Hollywood fodder, but what fun, nonetheless!
As the months went by we grew increasingly accustomed to one another. Other than our “Blockbuster nights” I generally avoided representations of her in the media, and when I happened to catch sight of her, on the cover of some tabloid, my feeling was no longer one of embarrassment so much as a strange sensation of self-recognition. There were times when I simply could not process what I was seeing as anything other than a representaiton of myself, as, once in 2015, at a Von’s in San Luis Obispo, I saw her on the cover of Us Weekly, wearing sweatpants and rolling a flowery suitcase behind her, and my first thought was: “There’s no denying it. I’m putting on some weight.” Although “I” became the usual “we” after a mere second of cognitive readjustment, this was still enough to clue me in to the sensibility that would predominate in our relationship over the next few years, as our coexistence became so natural that I really could not say whether I was forgetting her little by little, or whether rather our interpenetration had grown so far advanced that I no longer had any idea of myself independently of her.
There were a few occasions, often in talking with colleagues, when her presence not only came back to my consciousness with a vengeance, but even seemed to assert itself as the dominant consciousness in our corporeal condominium. Once it so happened, while eating at an In-N-Out just across from the CalTech campus, that the topic of Kirsten Dunst came up among my fellow Entamoeba conference-goers, sex-starved bachelors all. “Did you see she’s with just like some normal guy?” one of them said. “He’s not just normal,” said another, “he’s an actor too, just not like as big as her.” “I don’t think this is any of your business,” I said sharply, huffily, in a voice that seemed to me to betray a sense of personal affront. I felt as if she was coming out directly, through my speech, as if she was no longer just riding along, but had gained control of my sensorimotor faculties. My colleagues looked at me like I was crazy. “Ooh, Quentin’s got the catbrain,” Sanjay said. “You guys read about that yet?”
This was in early 2018, and it was the first time I ever consciously perceived that she was speaking through me. But at the moment this happened, I suddenly recalled a number of other incidents over the past several years, when I had said something without understanding where it had come from within me, or even what it meant. On a few occasions I had told people, upon meeting them, that I was “from New Jersey”, though nothing could be further from the truth. And just as frequently I claimed to have German ancestry, which is no less false, notwithstanding my grandparents’ shameful Germanophilia and their rather implausible Teutonicising embellishments of our family tree. And once, at a Giardia summer-school on Ischia, for reasons that absolutely baffled me at the time, when a group of colleagues began musing about time-travel, and they turned to me to ask whether I thought it would ever be possible, I found myself blurting out incomprehensibly: “Yeah, you just need an app for it.” Here’s the thing though: this happened in 2006, when I had yet ever to hear any talk of “apps”. They existed already, indeed papa was already using them, I just hadn’t heard of them yet. So how on earth could I come up with such a line?
You of course know by now, in 2022, about the ChronoSwooping app, which took the world by storm last year, and indeed about which my friend Justin E. H. Smith has written very poignantly (and if you have not read that piece yet, I recommend you stop, and do so, before reading any further). From my perspective ChronoSwooping swept in as forcefully as it did, with so little regulation of its use or sense of caution among its users, mostly because we had all been so shaken by the catbrain plague of the previous two years and needed some new form of escape. It was during those two years, of course, that I myself rose to considerable fame — me, the psychologically troubled youth, the cat-torturer, now saving the world from cats.
When my team decoded the genome of the parasite, and announced in the summer of 2020 that there was no other choice but to cull at least 95% of the world’s felines, we were of course widely detested. And indeed I am still ashamed of the brutality with which governments around the world imposed the cull — helmeted robocop police yanking kittens from crying children, great feline bonfires in municipal stadiums. The cull sent our world into an anti-feline frenzy, just as irrational as every other targeted effort of extermination in human history.
And yet, soon enough, once they were gone, the transformation was undeniable. Our syntax, which had grown so garbled and involute over the past years, quickly straightened itself back out into elegant, proud propositions. The “circlers” who once got caught walking in parking lots and on tennis courts for hours, round and round in a perfect orbit, straightened themselves out too, and started to walk again to real destinations. The people on TV started again to express something at least resembling ideas formed of convictions. We were, it seemed, getting better. And I was fêted for it.
And so I was invited back to the US, once again, but this time to pick up a couple of awards from various institutes whose acronyms I have trouble learning, and even to go on one of the late-night talk shows that in that country absorb considerable attention, with their endless parade of ephemeral faces, their humiliating stunts, their shameless burlesque. The evening of my arrival I turned the show on in my hotel room, to learn more about what I might expect the following night. I saw Snoop Dogg genially surveying a panel of people of various skin-tones — the game was for him to rank them according to degree of African ancestry, which ranking was then to be checked against the results of genetic tests they had already been given, courtesy of 23andMe. I saw a woman who was repeatedly referred to as “Karen”, even though it was also acknowledged that this was not her name, who was made to imitate the dances of girls a generation younger that had been pulled, seemingly at random, from TikTok. The audience delighted at both of these routines. When the end came, a brief notice was given about the following night’s programming, which was to feature the “catbrain doctor” Quentin de Montempoivre… followed by none other than Kirsten Dunst. Or vice versa.
In no time at all, as if in a dream, I found myself sitting alone in the “green room” with her. She was staring down at her phone, and only after several minutes did she look up and nod at me. There was no glimmer of self-recognition at all; it did not seem to her, or seem to seem to her, that she was sitting across from herself as well.
“Sorry,” she said after a pause, “I was just setting my ChronoSwoop thing.” Another pause. “Do you ChronoSwoop?” she asked, as if it were half a century earlier and some green-room glam-rock wastrel was asking me whether I “do blow”.
I told her I’ve never tried it, and remain gravely concerned about the associated risks. She said she likes to Swoop every time she goes on TV, right before she steps out of the green room. “I send my actual consciousness, my soul or whatever, back to some earlier time, and whoever it is who goes out on stage is just some unconscious chatter-box. It suits all parties involved.” She laughed, and I laughed too, and I sounded just like her, but again she didn’t seem to notice. Just then it struck me, though I don’t know how I could have been so lucid so quickly, that I finally understood what had been happening these past many years. “May I,” I asked her, “see the date you have set as your destination?”
She held up her iPhone inches from my face. It was set for October 26, 2005, exactly the date of my first trip to the Ithaca Blockbuster. Still holding it there, she curled her thumb around, smiled, said “bye”, and deftly swiped right on the screen. Her eyes rolled back in her head for a second, and then came back down. Without acknowledging me again, she turned and marched, as if by a kind of automatism, onto the stage and in front of the cameras. The audience cheered.
By the time my own segment was done she was long gone. Over the past year there has been a constant trickle of rumours and warnings floating around the Hinternet, claiming that one must be exceedingly careful not to look into anyone else eyes, or to have the thought of anyone else too present before one’s own mind, at the moment of swiping, lest the time-traveller be sent back not into their own past, but, by some strange vis imaginationis, into the past of the person who occupies their attention. When this happens, they say, the “return” function generally fails to work, and the traveller becomes stuck permanently in the wrong body.
It is some sweet consolation to know that when Kirsten held her phone before my face, she was not vacantly gesturing to a mere shadow in the green room, but was properly attending to me, in my humanity and in my “otherness”. But that attention is also what collapsed our mutual otherness, and now she’s stuck. I am fairly certain that the Kirsten Dunst who is inside of me has come to terms with our shared fate, just as I have. But I worry about the other Kirsten Dunst, the one who walked out on that stage an automaton, and is walking still. Does she know what has happened? Is there anything it’s like now to be her at all? Is there any way to reunite her two split selves? Lord knows I’d make it happen if I could.
The world makes less sense than we like to think, perhaps than we need to think. For one thing, the boundaries between us creatures are never so firm. Everywhere you look, if you look closely, you will see beings getting up inside of beings —flukes into ants, barnacle larvae into crabs, ancestors and enemies and loved ones into my business, into my least motions—: taking control of things, seeing to their interests as best they can, and all too often getting stuck. But even when stuck they are not without all agency, for the will has a vigour that no circumstance can fully extinguish. Wheresoever it finds itself, the kentrogon will lead its best life.
This is the second instalment in the “ChronoSwooping Universe”, which is itself a mundus-in-mundo within the “Hinternet Universe”.
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