Here’s a new mini-video: a seventeenth-century engraving hides a risqué secret.
[Turn on English subtitles!]
Here’s a new mini-video: a seventeenth-century engraving hides a risqué secret.
[Turn on English subtitles!]
Today is the anniversary of the film Bambi, which was released in theaters 80 years ago.
For this reason today we will talk about… child pornography.
Disney’s masterpiece is in fact an adaptation of the children’s book of the same name by Felix Salten; of this prolific (though all in all mediocre) Austrian author, it seems to me that it is my duty on these pages to recall instead another novel, that Josefine Mutzenbacher which today could probably never see the light of day.
Published anonymously in 1906, the book recounts in autobiographical form the vicissitudes of a Viennese prostitute. Nothing original about this; memoirs of courtesans, etères and harlots were already a classic strand of erotic literature; but Salten’s novel focuses exclusively on the protagonist’s childhood and adolescent experiences, concluding at the very moment when Josefine, having become 14 years old, decides to make her body a source of income.
Let us start by saying that the book is certainly not a masterpiece, but it has several interesting aspects from a literary point of view. Compared to other coeval texts, which are often steeped in sophisticated classical references, Salten places his book on a deliberately “low” level. Not only because he writes an openly pornographic book, but also because he decides to set it not in some suspended Hellenistic nostalgia, but in those working-class neighborhoods of Vienna, normally forgotten by courtly literature, coloring his dialogues with dialectal or vulgar expressions, and choosing the register of comedy.(1)Cf. Luigi Reitani, Pedagogia sexualis: The Apprenticeship Years of Josephine Mutzenbacher between Popular Comedy and the Aesthetics of Transgression, in F. salten, Josephine Mutzenbacher, CDE Edition, 1991.
But what may still shock the reader today is the joyful lightness with which this little girl’s sexual explorations are recounted, as erotic scenes take place both in the company of her peers and adults, in the working-class suburbs of the fin de siècle Austrian capital.
Before crying pedophilia, however, it is important to keep in mind the context of the publication of such a work.
Those were the years of Freud’s revolutionary studies on child sexuality, which until then had not been considered at all. But it was also the time of the ephebic sensuality of Klimt’s erotic paintings and sketches, and of a whole series of literary productions(Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Altenberg) in which first adolescence was extolled as the pinnacle of sexual fascination. (2)Cf. Scott Messing, Schubert in the European Imagination, vol. 2, University of Rochester Press 2007. On the mythologizing of the age of fourteen: pp.160-163..
In this late nineteenth-century temperament, the aesthetic paradigm of the Kindweib, i.e., the woman-child, was born: a myth that quickly became ubiquitous, so much so that it even influenced women’s fashion, and symptomatic precisely of the weight that the debate on sexuality assumed at that time. (3)I recall en passant that the woman-child is found in countless novels, even in the most unsuspected: for example, the character of Weena in the The Time Machine (1985) by H.G. Wells.
The term Kindweib was popularized in 1907 by Fritz Wittels in a famous article of the same name that circulated widely in Viennese intellectual circles, which stated:
It seems as though female beauty is more attractive to man today if it renounces motherhood and decides to play the eternal child […]. Women appear just as children, with uncovered knees, bobbed hair, soft complexion, the round inviting mouth of a baby, and big astonished eyes, which are artificially made to look larger and more astonished as though one were still interested in looking at the world like a schoolgirl. They imitate a type which is rare in nature, the childwoman, who for constitutional reasons has to remain a child for life […]. The more or less pathological basis for the childwoman is the precocious appearance of sex appeal. When a child is attractive at an age when other children are still jumping rope, she ceases to be a child. From within, a precociously awakened sexuality arises, and from without, admiring eyes inflame her. To be desired is so absolutely the idea of this woman, that she does not continue her development. So we must add to our remark that she ceases to be a child, also the fact that she remains a child forever. This contrast within one and the same person produces her charm.(4)Quoted in Messing, op. cit., p.159.
The ideal of the woman-child is thus two-faced right from her name: childlike and adult, innocent and sensual, narcissistic and innocent.
In some ways, it is a figure that exalts as desirable virtues in a female candor, sweetness, and lightheartedness, thus contrasting with the women who, in those years, claim to be intellectuals, even to graduate, have a career, or… to vote.
On the other hand, however, the woman-child also possesses a powerful subversive charge. Her radical sensuality, uninhibited polyandry, and pansexuality are characteristics that make her a “force of nature” capable of sweeping away all social institutions at once: she rejects motherhood, family, fidelity, and dependence on the male. She is interested only in herself and in the game of seduction, a symbol of the instinct that emerges unstoppable, collapsing the levees built over centuries by society.
In the novel, too, Josefine lives her experiences without the shadow of real trauma, and she destroys conventions with the ease of a child who is “only” playing. For Salten, therefore, this unrestrained sexuality would not represent a threat but a liberation.
Yes, but liberation of whom? Is the woman-child a liberating ideal for women, or for men?
According to Scott Messing, the fact that in many cases (as in the novel in question) this figure is a prostitute would prove how much the myth of the Kindweib was essentially an excuse to justify the asymmetric relationships with young adolescent girls that several artists entertained at the time:
Constructing this type of female helped to produce a seductive theory for writers like Kraus and Altenberg, both of whom argued that prostitution was a liberating experience for its practitioners, even as they ignored its social consequences, and who themselves enjoyed indiscriminate liaisons with little regard for the fate of their partners. […] Wittels’ theory accommodated the lure of the female adolescent and the freedom from moral guilt in any subsequent social transaction […] (5)In Messing, id., p.160.
In my free ebook The Anatomical Woman I talked about how, at least since the Middle Ages, the destructive and threatening power of female eros had been recognized (i.e.: fabricated) and opposed; but the ideal of a “free” femininity, when shaped by male fantasy, can be equally devious.
Josefine Mutzenbacher remained, if one excludes a few novellas, Salten’s only foray into eroticism.
Just a few years later the author became a major journalistic signature,“with a permanent place in the columns of the ‘Neue Freie Presse,’ Austria’s leading daily newspaper. Salten’s conservative turn was now accomplished, parallel to his entry into cultural institutions. In the postwar period he is among the most influential men of culture in the Austrian Republic. […] By 1923 the coveted literary success had also come, with the publication of Bambi. A Tale of the Woods, which would be followed by other titles in the field of children’s literature. Forced to emigrate because of his Jewish background after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany (1938), Salten would find asylum in Switzerland, where he died in 1945 in Zurich. Three years earlier Walt Disney had made the subject of Bambi famous with a spectacular film reduction. “(6)Luigi Reitani, op. cit..
|↑1||Cf. Luigi Reitani, Pedagogia sexualis: The Apprenticeship Years of Josephine Mutzenbacher between Popular Comedy and the Aesthetics of Transgression, in F. salten, Josephine Mutzenbacher, CDE Edition, 1991.|
|↑2||Cf. Scott Messing, Schubert in the European Imagination, vol. 2, University of Rochester Press 2007. On the mythologizing of the age of fourteen: pp.160-163.|
|↑3||I recall en passant that the woman-child is found in countless novels, even in the most unsuspected: for example, the character of Weena in the The Time Machine (1985) by H.G. Wells.|
|↑4||Quoted in Messing, op. cit., p.159.|
|↑5||In Messing, id., p.160.|
|↑6||Luigi Reitani, op. cit.|
The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad
aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.
Ayzad, XXX. Il dizionario del sesso insolito, Castelvecchi. Edizione Kindle.
But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!
(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)
At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.
The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.
First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.
On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds.
But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.
And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?
To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.
Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.
The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:
the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.
Susan L. Smith, Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (2006)
The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:
It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.
Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).
For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.
In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.
The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)
In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).
And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.
Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.
Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.
On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.
One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.
In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.
These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?
We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).
A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:
We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.
Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava,
in Madagascar: Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie
(Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)
One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.
You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.
Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.
(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)
We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
“Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.
An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.
Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.
Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.
The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.
Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.
Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.
In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.
Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.
The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).
The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.
In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.
A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?
That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.
Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?
Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.
So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.
The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk: Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.
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.
C’è un’ossessione profonda, che attraversa i secoli e non accenna a placarsi. L’ossessione maschile per il corpo della donna.
Un corpo magnetico che conduce a sé (seduce), tirando i fili del simbolo; carne duttile e plasmabile, che nell’atto sessuale ha funzione ricettiva, eppure voragine abissale nella quale ci si può perdere; corpo castrante, che eccita la violenza e l’idolatria, corpo di dea callipigia da deflorare; scrigno che racchiude il segreto della vita, sessualità ambigua il cui piacere è sconosciuto e terribile.
Così è capitato che nel corpo femminile si sia scavato, per cavarne fuori questo suo mistero, aprendolo, smembrandolo in pezzi da ricombinare, cercando le occulte e segrete analogie, le geometrie nascoste, l’algebra del desiderio, come ha fatto ad esempio Hans Bellmer in tutta la sua carriera. Nei suoi scritti e nelle sue opere pittoriche (oltre che nelle sue bambole, di cui avevo parlato qui) l’artista tedesco ha maniacalmente decostruito la figura femminile disegnando paralleli inaspettati e perturbanti fra le varie parti anatomiche, in una sorta di febbrile feticismo onnicomprensivo, in cui occhi, vulve, piedi, orecchie si fondono assieme fluidamente, fino a creare inedite configurazioni di carne e di sogno.
L’erotismo di Bellmer è uno sguardo psicopatologico e assieme lucidissimo, freddo e visionario al tempo stesso; ed è nella sua opera Rose ouverte la nuit (1934), e nelle successive declinazioni del tema, che l’artista dà la più esatta indicazione di quale sia la sua ricerca. Nel dipinto, una ragazza solleva la pelle del suo stesso ventre per esaminare le proprie viscere.
L’atto di alzare la pelle della donna, come si potrebbe sollevare una gonna, è una delle più potenti raffigurazioni dell’ossessione di cui parliamo. È lo strip-tease finale che lascia la femmina più nuda del nudo, che permette di scrutare all’interno della donna alla ricerca di un segreto che forse, beffardamente, non si troverà mai.
Ma l’immagine non è nuova, anzi vuole riecheggiare lo stesso turbamento che si può provare di fronte alle numerose e meravigliose veneri anatomiche a grandezza naturale scolpite in passato da abili artisti, una tradizione nata a Firenze alla fine del XVII secolo.
Queste bellissime fanciulle adagiate in pose languide aprono l’interno del loro corpo allo sguardo dello spettatore, senza pudore, senza mostrare dolore. Anzi, dalle espressioni dei loro volti si direbbe quasi che vi sia in loro un sottile compiacimento, un piacere estatico nell’offrirsi in questa nudità assoluta.
Perché questi corpi non sono rappresentati come cadaveri, ma essenzialmente vivi e coscienti?
L’esistenza stessa di simili sculture oggi può disorientare, ma è in realtà una naturale evoluzione delle preoccupazioni artistiche, scientifiche e religiose dei secoli precedenti. Prima di parlare di queste straordinarie opere ceroplastiche, facciamo dunque un rapido excursus che ci permetta di comprenderne appieno il contesto; sottolineo che non mi interesso qui alla storia delle veneri, né esclusivamente alla loro portata scientifica, quanto piuttosto al loro particolarissimo ruolo in riguardo al femmineo.
Il dominio dello sguardo
Quando Vesalio, con incredibile coraggio (o spavalderia), si fece immortalare sul frontespizio della sua De humani corporis fabrica (1543) nell’atto di dissezionare personalmente un cadavere, stava lanciando un messaggio rivoluzionario: la medicina galenica, indiscussa fino ad allora, era colma di errori perché nessuno si era premurato di aprire un corpo umano e guardarci dentro con i propri occhi. Uomo del Rinascimento, Vesalio era strenuo sostenitore dell’esperienza diretta – in un’epoca, questo è ancora più notevole, in cui la “scienza” come la conosciamo non era ancora nata – e fu il primo a scindere il corpo da tutte le altre preoccupazioni metafisiche. Dopo di lui, il funzionamento del corpo umano non andrà più cercato nell’astrologia, nelle relazioni simbolico-alchemiche o negli elementi, ma in esso stesso.
Da questo momento, la dissezione occuperà per i secoli a venire il centro di ogni ricerca medica. Ed è lo sguardo di Vesalio, uno sguardo di sfida, altero e duro come la pietra, a imporsi come il paradigma dell’osservazione scientifica.
Il problema morale
Bisogna tenere a mente che nei secoli che stiamo prendendo in esame, l’anatomia non era affatto distaccata dalla visione religiosa, anzi si riteneva che studiare l’uomo – centro assoluto della Natura, immagine e somiglianza del Creatore e culmine della sua opera – significasse avvicinarsi un po’ di più anche a Dio.
Eppure, per quanto si riconoscesse come fondamentale l’esperienza diretta, era difficile liberarsi dall’idea che dissezionare una salma fosse in realtà una sorta di sacrilegio. Questa sensazione scomoda venne aggirata cercando soggetti di studio che avessero in qualche modo perso il loro statuto di “uomini”: criminali, suicidi o poveracci che il mondo non reclamava. Candidati ideali per il tavolo settorio. La violazione che si osava infliggere ai loro corpi era poi ulteriormente giustificata in quanto alle spoglie dissezionate venivano garantite, in cambio del sacrificio, una messa e una sepoltura cristiana che altrimenti non avrebbero avuto. Grazie al loro contributo alla ricerca, avendo scontato per così dire la loro pena, essi tornavano ad essere accettati dalla società.
Lo stesso senso di colpa per l’attività di dissezione spiega il successo delle tavole anatomiche che raffigurano i cosiddetti écorché, gli scorticati. Per raffigurare gli apparati interni, si decise di mostrare soggetti in pose plastiche, vivi e vegeti a dispetto delle apparenze, anzi spesso artefici o complici delle loro stesse dissezioni. Una simile visione era certamente meno fastidiosa e scioccante che vedere le parti anatomiche esposte su un tavolo come carne da macello (cfr. M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).
Già nelle stampe degli écorché si nota una differenza fra figure maschili e femminili. Per illustrare il sistema muscolare venivano utilizzati soggetti maschili, mentre le donne esibivano spesso e volentieri gli organi interni, e fin dalle primissime rappresentazioni erano nella quasi totalità dei casi gravide. Il feto visibile all’interno del grembo femminile sottolineava la primaria funzione della donna come generatrice di vita, mentre dall’altro canto gli écorché maschi si presentavano in pose virili che ne esaltavano la prestanza fisica.
Come si vede nelle stampe qui sotto, già dalla metà del ‘500 i soggetti femminili mostrano una certa sensualità, mentre si abbandonano a pose che in altri contesti risulterebbero indecenti e impudiche. L’artista qui si spinse addirittura a realizzare delle versioni anatomiche di celebri stampe erotiche clandestine, ricopiando le pose dei personaggi ma scorticandoli secondo la tradizione anatomica, “raffreddando” così ironicamente la scena.
Non bisogna dimenticare infatti che un altro sottotesto — decisamente più misogino — di alcune stampe anatomiche femminili, è quello che intende smentire, sfatare il fascino della donna. Tutta la sua carica erotica, tutta la sua bellezza tentatrice viene disinnescata tramite l’esposizione delle interiora.
Difficile non pensare a Memento di Tarchetti:
Quando bacio il tuo labbro profumato,
cara fanciulla, non posso obbliare
che un bianco teschio vi è sotto celato.
Quando a me stringo il tuo corpo vezzoso,
obbliar non poss’io, cara fanciulla,
che vi è sotto uno scheletro nascosto.
E nell’orrenda visïone assorto,
dovunque o tocchi, o baci, o la man posi,
sento sporgere le fredda ossa di morto.
Se dobbiamo credere a Baudrillard (Della seduzione, 1979), l’uomo ha sempre avuto il controllo sul potere concreto, mentre la femmina si è appropriata nel tempo del potere sull’immaginario. E il secondo è infinitamente più importante del primo: ecco spiegata l’origine dell’ossessione maschile, quel senso di impotenza di fronte alla forza del simbolo detenuto dalla donna. Pur con tutte le sue violente guerre e le sue conquiste virili, egli ne è sedotto e soggiogato senza scampo.
Ricorre dunque all’estrema soluzione: frustrato da un mistero che non riesce a svelare, finisce per negare che esso sia mai esistito.
Ecce mulier! Questa è la tanto vagheggiata femmina, che fa perdere la testa agli uomini e induce al peccato: soltanto un ammasso di disgustosi organi e budella.
La messa in scena dell’osceno
Alcune stampe cinquecentesche erano composte di diversi fogli ritagliati, in modo che il lettore potesse sollevarli e scostare poco a poco i vari “strati” del corpo del soggetto, scoprendone l’anatomia in maniera attiva. L’immagine qui sotto, del 1570 circa e poi numerose volte ristampata, è un esempio di questi antesignani dei pop-up book; pensata ad uso dei barbieri-chirurghi (l’uomo tiene la mano in una bacinella di acqua calda per gonfiare le vene del braccio prima di un salasso), consiste di quattro risvolti incollati da sfogliare in successione per vedere gli organi interni.
Le veneri anatomiche, decomponibili, non erano dunque che la versione tridimensionale di questo genere di stampe. Gli studenti avevano la possibilità di smontare gli organi, studiarne la morfologia e la posizione senza dover ricorrere a un cadavere.
Se la ceroplastica si propose quindi fin dal principio come sostituto o complemento della dissezione, ottimo strumento didattico per medici e anatomisti spesso in cronica penuria di salme fresche, le statue in cera costituirono anche uno dei primi esempi di spettacolo anatomico accessibile anche alla gente comune. Le dissezioni vere e proprie erano già un educativo divertissement per la buona società, che pagava volentieri il biglietto di entrata per il teatro anatomico approntato solitamente nei pressi dell’Università. Ma la collezione fiorentina di cere anatomiche contenute all’interno del Museo della Specola, voluto dal Granduca di Toscana, era visitabile anche dai profani.
Da sovrano illuminato e da appassionato di scienza qual era, si rese conto, con molto anticipo rispetto agli altri regnanti, di quanto fosse importante la cultura scientifica e di come questa dovesse essere resa accessibile a tutti. […] C’erano orari diversi per le persone istruite e per il popolo: quest’ultimo infatti poteva visitare il Museo dalle 8 alle 10 “purché politamente vestito” lasciando poi spazio fino “alle 1 dopo mezzogiorno… alle persone intelligenti e studiose”. Anche se ora questa distinzione ci suona un po’ offensiva, si capisce quanto fosse innovativa per quell’epoca l’apertura anche al grosso pubblico.
(M. Poggesi, La collezione ceroplastica del Museo La Specola, in Encyclopaedia anatomica, 2001)
Le cere anatomiche dunque, oltre ad essere un supporto di studio, facevano anche appello ad altre, più nascoste fascinazioni che attiravano con enorme successo masse di visitatori di ogni estrazione sociale, divenendo tra l’altro tappa fissa dei Grand Tour.
Allo stesso modo delle stampe antiche, anche nelle statue di cera si ritrova la stessa esposizione del corpo della donna – passiva, sottomessa all’anatomista che (presumibilmente) la sta aprendo, spesso gravida del feto che porta dentro di sé, il volto mai scorticato e anzi seducente; e la figura maschile è invece ancora una volta utilizzata principalmente per illustrare l’apparato muscolo-scheletrico, i vasi sanguigni e linfatici ed è priva della sensualità che contraddistingue i soggetti femminili.
Eros, Thanatos e crudeltà
Le veneri anatomiche fiorentine non potevano non suscitare l’interesse di Sade.
Il Marchese ne parla una prima volta, col tono discreto del turista, nel suo Viaggio in Italia; le menziona ancora in Juliette, quando la sua perversa eroina scopre con giubilo cinque piccoli tableaux di Zumbo che mostrano le fasi della decomposizione di un cadavere. Ma è nelle 120 giornate di Sodoma che le cere sono utilizzate nella loro dimensione più sadiana: qui una giovane fanciulla viene accompagnata all’interno di una stanza che racchiude diverse veneri anatomiche, e dovrà decidere in quale modo preferisce essere uccisa e squartata.
Lo sguardo lucido di Sade ha dunque colto il volto oscuro, cioè l’erotismo perturbante e crudele, di queste straordinarie opere d’arte scientifica. Sono senza dubbio i volti serafici, in alcuni casi quasi maliziosi, di queste donne a suggerire un loro malcelato piacere nell’essere lacerate e offerte al pubblico; e allo stesso tempo questi modelli tridimensionali rendono ancora più evidente la surreale contraddizione degli écorché, che restano in vita come nulla fosse, nonostante le ferite mortali.
Si può discutere se il Susini e gli altri ceroplasti suoi emuli fossero o meno perfettamente coscienti di un simile aspetto, forse non del tutto secondario, della loro opera; ma è innegabile che una parte del fascino di queste sculture provenga proprio dalla loro sensuale ambiguità.
Bataille fa notare (Le lacrime di Eros, 1961) che, nel momento in cui l’uomo ha preso coscienza della morte, seppellendo i suoi morti con rituali funebri, ha anche cominciato a raffigurare se stesso, sulle pareti delle grotte, con il sesso eretto; a dimostrazione di quanto morte e sesso siano collegati a doppio filo, quali opposti che spesso si confondono.
Le veneri anatomiche, in questo senso, racchiudono in maniera perfetta tutta la complessità di questi temi. Splendidi e preziosi strumenti di indagine scientifica, meravigliosi oggetti d’arte, misteriosi e conturbanti simboli; con il loro misto di innocenza e crudeltà sembrano ancora oggi raccontarci le intricate peripezie del desiderio umano.
Ecco la pagina dedicata alle cere anatomiche del Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze.
Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.
(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)
She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.
But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.
For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.
The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.
But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.
If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.
Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.
Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.
Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.
The body plays a fundamental role in Christian tradition.
Among the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity is indeed the only one to imply a God who became a man himself, thus granting an essential value to flesh and blood. According to Christian doctrine, it is told that resurrection will not be merely spiritual, but will also concern the physical body. Nevertheless, our flesh never got rid of its intrinsic duplicity: on the one hand, it lets the perfection of God’s work shine through – so much so that a holy body can “retain” within itself a part of the sanctity of the soul, whence the cult of relics – while on the other hand, of all human elements, it is the weakest and more susceptible to falling into temptation. The corruption of the flesh cannot be avoided except by mortifying sensuality or – in the most extreme cases – through the final sacrifice, more or less voluntary.
During the Middle Ages a distinction actually arose, ever sharper, between the carnal body and the body which will be resurrected at the end of times. As LeGoff writes, “the body of the Christian, dead or alive, lives in expectation of the body of glory it will take on, if it does not revel in the wretched physical body. The entire funeral ideology of Christianity revolves around the interplay between the wretched body and the glorious body, and is so organized as to wrest one from the other“.
That is why, in the lives of the saints, a disdainful denial of physicality and earthly life prevails. But, and that’s where things get interesting, there is a clear difference between male and female saints.
If the male saint usually accepts his martyrdom with courage and abnegation, in the vitae of female saints, female bodies are relentelssly destroyed or degraded, reaching superhuman extents in the hagiographic imagery.
As Elisabeth Roudinesco writes (in Our Dark Side: A History of Perversion, 2007):
When they were adopted by certain mystics, the great sacrificial rituals – from flagellation to the ingestion of unspeakable substances – became proof of their saintly exaltation. […] While the first duty of male saints was, following the Christian interpretation of the Book of Job, to annihilate any form of desire to fornicate, woman saints condemned themselves to a radical sterilization of their wombs, which became putrid, either by eating excrement or by exhibiting their tortured bodies.
Gilles Tétart in his Saintes coprophages: souillure et alimentation sacrée en Occident chrétien (2004, in Corps et Affects, edited by F. Héritier and M. Xanthakou) recounts several examples of this paroxysmal crusade against the flesh and its temptations.
Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun who lived in the Sevententh Century and was known for her mystic raptures, was “so sensitive that anything dirty made her heart jump“. But after Jesus had called her back to order, she could clean up the vomit of a sick woman by making it her food. She later absorbed the fecal matter of a woman with dysentery. By divine grace, what once would have disgusted her to death, now provoked in her the most intense visions of Christ, holding her with her mouth pressed against his wound: “If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would sacrifice them to be your slave“, she uttered.
According to some accounts, Catherine of Siena sucked the pus from the breasts of a woman with cancer, and stated that she had never eaten anything more delicious. Christ appeared to her, and reassuringly said: “My beloved, you have fought great battles for me and, with my help, you are still victorious. You have never been dearer or more agreeable to me […]. Not only have you scorned sensual pleasures; you have defeated nature by drinking a horrible beverage with joy and for the love of me. Well, as you have perfomed a supernatural act for me, I want to give you a supernatural liquor“.
Before we go further, it is important to always keep in mind that hagiographies are not History. They are in fact literary works in which every element finds its place inside the narration for a specific purpose – that is not the accuracy of facts. The purpose of these tales is rather to create a bond with the reader, who at the time was supposed not only to deeply admire the saints, but to empathize with their suffering, to feel the pain in first person, even if vicariously, to identify with their tormented body.
Secondly, it should be considered that the lives of saint women were mainly written by male monks, and clearly reflect male enthusiasm and fantasies. All this has brought several authors (B. Burgwinkle e C. Howie, G. Sorgo, S. Schäfer-Athaus, R. Mills) to analyze the hidden parallelisms between hagiography and pornography, as the two genres – all obvious differences considered – share some common features: for instance, the special attention given to the body, the importance of identification, the extremely detailed descritptions, the use of stylized characters, and so on.
Sarah Schäfer-Althaus, in her paper Painful Pleasure. Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography (in Woods, Ian et alii, Mirabilia 18 2014/1) focuses on three saint women: Saint Agatha, Saint Apollonia e Saint Christina.
In the case of Saint Agatha, according to some versions, during the torture a significant inversion occurs. If Saint Catherine, as we’ve seen, found the horrid pus “delicious”, for Saint Agatha the suffering turns into pleasure.
“The pains are my delight”, she literally exclaims, “it is as if I were hearing some good news” – an announcement, which enrages her male tormentor to such an extent that he redirects his attention not only back at her already mutilated body, but especially at her breast – the utmost signifier of her femininity – and has it brutally cut off. Once more, contemporary readers might expect a reaction denoting anguish and pain, a cry for heavenly relief for her suffering, yet instead, Agatha angrily replies in several versions of her legend: “Are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself wanted to suck?”
Therefore the aggression reveals a sexual nuance, or at least there is some kind of erotic tension in the martyrdom, which in itself can be read as a symbolic defloration of the saint’s femininity. A real defloration or penetration – it must be stressed, cannot happen – the saint woman can’t be actually raped, because it is essential for the hagiographic tale that she preserves her virginity to her death.
The same goes for Saint Apollonia and Saint Christina: here too, the penetration is merely symbolic, so that the protagonists can be joined with Christ while still chaste, and therefore their mouths end up being violated. Saint Apollonia endures the torment of having all of her teeth pulled out, and Christina has her tongue cut off.
At first glance the sexual allusion in these tortures might not be evident, but Schäfer-Althaus unveils its metaphorical code:
In medieval common knowledge, the mouth was on the one hand considered a “lock” with the teeth functioning as the final “barrier”, deciding what ideas and thoughts enter and leave the body. On the other hand, however, from Antiquity up to the ninteenth century, the mouth was linked to the female genitals and the tongue was often paralleled with the clitoris. The clitoris was in return often described as a “little tongue” and belonged to one of “woman’s shameful members”.
So these two torments could imply sexual violence, although it is only symbolic in order to allow the reunification with Jesus. These are, eventually, tortures which violate all of the most feminine body parts, yet preserving the purity of the soul.
So much so that Saint Christina can dare pick up her freshly cut tongue, and throw it in the face of her tormentor.
And her tongue, this instrument of speech and this symbolic clitoris, takes away his eyesight.
If the parallel between hagiography and pornography is intersting but – let’s face it – a little risky, undoubtedly these hyperbolic tales compiled, as mentioned, by male authors in a monastic environment, give us a glimpse of medieval male fantasies.
There are scholars, like the already quoted Roudinesco, who have come as far as to recognize in these medieval tales an anticipation of Sade’s themes or, more precisely, a source of inspiration for the Marquis‘ work:
This is why The Golden Legend, a work of piety that relates the lives of saints, can be read as prefiguring Sade’s perverse inversion of the Law in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. We find in both the same tortured bodies that have been stripped naked and covered in filth. There is no difference between these two types of martyrdom. The Marquis adopts the model of monastic confinement, which is full of maceration and pain, removes the presence of God, and invents a sort of sexological zoo given over to the combinatory of a boundless jouissance of bodies.
After all, the line between pleasure and pain is often blurred, and this is even more true in hagiographic literature, since in martyrdom the pain of sacrifice is inseparable from the joy of reunification with God.
And the hidden gratification for the most atrocious details, the colourful language and the vivid descriptions, had to provoke in the reader a desire: desire to emulate these fearless saints and these powerful, incorruptible virgins who were able to transform pain into ecstasy.