“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.

Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.

First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.

Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.

A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.

Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.

Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…

Although reimagined, the main character is based on the real historical figure of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), daughter of famous Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (about whom I’ve written before).

As Bessoni writes:

It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.

But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711

At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.

You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.

This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.

After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).

And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?

Rachel by Stefano Bessoni is available (in Italian) here.

Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)

In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.

The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.

Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.

A Democratic Wunderkammer

The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.

There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.

The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.

Reinventing Exotica

We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.

This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.

Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.

But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.

Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).

An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.

Wearing A Wunderkammer

Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.

Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists

As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.

Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.

In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.

Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.

Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.

The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?

It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.

Rethinking Death
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)

Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).

What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.

The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.

Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.

Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder

After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning.  Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.

To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

Eventually, a  wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

Balthus’ adolescents

Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.

(Cesar A. Cruz)

Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.

In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.

Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.

The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).

But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?

Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.

Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.

Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and  meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).

In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.

Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.

Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.

Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.

Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.

Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.

But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.

This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.

And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.

The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.

Infant-Incubators-building-at-1901-Pan-American-Exposition

Baby_incubator_exhibit,_A-Y-P,_1909

Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.

 

In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

Yamanaka Manabu

i16

Dove ci sono uomini
troverai mosche
e Buddha
(Kobayashi Issa)

Chiunque percorra un autentico cammino spirituale dovrà confrontarsi con il lato oscuro, osceno, terribile della vita. Questo è il sottinteso della parabola agiografica che vede il Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, uscire di nascosto dal suo idilliaco palazzo reale e scoprire con meraviglia e angoscia l’esistenza del dolore (dukkha), che accomuna tutti gli esseri viventi.

Il fotografo giapponese Yamanaka Manabu da 25 anni esplora territori liminali o ritenuti tabù, alla ricerca della scintilla divina. Il suo intento, nonostante la crudezza degli scatti, non è certo quello di provocare un facile shock: piuttosto, lo sforzo che si può leggere nelle sue opere è tutto incentrato sulla scoperta della trascendenza anche in ciò che normalmente, e superficialmente, potrebbe provocare ripugnanza.

Gyahtei: Yamanaka Manabu Photographs è la collezione dei suoi lavori, organizzati in sei serie di fotografie. I sei capitoli si concentrano su altrettanti soggetti “non allineati”, rimossi, reietti, ignorati: sono dedicati rispettivamente a bambini di strada, senzatetto, persone affette da malattie che provocano deformità, anziani, feti abortiti, e carcasse di animali.

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L’approccio di Manabu è ammirevolmente rigoroso e rispettoso. Le sue non sono foto sensazionalistiche, né ambigue, e ambiscono invece a catturare degli attimi in cui il Buddha risplende attraverso questi corpi sbagliati, emarginati, rifiutati. Con la tipica essenzialità della declinazione giapponese del buddhismo (zen), i soggetti sono perlopiù ritratti su sfondo bianco – e il bianco è il colore del lutto, in Giappone, e sottile riferimento all’impermanenza. Sono foto rarefatte ed essenziali, che lasciano al nostro sguardo il compito di cercare un significato, se mai riusciremo a trovarlo.

Ogni serie di fotografie ha necessitato di 4 o 5 anni di lavoro per vedere la luce. Quella intitolata “Arakan” è emblematica: “Una mattina, incontrai una persona vestita di stracci che camminando lentamente emetteva un odore pungente. Aveva lo sguardo fisso verso un posto lontano, occhi raminghi e fuori fuoco. Cominciai di mattino presto, in bicicletta, cercandoli fra strade affollate e parchi pubblici. Appena li trovavo, chiedevo loro “Per favore, lasciatemi scattare una foto”. Ma non acconsentivano a farsi ritrarre così facilmente. L’idea li disgustava, e io li inseguivo e continuavo a chiedere il permesso ancora e ancora. Ho continuato a seguirli senza curarmi dei loro sputi e dei loro pugni, finché la pazienza veniva meno. Allora finalmente mi concedevano di fotografarli“.
Dopo 4 anni di ricerche, e centinaia di foto, Manabu ha selezionato 16 scatti che a suo parere mostrano degli esseri al confine fra l’umano e la condizione di Risveglio. “Sono sicuro che queste persone meritano di essere chiamate Arakan, titolo riservato a colui il quale recide i legami della carne ed è assiduo nel praticare l’austerità“.

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Nella sua sincera indagine sul significato dell’esistenza non poteva mancare la contemplazione della morte. Il suo racconto della ricognizione su una carcassa di cane illustra perfettamente il processo che sottende il suo lavoro.

Nel mio tentativo di comprendere la “morte”, ho deciso di guardare il corpo morto di un cane regolarmente, sulla costa. 

Giorno 1
    – L’ho accarezzato sulla testa, domandandomi se la sua vita fosse stata felice.

Giorno 2
– La sua faccia sembrava triste. Ho sentito l’odore diventare più forte.

Giorno 5
– Molti corvi si sono assiepati sul posto, a beccare i suoi occhi e il suo ano.

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Giorno 7
Il suo corpo era gonfio, e sangue e pus ne uscivano. Nuvole di mosche su di lui, e l’odore divenne terribile.

Giorno 10
– La bocca era infestata di larve, e il corpo si era gonfiato del doppio. Quando ho toccato il corpo, era caldo. Pensando che il corpo avesse in qualche modo ripreso vita, mi sentii ispirato e giunsi le mani verso di esso.

Giorno 12
– La pelle dell’addome si era lacerata, e molte larve erano visibili all’interno. Mi sentii deluso quando scoprii che il calore era causato dallo sfregamento degli insetti. Pensai che la “morte” è brutta e dolorosa.

Giorno 15
– Si poteva vedere l’osso da una parte della pelle strappata della faccia. Il corpo divenne sottile come quello di una mummia. L’odore divenne meno penetrante. Il corpo morto sembrava bello come un’immagine di creta, e scattai alcune fotografie.

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Giorno 24
– Le larve erano scomparse, e la testa, gli arti e il corpo erano completamente smembrati. Sembrava che nessuna creatura avrebbe potuto mangiarne ancora. In effetti di fronte a questa scena sentii che il cane era veramente morto.

Giorno 32
– Soltanto piccoli pezzi di osso bianco sono rimasti, e sembrano sprofondare nella terra.

Giorno 49
– L’erba nuova è cresciuta sul posto, e l’esistenza del cane è scomparsa.

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Ma forse la sua serie più toccante è quella intitolata “Jyoudo” (la casa del Bodhisattva).
Qui siamo confrontati con il volto più crudele della malattia – sindromi genetiche o rare, alle quali alcuni esseri umani sono destinati fin dalla nascita. Senza mai cedere alla tentazione del dettaglio fastidioso, Manabu colleziona degli scatti al contrario pietosi e commoventi, volutamente asciutti. Qui la condizione umana e la sua insensatezza trovano un perfetto compimento: uomini e donne segnati dalla disgrazia, “forse per via di cattive azioni nelle vite passate, o soltanto perché sono pateticamente sfortunati“.

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Il confronto con queste estreme situazioni di malattia è, come sempre in Manabu, molto umano. “In una casa di riposo ho incontrato una giovane ragazza. Non era altro che pelle e ossa, a stento capace di respirare mentre stava distesa. Perché è nata così, e che insegnamento dovremmo trarre da un simile fatto? Per capire il significato della sua esistenza, non potevo fare altro che fotografarla.
Persone che gradualmente diventano più piccole mentre il loro corpo esaurisce tutta l’acqua, persone i cui corpi si putrefanno mentre la loro pelle si stacca e le loro fattezze diventano rosse e gonfie, persone le cui teste pian piano si espandono a causa dell’acqua che si raccoglie all’interno, persone con piedi e mani assurdamente grandi, e via dicendo. Ho incontrato e fotografato molti individui simili, che vivono con malattie inspiegabili, senza speranza di cura. Eppure, perfino in questo stato, quando li guardavo senza farmi vincere dalla paura, vedevo quanto le loro vite fossero veramente naturali. Cominciai a sentire la presenza di Bodhisattva all’interno dei loro corpi. Queste persone erano l’ “Incarnazione del Bodhisattva”, i figli di Dio.

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Quando un artista, un fotografo in questo caso, decide di esplorare programmaticamente tutto ciò che in questo mondo è terribile e ancora in attesa di significato, il confronto con la vecchiaia è inevitabile. D’altronde i quattro dolori riconosciuti dal Buddha, in quella famosa e improvvisata uscita da palazzo, sono proprio la nascita, la vecchiaia, la malattia e la morte. Quindi i corpi nudi di persone anziane, in attesa del sacrificio ultimo, rappresentano la naturale prosecuzione della ricerca di Manabu. Pelle avvizzita e segnata dal tempo, anime splendenti anche se piegate dal peso degli anni.

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E infine ecco la serie dedicata ai feti abortiti o nati morti. “Per una ragione imperscrutabile, non ogni vita è benvenuta in questo mondo. Eppure per uno sfuggente attimo questo piccolo embrione, a cui è stata negata l’ammissione prima ancora che lanciasse il suo primo grido, ha sollecitato in me un’immagine eterna della sua perfetta bellezza.”

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Quelle di Yamanaka Manabu sono visioni difficili, dure, sconcertanti; forse non siamo più abituati a un’arte che non si fermi alla superficie, che non si nasconda dietro il manierismo o lo sfoggio del “bello”. E qui, invece, siamo di fronte a una vera e propria meditazione sul non-bello (ovvero asubha, ne avevamo parlato in questo articolo).
Nell’apparente semplicità della composizione queste opere ci parlano di una ricerca di verità, di senso, che è senza tempo e senza confini. Fotografie che si interrogano sull’esistenza del dolore. E che cercano di catturare quell’attimo in cui, attraverso e oltre il velo della sofferenza, si può intravvedere l’infinito.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Yamanaka Manabu.

La strage degli albini

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Quest’anno in Tanzania si terranno le elezioni.
Di conseguenza, quest’anno si innalzerà il numero di bambini albini che verranno uccisi e fatti a pezzi.

Il nesso fra i due eventi è costituito dalla stregoneria africana, che permea la società tanzaniana a quasi tutti i livelli, e a cui molti dei candidati faranno ricorso per vincere ai seggi elettorali. Infatti nonostante ogni villaggio in Tanzania possa vantare una chiesa, una moschea o entrambe, questo non significa che gli abitanti abbiano abbandonato le credenze tradizionali.

Di fatto, risulta evidente che, per quanto formalmente vi sia una presa di distanza nei confronti della stregoneria, nella pratica essa sia a tutt’oggi fortemente radicata nel pensiero tanzaniano.
Sussiste l’idea che l’insuccesso, la malattia e la morte possano dipendere da azioni malefiche, e questo ha permesso al guaritore tradizionale, il mganga wa kienyeji, di sopravvivere ed operare ancora intensamente, nonostante la presenza di una legislazione coloniale ancora attiva che dovrebbe condannare la sua attività, e un Sistema Sanitario pensato per raggiungere in maniera capillare anche le zone rurali.
(A. Baldassarre, Gravidanza e parto nell’ospedale di Tosamaganga, Tanzania, 2013)

Africa, Tanzania, Lake Eyasi, ornamental skulls and beads used by the local witch doctor

Al di là dei giudizi facili e riduttivi sulla superstizione, l’ignoranza o l’arretratezza del cosiddetto Terzo Mondo, è importante comprendere che se la stregoneria è ancora così viva, è perché assolve a una funzione sociale ben precisa: quella del controllo delle pulsioni e dell’istituzione di un codice di condotta reputato appropriato – quindi, essenzialmente, è uno di quegli elementi che cementano e tengono assieme l’identità della società.

Con i discorsi di stregoneria e le azioni pratiche dirette contro la stregoneria, la società mantiene viva la capacità di osservarsi preoccupata.
(A. Bellagamba, L’Africa e la stregoneria: Saggio di antropologia storica, 2008).

In Tanzania, la magia (sia benevola che malevola) è praticata ma allo stesso tempo temuta e condannata. Questo stigma dà origine ad una complessa serie di conseguenze. Un uomo che si arrichisce troppo in fretta, ad esempio, viene sospettato di essere uno stregone; quindi in generale le persone cercano di nascondere, o perlomeno condividere con il gruppo, la propria fortuna – appunto per non essere accusati di stregoneria, ma anche per evitare di provocare l’invidia altrui, che porterebbe a nuovi sortilegi e malefici. Evidentemente questo meccanismo diventa problematico quando ad esempio una donna incinta si sente costretta a nascondere la gravidanza per non suscitare le gelosie delle amiche, oppure nel caso più eclatante delle violenze di cui parliamo qui: la strage degli albini che ormai da decenni si consuma, purtroppo senza grande clamore mediatico.

Worshippers carry oil lanterns during a night time procession through the streets of Benin's main city of Cotonou,

Il 2015 è partito male: a febbraio Yohana Bahati, un neonato albino di un anno del distretto di Chato nella Tanzania settentrionale, è stato strappato dalle braccia della madre da cinque uomini armati di machete. La donna è finita in ospedale con multiple ferite alle braccia e al volto per aver cercato di difendere il figlioletto; il cadavere del bambino è stato ritrovato pochi giorni più tardi, senza braccia e né gambe. Nel dicembre precedente era sparita una bambina albina di 4 anni, che non è stata più ritrovata.

L’albinismo è diffuso nell’Africa sub-sahariana più che altrove: se in Occidente colpisce una persona su 20.000, in Tanzania l’anomalia genetica arriva a toccare la percentuale di un individuo su 1.400.
Sono quasi un centinaio gli albini assassinati negli ultimi quindici anni, ma le cifre ovviamente si riferiscono soltanto ai casi scoperti e denunciati. E soprattutto non tengono conto di tutte le vittime che sono sopravvissute alle mutilazioni.
Il macabro listino dei prezzi di questa caccia all’albino fa rabbrividire. Secondo un report delle Nazioni Unite, in Tanzania le diverse parti del corpo (orecchie, lingua, naso, genitali e arti) da utilizzare nei rituali di stregoneria possono arrivare a valere 75.000 euro; la pelle sul mercato nero è venduta dai 1.500 ai 7.000 euro. L’anno scorso in Kenya è stato arrestato un uomo che cercava di vendere un albino ancora vivo, per la somma di 250.000 dollari. Secondo le credenze, i poteri magici degli albini sono molteplici: le loro ossa sono in grado di togliere il malocchio; con un loro braccio si può localizzare l’oro in una miniera; con i seni e i genitali si preparano pozioni contro l’infecondità; ultimamente pare si sia diffusa addirittura l’idea che stuprare una donna albina potrebbe curare l’AIDS… e via dicendo.

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Emmanuel Festo

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Nel 2009, un attivista ha dichiarato all’agenzia AFP: “Sappiamo che gli informatori che identificano un albino vulnerabile possono ricevere un compenso di 100 dollari, sappiamo che gli assassini vengono pagati migliaia di dollari, ma non è chiaro chi siano i reali consumatori; stiamo parlando di un grosso business, e c’è corruzione nella polizia e nei tribunali, ecco perché le uccisioni continuano“.

Nonostante la situazione sia tutt’altro che rosea, di fronte alle pressioni internazionali forse qualcosa si sta muovendo: proprio il mese scorso, trentadue stregoni e più di duecento guaritori tradizionali, secondo la BBC, sono stati arrestati dalla polizia tanzaniana – segnando forse un’inversione di marcia rispetto alla precedente riluttanza delle autorità ad intervenire sulla questione. Intanto, diverse iniziative sono sorte per cercare di dare una voce a questo eccidio, come ad esempio l’audiolibro sociale italiano Ombra Bianca (fra i testimonial, anche diversi premi Nobel, Papa Francesco, il Dalai Lama). Il film White Shadow (2013), opera prima di Noaz Deshe premiata a Venezia con il Leone del Futuro, racconta la vita difficile di un ragazzino albino in Tanzania, fra discriminazioni e violenze.

Battesimi pericolosi

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Castrillo de Murcia è un piccolo borgo di 500 anime nella provincia di Burgos, nella Spagna del Nord. Il paesino è sonnacchioso, e non vi succede nulla di eclatante; ma per un giorno all’anno, Castrillo si guadagna l’attenzione dei media e di un manipolo di turisti incuriositi dalla strana tradizione che vi si svolge da quasi 400 anni.

Nata nel 1620, la festa di El Colacho si svolge nel giorno del Corpus Domini (in Maggio o in Giugno), ed è curata dalla Confraternita del Santísimo Sacramento de Minerva. Un prescelto si veste con un abito tradizionale dai colori sgargianti che ricordano le fiamme dell’Inferno: si tratta infatti di una vera e propria personificazione del Diavolo, che indossa una minacciosa maschera di sapore carnevalesco. El Colacho si aggira per le vie paesane, accompagnato in processione dai membri della Confraternita, e rincorre di tanto in tanto i passanti e i bambini, frustandoli giocosamente con una sorta di gatto a nove code.

A man dressed in a red and yellow costume representing the devil runs through the streets chasing a boy during traditional Corpus Christi celebrations, in Castrillo de Murcia

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Ma è la seconda parte della processione che è la più impressionante. Giunto nella piazza cittadina, El Colacho si appresta al rituale tradizionale che ha reso celebre la festività. Vengono preparati dei materassi, su cui sono adagiati dei bambini, tutti rigorosamente nati nei dodici mesi precedenti: alcuni degli infanti piangono, altri ridono, altri ancora dormono di gusto.

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Ed ecco che, una volta pronti questi affollati lettini, El Colacho prende la rincorsa e comincia a saltarli, uno dopo l’altro, atterrando a pochi centimetri di distanza dalle testoline dei piccoli. Un passo falso potrebbe essere davvero pericoloso: ma, a quanto si dice, fino ad ora non si è mai verificato alcun incidente.

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El Colacho Baby Jumping Fiesta

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Perché una madre dovrebbe voler posizionare il proprio figlioletto di pochi mesi sul materassino, affinché un uomo vestito da diavolo vi salti sopra, di fronte a una folla plaudente? Il rito, secondo la credenza popolare, è salvifico e benefico: il passaggio di El Colacho rimuove il Peccato Originale, e porta con sé ogni male, proteggendo i neonati dalle malattie.

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Ovviamente, la Chiesa non si limita a storcere il naso di fronte a questo tipo di tradizioni, ma le condanna apertamente, poiché secondo la dottrina ufficiale soltanto il sacramento del battesimo può sollevare il peso del Peccato Originale. Ma gli abitanti di Castrillo de Murcia, per quanto devoti, non rinuncerebbero per niente al mondo alla loro tradizione: si è sempre fatto così, e tutti coloro che battezzano i propri figli in questo strano modo sono stati a loro tempo sottoposti al salto del Colacho.

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Se il salto del Colacho può sembrare estremo e pericoloso, non è nulla in confronto al battesimo che si celebra in alcune parti dell’India, in particolare negli stati di Karnataka e Maharashtra; si tratta di un rito praticato indistintamente da musulmani ed induisti.

Un uomo scala con una corda le mura del tempio, mentre sulla sua schiena penzola un secchio. Una volta arrivato in cima, il devoto mostra a tutti il contenuto del secchio – un bambino (di massimo due anni): dal tetto, alto una decina di metri, esibisce il neonato alla folla sottostante, tenendolo per le braccia e i piedini. Dopo aver invocato la protezione divina, di colpo lo lancia nel vuoto.

Nella piazza, una quindicina di uomini stanno aspettando l’atterraggio del bambino, tendendo una coperta per salvarlo. Il piccolo rimbalza sul telone, viene acchiappato al volo, rapidamente fatto passare di mano in mano e riconsegnato alla madre o al padre. Il tutto dura pochi secondi, anche se ci vogliono svariati minuti perché il bambino si riprenda dallo shock.

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Il salto, ancora una volta, ha lo scopo di portare fortuna e salute al neonato; per la sua pericolosità, si tratta comunque di un rituale controverso, e diverse associazioni per i diritti umani hanno cercato di proibirlo. Nel 2011 queste proteste sono state ufficialmente ascoltate, ma la legge che mette al bando tale pratica è regolarmente ignorata dai fedeli, e perfino la polizia preferisce non interferire con i riti.

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Visto anche il carattere sensibile della questione, è facile immaginare lo scandalo e la rabbia di chi è estraneo a questo tipo di tradizioni, e certamente si può (e si deve) discutere sull’opportunità che certi rituali rischiosi continuino ad essere riproposti al giorno d’oggi. Ma, per quanto il rito in questione sia stato tacciato di essere barbarico, “assurdo”, “senza logica né ragione”, per chi ha un minimo di dimestichezza con l’antropologia il suo senso è cristallino – in verità, esso mostra molte caratteristiche classiche di qualsiasi rito di passaggio.

Il bambino viene innanzitutto separato dai genitori; la guida lo conduce fino al confine, fino alla prova – eminentemente fisica – che egli dovrà affrontare da solo (il salto); infine, una volta completata l’essenziale fase di “transizione”, cioè il superamento della difficoltà, avviene la reintegrazione del bambino con il nucleo familiare e, più genericamente, con la società. Il bambino, com’è ovvio, è ora un individuo nuovo, e gode dei benefici del nuovo status (immunità dalle malattie).

Il salto del Colacho, così come il lancio dei bambini dalla moschea, sono “battesimi del fuoco” portatori di un senso profondo: i riti di passaggio sono talmente fondamentali per l’uomo da sopravvivere anche nelle nostre società industrializzate, cibernetiche e all’avanguardia. Non è tanto il valore di queste tradizioni che andrebbe messo in discussione, quindi, quanto piuttosto la modalità d’esecuzione. Forse, piuttosto che bandire e proibire, sarebbe più produttivo incentivare l’elaborazione di varianti ritualistiche meno cruente, come si è provveduto a fare in molti altri casi nel mondo.

Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey era un tipo strano. Un uomo schivo, amante del balletto classico e delle pellicce, spesso portate assieme alle scarpe da tennis, padrone di decine di gatti, capace di citare Robert Musil e allo stesso tempo non perdersi una puntata di Buffy l’ammazzavampiri. E, soprattutto, geniale illustratore e uno fra gli ultimi surrealisti.

Chi si imbatte per la prima volta nelle illustrazioni di Gorey fatica a credere che l’autore non sia britannico: il black humor, lo stile, le ambientazioni cupe e vittoriane sembrano provenire da un mondo che più british non si può. Eppure Gorey non si mosse mai dagli Stati Uniti, tranne che per una fugace visita alle Ebridi. Soltanto un’altra delle sue affascinanti bizzarrie.


Un’altra cosa che il lettore al primo “incontro” con le tavole di Gorey potrebbe provare è un piccolo brivido infantile, di quelli che ci percorrevano la sera quando, rannicchiati sotto le coperte, ascoltavamo una fiaba paurosa. Nonostante l’autore abbia sempre smentito di disegnare per i bambini (che peraltro non amava), è innegabile che molte delle sue illustrazioni sembrano fare riferimento al mondo dell’infanzia… salvo poi violentarla, con sottile crudeltà, e “mandarla a morte”, come nella sua celebre serie sull’alfabeto: concepito come una sorta di parodia di abbecedario, ogni lettera viene insegnata con l’ausilio di una vignetta che mostra la feroce e grottesca morte di un bambino.

Sperimentatore instancabile dei mezzi visivi e letterari, Gorey si è inventato mille trucchi affinché il suo lettore non si adagiasse mai nella consuetudine. Ha prodotto libri grandi come un francobollo, libri senza testo, libri animati, in un continuo tentativo di stupire e stimolare il lettore a non dare nulla per scontato.