Subversive farts & musical anuses

Those who have been reading me for some time know my love for unconventional stories, and my stubborn belief that if you dig deep enough into any topic, no matter how apparently inappropriate, it is possible to find some small enlightenments.
In this post we will attempt yet another tightrope walking exercise. Starting from a question that might sound ridiculous at first: can flatulence give us some insight about human nature?

An article appeared on the Petit Journal on May 1st 1894 described “a more or less lyrical artist whose melodies, songs without words, do not come exactly from the heart. To do him justice it must be said that he has pioneered something entirely his own, warbling from the depth of his pants those trills which others, their eyes towards heaven, beam at the ceiling“.
The sensational performer the Parisian newspaper was referring to was Joseph Pujol, famous by his stage name Le Pétomane.

Born in Marseille, and not yet thirty-seven at the time, Pujol had initially brought his act throughout the South of France, in Cette, Béziers, Nîmes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, before eventually landing in Paris, where he performed for several years at the Moulin Rouge.
His very popular show was entirely based on his extraordinary abilities in passing wind: he was able to mimic the sound of different musical instruments, cannon shots, thunders; he could modulate several popular melodies, such as La Marseillese, Au clair de la lune, O sole mio; he could blow out candles with an air blast from 30 centimeters away; he could play flutes and ocarinas through a tube connected with his derriere, with which he was also able to smoke a cigarette.
Enjoying an ever-increasing success between XIX and XX Century, he even performed before the Prince of Whales, and Freud himself attended one of his shows (although he seemed more interested in the audience reactions rather than the act itself).

Pujol had discovered his peculiar talent by chance at the age of thirteen, when he was swimming in the sea of his French Riviera. After sensing a piercing cold in his intestine, he hurried back to the shore and, inside a bathing-hut, he discovered that his anus had, for some reason, taken in a good amount of sea water. Experimenting throughout the following years, Pujol trained himself to suck air into his bottom; he could not hold it for very long, but this bizarre gift guaranteed him a certain notoriety among his peers at first, and later among his fellow soldiers when he joined the army.
Once he had reached stage fame, and was already a celebrated artist, Pujol was examined by several doctors who were interested in studying his anatomy and physiology. Medicine papers are a kind of literature I very much enjoy reading, but few are as delectable as the article penned by Dr. Marcel Badouin and published in 1892 on the Semaine médicale with the title Un cas extraordinaire d’aspiration rectale et d’anus musical (“An extraordinary case of rectal aspiration and musical anus”). If you get by in French, you can read it here.
Among other curiosities, in the article we discover that one of Pujol’s abilities (never included in his acts on grounds of decency) was to sit in a washbowl, sucking in the water and spraying it in a strong gush up to a five-meter distance.

The end of Joseph Pujol’s carreer coincided with the beginning of the First World War. Aware of the unprecedented inhumanity of the conflict, Pujol decided that his ridiculous and slightly shameful art was no longer suitable in front of such a cruel moment, and he retired for good to be a baker, his father’s job, until his death in 1945.
For a long time his figure was removed, as if he was an embarassement for the bougeoisie and those French intellectuals who just a few years earlier were laughing at this strange ham actor’s number. He came back to the spotlight only in the second half of XX Century, namely because of a biography published by Pauvert and of the movie Il Petomane (1983) directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, in which the title character is played by Italian comedian Ugo Tognazzi with his trademark bittersweet acting style (the film on the other hand was never released in France).

Actually Pujol was not the first nor the last “pétomane”. Among his forerunners there was Roland the Farter, who lived in XII-Century England and who earned 30 acres of land and a huge manorfor his services as a buffoon under King Henry II. By contract he went on to perform before the sovereign, at Christmas, “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle and one fart).
But the earliest professional farter we know about must be a medieval jester called Braigetóir, active in Ireland and depicted in the most famous plate of John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581).

The only one attempting to repeat Pujol’s exploits in modern times is British performer Paul Oldfield, known as Mr. Methane, who besides appearing on Britain’s Got Talent also recorded an album and launched his own Android app. If you look for some of his videos on YouTube, you will notice how times have unfortunately changed since the distinguished elegance shown by Pujol in the only remaining silent film of his act.

Let’s get back now to our initial question. What does the story of Joseph Pujol, and professional farters in general, tell us? What is the reason of their success? Why does a fart make us laugh?

Flatulence, as all others bodily expressions associated with disgust, is a cultural taboo. This means that the associated prohibition is variable in time and latitude, it is acquired and not “natural”: it is not innate, but rather something we are taught since a very early age (and we all know what kind of filthy behavior kids are capable of).
Anthropologists link this horror for bodily fluids and emissions to the fear of our animal, pre-civilized heritage; the fear that we might become primitive again, the fear of seeing our middle-class ideal of dignity and cleanliness crumble under the pressure of a remainder of bestiality. It is the same reason for which societies progressively ban cruelty, believed to be an “inhuman” trait.

The interesting fact is that the birth of this family of taboos can be historically, albeit conventionally, traced: the process of civilization (and thus the erection of this social barrier or fronteer) is usually dated back to the XVI and XVII Centuries — which not by chance saw the growing popularity of Della Casa’s etiquette treatise Il Galateo.
In this period, right at the end of the Middle Ages, Western culture begins to establish behavioral rules to limit and codify what is considered respectable.

But in time (as Freud asserted) the taboo is perceived as a burden and a constriction. Therefore a society can look for, or create, certain environments that make it acceptable for a brief period to bend the rules, and escape the discipline. This very mechanism was behind the balsphemous inversions taking place in Carnival times, which were accepted only because strictly limited to a specific time of the year.

In much the same way, Pujol’s fart shows were liberating experiences, only possible on a theatrical stage, in the satyrical context of cabaret. By fracturing the idealistic facade of the gentleman for an hour or so, and counterposing the image of the physiological man, the obscenity of the flesh and its embarassements, Pujol on a first level seemed to mock bourgeois conventions (as later did Buñuel in the infamous dinner scene from his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty).
Had this been the case, had Pujol’s act been simply subversive, it would had been perceived as offensive and labeled as despicable; his success, on the other hand, seems to point in another direction.

It’s much more plausible that Pujol, with his contrived and refined manners conflicting with the grotesque intestinal noises, was posing as a sort of stock comic character, a marionette, a harmless jester: thanks to this distance, he could arguably enact a true cathartic ritual. The audience laughed at his lewd feats, but were also secretely able to laugh at themselves, at the indecent nature of their bodies. And maybe to accept a bit more their own repressed flaws.

Perhaps that’s the intuition this brief, improper excursus can give us: each time a fart in a movie or a gross toilet humor joke makes us chuckle, we are actually enacting both a defense and an exorcism against the reality we most struggle to accept: the fact that we still, and anyway, belong to the animal kingdom.

Cafés maudits

La bohème dei decadentisti esercita ancora su di noi un fascino irresistibile. Nell’immaginario moderno, gli eccessi dei poeti maledetti sono indissolubilmente associati a Montmartre, ai café-concert nei quali Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Musset e compagnia bella si perdevano nel florilegio di visioni sbocciate dal loro assenzio. Pochi anni più tardi, durante la Belle Époque, Parigi era un ribollire di mode, tendenze e stimoli artistici diversi: il Novecento si annunciava ottimisticamente come un secolo di progresso, di pace e di benessere, il cinema e la radio erano appena nati, perfino la morale stava cambiando e la zona dei divertimenti notturni “proibiti”, attorno a Pigalle, conosceva il suo apogeo.

A Pigalle non c’erano soltanto il cabaret con i suoi can-can e le prostitute. All’epoca sorgevano come funghi piccoli locali “a tema”, i cui esercenti facevano a gara per attirare il pubblico superandosi l’un l’altro in fantasia e bizzarrie. C’erano cabaret di ispirazione medievale, caffè lillipuziani, oppure ambientati nei fondali marini, e via dicendo – oltre ovviamente al Grand Guignol (di cui abbiamo parlato qui).

Fra i locali più incredibili spiccavano tre piccoli caffè, fondati alla fine dell’Ottocento e gestiti da un unico proprietario, che promettevano meraviglie già dal nome: il Cabaret de l’Enfer, il Cabaret du Ciel e il Cabaret du Néant.

Il Cabaret “dell’Inferno” e quello “del Cielo” erano situati sul Boulevard de Clichy accanto all’Hotel de Place Blanche, e già a vederli dalla strada si proponevano come locali gemelli, o per meglio dire speculari.

Si poteva scegliere di rilassarsi nell’angelica atmosfera del Paradiso, dove si veniva accolti da camerieri travestiti da cherubini, con tanto di ali e parrucca bionda. Nella grande sala, simile all’interno di una cattedrale gotica e allietata dalla musica di un organo, si sorseggiava il liquore dalla “sacra coppa”; cominciavano poi vari spettacoli e pantomime che sbeffeggiavano la liturgia cristiana, balletti celestiali piuttosto “discinti”, esibizioni di cori angelici.

Alla fine di questi spettacoli, un attore che impersonava San Pietro apriva con la sua enorme chiave la porta che conduceva alla seconda sala, una sorta di grotta dorata dalle cui stalattiti pendevano statuine di angeli e altri arredi sacri. Qui un ultimo numero di varietà concludeva la serata.

Ma molti preferivano entrare attraverso le enormi fauci che portavano dritti al regno di Satana. Qui erano i diavoli a dare il benvenuto all’avventore, e a scagliarlo in una sorta di pacchiana e impressionante raffigurazione di un girone infernale.

Le pareti della cupa e oscura grotta erano ricoperte da una babele di altorilievi raffiguranti la dannazione eterna delle anime peccatrici e dei tormenti che i demoni infliggevano loro. Mani artigliate, piedi, volti contorti dall’agonia sporgevano dalle pareti proprio sopra i tavolini dove il pubblico si fermava a bere. Anche qui venivano messe in scena delle rappresentazioni grottesche: un dannato veniva cotto da alcuni diavoli in un grande calderone, e altre attrazioni prevedevano differenti e crudeli supplizi.

Seguendo la stessa falsariga, verso la fine della serata si veniva invitati ad entrare nella seconda sala, l'”Antro di Satana”, in cui si assisteva ad un ultimo spettacolo in cui Mephisto torturava alcuni peccatori, sempre in maniera esagerata e goliardica.

Il Cabaret du Néant (“Cabaret del Nulla”) stava poco distante dagli altri due, e oltre ad essere il locale più antico fu anche quello che godette di maggior fama, tanto da inaugurare per breve tempo una succursale anche a New York.

Dopo aver pagato l’ingresso e ricevuto il gettone, l’avventore veniva introdotto nella buia sala “dell’intossicazione” da camerieri incipriati di bianco e vestiti come becchini. Qui tutto l’arredamento rimandava alla morte: bare al posto dei tavoli, pareti tappezzate di aforismi sul Tristo Mietitore, un lampadario costruito con vere ossa umane e teschi appesi ai muri. Una volta accomodatisi ad una bara, il cameriere accendeva il cero funebre e prendeva le ordinazioni: i drink offerti dal menu portavano i nomi dei più celebri bacilli, germi mortiferi e morbi incurabili. L’ospite, così, sceglieva “di che morte morire” e ordinava la dipartita a lui più congeniale.

Dopo aver bevuto il pubblico veniva fatto spostare nella cameretta sul retro, la Grotta dei Trapassati. Mentre un monaco suonava un organo, un volontario veniva fatto entrare in una bara, avvolto in un sudario e infine “trasformato” di fronte agli occhi degli avventori in uno scheletro (mediante l’effetto Pepper’s Ghost di cui abbiamo già parlato in questo articolo).

Il Cabaret de l’Enfer e quello du Ciel rimasero in piedi fino agli anni ’50, prima di essere smantellati; il Cabaret du Néant venne chiuso un po’ più tardi, all’inizio degli anni ’60.

Per questo articolo dobbiamo ringraziare uno dei nostri blog preferiti di sempre: La Rocaille, colto e curatissimo spazio dedicato alla decadenza, al kitsch e all’arte in generale (moda, architettura, design, iconografia, ecc.). Tutte le fotografie e gran parte delle info provengono da lì. Grazie, Annalisa!

The Tiger Lillies

Band di culto formata a Londra nel 1989, i Tiger Lillies sono tra i più originali e sconcertanti gruppi musicali in circolazione. Il loro stile unico è un misto di cabaret gitano, di rimandi brechtiani e di black humor, il tutto condito dall’uso di strumenti talvolta inusuali e da arrangiamenti rétro.

I loro testi, spesso controversi, esplorano l’universo oscuro dei depravati e dei perdenti, raccontando sordide storie di violenza, morte, sesso e blasfemia. Il loro mondo è una sorta di bassofondo crepuscolare e post-apocalittico in cui prostitute, freaks, ubriachi e assassini incontrano sorti orribili. Ma l’incredibile espressività facciale del cantante Martyn Jacques, il suo look da clown “andato a male” e la sua voce in falsetto (sgradevole, inquietante, eppure magnetica) contribuiscono a stemperare i toni delle liriche, calandole in una dimensione teatrale e surreale.

Così quando i Tiger Lillies ci cantano le loro fiabe macabre piene di bambini che sanguinano a morte, prostitute ubriache dalla pelle di serpente, accoppiamenti con animali e altre simili atrocità, l’umorismo nerissimo riesce comunque a distanziarci e a lasciarci turbati, sì, ma anche ghignanti.



Sito ufficiale.