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‘Autotoxic horror. We don’t even know what we don’t know’


‘Autotoxic horror. We don’t even know what we don’t know’

In a certain way, Euripides’ Bacchai and the recent Covid-19 crisis have a lot in common. In both cases, we find an intrusion of toxicity costing human lives, a panic reaction of an helpless population and a confrontation with the Great Unknown. In Euripides’ Bacchai, Kadmos and Harmonia were finely turned into snakes and driven outside the city like all citizens of Thebes. The past years, the lockdown, in a reverse sense, locked residents worldwide in their homes. In Bacchai, Dionysos seemed to possess vital powers that made us to see Nature in a terrifying new way. Equally alienating was the SARS-CoV-2 virus that could multiply in mysterious ways, change cells and cause mutations with a slightly different genetic code each time. Add to this, the loss of our former kind of freedom, as well as a serious disruption of our belief in progress and the discovery that there are risks involved in meeting other global life forms on earth.
Chance or not, but the recently deceased French philosopher Bruno Latour used a similar imagination in one of his last books “Où suis-je?”, in which he performed Gregor Samsa, the famous beetle from Kafka’s masterful novella “The Metamorphosis”. For these three authors (Euripides, Kafka and Latour), each was about redefining ourselves in transitional times, each time asking the question of what kind of reality we thought we were living in.

Yet, after the pandemic, our bodies can no longer be thought of as ‘ordinary’ or ‘old-fashioned human’. Much to the surprise of the great public, the body we thought we knew so well must be seen now as a carrier of viruses and bacteria, as a possible infector of thousands of other bodies through our own breath and kiss. At the first congress of the ‘European Society for Virology’ organised after the lockdown in Gdansk, our times were called ‘inter-pandemic’ and lecturers warned against the word ‘impossible’ when it came to virology (Keulemans, 20/05/2023).
Both in Euripides and Kafka, Time is no longer predictable and linear, it links an obscure past with an unclear present and disturbs every possible Future. Tragedies and epidemics come and go, cannot be understood as teleological events, but result in a largely distorted view of our own existence. All members of the Theban family went through a process of loss and suffering, a ‘gap’ that triggered a whole range of unpleasant feelings. Both then and today, Nature returns to the humans in unpredictable ways, reminding us how grotesque the separation Man – Nature had become and how man, in his great vulnerability and alienation from everything, always remains part of Nature.
Philipp Blom therefore defends the thesis that ‘we are a species of animal that is not that important, especially for the biosphere. Then plankton, ants or fungi are much more valuable than humans. (…) So we live in symbiosis and are not true individuals’.

Recent scientific research also points to the greatly changed position of humans in nature. I briefly mention three amazing pathways:
– First of all, I am reminded of the late discovery of the Wood Wide Web, an underground internet in which everything communicates with everything, right under our feet. Blind as Oedipus, we were until recently for this, until it was discovered that fungi too exhibit problem-solving behaviour, they have a memory, can learn and make decisions. In his important work ‘Entangled Life’ (2020), Merlin Sheldrake showed how underground mycelial networks connect different organisms, especially trees, bushes and plants, for miles around in such a way that they can no longer be considered separate entities. Yet, both mushrooms and the underground mycelium are composed of only one cell type; there is no sense or brain at all. How the mycelium manages all this remains largely a mystery. Who is the ‘lower organism’ here? And surely, fungi, mushrooms and algae, Gaia’s smallest children, belong to the empire of Dionysos, god of fauna and flora, mostly unseen witnesses of the gods great power. Sheldrake concludes as follows: ‘ As I have explored the fungal world, I have come to look differently at much of what I knew. Evolution, ecosystems, individuality, intelligence, life, nothing is what I thought it was’.
– Secondly, it is well known by now that in the early 2020s biology was still very sure of itself and thought it knew best the immune system of all complex cellular body systems. Until shortly afterwards, nearly 15 million people worldwide died due to infection and Nature turned out not to be as familiar as thought after all (Mukherjee, 2022: 307).
But penetrating deeply into the depths of the cell is still a mysterious adventure. Is the virus hijacking the cell and in doing so, is it not very cunning? The pandemic has exposed many gaps in our knowledge, concludes Indian-American oncologist Mukherjee in his seminal work ‘The Song of the Cell’. To quote him: ‘Perhaps viruses like SARS-CoV-2 possess unsuspected means of disrupting the immune system that can make them so pathogenic, but we have so far failed to see such an underlying explanation’ (2022: 317).
At the said congress in Gdansk last month, Italian cell biologist Chiara Zurzolo, said that corona could enter the brain and spread in the brain, immediately raising the question whether exhausting pain and fatigue disease that people experience in the post Covid period explained the so called ‘post-covid syndrome’?
Thirdly, it is good to remember that the genetic code of all living things on earth was formed under strong influence of viral infections. Probably up to two-thirds of the human genome appears to come from viruses or virus-related elements. The genetic material of a virus can be incorporated into the nucleus of a human cell where the human genetic code is located.
It is also curious that half of our human DNA consists of genetic material from retroviruses. These viruses have nestled themselves into our own genetic material over the course of evolution and now help determine how human physiology works. Yet, this viral DNA embedded in our own cell nuclei also protects against other viruses. Viral infections throughout evolution have thus not only caused problems for humans, but also helped and shaped them.
Our genes themselves, those who are at the core of every person and created us in body and mind, have come a long way before coming to live within us.
Here, we should not forget that we needed a retrovirus of the same type as the covid virus for the evolution from bird to mammal, and thus to homo sapiens. Evolutionarily, there was a viral step in which the virus became a part of the host, important for the development of the placenta, otherwise we would still be breeding eggs instead of maturing our egg in the placenta.
Genes don’t go senile, we do. When a gene is a million years old, it is as little at risk of dying of old age as when it is only hundreds of years old. It jumps from one body to another through the line of generations, because genes are the immortals, so to speak, and we are their individual survival devices. Richard Dawkins aptly concluded: ‘In genetic terms, individuals and groups can be compared to clouds in the sky or sandstorms in the desert’ (2006: 87).

The three ideas I have been referring to up to now were:
– firstly, life under our feet in the mycelium proceeds in completely different ways than once thought.
– secondly, until recently our knowledge of the immune system proved inadequate. Viruses are an integral part of our bodies and we cannot live with and without viruses.
– and thirdly, our genes shamelessly need and serve us for their survival.
The obvious conclusion is that nowadays the human image is shifting. The old psychic image we had of ourselves is undergoing fierce erosion and a strange kind of unease has taken hold of many. Nature remains a great unknown to us, beings who were not made for the sake of our central position in nature, we who appear to know neither ourselves nor nature well, in the end. Both the tragic Greek characters and the post lockdown people discover:
– first, how relative their position is,
– then how foolish it is to want to subject Nature to oneself without first knowing oneself fully,
– and finally, how humble the human species should remain.

Important as well is the shift that a traditional character like Dionysos undergoes in such a framework. No longer one of the fantastic Greek gods nor a fascinating eighteenth century philosophic concept, Dionysos today rather has to be conceived in terms of an continuous energetic presence (as Terzopoulos reminds us), and hence also in terms of an ecological agency. Frank Raddatz formulated this so well in his article ‘Bühne und Anthropozän’: ‘When you consider humans as an organism, inhabited by countless microbes in full interaction with multiple ecosystems from many non-human living beings, you then arrive at the most up-to-date scientific-biological interpretation of the Dionysian’ (2018: 71).
To conclude. Does not man necessarily remains orphaned, as a naked ape who recognises that he has now been expelled from his old conceptual biotope, from the story of the subjugation of nature, without a punishing god or redemption this time, without even an angry Gaia, without a central idea of progress or historical mission’ (Blom, 150-1). That is also why we as homo sapiens remain tragic creatures par excellence, we be great in our knowledge, but we are also always reminded that even today, as Mukharjee mentioned in his ‘The Song of the Cell’, we ‘even do not know what we do not know’ and therefore obliged to enter the dark domain of a ‘horror autotoxicus’ (2022: 318).

Blom Philipp, Die Unterwerfung, München, Carl Hanser, 2022.
Dawkins Richard, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Keulemans Maarten, Moeten we nog vrezen voor nieuwe pandemieën?, De Morgen 20/05/2023.
Krause Johannes & Trappe Thomas, Die Reise unserer Gene. Eine Geschichte über uns und unsere Vorfahren, Berlin: Ullstein, 2019.
Latour Bruno, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, Paris: Editions La Découverte, 2021.
Sheldrake Merlin, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, London/ Random House, 2020.
Raddatz Frank M., Bühne und Anthropozän. Dramatische Poesie de Zukunft – Eine theaterästhetische Spekulation, in: LI, Herbst 2018, 66-77.
Mukherjee Siddharta, The Gene: An Intimate History, New York: Scribner, 2016.
Mukherjee Siddharta, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human New York: Scribner, 2022.