Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.
It is unfair and inexplicable that the figure of Steven Arnold, an eclectic and highly refined artist and influencer ante litteram, has remained so little known: it is only in recent years that people have begun to recognize his exceptional weight, from his visionary work to his central role in the cultural scene of the 30-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Born on May 18, 1943, in Oakland, California, Steven showed a creative nature early on: as a child he spent hours locked in the attic of his home playing with puppets, for which he constructed elaborate costumes. In a sense he never stopped doing this until the end of his life, although by then, instead of puppets, he now had flesh-and-blood models and spectacular sets that he personally composed.
In high school Steven met Pandora (who was to become his muse, collaborator, and best friend), with whom he spent afternoons in his bedroom losing himself in reveries fueled by joints, mysticism, and playful cross-dressing.
In 1961, Arnold won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. In the summer of 1963 he made a move to Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, but soon becoming bored, he moved to Formentera where he stayed for three months in a hippie commune. There he tried LSD for the first time, an experience that changed his life, as he later recounted: “this new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding. I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same.”
Upon returning to the United States, he devoted himself to his passion for filmmaking, and from the start the prospects were encouraging: his graduation short film, Messages, Messages, was screened at Cannes and other prestigious festivals
For the premiere in San Francisco in February 1968, Arnold decided that he would go big and, together with his collaborator Michael Wiese, rented the Palace Theatre for one evening; in addition to his short film, the evening included screenings of a number of French films selected by Arnold (including works by Méliès and Man Ray). The initiative was a resounding success, with 2,000 tickets sold, so much so that the theater managers suggested that Arnold curate a weekly film review.
Thus, a month later, the Nocturnal Dream Show was born, the very first example of a midnight movies review in history.
The themed evenings, complete with dress code, that Arnold organized at the Palace were not only a chance to see extremely rare films − such silent masterpieces as Metropolis, Betty Boop cartoons, old surrealist films, early twentieth-century pornography − but they soon became a cult phenomenon and a fixture for the Bay Area’s hippie counterculture.
The Nocturnal Dream Shows were also the moment when Steven Arnold’s ability to act as an “attractor” emerged, as he created crazy and colorful happenings, capable of bringing different worlds together: in the audience, among kids smoking pot or engaging in free love, it was not uncommon to run into actors, artists and writers of the caliber of George Harrison, Ellen Burstyn, Janis Joplin, Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.
During those years Arnold, while staying out of the spotlight, had a major influence on fashion and visual culture: not only did he design some of the first rock posters for the famous Matrix nightclub (where the “San Francisco sound” was historically born), or invented the look that would be made famous a few years later by Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he also gave for the first time the opportunity to perform on a stage to The Cockettes, a drag and psychedelic theater collective that immediately became a cornerstone of the San Francisco underground scene.
Meanwhile, Arnold also continued his directing career, signing in 1971 Luminous Procuress, an experimental and lysergic feature film that once again was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two years later, Arnold met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where the Surrealist painter was residing with his entourage. Dali, who was certainly not known for the generosity of his compliments, exploded into unprecedented enthusiasm when he saw Arnold’s work. He rented the hotel’s huge ballroom to screen Luminous Procuress; the entire New York elite, including Andy Warhol, attended the event.
From that moment on, Arnold became his protégé. He often sat at Dali’s feet like an adept before his guru, or by his side during dinner, and soon the two became inseparable. In the alternate reality they created together, they spent hours devising fantastical garments, dreamlike designs and surreal inventions
The following year Dalí invited him to Spain to work on the decorations of his Theater-Museum in Figueres. After attending the opening, he definitely became a favorite of Dali, who called him the Prince of his Court of Miracles — that is, the parterre of stars who revolved around him, from Amanda Lear to Marianne Faithfull, from Mick Jagger to David Bowie.
It was after his experience with Salvador Dali in the mid-1970s that Steven Arnold found his most congenial medium of expression: photography.
He rented an abandoned pretzel factory in Los Angeles, which he renamed Zanzibar Studios and turned into his laboratory. There he began shooting his extraordinary black-and-white tableau vivants, creating elaborate, baroque sets from the endless props and clothes he had collected over the years.
Steven Arnold’s photographs, to which he ascribed spiritual value and which he approached as meditation exercises, propose a veritable surreal cosmology in which reverence for the divine is diluted by a blunt camp humor. Here angelic and ethereal figures are depicted through a seductive, erotically charged carnality in a playful celebration of fluidity (ahead of its time). It is no coincidence that one of the deities Arnold was most fond of was Guanyin, the “drag” Buddha who is depicted in female form in parts of East Asia.
The density of the visual layout and the striking attention to detail also suggest an essential element of Arnold’s photography: even when he engages in ironic, queer reworking of religious icons, he shows no intent to shock the viewer. On the contrary, what emerges is the search for a language well-suited for his generation, capable of approaching mysticism and the sacred in a joyful and imaginative way. The images on which his pictures are based, in fact, often came to him in his dreams or during meditation; transposing these visions thus became a shamanic, almost priestly act, and at the same time theatrical, as if he was staging the unrepresentable.
From time to time inspired by his dream world, religions and Jungian archetypes, Arnold produced a vast body of photographs, sketches, sculptures and assemblages. At the same time he cultivated extensive social relationships, and his studio soon became a new hub for gatherings, daily parties and aperitifs attended by famous names and emerging artists.
Unfortunately, in 1988, just when he was at the height of his popularity, Arnold received the most dreaded diagnosis, that of AIDS.
In this excerpt from an interview with Ellen Burstyn, his close friend, we see him address the subject with the grace and irony that were his hallmarks.
After his death in 1994, Steven Arnold’s name and work remained relatively unknown to the general public for a long time.
Recently, thanks in part to the work of Vishnu Dass, director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archives (and author of a documentary about the artist’s eccentric and unconventional life), his importance is beginning to be recognized — not only as a visual artist of great originality, but as a pioneering figure in queer culture as well. As Dass himself stated in an interview, “the things that he was really nurturing and fostering in his studio spaces are what people are fighting for in the culture at large today; and he had already made that a reality within the walls of his studios in the Sixties.”
Here is the wonderful Instagram page of the Steven Arnold Archives.
In this new video: secret experiments, diabolical infestations and bloody miracles!
Three mysterious events that took place over seven centuries are linked by a surprising secret…
[Turn on English subtitles!]
Today Bizzarro Bazar turns 14!
Ah, it seems like yesterday, how time goes by, a lot of water has passed under the bridge, etc. — and okay, there sure have been many changes in these 14 years. If I’m honest, though… I opened my cell phone gallery this morning and the first photo that came to my eye was this one (NSFW), so it doesn’t seem to me that the stature of my intellectual interests has undergone much of an upheaval.
All joking aside, I am still, like you who read and support me, searching for unprecedented, liminal, wacky and wonderful territories.
However, the time also comes to draw a bit of a balance of the past year. It has been a very complicated period for me but an extremely stimulating one; if I have blogged less and somewhat thinned out my online presence, it is also because there are so many things simmering in the pot that required my attention. In particular, I will be announcing a couple of projects in the coming time: one of them has taken me across the length and breadth of the peninsula (and the journey is not over yet); the other one deviates from my usual boundaries but is a new adventure in which I hope you will want to try to follow me.
For now I cannot say more so I will just raise my glass and toast to us, seekers of enchantment, and to wonder! Keep The World Weird!
A few days ago I visited Maranzana, a village in Monferrato known to be populated by strange inhabitants…
(Turn on English subtitles!)
Even the hospital, in Venice, is a Renaissance masterpiece: the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which opens into Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is considered one of the greatest architectural and artistic jewels of the lagoon city.
Right next to the main entrance, located in the spaces of the former Scuola di Santa Maria della Pace, it is possible to visit the small “Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy.
The birth of the collection can be traced back to 1874, when the hospital’s anatomical dissector was recommended to preserve the most relevant anatomopathological specimens. From that time on, the collection was regularly supplemented, particularly thanks to the work of Giuseppe Jona. The museum houses the death mask of Jona himself, an extraordinary figure of a physician and a man who under in 1943 committed suicide in order not to reveal to the German authorities the names of the Jews left in Venice.
The museum consists of one small room, and has nine display cases with dry and liquid preparations. Among the osteological exhibits are bone tumors, hyperostosis, trauma, a collection of 10 femurs and 32 skull caps showing various pathologies. A collection of ancient calculi shows how this affliction, in the days when it could not be treated promptly, could become a very serious problem. The liquid preparations, on the other hand, are principalmnte designed to illustrate certain diseases that affected the Venetian lagoon in particular, related to epidemics (tuberculosis), to once-common diseases (leprosy), or to glassmaking.
But it is one preparation in particular that attracts attention, in a display case placed right in the center of the room: the whole body of a male affected by various malformations, including kyphosis and dwarfism.
The striking details of this find, with a stature of 67 cm and an estimated age of around 50 years, are many. The shrunken body still possesses hair, facial hair, but most importantly-uncommon detail-it still has eyes in situ.
The visible incision on the skull is typical of an autopsy, but it is the two large sutures on the chest and back that are unusual. After the autopsy, evidently this gentleman was prepared for museum purposes. Initially scholars thought the method used was tannization by Lodovico Brunetti, the same anatomist who prepared the “Punished Suicide“. Tannization was an anatomical preservation process that involved, after cleaning and degreasing the tissues, ultilizing them with tannic acid diluted with demineralized water and dehydrating them with compressed hot air.
But when this Venetian artifact was inspected radiographically, it was discovered that it was devoid of internal organs, which had been replaced by a filling material. This gentleman was eviscerated, his skin removed, dehydrated, and finally repositioned on his previously treated skeleton by filling the remaining empty cavities with tow or other material. This is thus an authentic human taxidermy, the same procedure used for stuffing animals.
I have often been asked over the years why we do not “stuff” human beings. The answer is that it’s been tried, but the results are not particularly good. Over time, dried human skin tends to shrink, becomes brittle and easy to crack, and any prosthetic eyes eventually emerge unnaturally. The color of the epidermis is also not kept particularly true, and the questionable results of this technique can be seen in the few taxidermies in anatomical museums (below is a display case of human taxidermies at the Museum of Sanitary Art in Rome).
The taxidermied human specimen from Venice is truly unique, both because of the decision to prepare it in this rather unusual way and because of the pathologies it illustrates. And, like all “integral” anatomical specimens, it also encourages our emotional reaction: it is impossible not to wonder what kind of life this man, dwarfed and hunchbacked, had in the Venice of the second half of the 19th century; what hardships and pains he suffered, but also what desires and happiness he might have known, before ending up eternalized in a museum. The treatment meted out to him, commonly used for animals, might seem like a final affront, but it actually relates back to a fervent period of continuous experimentation, in which countless different techniques were tried out to perfect the art of anatomical preparation.
Personally, therefore, I find both specular aspects, pathos and pietas, moving and humane. The pathos of the human subject that forms the basis of the anatomical object, the often anonymous existence behind any preparation, with its sometimes tragic uniqueness; and the pietas that is inherent in the medical vocation as well as in the desire to preserve deformity and disease for the purpose of study, to understand their mystery and to try, if possible, to cure and alleviate the suffering of others.
The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.
And now, on with the weird stuff!
- In 2021 at the Nagasaki Zoo, the female gibbon Momo gave birth to a cub. In itself this would not be big news, except that Momo lives alone and has never had contact with other males. How could this virginal conception happen? After two years of research, and DNA tests, those in charge came to the conclusion that Momo became pregnant… through a glory hole.
- In Shakespeare’s plays, monstrosity is made explicit in deformed bodies, nefarious instincts, and through language itself. Michela Compagnoni has explored all this in a new book reviewed in this insightful and fascinating article [in Italian]. (Thanks, Bruno!)
- The first lab-grown meat burger was presented in London 10 years ago. Since then, technologies have evolved, costs are gradually coming down, and synthetic meat seems to be on its way to becoming a possible ethical and ecological alternative to traditional meat in the future. But at this point, why limit ourselves to producing beef slices when we can create recipes from extinct animals?
The one below, produced by an Australian company, is a mega-meatball made from the DNA of a mammoth.
Yet I would not recommend tasting it, because the scientists themselves have no idea of the allergic problems a 5,000-year-old protein could cause in humans. (And so goes my idea for a new fast food chain, “Jurassic Pork.”)
- On L’indiscreto, a great piece by Alessio Montagner [in Italian] on Jesus’ penis, Mary’s vagina and more generally the symbolic density of genitalia in sacred art. (Thanks, Gaberricci!)
- Feast your eyes on these tears.
- Park Van Tassel (1853-1930) was an American aerial stunt pioneer. Originally a bartender in Albuquerque, he became interested in areostatic flying beginning in 1879 and decided to become a professional daredevil; his performances consisted of parachuting from his hot air balloon. But although today he is considered an important figure for some technical innovations and for introducing women (i.e., his wife and daughters) to the sport, at the time not everyone thought him particularly skilled. Many of his shenanigans did not end exactly as planned, and Van Tassel often ended up injuring himself or crashing-landing so much so that the crowd often booed him or even sabotaged the balloon. As Jan Bondeson reports in Strange Victoriana, in one case a spectator ended up lying unconscious because of a ballast carelessly thrown by Van Tassel; in another, the reckless aeronaut risked being killed when his legs got caught in the balloon’s support ropes while his parachute had already opened; in yet another, a wedding that was to take place in the air had to be cancelled because no priest or justice of the peace agreed (understandably) to ascend in a balloon along with Van Tassel.
And they were right: flying with him was really not good business, as the 1889 incident in Honolulu tragically demonstrated. Van Tassel and his co-pilot Joe Lawrence had just taken flight in front of a cheering crowd when the hot air balloon was displaced by the wind toward the ocean; unable to control it, Van Tassel and his colleague jumped by parachute, but as they gently descended they realized that an even worse fate awaited them below… Van Tassel managed to reach the shore unharmed, but the poor assistant ended up mauled by sharks.
- In the first of my Milan anatomy lectures, I mentioned a peculiar court proceeding that took place in France in 1659, in which on trial came the poor erectile capacities of a nobleman, accused by his wife of failing to fulfill his marital duties — impotence, at the time, was almost the only reason for a woman to file for divorce. This trial, in which the defendant had to prove his manhood by attempting copulation before an attentive jury of doctors and magistrates, was not an isolated case. Here is an article about the history of impotence trials.
- There are those who look at a photo from when they were 16 years old, think back to that time and say, “I was a little immature, but I was still me after all.” And there are those who wonder, “but was that really me?” as if they no longer recognize themselves.
Some of us, in short, naturally see a continuity (a “narrative arc,” as a screenwriter would put it) in our life experience, while others feel subject to metamorphoses so continuous and profound that the past is crowded with many outdated and now extraneous versions of themselves. I certainly belong to the second category.
By now there is a good deal of psychological research showing precisely how perception about one’s own past identity varies greatly from person to person, so much so that scholars have even coined two terms to denote the two different types of approach. Are you continuers or dividers?
- “It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume–a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins. […] Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us. A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings. No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.”
This sounds like a passage from a William Hope Hodgson short story, but instead it is a truthful account of a nighttime scream heard at sea by the crew of a sailing ship in the early twentieth century and still left unexplained.
- How did the idea of the Martians come about? The one above is one of the maps of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s. The astronomer christened those mysterious rectilinear formations “canals”-a term mistranslated into English as canals, which by definition implies the idea that they are artificial. Soon many other scholars became convinced that those strange structures were too regular to be mere rivers, and from there to the idea that intelligent beings might inhabit the planet’s surface was a short step. When the first probes photographed and mapped Mars more closely, it was realized that the channels were just optical illusions; but without this mistake who knows if we would ever have science fiction as we know it today.
- At Waterloo, one of the bloodiest battles in history, 20,000 soldiers died, plus thousands of horses. But then where did all those bones end up? A recent historical study has provided a surprising answer: they were illegally unearthed between 1834 and 1860 to refine and bleach sugar.(Thanks Vito, RIP)
- Let’s keep talking about bones. In just one year, in 1657, Genoa lost two-thirds of its population to the plague. There were so many dead that numerous mass graves had to be resorted to. One of these was found in 1835, during renovation work in the city park of Acquasola; it was then decided to move the remains to the tunnels that develop underground in the area. So even today, just a few meters below the feet of dog walkers and children playing, mountains of stacked bones hide.
The tunnels cannot be visited, but here are some photos taken by speleologists.
- Most minimalist deity.
- Most ingenious funeral card.
- Most AAARGH animal.
- The Essentials of Smallpox is a manuscript compiled (probably in a single copy) in the late 17th or early 18th century by Japanese physician Kanda Gensen. The sheets have been worked in such a way as to illustrate the plagues of smallpox in relief.
That’s all, see you next time!
Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia
Growing, in the shadow of the gallows, is a monstrous fruit. It is a prodigious aphrodisiac, but it also serves as an indispensable ingredient in the witch’s recipe book-who, according to legend, mixes it with the fat of stillborn children, thus creating an ointment with which she can fly to the sabbath.
As Pliny and Dioscorides relate, this anodyne natural was applied as an analgesic before surgical operations because of the discrete soporific and sedative properties attributed to it by learned medicine prior to the 16th century, which made use of it in various forms-from the extract of the fruit, to the seeds, to the actual root.
Countless ailments were said to be cured by the mandrake: it was used both for external and internal use, as well as to heal infertility and impotence (its renowned value as an erotic stimulant is even attested by one of the epithets of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite Mandragoritis, and, by the more puritanical, by nicknames for it as the apple or even testicle of the devil), both against menstrual disorders, quartan fever, excess black bile (the dreaded melancholia, the cause of numerous ailments, including mental ones), diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more parts of the body, from the eyes to the anus, against abscesses, indurations, and even tumors.
Mandrake was used according to the many uses suggested by premodern pharmacopoeia, but also as a fetish: it was sold as an amulet by the root-diggers, a branch of merchants who specialized in extracting the plant-who, however, apparently peddled in its place roots of bryony or other common plants, tactically carved.
A vegetable at the intersection with the other kingdoms-the mineral, because of its chthonic origin, and the animal, indeed, even human… – sought after yet feared, admirable and deadly, the mandrake belongs to the family of the infamous nightshade, associated like its “sister” with witchcraft for its psychoactive properties due to its high concentration of scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid found mainly in its roots. It is a solanacea, whose intricate, vaguely anthropomorphic shaped roots have intrigued the human imagination since ancient times, so much so that it has been attributed a sex (which determines its shape and color), human-like genitalia and a rather difficult character, which causes it, for example, to hide from impure people and allow itself to be tamed only by those who show it a cross or spray it with menstrual blood or urine.
This sort of personification has resulted in the plant sometimes being treated as a small individual, made of living flesh: a homunculus, literally, endowed among other things with a power execrable. Around the figure of this prodigious plant, in fact, hovers for centuries a gloomy legend : it is said that it screams, when extracted from the earth, with such shrieks as to make the unwary “pickers” lose their senses or even kill them on the spot. This deadly capacity of the prized booty then necessitates complex contrivances by which those about to dig the mandrake out of the ground can preserve their health (and survive it).
The most common contrivances follow a common pattern: at the center of all variants, there is in fact the sacrifice of a dog (the only exception is the one Frazer attributes to the Jewish tradition, in which a donkey), most often with black fur; to this animal before dawn on Friday-not coincidentally, the day named after the goddess of love-the plant is tied, of whose roots a single strand is left still buried. The dog, purposely hungry, is then made to run away with the call of a tasty morsel; in doing so it snatches the entire plant from the ground, which bursts into deadly squeals, which, unfortunately, cause the sudden death of the unsuspecting animal. The humans present-who up to that point have kept their ears well covered or even plugged with cotton sealed with pitch or wax-can then approach and pick up the plant, which, thus “let loose,” is now rendered harmless.
A fascinating aspect of the mandrake is its origin, according to legend, which makes it a literal fruit of hanging-the product of thecross between man and the earth(Zarcone).
Certain Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions call this plant gallows man, mad plant e dragon doll, terms that evoke the human and somewhat monstrous origin of the mandrake. Indeed, the seed from which this fabled “capestro flower” is formed would be precisely the human one, scattered on the ground at the moment of death by the criminal subjected to the infamous execution par excellence.
Already climbing the steps of the gallows, the dying man imagines himself suspended between heaven and earth, thrown into a limbo from which only divine forgiveness could pull him to safety, as well as rejected by the community gathered there to voraciously admire his agony, in all its physiological aspects.
The suspension of which the condemned man was a victim would obliterate his body(Tarlow – Battel Lowman), annihilating it as a social object, placing it in exile in a liminal zone both geographically and metaphorically (as, moreover, also occurred in the display of the corpse through gibbet); the rope, the instrument of execution, which although theoretically should have fractured or dislocated the upper cervical vertebrae of the condemned man, leading him quickly to death, most often ended up strangling him, thus disrupting his features and causing him to inevitably evacuate feces, urine and, depending on the sex of the victim, menstrual blood or seminal fluid.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that, by virtue of the magical-medical theory of the transfer of life energy from the dead person to his or her survivor, people eagerly sought contact with the body of the punished offender, still imbued with vitality (which gave him or her invaluable medical potency). These are the secrets of the corpse, passed down in a veritable consumer literature in which, as Camporesi explains, therapeutic occultism combines with necromantic pharmacopoeia and natural magic to crown a Faustian dream of long life and eternal youth.
According to a logic that considers putrefaction a black copulation capable of making the dead a “wellspring of health,” the living can keep healthy by preying on the deceased; it can even transmit its own ills to it, deriving from them the energy that the spirits, in turmoil in those last moments, still bestow on the corpse. The dead person is thus paradoxical dispenser of life (Camporesi).
That is why the stroke, or the touch of the hanged man, was believed to be curative: the hand of the corpse was shaken or put in contact with the parts of the body affected by skin diseases, blemishes, goiters and excrescences (from leek to wart to sebaceous cyst), as Davies and Matteoni masterfully explain. Imagine, then, how much power may reside in the seminal legacy left by the hanged man: the mandrake, inhuman progeny of the gallows!
The plant that ignites eros and brings death arises from the intersection of these same two principles, that is, from the climax reached in so-called “angelic lust.”
This euphemism designates the post-mortem priapism observed since antiquity in the corpse of the executed, especially if it died by strangulation. This is a phenomenon that has inspired not only various essays on sexology and the psychology of deviance but also great novelists such as Sade, Musset, Joyce and Burroughs. We are thus speaking of a “mortal erection” that was sometimes followed even on the scaffold by ejaculation, and it was to this very phenomenon that ancient herbaria traced the origin of the mandrake, which arose from the semen emitted by the condemned at the moment of death.
The ability to exhibit an erection literally terminal and culminating in ejaculation, among other things, was a decisive component in the name that qualified this mode of execution as an “infamous death.” Indeed, hanging appears as the most shameful of departures throughout Western history (but not only, according to Old Testament Deuteronomy, where it is associated in this ignominious aura with crucifixion, another example of death by suspension). Whether it was considered degrading because it was imposed on criminals of the humblest background and/or despicable crime, or conversely imposed on them precisely because it was felt to be dishonorable, hanging was in any case the most common type of execution; according to tradition, it was also the death of the last and worst, as the apocryphal last events of Judas, the victim of a grotesque and studiously humiliating agony, remind us. Such an aura of infamy is probably why, as Owens notes in Stages of Dismemberment, hanging is almost absent in hagiography, and may have arisen precisely from the “embarrassing” physiological phenomena that accompany this particularly spectacular form of death.
Among these bodily events, the celestial orgasm we have already discussed-which in the female corpse has its counterpoint in the possibility of a loss of blood from the vagina, accompanied by a sprinkling of the labia and clitoris, in a spontaneous menstruation caused by the action of gravity on the uterus resulting in prolapse of the sexual organs-is simply the most “scandalous” because it involves the genitals. As Hurren vividly recounts in Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, many condemned men urinated and/or defecated, at the fatal moment; others, victims of suggestion, stained their robes with ejaculated semen; there were gaseous exchanges caused by the deceased’s digestion, and decaying blood leaked from the mouth and nostrils, in a purgation made all the more disconcerting by the rigor mortisduring which the gases, unable to escape entirely through the anus or nose, passed through the trachea, giving the impression that the corpse groaned and croaked as if it had still been alive and aching.
Although life, as commonly understood, no longer resided in the limbs of the hanged man, something remained that seemed to defy the justice that had been done. From the invicible erection, that is, from the last “tears”-as this ejaculation was poetically called in articulo mortis – shed by the criminal on the ground, would then form, under his corpse left hanging, the mandrake.
This therapeutic and dangerous plant-a veritable pharmakon, remedy and poison, in the dual Greek sense – constitutes in short, on a par with the rope used to execute the criminal or the healing touch of the hanged man’s hand, another example of the posthumous ways by which the condemned man, once dead, goes from nefarious to salvific for the community that expelled him. In fact, once he repents, it is as if the criminal is reintegrated into the community through his own execution, moving from the status of a tainted and defiling individual to that of a “salutary” element.
The corpse of the executed criminal, through the medicinal virtues of his mortal remains or through the generation of the mandrake, thus acquires a “posthumous” social life through the distribution of his energies, and becomes the site where, in a tangible way, the salvation that resides in repentance occurs.