Discover more from Justin Smith-Ruiu’s Hinternet
The Seat of the Soul
Things are getting weird down here, brother, and I know they’re not beaming you the news about it. I feel I have to try to do it myself, though I fully expect their bots are going to pick up on what I’m saying and garble the signal before it reaches you. So if this comes through as a bunch of noise, or if it warps my voice to sound as if I’m doing product placement for one of their SLPI1 avatars, like it did last time, I’m sorry. As I said I’ve got to try.
You switched majors to aerospace pretty fast, but if I remember correctly I did convince you to take at least one intro anthropology class. You might recall E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s work, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), where he discusses the widespread belief in Central and West Africa in a specialized “witchcraft substance” or “witchcraft organ” within the human body. He reports that it was described to him as “an oval blackish swelling or bag” located “just beneath the xiphoid cartilage”. One informant told him: “It is attached to the edge of the liver. When people cut open the belly they have only to pierce [the witchcraft organ] and witchcraft-substance bursts through with a pop.” Evans-Pritchard collected reports describing this body part variously as “of a reddish color” and as “containing seeds of pumpkins and sesame and other food-plants”. He never could positively identify it, though he hypothesized that it was in fact the misidentified small intestine “in certain digestive periods”.
It might seem surprising that the Azande could have been so misinformed, but in fact many cultures throughout the world appeal to internal organs, in their explanations of health and disease, of disturbances of temperament or personality, that our own empirical anatomy cannot locate. And we ourselves also keep having at least some small surprises. As recently as 2018, for example, scientists claimed to have happened upon “a newfound organ”, the interstitium, described as a network of fluid-filled spaces in the connective tissue throughout the entire body.
I know you won’t approve of my “social-constructionist” sensibilities, but the fact that we are still fine-tuning our own official anatomical atlas has long made me wonder whether Evans-Pritchard was not too hasty in assimilating the Azande withcraft organ to another organ whose existence had already, at least in his world, been settled. And this old thought has come back to me with particular force lately, in light of the world-changing discovery, which all of us on Earth are still trying to comprehend, that, apparently, organs can appear quite suddenly, even organs of significant size, in parts of the body we had already, to all appearances, mapped in the finest detail.
I mean, we think we’ve got the body mapped, and we presume this is the very same body it’s always been, with the same conformation of parts. But do we really know that? Are we certain that organs do not just come and go? I mean, the government has flat out admitted in recent months that it covered up what happened in Butte, Montana, where we now know that between 1946 and 1948 around 80% of all autopsies performed at the municipal hospital were of patients with two separate and fully formed hearts, one on each side of the thoracic cavity. Who’s to say what’s happening now isn’t just one in a long series of such incidents, though at a much larger scale?
I’m referring of course, as you would know if they were telling the truth to you guys up there, to what they’re calling the “soul organ” — or, if you prefer the fancy language, the “sedes animae”, or yet, if you favor colloquialisms, the “onion”. It is a fleshy spherical mass about the size of a golf ball, greyish-pink in color, located just beneath the diaphragm, and as its familiar name suggests it consists of several layers —usually between eight and twelve— of “skin” that may be peeled away until we arrive at the homogeneous fleshy core, which is roughly the size of a pinky-tip.
It’s hard to believe, but the first onion was identified only a little over eighteen months ago, when it happened to show up in the routine abdominal ultrasound of an elderly man in Sarasota, Florida. Naturally, the doctors mistook it at first for a tumor. After the biopsy, several weeks of lively debate followed in the medical community. The urgency of this debate was compounded when other identical cases began appearing throughout the US, in Europe, in India, in China. Within three months of the Sarasota case there were over 200,000 onions reported worldwide. Within six months, a much more alarming figure was confirmed, first by the CDC, and in quick succession by the WHO: exactly 100% of patients who had recently received an abdominal ultrasound were found to be carrying an “onion” (in those early days it still had no official name). A comprehensive study of research cadavers kept in medical schools, moreover, yielded up an equally alarming result: precisely 0% of people who died prior to September, 2023, were found to be in possession of this new organ.
Is that what it was? An organ? Some experts argued that it was rather an accretion, like a sort of soft pearl in the body, caused by some new environmental irritant. Others, somewhat further out on the margins, argued it was a parasite, a bioweapon, the fetal stage of a gestating alien hatchling. The truth is no one had any idea what it was, or how it got there.
The various national and global health bodies struggled to come up with a coherent response to this crisis — if that is what it was. For the first several months most scientists insisted on the onion’s benign, if mysterious, character, and advised no particular protocol for its treatment. But in the United States at least the issue soon forked and spiraled out along predictable political lines, when a significant number of wealthy Americans, including most members of both parties in the senate, as well as the CDC director himself, opted for elective removal of their own onions. When the public demanded to know what was being hidden from them, the CDC soon reversed gear and, while continuing to encourage calm and to downplay catastrophic scenarios, recommended a policy of universal “onionectomy”. Nine months into “the situation” —the CDC insisted on avoiding the word “crisis”— an extraordinary act of congress apportioned several billion dollars to cover all related health-care expenses.
The surgical procedure was a simple one, and most people had it performed within months. In an extraordinary reversal of political valence, while at first it had been the populist right that reacted furiously to the CDC’s official recommendation that we keep our onions, once this recommendation changed, the conservatives almost universally began insisting on the right not to undergo surgery. Urban progressive liberals, meanwhile, began ostentatiously signaling, especially on social media, their enthusiasm for compliance with the recommendation. Many changed their profile pictures to a photograph of their own surgically removed onions, which by common policy most hospitals had allowed patients to take home with them preserved in a small bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
Around the time the first great wave of onionectomies began, several private labs, in the US and around the world, began looking closer into the composition of these strange flesh-balls. Only ten months into “the situation”, a group in Seoul, foregoing the standard protocols of peer-review, posted on the internet what it claimed to be a complete nucleotide sequencing of the outer layer of skin of an onion removed from a twenty-two-year-old woman. There was still much left to be worked out, but one thing, they determined, was certain: whatever the onion was, it was not of the same origin as its bodily host. “Not even close,” the Korean scientists gravely pronounced.
Other labs, many in the United States, quickly reproduced the first results, and likewise publicly shared their sequencing data. Within eleven months, the first two layers of an unidentified patient’s onion had been sequenced in a lab in Berkeley, and much to the scientists’ surprise, each of these layers was as different from the other as either was from the human patient from whom it had been removed. Moreover, it seemed, the protein chains of all of the onions studied failed to follow anything like the predictable patterns for any living organism known to science. It was at this point that the early titterings from the tinfoil-hat crowd about extraterrestrials came to seem to many to have some warrant to them. But the truth, as we would learn in the following months, was far more surprising even than an alien invasion would have been.
Because the data from the labs were all out there on the internet, any private citizen could have a look and offer a new interpretation of what these mysterious nucleotides were all about. While the great majority of amateurs who took up this challenge had some background in genetics, the real breakthrough came from a cybersecurity firm based in Geneva, Illinois, with an impressive track-record in the field of cryptography dating all the way back to World War I. Using standard codebreaking tools, the researchers quickly found that these sequences of cytosine, thymine, guanine, and adenine did not simply “encode” the information that makes up the ensemble of a biological organism’s traits in what is ultimately a metaphorical sense of “encoding”. These sequences, rather, literally encoded information that could be fairly simply translated into natural-language propositions. They were, in short, texts.
Texts, you say? Seriously? What could these texts possibly have been about? The public would seem to have had good reason for its overwhelming skepticism, when the Geneva lab released its first complete translation of an elderly Winnetka man’s outermost onion layer: it was, in its entirety, a verbatim transcript of comedian Red Skelton’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1954.
As more translations began to appear, however, it was soon evident that the most superficial layer of the onion is often constituted by, well, such correspondingly superficial things as this — bits of cultural detritus that, in some sense, long before “the situation” began, we all knew already we were carrying around inside us (though admittedly having an entire intact transcription of something like a Red Skelton routine would prove to be a rarity).
As the deeper layers were translated, one by one and little by little, we came to understand that the further we descend towards the center of the onion, the nature of the “texts” that are contained grows correspondingly “deeper”. We came to understand, likewise, that although each layer of the onion was quite alien in its sequences from the patterns of nucleotides that constitute us genetically, nonetheless these layers are, in another sense, not at all alien to us. Their texts are the texts of our lives. Their writing, if I may lapse into a poetic vein here, is the writing of our souls.
We were just a little under a year into “the situation” when the phrase “soul organ” began trending on social media, and it was shortly after this that the official bodies, partly in homage to René Descartes (who had placed the “seat of the soul” rather in the pineal gland — the part of the brain responsible for the production of melatonin, which we now know plays a key role in dreaming), began, not without some controversy, to designate this strange new addition to our anatomy as the “sedes animae”.
And now, for the past four months, the latest big change has come with the rise of 10Peel, along with its various competitors. These are private companies that, for about $250, will analyze your onion for you and send you a complete translation of the nucleotide sequences. Of course, I don’t have to tell you they’re also keeping the data, with who knows what dark designs further down the road. But privacy concerns have not stopped nearly 180 million people so far, at least in countries where this service has not been outlawed, from sending away for their “soul-reading”.
I’ve got to admit I gave in and tried it myself. Jenny refused, citing the recent spate of suicides (it did no good to insist to her that correlation does not prove causation). Mom was horrified when I told her I got it done — all her church friends are convinced it’s a grave sin. Technically the service is 18+, so at least as far as they’re willing to tell me Liam and Terpsy haven’t had it done for their onions either. But who knows!
In the earliest days 10Peel was sending the results in an order that began from the outer layer and worked inward towards the core. But the most recent theory, which I find fairly plausible, is that in the structure of the onion we have something like a sequential history of the soul (or whatever you want to call it) that is best read from the core to the surface, as a dendrochronologist might read the rings of a tree. This is not to say necessarily that in working one’s way out one is moving in a strictly temporal succession, from the “earliest” to the “most recent”, though in my own case the reading does suggest, at least at most layers, a standard chronology driven by the clear and steady motion of the arrow of time. Maybe I just got lucky.
Anyhow perhaps it’s TMI, but I expect you’ll get a kick out of it if I share my 10Peel results with you — I mean, we’re brothers after all! I should emphasize I still have no idea what to make of any of this. I don’t know why this organ popped up when it did, and I don’t know how those protein chains came to encode such peculiar texts as the ones you’re about to read. A lot of people are saying these are signs of the end-times. There were always such signs, of course, for people who wished to find them, but this time even I’m ready to admit it feels different. But what do I know? I’m just a dusty old philologist.
I love you bro. Be safe. Don’t let your cosmonaut buddies try to poison you (yes, unlike you guys we actually hear about what goes on up there.)
KUMPE, Ethan Roger (DOB: 08/12/1972)
Layer 1: I. Uh, yes, I. I… I! You too! We! Yes, we! Hello all of you! It’s we now!
Layer 2: There’s a universe too?! Oh God! I mean, hello, God, you too, yes, thank you, thank you for all of this!
Layer 3: I, we, I mean, some of us, we’ll go down, into the universe? You mean… okay, I’m not supposed to say His3 name anymore, but He wants us to go down, into the universe? He says it will give us something to do? He says it’s got hard stuff and explosions in it but is mostly empty space? I don’t really know what these things mean I mean I’ve never gone anywhere at all and I don’t even know what down is I don’t know what stuff is but it sounds like it hurts but okay, I mean I guess, but it’s not as if being with you all is nothing is it I mean it kind of already felt like everything but I guess alright okay if that’s what He wants then fine.
Layer 4: Lord, wow, I don’t know what that was — like, how many countless yugas4 frozen into some drifting interstellar silicate some irradiated speck I mean how am I supposed to think like that how am I supposed to love how am I supposed to say YES! YES! YES!?
Layer 5: Damn! Yes I said Damn! I mean what was that some kind of punishment!? Squeezed across some nasty event-horizon,5 stretched into a one-dimensional filament and made to wait there for what? For how many yugas this time? Over a thousand, at least. Warped into basically nothing at all until, little by little, they said it was impossible, but look at me now: I leaked back out! I don’t know how but damn just don’t do that to me again! Yes, I grant it was “educational” — somehow I managed to come out of there knowing basically everything. For better or worse. I remember when I didn’t know what stuff is — well now I know, and it turns out it’s not even really stuff. Same for space, place, motion, whatever you want really. Some “universe”!
Layer 6: I can’t remember much of anything. I would attempt to tell you how much time has gone by, but the difficulty is that I have very few opportunities for getting what you might call my bearings. My only sensation is chemical, and I have nothing to mark the passage of time except singular events, new developments in the field of my feeding that signal a new era has begun, yet with no indication of how long the previous one had gone on — a new overabundance of hydrous minerals, a sudden famine of nickel. I don’t know where I get my words from, as I live in a silent world. I suppose I get them from the things themselves, and my speech is really more a matter of translation. The sour metallic deposits announce themselves as “iron”, the body that pulls from far away calls itself “moon”. And so this shared being I have with all the others is also what has given me a share of speech. I don’t know how it works. I am really so, so simple. Just a membrane around some modest organelles, and near the center some bundled mitochondrion that I like to call “the family jewels”. And all I do is sit on the surface of a rock, together with a colony of uncountably many others of my sort, and together we make the rock slick. If a passing giant were to slip on us (I feel like I can recall the age of the giants, though I do not know how), he would only blame the slickness of the rock, and not the beings who make it so, as if we were only a property of the surface we inhabit, rather than substances in our own right. But I don’t complain. Passing unnoticed can be advantageous in this cruel world.
Layer 7: Alright now, yes! Am I hungry! I’ve got my range, which reeks of ammonia — that’s my ammonia mind you! And I can range around in my range on my own four feet! The smells the smells the smells my olfactory lobe is throbbing I mean oh thank you God, I mean, I don’t know what that name means but thank you, thank you, thank you, this is what it is to live!
Layer 8: Oh yeah, I’ve got the whole works now! The vivifying force of the pneuma flooding my ventricles, the deep folds and fissures of my cerebrum: unbeatable! I can think anything I want to think! Like:
I can feel the equations bubbling like marrow up my spine when I awake each day at dawn, seeping upward and humecting my brain like water in a sponge. I return to my desk and begin my day’s work again, just like the day before that and the day before that. I am infinite.
Layer 9: Forgive me, Lord, for my great pride, and for always turning my back on you. Often, when my back is turned, it seems to me I know everything. When I swing back around, and see your radiance, I am reminded I know nothing. Why, pray, does it seem as if I keep forgetting you, only to find you anew, again and again and again? What is the cause of these cycles? Or is my desire for an answer to that question already itself a step back down the path of forgetfulness?
Layer 10: I can’t believe the Bee-Gees made their own Sgt. Pepper’s I mean what was that all about all those guest appearances, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, I bet almost no one alive today remembers. Have you never been mellow? What was that? Captain and Tennille? No it was that sweet Xanadu lady, the aerobics lady… Olivia Newton-John! Fig Newtons haha. Jazzercise haha. What was Xanadu anyway, Coleridge? Kubla Khan? Or am I getting mixed up because it’s the Thriller, Thriller night… I think M*** wanted to have sex with me that one time but I was so oblivious and I was busy arranging my Haribos by flavor I can’t eat the greens I said Jesus so embarrassing that was decades ago now. Yeah, well, hooey. Hooey, seafood baby, let’s go down to Skipper’s for some seafood! Hooey. Charleston Chew is chewy, Louie. Holy shit, that was dumb, like: Why pay more, when there’s a Waterbed Outlet store?! Man, I’m getting old no one will remember any of this I mean what’s the point of carrying all this shit around for a few decades and then it all just evaporating, or maybe it seeps back out into the universe somehow as waves or radiation or something I don’t know but really I mean is this all I am? I don’t know. But not too chewy. There’s just got to be something more.
“Stable Locus of Personal Identity”, an online subscription-based service that provides “continuous posthumous maintenance of selfhood, in perpetuity, through online AI-driven representation”.
10Peel chief engineer Ananda Sarkar argued vociferously with his colleagues in favor of the alternative translation ॐ or om, which in classical Hindu tradition is understood as the “primeval sound”, or the universal affirmation. But fears of a perception of sectarianism prevailed, and the company opted for the more general “YES!” (Sarkar’s objection that “soul organ” is itself a plainly sectarian choice of terminology seems to have gone nowhere.) Curiously, at present roughly 86% of cores sampled have yielded a “YES!”, while the remaining 14% all give the same result, which has been variously translated as “NO!”, as “Universal Negation”, or, simply, as “No Data”.
10Peel’s ultimate decision to go with a traditionally gendered pronoun for God was the result of a particularly contentious debate, which caused many shattered friendships, accusations of betrayal, and rancunious resignations along the way. It was however in the end agreed that this outmoded convention was necessary in the aim of avoiding confusion among average people, who might be less equipped to understand the reference to a “She” or a “They” (the latter being Sarkar’s strong preference) — a difficulty compounded by the fact that, unlike the present text, few people’s translations involve any direct nominal reference to “God”, but only indirect pronominal reference. Bear in mind, in any case, that any natural-language rendering of the protein sequences will inevitably be very approximate.
Evidently Sarkar got his choice here, winning out over another faction’s preference for “eon”.
This section appears to describe the process of “spaghettification”, which theoretically happens to any physical body when drawn into a black hole.
Help speculative fiction to thrive on the internet! Subscribe to The Hinternet!