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.
Among the bibliographic curiosities I have been collecting for years, there is also a little book entitled L’amico discreto. It’s the 1862 Italian translation of The silent friend (1847) by R. e L. Perry; aside from 100 beautiful anatomical plates, the book also shows a priceless subtitle: Observations on Onanism and Its Baneful Results, Including Mental and Sexual Incapacity and Impotence.
Just by skimming through the table of contents, it’s clear how masturbation was indicated as the main cause for a wide array of conditions: from indigestion to “hypoconriac melancholy”, from deafness to “bending of the penis”, from emaciated complexion to the inability to walk, in a climax of ever more terrible symptoms preparing the way for the ultimate, inevitable outcome — death.
One page after the other, the reader learns why onanism is to be blamed for such illnesses, specifically because it provokes an
excitement of the nervous system [which] by stimulating the organs to transient vigour, brings, ere middle life succeeds the summer of manhood, all the sensible infirmities and foibles of age; producing in its impetuous current, such an assemblage of morbid irritation, that even on trivial occasions its excitement is of a high and inflammable character, and its endurance beyond the power of reason to sustain.
But this is just the beginning: the worst damage is on the mind and soul, because this state of constant nervous stimulation
places the individual in a state of anxiety and misery for the remainder of his existence, — a kind of contingency, which it is difficult for language adequately to describe; he vegetates, but lives not: […] leading the excited deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error — into a gradual and fatal degradation of manhood — into a pernicious, disgraceful, and ultimately almost involuntary application of those inherent rights which nature wisely instituted for the preservation of her species […] in defiance of culture, moral feeling, moral obligation, and religious impressions: thus the man, who, at the advent of youth and genius was endowed with gaiety and sociality, becomes, ere twenty-five summers have shed their lustre on him, a misanthrope, and a nadir-point of discontent! What moral region does that man live in? […] Is it nothing to light the gloomy torch that guides, by slow and melancholy steps to the sepulchre of manhood, in the gay and fascinating spring-time of youth and ardent desire; when the brilliant fire of passion, genius, and sentiment, ought to electrify the whole frame?
This being a physiology and anatomy essay, today its embellishments, its evocative language (closer to second-rate poetry than to science) seem oddly out of place — and we can smile upon reading its absurd theories; yet The Silent Friend is just one of many Nineteeth Century texts demonizing masturbation, all pretty popular since 1712, when an anonymous priest published a volume called Onania, followed in 1760 by L’Onanisme by Swiss doctor Samuel-Auguste Tissot, which had rapidly become a best-seller of its time.
Now, if physicians reacted in such a harsh way against male masturbation, you can guess their stance on female auto-eroticism.
Here, the repulsion for an act which was already considered aberrant, was joined by all those ancestral fears regarding female sexuality. From the ancient vagina dentata (here is an old post about it) to Plato’s description of the uterus (hystera) as an aggressive animale roaming through the woman’s abdomen, going through theological precepts in Biblical-Christian tradition, medicine inherited a somber, essentially misogynistic vision: female sexuality, a true repressed collective unconscious, was perceived as dangerous and ungovernable.
Another text in my library is the female analogue of Tissot’s Onania: written by J.D.T. de Bienville, La Ninfomania ovvero il Furore Uterino (“Nymphomania, or The Uterine Fury”) was originally published in France in 1771.
I’m pasting here a couple of passages, which show a very similar style in respect to the previous quotes:
We see some perverted young girls, who have conducted a voluptuous life over a long period of time, suddenly fall prey to this disease; and this happens when forced retirement is keeping them from those occasions which facilitated their guilty and fatal inclination. […] All of them, after they are conquered by such malady, occupy themselves with the same force and energy with those objects which light in their passion the infernal flame of lewd pleasure […], they indulge in reading lewd Novels, that begin by bending their heart to soft feelings, and end up inspiring the most depraved and gross incontinence. […] Those women who, after taking a few steps in this horrible labyrinth, miss the strength to come back, are drawn almost imperceptibly to excesses, which after corrupting and damaging their good name, deprive them of their own life.
The book goes on to describe the hallucinatory state in which the nymphomaniacs fall, frantically hurling at men (by nature all chaste and pure, it seems), and barely leaving them “the time to escape their hands“.
Of course, this an Eighteenth Century text. But things did not improve in the following century: during the Nineteenth Century, actually, the ill-concealed desire to repress female sexuality found one of its cruelest incarnations, the so-called “extirpation”.
This euphemism was used to indicate the practice of clitoridectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris.
Everybody kows that female genital mutilations continue to be a reality in many countries, and they have been the focus of several international campaigns to abandon the practice.
It seems hard to believe that, far from being solely a tribal tradition, it became widespread in Europe and in the United States within the frame of modern Western medicine.
Clitoridectomy, a simple yet brutal operation, was based on the idea that female masturbation led to hysteria, lesbianism and nymphomania. The perfect circular reasoning behind this theory was the following: in mental institutions, insane female patients were often caught masturbating, therefore masturbation had to be the cause of their lunacy.
One of the most fervent promoters of extirpation was Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, English gynaecologist and obstetrical surgeon.
In 1858 he opened a clinic on Notting Hill, ad his therapies became so successful that Baker Brown resigned from Guy’s Hospital to work privately full time. By means of clitoridectomy, he was able to cure (if we are to trust his own words) several kinds of madness, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria in his patients: in 1866 he published a nice little book on the subject, which was praised by the Times because Brown “brought insanity within the scope of surgical treatment“. In his book, Brown reported 48 cases of female masturbation, the heinous effects on the patients’ health, and the miraculous result of clitoridectomy in curing the symptoms.
We don’t know for sure how many women ended up under the enthusiastic doctor’s knife.
Brown would have probably carried on with his mutilation work, if he hadn’t made the mistake of setting up a publicity campaign to advertise his clinic. Even then, self-promotion was considered ethically wrong for a physician, so on April 29, 1866, the British Medical Journal published a heavy j’accuse against the doctor. The Lancet followed shortly after, then even the Times proved to have changed position and asked if the surgical treatment of illness was legal at all. Brown ended up being investigated by the Lunacy Commission, which dealt with the patients’ welfare in asylums, and in panic he denied he ever carried out clitoridectomies on his mentally ill patients.
But it was too late.
Even the Royal College of Surgeons turned away from him, and a meeting decided (with 194 approving votes against 38 opposite votes) his removal from the Obstetric Society of London.
R. Youngson and I. Schott, in A Brief History of Bad Medicine (Robinson, 2012), highlight the paradox of this story:
The extraordinary thing was that Baker Brown was disgraced, not because he practised clitoridectomy for ridiculuous indications, but because, out of greed, he had offended against professional ethics. No one ever suggested that there was anything wrong with clitoridectomy, as such. Many years were to pass before this operation was condemned by the medical profession.
And many more, until eventually masturbation could be freed from medical criminalization and moral prejudice: at the beginning of the Twentieth Century doctors still recommended the use of constrictive laces and gears, straight-jackets, up to shock treatments like cauterization or electroconvulsive therapy.
1903 patent to prevent erections and nocturnal pollutions through the use of spikes, electric shocks and an alarm bell.
Within this dreadful galaxy of old anti-masturbation devices, there’s one looking quite harmless and even healthy: corn flakes, which were invented by famous Dr. Kellogg as an adjuvant diet against the temptations of onanism. And yet, whenever cereals didn’t do the trick, Kellogg advised that young boys’ foreskins should be sewn with wire; as for young girls, he recommended burning the clitoris with phenol, which he considered
an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice in those whose will-power has become so weakened that the patient is unable to exercise entire self-control.
The worse cases among young women are those in which the disease has advanced so far that erotic thoughts are attended by the same voluptuous sensations that accompany the practice. The author has met many cases of this sort in young women, who acknowledged that the sexual orgasm was thus produced, often several times daily. The application of carbolic acid in the manner described is also useful in these cases in allaying the abnormal excitement, which is a frequent provocation of the practice of this form of mental masturbation.
(J. H. Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old And Young, 1888)
It was not until the Kinsey Reports (1948-1953) that masturbation was eventually legitimized as a natural and healthy part of sexuality.
All in all, as Woody Allen put it, it’s just “sex with someone you love“.
Some of you probably know about sati (or suttee), the hindu self-immolation ritual according to which a widow was expected to climb on her husband’s funeral pire to be burned alive, along his body. Officially forbidden by the English in 1829, the practice declined over time – not without some opposition on behalf of traditionalists – until it almost entirely disappeared: if in the XIX Century around 600 sati took place every year, from 1943 to 1987 the registered cases were around 30, and only 4 in the new millennium.
The sacrifice of widows was not limited to India, in fact it appeared in several cultures. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about a people living “above the Krestons”, in Thracia: within this community, the favorite among the widows of a great man was killed over his grave and buried with him, while the other wives considered it a disgrace to keep on living.
Among the Heruli in III Century a.D., it was common for widows to hang themselves over their husband’s burial ground; in the XVIII Century, on the other side of the ocean, when a Natchez chief died his wives (often accompanied by other volunteers) followed him by committing ritual suicide. At times, some mothers from the tribe would even sacrify their own newborn children, in an act of love so strong that women who performed it were treated with great honor and entered a higher social level. Similar funeral practices existed in other native peoples along the southern part of Mississippi River.
Also in the Pacific area, for instance in Fiji, there were traditions involving the strangling of the village chief’s widows. Usually the suffocation was carried out or supervised by the widow’s brother (see Fison’s Notes on Fijian Burial Customs, 1881).
The idea underlying these practices was that it was deemed unconcievable (or improper) for a woman to remain alive after her husband’s death. In more general terms, a leader’s death opened an unbridgeable void, so much so that the survivors’ social existence was erased.
If female self-immolation (and, less commonly, male self-immolation) can be found in various time periods and latitudes, the Dani tribe developed a one-of-a-kind funeral sacrifice.
The Dani people live mainly in Baliem Valley, the indonesian side of New Guinea‘s central highlands. They are now a well-known tribe, on the account of increased tourism in the area; the warriors dress with symbolic accessories – a feather headgear, fur bands, a sort of tie made of seashells specifying the rank of the man wearing it, a pig’s fangs fixed to the nostrils and the koteka, a penis sheath made from a dried-out gourd.
The women’s clothing is simpler, consisting in a skirt made from bark and grass, and a headgear made from multicolored bird feathers.
Among this people, according to tradition when a man died the women who were close or related to him (wife, mother, sister, etc.) used to amputate one or more parts of their fingers. Today this custom no longer exists, but the elder women in the tribe still carry the marks of the ritual.
Allow me now a brief digression.
In Dino Buzzati‘s wonderful tale The Humps in the Garden (published in 1968 in La boutique del mistero), the protagonist loves to take long, late-night walks in the park surrounding his home. One evening, while he’s promenading, he stumbles on a sort of hump in the ground, and the following day he asks his gardener about it:
«What did you do in the garden, on the lawn there is some kind of hump, yesterday evening I stumbled on it and this morning as soon as the sun came up I saw it. It is a narrow and oblong hump, it looks like a burial mound. Will you tell me what’s happening?». «It doesn’t look like it, sir» said Giacomo the gardener «it really is a burial mound. Because yesterday, sir, a friend of yours has died». It was true. My dearest friend Sandro Bartoli, who was twenty-one-years-old, had died in the mountains with his skull smashed. «Are you trying to tell me» I said to Giacomo «that my friend was buried here?» «No» he replied «your friend, Mr. Bartoli […] was buried at the foot of that mountain, as you know. But here in the garden the lawn bulged all by itself, because this is your garden, sir, and everything that happens in your life, sir, will have its consequences right here.»
Years go by, and the narrator’s park slowly fills with new humps, as his loved ones die one by one. Some bulges are small, other enormous; the garden, once flat and regular, at this point is completely packed with mounds appearing with every new loss.
Because this problem of humps in the garden happens to everybody, and every one of us […] owns a garden where these painful phenomenons take place. It is an ancient story repeating itself since the beginning of centuries, it will repeat for you too. And this isn’t a literary joke, this is how things really are.
In the tale’s final part, we discover that the protagonist is not a fictional character at all, and that the sorrowful metaphore refers to the author himself:
Naturally I also wonder if in someone else’s garden will one day appear a hump that has to do with me, maybe a second or third-rate little hump, just a slight pleating in the lawn, not even noticeable in broad daylight, when the sun shines from up high. However, one person in the world, at least one, will stumble on it. Perhaps, on the account of my bad temper, I will die alone like a dog at the end of an old and deserted hallway. And yet one person that evening will stub his toe on the little hump in the garden, and will stumble on it the following night too, and each time that person will think with a shred of regret, forgive my hopefulness, of a certain fellow whose name was Dino Buzzati.
Now, if I may risk the analogy, the humps in Buzzati’s garden seem to be poetically akin to the Dani women’s missing fingers. The latter represent a touching and powerful image: each time a loved one leaves us, “we lose a bit of ourselves”, as is often said – but here the loss is not just emotional, the absence becomes concrete. On the account of this physical expression of grief, fingerless women undoubtedly have a hard time carrying out daily tasks; and further bereavements lead to the impossibility of using their hands. The oldest women, who have seen many loved ones die, need help and assistance from the community. Death becomes a wound which makes them disabled for life.
Of course, at least from a contemporary perspective, there is still a huge stumbling block: the metaphore would be perfect if such a tradition concerned also men, who instead were never expected to carry out such extreme sacrifices. It’s the female body which, more or less voluntarily, bears this visible evidence of pain.
But from a more universal perspective, it seems to me that these symbols hold the certainty that we all will leave a mark, a hump in someone else’s garden. The pride with which Dani women show their mutilated hands suggests that one person’s passage inevitably changes the reality around him, conditioning the community, even “sculpting” the flesh of his kindreds. The creation of meaning in displays of grief also lies in reciprocity – the very tradition that makes me weep for the dead today, will ensure that tomorrow others will lament my own departure.
Regardless of the historical variety of ways in which this concept was put forth, in this awareness of reciprocity human beings seem to have always found some comfort, because it eventually means that we can never be alone.
Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.
If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…
The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.
The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.
This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.
In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.
Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.
The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.
Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.
He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.
He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.
We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.
As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.
One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?
Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.
Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.
From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.
Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.
War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.
But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.
Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.
Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.
From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.
His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.
“You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.
In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.
The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.
But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.
As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.
He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.
In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.
From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.
The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.
Francesco è un nostro affezionato lettore, e una delle migliori amicizie di penna che abbiamo avuto la fortuna di instaurare grazie a questo blog. Giovane, brillante, simpatico – in breve, una persona piena di idee interessanti. Un esempio: sei mesi fa, Francesco decide di tagliarsi i capelli, fino ad allora molto lunghi, e questo fatto che per qualsiasi altra persona sarebbe tutto sommato banale e scontato, diventa per lui un vero e proprio atto magico, un’occasione per instillare un po’ di meraviglia nella sua vita: invece di farli spazzolare via dal pavimento come rifiuti, decide di donare i propri capelli alla Banca dei Capelli, un’associazione che si occupa di fabbricare parrucche per i malati di cancro. “È strano pensare come questa persona, che non conosco, porterà in testa ogni giorno una parte così intima, in fondo, di me. Qualcuno avrà accanto a sé ben sei anni di emozioni e ricordi, e fra quelle ciocche tesserà anche il suo futuro di speranza. Saranno non solo un oggetto d’uso, ma una muta consolazione, una carezza a distanza ad uno sconosciuto”.
Francesco è una persona affascinante, e non vi abbiamo ancora detto tutto.
Francesco è biologicamente una femmina di nome Silvia.
Potrebbe sembrare che “siamo tutti uguali” oppure “siamo tutti differenti” siano due espressioni il cui risultato in fondo non cambia, eppure qui su Bizzarro Bazar abbiamo sempre dato più valore alla seconda. Sono le visioni alternative, le esperienze non conformi, le vite non allineate che stimolano la nostra ricerca (oltre a cambiare veramente le cose, visto che spesso sono proprio le minoranze che fanno la storia).
Abbiamo quindi deciso di approfondire la strana condizione di chi ogni giorno deve fare i conti con un corpo in cui non si riconosce: Francesco ha accettato di rispondere al fuoco di fila delle nostre domande. La doverosa premessa è che il nostro interlocutore si definisce gender-fluid, vale a dire che non si sente strettamente transessuale ma piuttosto un mix dinamico di elementi di entrambi i generi sessuali al tempo stesso (da questo il suo peculiare uso intercambiabile di pronomi e aggettivi maschili/femminili).
Quando si sono manifestati i primi turbamenti della sfera identitaria? Come e in che modo hai cominciato a comprendere che eri in parte estraneo al tuo genere biologico di nascita? Quali conseguenze pratiche (di socializzazione, di integrazione, di autoimmagine) ha comportato all’inizio? Che rapporto avevi con il tuo corpo durante la pubertà?
Io sono nata in un paese veramente piccolo: le conseguenze dei pettegolezzi e delle aspettative sono facili da immaginare. Ci sono state persone tanto invidiose della mia nascita da femmina da odiarmi.
La prima volta che ho avvertito il disagio di essere qualcosa che non mi corrispondeva è stato quando, in terza elementare mi sono dovuto confrontare per la prima volta con la guerra “maschietti contro femminucce”.
I maschi hanno cominciato ad evitarmi, ad accomunarmi alle bambine, a pretendere (insieme agli adulti) che io mi conformassi a loro ed ai loro giochi: a me non interessava, non volevo, l’ho fatto a forza per sembrare normale.
Non volevo mettere la gonna per uscire, non volevo imparare a truccarmi per essere bella anche se mi piaceva farlo per giocare. Ho provato per anni e anni a conformarmi, ma… non era semplicemente possibile farlo. Anche vestita da donna, sembravo (e sembro) una specie di mostro, qualcosa che non veste la sua vera pelle. Sembrare normale è la cosa che cerco di combattere ora: sono ossessionata dallo sguardo onnipresente e giudicante del mondo.
Poi a 14 anni ho provato a giocare con i vestiti da uomo e, beh, è stata una scoperta incredibile. Ci stavo bene, in un modo sorprendente. Solo adesso, che sono molto più grande, ho capito che quello non era un semplice cambio d’abito.
Credi che vi sia nel tuo caso un qualche tipo di rapporto fra il genere che avverti come tuo, e il tuo orientamento sessuale?
Non esattamente. Mi ha creato e mi crea problemi, questo sì. La mia omosessualità (in realtà sono bisessuale, ma caso ha voluto che ultimamente abbia avuto solo compagne donne) è stata una specie di trauma.
Tutt’oggi sono in terapia per gli attacchi di panico, per il terrore, che mi provoca anche solo ammettere che mi piacciano le donne… figurarsi il resto.
Il fatto che io sia poi gender-fluid peggiora la situazione: ti porta a pensare che non sarai mai abbastanza per una persona. Chi vorrebbe stare con un ibrido che non è né uomo né donna?
L’androgino o l’ermafrodito sono figure simboliche estremamente potenti (certo, potresti dirmi che c’è differenza fra la simbologia e la vita pratica e quotidiana; ma non ne sono così convinto). Tu ti vedi davvero come “un ibrido che non è né uomo né donna”, oppure potresti pensarti positivamente come un ibrido che è sia uomo che donna? Dipende dalle giornate. Ci sono volte in cui mi vedo in modo molto positivo, in cui mi sento parte della bellezza del tutto. In quei momenti mi sento un essere completo e felice, ma più spesso… Più spesso è soltanto doloroso, perché non è facile capirsi, perché semplicemente non sono un ermafrodito perfetto quindi ci sono cose che mi sono precluse dal mio stesso corpo. È come essere spezzati. Mi ci è voluto tempo per comprendere che non si trattava di doppia personalità o qualcosa di simile: Francesco e Silvia non sono due entità separate, ma una sfumatura di colore che va dall’una all’altro.
Come gestisci il divario (se c’è) fra il privato e l’immagine che di te hanno gli altri? Lo sto affrontando da quando mi sono trasferito: ora riesco a vestirmi come voglio (che non vuol necessariamente dire sempre da uomo, anzi; il mio stile è maglione sformato, jeans e scarpa da ginnastica), a parlare e a comportarmi come voglio.
Attualmente, per quanto riguarda il fisico, sto lavorando un po’ di più: la mia forma non mi permette di fingermi facilmente un ragazzo. Dopo un mese di pianti (l’ho già detto che sono pauroso?), ho comprato un binder (un accessorio simile a una canottiera che serve per modellare il petto) ed i miei primi veri vestiti da uomo. Ho tagliato i capelli proprio per non dover indossare una parrucca… e per sentirmi più me stesso.
Al lavoro e in famiglia mi chiamano tutti Silvia, ma i miei amici e talvolta anche altre persone mi chiamano col mio nome maschile, Francesco, e alcuni usano anche (per rispetto) il maschile per parlare. Per me il genere è indifferente, anche se mi piacerebbe che ci fosse un neutro o un modo per non doverlo specificare, come in inglese.
I movimenti LGBT, le lotte sociali, ti interessano oppure, pur riconoscendone l’importanza, sei uno di quelli che preferisce mantenere certe questioni nel privato? Credo che il modo migliore di combattere sia far vedere al mondo che circonda me cosa voglia dire la vera felicità e la normalità della mia vita.
Alcune culture non distinguevano soltanto due generi sessuali, come la nostra, ma ne contemplavano un terzo, una via di mezzo fra i due principali, che spesso veniva considerato sacro: hai sentito o senti la nostra società come un peso oppressivo? Sì, decisamente, perché tutti ti chiedono di scegliere. Io invece… non credo di voler MAI scegliere. Non ho bisogno di farlo, non ne provo il desiderio. Sono una via di mezzo e trovo SPLENDIDE le vie di mezzo come me. Un ragazzo con la gonna, un Kathoey, una ragazza vestita da uomo o meglio ancora un androgino/a sono quanto di più bello io possa contemplare.
Questa è una realizzazione degli ultimi mesi: finalmente ho capito che, se gli altri scelgono (per così dire) un ruolo preciso, non lo devo per forza fare anch’io.
Nella vita di tutti i giorni, in fondo, i caratteri sessuali non sono così definiti: anche le donne hanno i baffi, gli uomini possono avere il seno, i peli crescono anche sulla pelle femminile, così come gli uomini in molte culture si truccano. È troppo facile dividere tutto con una riga netta, senza la minima sfumatura.
Amici, parenti, genitori: come hanno affrontato la cosa, e come si è evoluta la loro posizione nel tempo? Come vivi oggi la tua condizione e quali progetti hai per il futuro (“piccole” e “grandi soluzioni” incluse, ma non solo)? La maggioranza non sa della mia condizione. Questo a volte mi fa star male, perché vengono dette piccole cose (come insinuare che fingo, o chiedermi costantemente di prendere una decisione, di avere un figlio, di adeguarmi o rassegnarmi al fatto che io sia solo donna e che non possa essere altrimenti) che mi feriscono a fondo. È anche vero che non posso biasimarli. Non è un modo di vivere che conoscono, non possono capire cosa si provi. Non è colpa loro, se mi feriscono.
Per il momento solo la mia compagna e alcune amiche sanno di me. Hanno avuto reazioni molto diverse, ma sostanzialmente tutte e tre dicono la medesima cosa: sii quello che ti senti. Sono la mia forza per combattere la paura. Parlarne è già un modo di sconfiggerla e cercare di andare oltre.
Attualmente la vivo con meno disagio rispetto a prima: qui posso anche infilarmi i vestiti da uomo e uscire, perfino parlare al maschile, nessuno osa dirmi nulla. Sul sesso (inteso come rapporto fra le coperte) ho ancora molti dubbi, molte paure.
Vorrei semplicemente continuare a capirmi, sconfiggere il terrore, operarmi e… beh, essere ME.
Aspetta un secondo… “operarmi”? Hai appena detto che non vuoi scegliere, che vorresti rimanere per sempre una “via di mezzo”…
Vorrei farmi sistemare il seno. È veramente di troppo per me, e qualunque cosa io faccia al proposito falsa la mia impressione sugli altri. Per i fianchi larghi, il sedere e la pancia posso anche soprassedere o al limite lavorarci dimagrendo e andando in palestra, per questo maledetto seno non posso fare nulla se non operarmi. Il problema è che, come saprai, queste operazioni sono abbastanza pericolose, hanno una degenza lunga, costano molto e se non sono eseguite bene il risultato è spesso deludente. Vorrei sostanzialmente adeguare il mio aspetto a me stesso… e poi si vedrà. Non credo di avere la necessità (né la voglia) di operarmi anche ai genitali.
Mi hai confidato che sei credente: Dio, se c’è, ti ha fatto un’ingiustizia o un regalo? La tua è una battaglia o un percorso di crescita? Nasciamo e moriamo su questo piccolo pianeta: c’è una risposta che sei riuscito a darti, sul perché nello schema delle cose ti sia capitata questa strana avventura? Non credo che Dio abbia deciso di farmi soffrire. E lo dico semplicemente perché, da credente, SO che è un essere che mi ama, qualunque sia la sua forma, il suo nome, il suo aspetto.
Se mi ha creata così, se mi ha messa in questo corpo, c’è una ragione. Gli chiedo spesso perché l’abbia fatto proprio con me, ma in definitiva le mie domande a Lui non sono di solito riferite a me stessa: mi ritengo una persona molto fortunata.
Non credo neppure, dal momento che sono cattolico, che mi odi per come vivo. È stata certamente una cosa che mi ha molto pregiudicato, e lo fa tutt’ora. Io non mi cambio con le donne negli spogliatoi, né accarezzo bambini, perché, purtroppo, mi vedo come un germe contagioso. Non voglio rischiare di infettarli, anche se razionalmente so che, beh, sono solo un po’ sfasato.
Sì, è vero, ho dei problemi, ma non sono nulla di paragonabile al dolore che provano altri: non so cosa sia la fame, non so cosa sia la paura, né ho provato la guerra, nessuno mi ha mai fatto del male (consapevolmente).
Dio ha messo sulla mia strada le persone più belle che io abbia mai visto, e di questo e di molto altro posso essere grato: mi ha regalato un mondo che è talmente pieno di bellezza, amore e sogni, che sono fortunato anche solo a poterlo gustare.
Supervenus (2013) è un cortometraggio di animazione diretto dal filmmaker sperimentale Fréderic Doazan.
Si tratta di una satira della moderna concezione della bellezza femminile, della chirurgia estetica e della odierna manipolazione del corpo per raggiungere gli ideali estetici imposti dalla società. L’ultima immagine del corto, che rimanda alla celeberrima Venere di Milo, è il perfetto finale per questo gioiellino di humor nero.