Google the word humunculus (or homunculus) for a definition of the “little man” and you’re sent spinning in a dozen directions from the alchemy of Paracelsus who was born the year after Columbus sailed for the New World, to Louise Erdrich’s 2001 The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, to neurobiologist Christof Koch’s 2013 NPR interview.
In the interview Koch said, “Homunculus. It’s a very compelling illusion. We all have it. There’s a ‘person’ actually sitting in my head, I can tell you where—he sits here, roughly here. He’s looking out at the world. We all have this homunculus illusion, it’s very compelling.
But of course there is no homunculus, it’s just a series of very congregated neural networks, and one network is looking at another network, and that’s being looked at by another network, and ultimately you get this feeling that there is a person sitting inside my head.”
Antonio Damasio in his 2005 nonfiction book, Descartes’ Error, writes that “for this intra-brain homunculus to be true, we would have to conceive of an endless nest of Russian Dolls with each brain containing a little human whose brain contains an even smaller human whose brain contains an even smaller…”
That leads me to Preformationism, a once popular biology theory instead of being an assembly of parts, the form of living things exist, in real terms, prior to their development from miniature versions of themselves. Preformationism suggested that all organisms were created at the same time, and that succeeding generations grow from homunculi, or animalcules, that have existed since the beginning of creation.
But fiction is the focus of our interest, and fiction writers employ the little man to their own ends. In Sven Delblanc’s 1965 political satire, Homunculus, CIA and KGB chase Sebastian, an unemployed chemistry teacher in Stockholm who has managed to create a homunculus, a little man—not in his head, but in his bathtub.
The protagonist Sebastian creates the homunculus in a glass jar from a recipe described by Paracelsus [Paracelsus was a physician and alchemist who made groundbreaking advances in the field of medicine in the 1500s.] With overtones of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, Sebastian creates a manmade man of his own sperm and other fluids. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Sebastian embraces the child, becomes the mother, suckling him and naming him Bechos—but the child does not survive, dissolving back into the fluids from which he came, leaving only his single eye, hard as enamel, vacant of meaning.
Maria Aline Salgueiro Seabra Ferreira (she of the massif name) suggests in I Am the Other: Literary Negotiations of Human Cloning that the novel is a dramatization of male envy, “appropriation of women’s reproductive capabilities.”
A Twentieth-Century Homunculus, David H. Keller’s 1930 short story, concerns Colonel Horatio Bumble, his wife Helen, and their Pekingese named Lady. The Bumbles are childless and the Colonel attempts to create a baby through parthenogenesis—development of a living creature from an unfertilized egg.
In the plots of the 50-episode Japanese anime based on Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist, the homunculus appears along with magic, alchemy, and sorcery.
In Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse a naked woman is playing Chopin. The trouble is she’s a nun, and the Mother Superior is at her wits end. ”Oh God, forgive me, the Superior prayed. She considered humunculation, but then rushed down to the piano room, and with all of the strength in her wide old arms gathered and hid from Cecilia every piece of music but the Bach.”
On a Goodreads blog about new and unusual words, someone told this story: I was reading a wonderful short story by Louise Erdrich in the New Yorker, and ran across the word “humunculation.” What did it mean? The context wasn’t much help. It wasn’t in my dictionary. It wasn’t in any dictionary at all, and I looked in major, major dictionaries. I wrote to the New Yorker, but, well, take my advice and don’t bother. Finally I wrote to Louise, explaining that I had written a novel called Homunculus and so her word caught my eye but I couldn’t find out what it means, so could she explain. She wrote me back a nice post card. She couldn’t remember what it meant or why she used it! That’s Louise Erdrich we’re talking about!
By the way—I mean BTW, sorry—After years of pondering the non-word “humunculation,” and revisiting Erdrich’s truly beautiful short story several times, I’m quite convinced she intended the word “humicubation,” which refers to lying on the ground, especially in penitence or humiliation. That would make sense in context.
Perhaps none of this would be farfetched to Paracelsus, the guy who started it all. De natura rerum (1537) lays out his method for creating homunculi: That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the Arcanum of human blood, and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living human child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller.
He thought he was writing nonfiction.