I am publishing here, as a free ebook, a research that has engaged me for several years: it’s an essay on the iconographic and conceptual motif of the “dissected woman” — a rhetorical device which, starting at least from the Middle Ages up to these days, was intended to sabotage the female seductive power by breaking down / opening up the woman’s body.
I made a short video presentation in which I talk about the project (please turn on English subtitles):
And here are the links to dowload the PDF file for free:
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.
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.
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.
Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.
In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi tradition, famadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.
Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.
Speaking of primates: in an Italian natural park a female macaque held her dead baby for 25 days, cradling and hugging it. When the little body was unrecognizable, she ate the remains (warning: heartbreaking photos).
Wood carver artist Caspicara, who lived in Ecuador in the 1700s, is believed to be the autghor of this spectacular work which represents Death, Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. I don’t know about you, but the one on the right looks like Keith Richards to me.
James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.
In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!
I have been your doll-wife, just as at home
I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.
I thought it great fun when you played with me,
just as they thought it great fun when I played with them.
That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
(H. Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act III)
When Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878, her life had already been planned.
Her parents, industrialists who became millionaires selling agricultural machinery, had very clear ideas about what they expected from her: she was going to grow up in the big family estate, which resembled a fortress, where private institutors would instruct her in the feminine arts of sewing, embroidery, painting. Once she had become a raised-right young lady, she would marry and continue her existence in her husband’s shadow, as it was suitable for a respectable woman. For a perfect doll.
And Frances followed these rules, at least apparently. After her parents refused to send her to Harvard to study medicine like her brother (because “a lady doesn’t go to school”), the young girl married a lawyer and gave him three children.
And yet Frances felt secretly repressed by the morals of her time and by not being allowed anything outside domestic tasks: she was eager to do something tangible for the community, but on the other hand could not openly dispute the social role that was assigned to her.
Thus many bitter years passed, until things slowly began to change.
In 1914 a first, small scandal: Frances divorced her husband, partly because (according to her son) he was not happy with her doing creative manual work, in which she excelled. In little more than ten years, in turn, her brother, her mother and her father died. Frances found herself with an immense fortune, free at last to pursue her true vocation – which actually was quite far from the dreams others had dreamt for her.
Because her passion, fueled by the stories of Sherlock Holmes, was the newly-born forensic science.
Frances had a close friendship with George Burgess Magrath, who was her late brother’s collegue and a famous medical examiner specializing in murder cases. Magrath often complained about investigators misinterpreting or even tramplimg with the evidence on a crime scene: there still was no education on this matter, police officers moved the bodies or walked on blood stains without giving it a thought, and as a consequence a high number of homicides went unsolved.
The now wealthy heiress decided, initially assisted by Magrath, that she would begin to do her part in renewing the system. In 1931 she endowed Harvard University with a generous donation in order to establish a Department of Legal Medicine; subsequently she founded the George Burgess Magrath Library, and created an organization for the progress of forensic science, the Harvard Associates in Police Science.
Magrath died shortly after, but Frances — even though she was not a trained doctor — had already acquired a stunning knowledge in criminology. In the pictures from the time, she is sitting beside the biggest experts in the field, like a respected godmother and patron.
But her most extraordinary contribution to the cause was yet to come.
In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee decided to hold biannual seminars for detectives and investigators. And here she presented for the first time the result of countless days of solitary work: her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
At a first glance they looked like elaborate and detailed dollhouses, but looking closely one could discover their macabre secret: the puppets inside those houses were all dead.
Each diorama was in fact inspired by an actual crime scene, which Frances had studied or seen in person during the investigations.
The quality of craftmanship was impressive. With painstaking care, every doll was dressed with tiny cross-stitched clothes; using jeweler’s precision tools Frances was able to equip her models with windows that could be opened, working keys and locks, pantries filled with food cans and countless other microscopic details.
Thanks to her familiarity with autopsies and crime scenes, the murdered dolls showed realistic signs of violence and death: wounds, bruises, decomposition symptoms, blood spatters on clothes and walls, everything was reproduced to the smallest detail.
The dioramas, each accompanied by a “witness statement”, were designed as crime mysteries to be solved.
The investigators attending the seminar were given 90 minutes to examine each single scene; they had to carefully study every clue.
What happened exactly to that family, all massacred by gunshot? Was it a murder-suicide, or were the father, mother and baby killed by a stranger?
And why did this housewife decided to commit suicide with gas, taking the precaution of carefully sealing the door — but leaving in the sink some half-peeled potatoes? Could the hour of death be determined by the state of food in the open freezer?
Did the man in the barn really hang himself?
If this other woman really died while drawing a bath, how come the stopper was not in the bathtub? And why her legs, in full rigor mortis, had stopped in that unnatural position?
When the allowed time ran out, the detectives had to draw their conclusions on what might have happened.
Thanks to her exceptional work, Frances was made honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943, becoming the first woman to be chief of police.
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962; but to think her incredible dioramas (18 in total) were some kind of eccentric and cheap game, would be way off mark. They are so complex and accurate that they are used still today in Harvard to train forensic specialists.
Beside their specific educational value, the story these works tell us is also interesting for another reason.
In a sense, Frances Glessner Lee never stopped playing with dolls, as she was taught to do when she was little.
And yet the bourgeois interiors, the cabins, the bathrooms or the alleys recreated in her models speak of a reality of abuse and violence, of victims and executioners. In a subtly subversive way, the Nutshell Studies use the “language” of toys and childplay to describe the most brutal and terrifying aspects of existence — hatred and blood creeping into the reassuring tableau of a marriage, of a family, splattering those clean and tidy walls. It’s real life, with all its cruelty, bursting into the idealistic world of childhood.
One could guess, in these dioramas, some sort of secret pleasure on the part of their creator in destroying the idyllic domestic space.
Maybe staging savage murders inside a dollhouse — thus turning the perfect decent lady pastime into something terrible and macabre — was to Frances a small, symbolic revenge.
The victims in the Nutshell Studies are mainly women.
And this last detail sounds a bit like a warning, a cautionary note addressed to young girls: do not believe too much in fairy tales, with all their princes charming; do not believe in the golden, coddled lives the adults are preparing for you.