In this episode of the second season of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: a doctor who wanted to solve psychiatric disorders with dentist pincers; a strange and monstrous fish that belonged to Lazzaro Spallanzani; the goth prostitutes of ancient Rome.
On March 21, 2021, the Bizzarro Bazar web series will be back on my YouTube channel with 10 new episodes produced in collaboration with the prestigious Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
The episodes, as for the first season, will be published every other week.
By now you know what to expect: strange scientific experiments, quirky characters, human wonders, stories bordering on the impossible — in short, all the classic Bizzarro Bazar repertoire.
As usual, the direction and fantastic animations have been curated by Francesco Erba, but this time we shot the live parts in the exceptional historical collections of the Palazzo dei Musei: in each episode, in the Show & Tell section, one of the museum curators will open a display case just for us, and allow us to discover the most emblematic and curious objects and pieces.
Here is a little trailer to lighten the wait, and see you soon!
I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.
Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.
When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).
The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.
Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)
Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.
Matthias Gerung, Allegory of Love (Amor omnia vincit), 1535
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1620
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, 1640
But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).
Lucas Cranach The Elder, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1528
Jacopo Tintoretto, The Liberation of Arsinoe, ca. 1556
Francesco Montelatici a.k.a. Cecco Bravo, Ruggero and Angelica, 1660
Michaelis Majeri, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum, 1687
“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”
William Etty, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, ca. 1833
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1863
Joseph Paul Blanc, The Liberation – Ruggero and Angelica, 1876
In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.
John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870
Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfulled, 1885
Charles Napier Kennedy, Perseus and Andromeda, 1890
Arthur Hacker, The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894
One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.
In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”
Eugène Delacroix, Marfisa, 1852
Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.
Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?
The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.
John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893
John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, ca. 1905
Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?
Rose O’Neill, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1905
The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.
The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.
Vereker Monteith Hamilton (1856 – 1931), The Rescue
Quiz: which animal is portrayed in the photo? The solution at the end of the article!
When workers broke down a brick wall inside a convent in Leicestershire, they found a couple of skeletons. However, these are anatomical preparations, the bones are numbered and in some cases still articulated with wire. How they got behind a convent wall is still a mystery.
In 1968 Barbara Mackle, then 20 years old, became the victim of one of the most infamous kidnappings in history. The girl was locked up in a reinforced box equipped with two tubes for air circulation, then buried in the woods as her kidnappers awaited ransom. Here you find the letter she found upon waking up in her coffin. She spent more than three days underground before she was located and brought to safety.
If Charlotte Thornley hadn’t survived a terrifying cholera epidemic, we might had never had Dracula. Because Charlotte was Bram Stoker’s mother, and with her chilling tales she probably influenced the concept for the most famous gothic novel ever. Here is a wonderful article (in Italian) by Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark“: at least some critical voices seem to think so, as they protest against an animated series for children whose protagonist is a little man with a very long and prehensile penis. Given the contemporary efforts to change the macho/phallocentric mentality, this concept does not strike as very thoughtful, but others claim the cartoon is actually harmless, free from sexual references, respectful towards women and kindly goliardic. A good article (in Italian) on Il Post summarizes the scandal and the different opinions, also embedding some episodes that you can see to get an idea. (Thanks, Massimiliano!)
Italy is the country that boasts the largest number of mummies in the world, a unique historical and anthropological heritage (as I explained in this video). Still we are not capable of giving value to this heritage. In May 1999, two more mummies were found in an excellent state of natural conservation and still dressed in period clothing and jewels, under the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Siena. And what happened following this exceptional discovery? “We regret the mummified bodies are once again hidden under the floor of the church; as for the ancient clothes, the jewels, medals and coins found on them, we do not know where they are, nor if they have ever been restored”, a researcher said. Meh.
“You are stupid. And not only are you stupid, but you are nasty. ” So said one of the letters that arrived in the editorial office of the French magazine Hara-Kiri, founded in 1960. From that moment on, the subtitle of the magazine became “A stupid and nasty newspaper”. A strange editorial case, Hara-Kiri was a satirical, incorrect and in many cases openly obscene magazine, so much so that in the course of its 29 years of activity it went through various judicial troubles (it was after one of these interdictions that the team gave birth to the collateral project Charlie Hebdo, now sadly famous for the terrorist attack of 2015). But perhaps the most distinctive elements of Hara-Kiri remain its covers: shocking, extreme, vulgar, deliberately unpleasant, designed with the intent of épater les bourgeois. Here is a collection of 45 covers that are even today an example of explosive, unhinged and unrestrained punk graphics. (Thanks Marco!)
Mariano Tomatis gave me a heads-up about a curious text, available for free online, detailing the method devised in the late nineteenth century by the Swedish physiotherapist Thure Brandt to treat numerous female genital pathologies through massages, stretching, lifting. Mariano tells me that “the curious figures employed in the book are an attempt to de-sexualize the subjects’ appearance”; too bad the result looks like a manual of esoteric rituals for aliens.
The representation of death often relies on euphemization or symbolic rendering, in order to avoid the “scandal” of the corpse, that is, to avoid being obscene. The approach is different for the kind photography which is aimed at social criticism, where shock is an essential element in order to convey a moral position. This is the case of the series Grief by Hungarian photographer Peter Timar, who between 1980 and 1983 documented the disrespectful and questionable treatment of bodies at the Funeral Institute in Budapest: the corpses piled on top of each other, the collapsed coffins on the floor, the bodies stretched in pairs on the autopsy tables caused a huge controversy when the Mucsamok gallery in Budapest exhibited Timar’s photographs. The exhibition was closed by the authorities a few days after it opened. You can see the Grief series at this link (warning: graphic images).
The effects of the torture on Guy Fawkes emerge from his writing: above, his signature (“Guido”) just after being tortured at the Tower of London; below, the same signature a week later, when he had regained his strength.
Lee Harper is an Oxford-based artist passionate about the darkest side of history; in her works she decided to revisit those bizarre episodes that most struck her imagination, by creating detailed dioramas. “All of the pieces — says the artist’s statement — are about real people, events or customs from some point in this crazy world.” Those range from Countess Bathory’s bloodbaths to sin-eaters, from Freeman’s Lobotomobile to body snatchers. But, as if the events represented weren’t enough to make you shiver with morbid delight, Lee Harper’s grotesque miniature scenes are all played out by little skeleton actors. You can see her creations on History Bones and on her Instagram profile.
But COVID also took away Kim Ki-Duk, one of the major Korean directors. If many remember him for 3-Iron, Pietà or Spring Summer…, here on these pages it seems just right to remember him for his most disturbing and extreme film, The Isle (2000). One of the best Italian reviews, written by Giuseppe Zucco, called it a “powder-keg film”: a cruel and moving representation of incommunicability between human beings, which can be overcome only at the cost of hurting each other, tearing the flesh to the point of erasing oneself into the Other.
sleeping: “I dreamt I had done it. I awoke to find it
(Evening Star, August 14, 1924) <ahref=”https://t.co/JO7J96LwUs”>pic.twitter.com/JO7J96LwUs
Sturgeons smashing doors, candles that “sulk”, rotting cats under the bed, panthers exhumed and tasted… This article (in Italian) on the larger-than-life figure of Frank Buckland is a true riot of oddities.
The Taus is an Indian chordophone musical instrument, originating from Punjab. Created, according to tradition, by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), it is composed of a 20-fret neck and a body sculpted in the shape of a peacock. Real peacock feathers were often added to the instrument to complete the illusion.
Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.
Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
Here is the Talbots citadel:
And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:
These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.
But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
“There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.”
The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’ ”
(This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)
The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.
If you understand Italian, Mariano Tomatis’ web series Mesmer in pillole is one of the most beautiful things to have happened in the last year and a half. After reaching the number of 200 published videos, our inimitable Wonder Injector has made an alphabetic selection of the most surprising episodes.
These are the “ghosts” of Castello di Vezio, Lake Como, Italy. They renew these statues every year: you can volunteer to model and be “encased” in chak. You’ll eventually be let out ?, but the hollow statue stays there for the following year. pic.twitter.com/MdfA2zqW1K
And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News tells the epilogue as follows:
“On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.“
And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
“A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.“
In November last year I was invited to Sadistique, a BDSM party organized by my friend Ayzad. I talked about the “erotica of martyrdom” in front of an attentive, colorful and half-dressed crowd, in the dungeon-style room where at the end of my conference – quite appropriately – a Saint Andrew’s cross was mounted.
I have mulled over the possibility of recounting that evening; I was afraid that capturing its unique atmosphere, and making it palpable, goes beyond my poor literary skills.
In the end, since this blog is still a diary of my explorations, I decided to transcribe the notes I took that very night when I got back to my hotel room. They already had some kind of basic form, although not as refined as I would have preferred, so I publish them here without too many revisions.
(All images come from Sadistique’s website, and are NSFW.)
The first intense sensory overload that I become aware of is sound.
Constant, incessant symphony of slaps and shouts, a narcotic torpor, like those morning half-sleeps in which hormones suggest only vaguely erotic — but really more subterranean — visions. The syncopated hissing and popping of the whips, the dry bumps of paddles and bare hands slapping on butts and legs, as hypnotic as my memory of the African drums — that night in the slums of Dar-Es-Salaam when I met that woman possessed by a demon. Reiteration induces the trance: back and gluteus and gluteus and back — the same body parts get hit again, again, again. Even when you want to be imaginative, sex is always repetitive. Variations at first sight seem very, very sporadic: however the tools keep changing, and the discerning public knows how to recognize the progression, taste the effect, knowing al the different nuances and sensations. (Note: every sadist identifies with the victim, or there would be no pleasure in inflicting a punishment; every masochist identifies with the executioner, or there would be no joy in seeing oneself so humiliated and hurt.)
One big central arena for “public” games, before spectators. In reality almost all the sessions, even those on the most secluded sofas, earn their group of admirers. But only the most exhibitionist, or at least the most confident, dare to appear on the central stage. And you really have to be quite self-confident, because the audience doesn’t just watch, the spectators keep judging your performance, making technical considerations as if they were commenting a football match. “There, look, that knot should not be done like that, I say, at least loosen it during the transition!” “You must not miss this flogger, he has a wonderful wrist action. You won’t get to that level of mastery in a month or two.” “Look at that, if you use a cane like that, just to hurt, you’re missing the point. Where did all the poetry go? “
The most disarming thing: the constant alternation of sweetness and brutality. Brutality administered as part of a journey done together — even if it lasts just the time of one session — exploration and alteration of space-time… Three well-adjusted lashes, then the Dom approaches the Sub and caress him, whispers in his ear, makes sure they’re both going in the right direction. He needs to have the most precise understanding, because they’re proceeding together, united so the satisfaction is mutual. He asks if it is too much or too little. As if following the shaking of a divining rod, what they’re looking for here is the hidden vein of desire. An extreme spanking scene has been going on for almost half an hour on a nearby sofa: “Will you let me give you one last smack, with all my strength?” “No, not with all your strength…” (She is already almost crying, she writhes, her marked buttocks where two or three drops of blood adorn the purple bruises.) “Half strength then, can I?” “Half. But only once. “
A man is explaining to a girl how she will have to jump on him when he is lying on the ground. “Here, and here,” he says pointing at his naked torso. “Not here.” She is hesitant, terrified at the idea of breaking his ribs. “Number one: if I tell you to jump on my belly or chest, it’s because I know you won’t hurt me. Number two — and here he lowers his voice and leans towards her, in doing so he also comes closer to me, so I can hear what he’s whispering to her — remember that you to me are a gift.” She begins to cry with emotion. She shall jump on him several times that night, from the top of a stool, sinking her heels into his belly.
Evening proceeds not without comic moments. Even the Grotesque has a right of citizenship here — it couldn’t be otherwise, in such a mental space hanging on the edge of the precipice.
I love it when even the most experienced Master misses a hit. A whip spins around badly and hits the floor; a knot gets tangled and needs to be tied all over again; a cat o’ nine tails swooping through the air comes too close to a spectator (“Hey, be careful!”). Very human moments: wonderful contrast between the general sophisticated pose — we are in Milan after all, the city of fashion — and the surfacing of carnivalesque tones.
One flashy girl is wearing a fetish mask with a zipper that covers her mouth, she walks up to the counter. The bartender: “What do I give you?” “Mmmfmmmfmsssmchhh,” she replies. (I have to walk away to keep from laughing.)
Involuntary but also voluntary comedy: I am told of a legendary session in which the safeword was the squawking of chicken, complete with elbow movement, QUACK!
One gentleman introduces himself to a couple asking if he can act as their footstool. “But what should we do?” “Nothing, I’ll just lie here, you put your feet upon me, every now and then pull on the leash, that’s all.” After ten minutes of this treatment the gentleman gets up, politely thanks them, then leaves.
And this sketch, with its dry surrealism, pushes me to another consideration.
The man under the couple’s has maintained a serious and discreet attitude the whole time, light years away from the drooling and horny slaves à la Tokyo Decadence. I couldn’t even say if he got excited. In fact in the common areas it very seldom happens to witness actual sex (there are private rooms for that); yet everything is sex. “I specialize in knives and cutting, but my wife is a needle artist”, one guy tells me. And in fact, shortly after, here she is poking the finger of a fifty-year-old man sporting hipster mustaches, slowly, several times. He sits there, as in a normal lounge bar, a cocktail in one hand and a young lady sticking a surgical needle deeply into the index finger of his other hand. Can this be called “sex”? I have no idea. Maybe it is sex, without being it.
A beautiful and almost totally naked girl approaches me.
(I’m not one of those men who can’t help staring at a cleavage, but I wonder: in a situation like this, would it be considered rude as in the world out there? What’s the social rule, here?)
We chat a bit, she tells me about her degree thesis she’s just about to complete, and then says: “These thing need planning”. It is essential for her to separate these evenings from romantic commitments, she explains. She is only into ropes and whipping, the latter exclusively with the same trusted partner. I ask her what is the frequency. “Ropes I could do even once a week. Whipping just once a month, because then you have to recover and those marks take some time to disappear. This is why I say that it has to be carefully planned. Because if you go out with a guy shortly after a session, and things get hot, you might have to explain those marks, and you’ll end up looking crazy. “
My host Ayzad, an expert in alternative sexualities, often explains in his work how, in a context in which one person consensually inflicts pain on another, a “culture of respect” is even more congenital than in normal/normative sex. Here everything seems to confirm this idea.
The crowd is multi-ethnic, from all walks of life, encompassin all ages, sexual orientations, genders or genderbending possibilities, body types — including disabilities. Fashion outfits along with absolutely “proletarian” clothing solutions. Bodies that seem to come straight out of a Vogue cover, but here even adipose or withered skin is considered beautiful — in the end it does not really matter what you look like as long as you are good at handling a whip or enduring it.
I suppose the much heralded and a bit annoying “exclusivity” of the event, which I was discussing with M. the other day, is just a due facade; because on the whole, there seems to be a very high level of inclusiveness. I even see a guy wearing simple jeans, although clearly the fetish aesthetic, all studs and latex, is the prevailing one; even though a little corny by now, it’s a sort of established uniform of this subculture.
I think about how ambiguous, complex the BDSM imaginary is — one must never make the mistake of taking it at face value: echoes of slavery, imprisonment, torture… But it is, in fact, an image, a projection. And what are erotic fantasies if not a way of metabolizing the Obscene — if not even a social trauma — take f.i. Nazi exploitation films.
Translating fears, unconfessable drives and real horrors into the world of representation, of simulacra. Mise-en-scène of the obscene. (This is the reason why most of erotic literature is made up of functional characters, bi-dimensional figurines, puppets to move and recombine at will.)
I look at a woman locked in a cage. A naked female body in there would be a terrible image, if real. Instead this is what everyone here calls a “game” (again, a mise-en-scène): the woman in the cage is far from being a victim, and this whole pantomime is all but humiliating; she is delicately caressed by three or four people, men and women — and she’s the one pushing away those hands should they get too impudent, she’s deciding what’s approrpiate, she is the absolute protagonist of this theatrical tableau in which she can imagine herself as a sacrificial victim, or a captive Goddess.
A “game”. “Let’s play a game”. Everyone keeps repeating that, but is it really just a game?
Of course, there are the circus moments — sometimes I feel like I’m wandering down a sideshow’s midway. No fire eaters in sight, but plenty of fakirs: a man has 3 half-gallon bottles of water hanging from his scrotum (note: he seems to feel worse when he holds them still, so he keeps a swinging motion while his mistress is whipping his back).
There is all the picturesque panoply that one would expect: there are women hanging upside down, men trampled by stiletto heels, multicolored wax melted on breasts and genitals, male and female slaves, laces and handcuffs, collars, leashes and people on all fours.
But then I see this couple, two young people of a blinding beauty, she’s tied with her arms over her head to a metal structure… a clamped clothespin on her tongue… he’s fiercely belt-spanking her buttocks and back… the boy is methodical and expressionless, he seems almost an automaton, focused on his work. She pants and keeps her eyes closed, never opening them, not even when he comes over to say something in her ear (from what I can hear — I am very close — they seem words of encouragement). The clothespin forces her to the humiliation of a constant thread of saliva dripping down on her bare breasts, which he occasionally dries with a forgiving gesture. The body is a tuning fork, and to make it resonate it must be taken to the extreme. Curious animal, the human primate. How I would like to hide behind their eyes, understand what’s going on in their nervous system: is this public punishment a performance, a ritual, a pastime, a gym routine? A simple way of being and expressing oneself? Or is it really what it seems, an intimate moment of transcendence and total abandon to each other?
This strange crowd of people, who are always so sure of what they want or don’t want, down to the smallest contractual detail — how conscious are they of what they’re seeking?
At the end of the session, every now and then someone bursts into a liberating flood of tears. All the cuddling, the hugging, the murmured words, “you to me are a gift”… others instead laugh, chat, or they go for a cigarette break in the smoking room.
Right there I meet a 67-years-old man with whom I already spoke at the beginning of the evening, a retired employee in a copier company. Now he is caressing his wife’s shoulders. He tenderly examines the streaks he imprinted on her skin shortly before, as if those red tongues were an abstract work of art. He whispers to her, “You look like a baby tiger”. Her face lights up, and they both smile.
Here is perhaps the most surprising thing.
In this kaleidoscope of clamps, lashes, ropes, bruises, canes, screams — and that soporific, neverending slapping sound — I saw no trace of cruelty.
August 21, 1945: physicist Harry Daghlian was stacking a nice pile of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium sphere when a brick slipped from his hand and brought the core into supercritical condition. Daghlian died 25 days later.
May 21, 1946: physicist Louis Slotin was working on a plutonium sphere — but not just any sphere: the very same that had killed Daghlian. To separate the two halves, he had the bad idea of using a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped, the top fell off. Slotin died 9 days later.
From that moment on, the poor plutonium sphere no longer enjoyed a good reputation, and it also earned an unflattering nickname.
But nuclear history is full of incredible incidents. There is one aspect regarding the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is not often talked about: human experiments on unsuspecting subjects. Take for instance Albert Stevens, who survived the highest dose of radiation ever accumulated in a human’s body when, without his knowledge or consent, scientists injected him with 131 kBq of plutonium.
Everybody speaks ill of poor HAL, but perhaps it is time to reevaluate the guy. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the infamous supercomputer kills some astronauts, and gets eventually killed itself. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, we’d better start asking ourselves some questions about the ethics of murder by machines, but also of the murder of machines.
The always excellent Lindsey Fitzharris (author of The Butchering Art) delights us with some anecdotes about beauty hacks from the past. For example, a method that was used to make 18th-century wigs look attractive by spreading them with lard. Attractive, that is, for fleas and lice.
A geologist discovered an ancient cave, but he immediately noticed that it was not a natural cavity. Someone or something must have bored it. And what were those huge scratch marks, produced by gigantic claws, on the walls…? When reality surpasses Lovecraft: here are the underground tunnels excavated by the mysterious prehistoric megafauna.
Take a look at the picture below. It’s entitled Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore ad Caritas Romana, and it’s a 1797 painting by Barbara Krafft. When you are done laughing and/or feeling uncomfortable, check out the meaning of that “Caritas Romana“ in the title, and enjoy other examples of young girls breastfeeding old geezers.
There are those who spend hours scrolling through the photos of influencers. I would spend days watching the Russian poet, body-builder and futurist Vladimir Goldschmidt hypnotizing a chicken.
Idea for an action film / comedy drama.
Title: White Trip.
Concept: think The Revenant meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Plot: Finnish soldier Aimo Koivunen, during the Second World War, is ski patrolling a mountain area when his unit is suddenly caught under Soviet fire. Aimo begins to escape from the ambush, but after skiing for a long time he feels exhausted; the enemies are still on his tail, and they are getting closer and closer. So he decides to take one of the methamphetamine tablets that the commander has entrusted him with; but, partly because of the big gloves he’s wearing, and partly because he has to keep skiing to save himself, he can’t take the tablet out of the package. To hell with it, he thinks, and swallows the whole jar of pills. Suddenly he starts skiing again with renewed, exceptional energy, but after a while everything becomes blurred, and Aimo passes out: he wakes up alone, lost in the snow and separated from his patrol, without any food and in full overdose delusion. He keeps on skiing frantically, and avoids some more Soviet soldiers. At one point he manages to catch a bird which, in his hallucination, appears to him like a wonderful crispy chicken skewer; he swallows it raw, feathers and everything. Then he runs into a land mine that blows him up in the air. Although badly injured, he continues to ski. After covering 250 miles and spending a week in the open, bleeding and now reduced to skin and bones, he finally manages to return to the Finnish front. When they take him to the infirmary, his heart rate is still twice the average. As soon as he sees the doctor Aimo says: “Hello dear, you don’t happen to have some chamomile tea? I feel a bit nervous and your antennae look ridiculous.”
Based on a true story. (Thanks, David!)
Philosophical thought of the day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the soul is a kind of black chasm, a bottomless crater:
Simon Sellars (author of Applied Ballardianism), tells us about the dazzling beauty of Google Earth — which doesn’t so much reside in panoramas or virtual tours, but rather in 3D glitches, rendering errors, misaligned joints that reveal the collage behind 360 views, thus creating altered and distorted perceptions. The map may not be the territory, but it is a territory of the mind.
I like to imagine that when the human species has long since become extinct, alien archaeologists coming to Earth to study mankind will find this video as the only remaining clue:
First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.
On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
[BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.
Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!
In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.“
Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.
When the obsession for shows becomes art: here are some of the fiberglass sculptures by Costa Magarakis. (Thanks Eliana!)
Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”
A little anecdote on the healing power of music. At the end of the 1950s the great pioneer of free jazz Sun Ra (who claimed to be an alien from Saturn) played a gig at Chicago mental hospital, as an experiment of musical therapy. It is said that a patient, who hadn’t moved or talked in years, got up from her chair, walked over to the piano, and shouted: “You call that music?“
What would you like to happen to your social media accounts after your death? Here is a handy guide to digital death discussing your various options. (Thanks Kaylee!)
In the photo above, model Liliana Orsi exhibits the new “atomic hairdo” created by the Roman hairdresser Eusebio De Luca in 1951, and inspired by the atomic mushrooms of the infamous Bikini atoll tests. Apparently, making this masterpiece of dubious taste took 12 hours of coiffure.
An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.