Mors in fabula

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A Savage Fascination (Part One)

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
(Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899)

Let’s go back to a topic we discussed several times on these pages: the relationship of the Western world with  “primitive” tribes.
This will be a double post. In this first part we shall examine a 19th-century tale, and in the second an exotic journey that took place this very year.
Two perspectives very much apart in time and nonetheless marked by an element of continuity: Western obsession for the “savages” and for cannibalism.

I must start by saying that both articles owe a great deal to two followers and friends of Bizzarro Bazar: in the first case I have to thank Giulio, of Mala Tempora Studio, who passed on to me the story we will examine in this post; in the second case, my thanks go to Marco, the crazy guy who made that exotic journey.

So let’s begin with the extraordinary gem discovered by Giulio.
The #28 issue of Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi (1923, published by Sonzogno) boasts one of the most incredible covers ever. It’s got it all: shipwrecks, cannibals, fetuses in formaldehyde and anatomical preparations.

The gruesome episode is described in detail in the magazine. This is the ending of the short story:

What is left for me to add, gentlemen — continued Dr. Stephenson — goes beyond the limits of the unlikely. The three huge chests, containing the anatomical pieces, were opened in the blink of an eye, and the contents appeared in the eyes of the marauders, who certainly did not expect such a spectacle. They believed it to be our own food supply, and that we, sharing their taste for human flesh, had jealously hidden this treasure.
You know that anatomical pieces are prepared to produce a complete illusion.
What followed was more than a plunder, it was a true cannibalistic orgy. They furiously tore apart those pieces, which were dry like papier-mâché and no longer having the appearance of flesh. Eager to satisfy their monstrous tastes as soon as possible, they lit half a dozen braziers, on which they soon placed the whole pieces, staring at them with a mix of jealousy and admiration for the skillful butcher who had prepared them.
Under the influence of heat, this unusual roast softened somehow, but the injected fluids melted down and dripped into some large mother-of-pearl shells that those skilled and far-sighted cooks had placed underneath.
I shall leave it to your imagination, to think what that sauce could taste like!
To top it all off, Ben’s corpse, which we had buried at the foot of a myrtle shrub, was brutally exhumed, and cut into pieces in a few minutes with stone knives and with rare skill.
We also owned half a dozen brains, and a complete set of fetuses, stored in 75° alcohol. A new discovery, which was accompanied by gorilla-like contortions. With great caution, almost religiously, they opened the enormous jars that contained them, and they drank the conservative liqueur with an incomparable gluttony. That infernal liquid, which must have burned their stomachs, brought their drunkenness to the highest level, and they swallowed like brandied oranges those unfortunate leftovers, which science alone has the right to study and mutilate without commiting profanation.
Happy and drunk, those abominable savages staggered, shouted loudly and beat their bellies in a deep state of bliss.
Finally they fell asleep like seals.
The next day, in the perfumed hour, when the morning sun rises from the greenery shaking his golden hair above the giant forest, the chirping of parrots woke those brutes. They stretched their limbs like satisfied dinner guests awaking from a peaceful sleep, and rose fresh and happy, scampering around like young kangaroos. If not for the presence of some macabre bones scattered across the place, no one would have suspected such a horrible feast had happened the previous day.
What a wonderful organ the Australian stomach must be! …
Faithful to their commitment, despite our fault, they led us to Ballaratre, where we arrived completely empty-handed.
The last words we heard from those unworthy children of nature were to warmly solicit a new shipment of “small whites in firewater”.
We did not deemed it appropriate to respond.
Three days later we were in Melbourne!

Now, a little background. The Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi e delle Avventure di Terra e di Mare (‘Illustrated Journal of Travels and Adventures on Land and Sea’) was a weekly magazine founded by Edoardo Sonzogno and published in Italy since 1878. The magazine was clearly mimicking the Journal des Voyages et des Aventures de Terre et de Mer, founded the year before in Paris by Charles-Lucien Huard, as it also reproduced some of its original articles and reports.

Like its French counterpart, the Giornale Illustrato featured tales of geographic exploration and adventure fiction, and in its last years of publication it even presented sci-fi and horror short stories.
In 1931 the magazine was discontinued, and it merged with Il Mondo.

As for the 1923 cover, it was actually the copy of an illustration by Horace Castelli for the serialized fiction novel À Travers l’Australie: les dix millions de l’opossum rouge by Louis-Henri Boussenard, a picaresque tale of Australian adventures published in 1878 on the Journal des Voyages and then in 1881 on La Récréation.

This inventive little episode, as we have seen, is centered on the expedient (which is not devoid of genius) of combining two classic 19th-century fixations: anatomy and cannibalism.
The anatomist was indeed a recurrent character in romantic literature (from the works of Scapigliati to naturalists), at a time when authors looked at the new positivist science, and anatomy in particular, with a mixture of exaltation and morbid interest. In this case the narrator is indeed a scientist, even if the “aseptic” patina of his academic report is soon forgotten to leave room for the more macabre and sensationalist tones.

The other obsession emerging here is the endless fascination for cannibalism and the myth of the “savage”. It is an obsession with a dual nature: first, it serves to highlight the superiority of Westerners, who have freed themselves from the “bestial” state.
The 19th-century explorer’s colonial arrogance is reflected in the contemptuous tone reserved for the indigenous people (‘abominable savages‘, ‘monstrous tastes‘, ‘brutes‘), often seasoned with animal comparisons (‘like seals‘, ‘gorilla-like‘, ‘like young kangaroos‘) and references to a pre-cultural state (‘those unworthy children of nature‘).
At the same time, however, this fixation is tinged with an ill-concealed envy for the freedom of customs shown by these “primitive” people. It’s no coincidence that these narratives insist so much on morbid tones, and that the portrayed “savages” are often nothing more than function characters, inserted in stereotyped situations — the perfect excuse for the writer (his hand trembling, of course, as he barely dares to proceed to the next horrible scene) to describe orgies, assorted violence and nudity.

Upon reading these fantastic reports, one gets the impression of being confronted not so much with anthropophagy (which, far from being orgiastic, actually followed rigorous rituals, was often carried out within the tribe itself and was limited to the assumption of small parts of the body of a deceased relative as a sign of respect) but rather with a repressed impulse of breaking free from social norms.
As I argued when talking about severed heads — those macabre souvenirs that Westerners brought home from their explorations — the Savage is a screen on which we project the distorted image of what we want him to be.

But we must keep in mind that behind these tales of cannibalism there was also a strictly political motivation: they were meant to provide an ethical excuse for colonial expansionism.

Such stories were not just intended to thrill people back home; they also provided moral underpinning for the domination of the locals by western settlers. Cannibalism was an unnatural act, seemingly as far as possible from acceptable European behaviour. Tales of man-eating could therefore justify the annexing of foreign lands as well as the introduction of Christian morality into a country. […] The labelling of the rebels as hungry cannibals reduced their uprisings to a battle between civilisation and savagery […]. It made violent repression the authorities’ most likely response and necessitated a continuing colonial presence to ensure further outbreaks of man-eating were prevented.

Fonte: The History Notes.

We might think that the Western obsession for cannibalism and for uncontacted, “uncontaminated” tribes is a thing of the past, like the old topos of the explorer boiled alive in a pot, but that’s not really the case (see this other article).
Cannibals still thrive in comic books, horror films and more generally the collective imagination.

So much so, that some people are willing to spend considerable amounts of money and face a journey that’s all but safe and comfortable, just for the thrill of coming face to face with “real cannibals”.
But we will talk about this in detail in the second part of this post.

First Day

The great French writer Jacques Prévert died April 11, 1977.

Here is one of his poems, Premier jour.
It is truly amazing to see how he manages, with minimalist touches and a masterful use of color, to plunge us into the tragedy of a death during childbirth.

And then there is that word, dans (“inside”), recurring in each verse and suggesting a strange telescope effect. One thing is always inside another, everything is connected; the event is inscribed in a wider perspective – the house, the town, the night.

This is why one should not be deceived by the poem’s apparent formal simplicity. In reality, it encompasses both joy and drama, the mystery of life and death; and a dark cosmos (the night), of which we will never know whether it is compassionate or indifferent.

“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Bessoni writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Carcass

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) died 150 years ago today.

This is a good occasion to re-read a poem taken from The Flowers of Evil (1857), the extraordinary A Carcass, — a virtuoso piece of poetic reverie on decomposition and memento mori.

On YouTube you can find several lectures of this poem, more or less successful; but all of them sound solemn and declamatory.
Instead, I present you with a version put to music and recited by Léo Ferré, who interpreted Baudelaire’s lyrics as a grotesque wild ride, a vortex of visions and “black batallions” of insects assaulting our senses.

The Academy of Enchantment

The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.

Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.

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Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.

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This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.

And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.

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What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.

You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.

I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.

This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.

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In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”

Hidden Eros

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.

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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.

Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.

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 Gioco del domino, in avorio intarsiato alla maniera dei marinai, con tavole erotiche.

Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.

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Walking stick knob handle.

Paintings with hidden pictures.

A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.

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.

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The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.

Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.

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.

 

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The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.

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Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.

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Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.

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.

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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.

Skeletons and young girls

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

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.

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Death and the Maiden  poster big cartel to post

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.

Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

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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“.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Arrabal: intervista panica

Raramente mi è successo, andando in spiaggia,
di vedere la parola “mare” dipinta di nero sull’acqua.
Altrettanto raramente mi è successo, avvicinandomi alla montagna,
di vedere dipinta sui suoi fianchi la parola “monte”.
Ogni volta che mi siedo a scrivere, però,
vedo sul foglio di carta bianca due grandi lettere, IO.
(La pietra della follia, 1962)

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Il Novecento è stato un secolo denso di stimoli al tempo stesso atroci e fertili, un secolo di contraddizioni e di rivoluzioni che hanno più volte ribaltato il senso comune.
Se dovessimo pensare a un artista che racchiude in sé tutta la follia e la razionalità, tutta la repressione e la libertà che hanno attraversato il movimentato periodo dalla Seconda Guerra in poi, poche figure avrebbero la capacità di riassumere un intero secolo come Fernando Arrabal.

Scrittore spagnolo esiliato in Francia, ha pubblicato un centinaio di opere teatrali oggi rappresentate in tutto il mondo, una quindicina di romanzi, quasi ottocento libri di poesie, diversi saggi, prefazioni a libri d’arte, articoli sui principali giornali europei. Oltre a questo, ha diretto sette lungometraggi, fra cui il capolavoro Viva la muerte (1970), ha dipinto quadri e redatto testi teorici sul gioco degli scacchi.
Ma una delle cose più sorprendenti di questo poliedrico personaggio è come la sua figura si ponga sempre ai crocevia più significativi fra le varie correnti artistiche: Arrabal ha in un modo o nell’altro fatto parte, o ripreso i temi, di tutti i principali gruppi creativi del secolo, vale a dire il Dadaismo di Tzara, il Surrealismo di Breton e la Pop art di Warhol. Ha anche fondato il suo personale movimento, il Panico, assieme a Topor e Jodorowsky (ne avevamo parlato in questo articolo). Come una calamita, e a sentire lui in maniera totalmente ingenua e involontaria, ha attratto intorno a sé tutti i principali artisti, scrittori e scienziati del dopoguerra. Da casa sua sono passati Dalì, Ionesco, Buñuel, Welles, Magritte, Baj, Pasolini, Beckett, Saura, più recentemente Kundera e Houellebecq
Arrabal stesso è considerato oggi fra i più importanti scrittori contemporanei.

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E pensare che l’inizio della sua vita fu tutt’altro che incoraggiante.
Fernando non ha ancora quattro anni quando suo padre viene condannato a morte all’inizio della guerra civile spagnola; la pena viene poi trasformata in trent’anni e un giorno di prigione. Ma il padre di Arrabal nel 1941 evade dall’ospedale di Burgos e scompare per sempre – di lui non si saprà più nulla, nonostante le ricerche. Questo evento traumatico segnerà per sempre il piccolo Fernando, che passerà il resto della sua vita alla ricerca del fantasma di quest’uomo astratto, e costituirà un motivo più volte ricorrente della sua arte: letteratura e teatro come taumaturgia che si propone di guarire l’anima dell’uomo, o perlomeno liberarla dai lacci soffocanti della realtà condivisa.

Ma la sua opera è fin da subito troppo scandalosa: il suo teatro folle e senza freni, popolato da personaggi che scambiano in continuazione i loro ruoli di carnefici e di vittime, si propone di distruggere gioiosamente qualsiasi tabù, e affronta a pieno petto morte, sessualità e politica. In alcune delle prime rappresentazioni paniche vengono addirittura uccisi degli animali sul palco, per rendere l’esperienza teatrale insostenibile e orgiastica, archetipica e terrificante. Arrabal è autore infantile e visionario, rivoluzionario e onirico, e la beffarda brutalità delle sue pagine deride apertamente autorità e convenzioni. Nonostante viva da esule a Parigi fin dal 1955, nel 1967 il regime di Franco decide che le sue impudenze vanno punite: Arrabal è arrestato e processato (“in realtà scrissi solamente “merda alla patria”, una dedica che mi ha fatto finire in galera. Se avessi scritto “merda a Dio” non sarebbe stata la stessa cosa: probabilmente sarebbe stato considerato meno grave“).

In suo sostegno si sollevano gli intellettuali di mezza Europa, Samuel Beckett scrive: “Se colpa c’è, che venga giudicata alla luce del grande merito di ieri e della grande promessa di domani e venga quindi perdonata“.
Arrabal viene infine scarcerato, ma rimane comunque nella lista dei cinque spagnoli ritenuti più pericolosi dal regime. Eppure la sua Lettera al Generale Franco, pubblicata nel 1972 mentre il dittatore è ancora in vita, è un capolavoro di una purezza emotiva senza pari: nella missiva, Arrabal si rivolge a Franco come se il Generalìsimo fosse in realtà egli stesso una vittima del mondo, come se autore e destinatario fossero uniti dall’esperienza del dolore. Il tono appassionato della lettera è la definitiva vittoria sull’orrore e la violenza: “Eccellenza, vi scrivo questa lettera per amore. Senza la più leggera ombra di odio o di rancore. Ho bisogno di dirvi che voi siete l’uomo che mi ha causato più male in assoluto…

Dopo la morte di Franco nel 1975 Arrabal può tornare ad essere pubblicato anche in Spagna, dove incontra il successo, restando comunque un autore controverso.

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Abbiamo l’onore di pubblicare qui su Bizzarro Bazar un’intervista esclusiva con il grande Arrabal. Siamo però in presenza di una delle menti più lucide e penetranti dell’ultimo mezzo secolo, conscia che il rischio di qualunque intervista è quello di finire limitata, sezionata, categorizzata: ben deciso a fuggire qualsiasi definizione, Arrabal preferisce confondere gli opposti piuttosto che dividerli. Aspettatevi quindi di tutto (proprio di tutto!) tranne che delle repliche convenzionali. Il vulcanico ottantaduenne non si è ancora piegato alla logica comune, parla per aforismi criptici, chiosa ogni singola risposta con una delle sue tipiche massime surreali (arrabalesques), se ne fotte allegramente delle domande, e si diverte come un bambino a giocare con le parole…

Per cominciare, ci parli di Pan. È l’unico dio che lei riconosca?
Pan corrisponde al tutto. Alla conciliazione dei contrari. Faceva ridere e causava il terrore panico: è la perfetta definizione di dio. In una parola, era “formidabile”. Prima di inventare le elezioni, le formiche sceglievano forse la loro regina con uno strip poker?

Come concilia il suo amore per la scienza e la sua “consacrazione” al panico? Potrebbe essere forse la Patafisica, il legame fra i due?
La scienza è un avatar dell’arte? Soltanto il rigore matematico della confusione permette di costruire o elaborare un’opera (artistica o scientifica). Perfino l’entomologo che non vuole far discriminazioni, si rifiuta di studiare l’albero genealogico degli scarafaggi di cucina. Molti scrittori giocano a scacchi. Per esempio, fra tanti altri, Lewis Carroll ha costruito il suo Alice basandosi su dei giochi di logica… come molti fra noi. Il vegetariano fa la comunione con ostie di plastica.

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Che posto occupa il dolore, nella sua opera? La sua passione per la matematica tradisce un tentativo di scoprire un’equazione della sofferenza?
Essere stato privato di mio padre è fonte, ancora oggi, di dolore. Ma senza che le mie emozioni si trasformino in equazioni. Il più lascivo fra gli scavatori di pozzi vorrebbe vestire la Verità nuda.

La sua poesia Ma fellatrice idolâtrée [qui tradotta anche in italiano] apre una finestra sugli abissi di senso che possono nascondersi dietro un semplice atto sessuale, e riesce a raggiungere proporzioni mitiche o, se preferisce, mistiche. La trascendenza, ci salva o ci ferisce? E il sesso?
La trascendenza è come una moneta a due facce. Pan concilia i contrari, il positivo e il negativo. Risulta tutto così evidente nel piacere mistico del sesso. Per dare l’illusione di avere una ruota, il pavone si finge un mazzo di fiori.

Oggi si parla ancora spesso di censura, di politically correct, ecc.; ma lei ha conosciuto il vero macello della parola vivente, la persecuzione del pensiero, e lo stupro di qualsiasi espressione artistica. Stando ai suoi scritti, è come se una sorta di Inquisizione – archetipo al tempo stesso antico e sempre attuale – avesse minacciato una parte della sua vita.
Si augura un mondo libero da qualsiasi censura, o pensa che alcune restrizioni possano stimolare la creazione artistica?
La scomparsa di Pérec [romanzo pubblicato nel 1969, nel cui testo non viene mai utilizzata la lettera “e”] mostra una regola formale… che permette di sorpassare se stessi. Anche il pappagallo ha imparato a parlare per giustificarsi.

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La lista degli artisti che lei ha conosciuto durante la sua vita, o dei quali è stato amico, è incredibile. Assomiglia a un club immaginario, e si fatica oggi a credere che tutti quei volti, quelle voci, quei corpi siano davvero esistiti. Lei è adesso il testimone della loro concretezza.
Che odore aveva Salvador Dalì? Giocava il sole con i capelli di Breton, e come? Le rockstar, come John Lennon o Jim Morrison, avevano una consistenza carnale particolare? Le ossa di Picasso o Magritte facevano rumore quando si muovevano?
Breton si prendeva molto cura della sua capigliatura leonina. La liposuzione della macchina da cucire, secondo Lautréamont, si fa con un ombrello [riferimento a un celebre passaggio dei Canti di Maldoror]. E, senza allontanarci troppo, il melo bonsai di Newton ha scoperto la gravitazione universale?

I suoi film, anche se occupano soltanto una minima parte dei suoi lavori, sono fra i suoi risultati più conosciuti in virtù della loro potenza espressiva che ha segnato diverse generazioni di cineasti. C’è un’inquadratura, un’immagine, fra quelle che ha girato, che la rappresenta maggiormente?
Tutte le mie immagini di Viva la muerte. Pavlov aspettava la sua amante salivando col suo cane.

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Cosa pensa della morte? Come immagina la morte di Arrabal?
Come sapere se il mare arriva o si ritira? Dio ha forse creato gli acquari, prima di creare i pesci? I leoni dimostrano alle pecore che, se non ci fossero più leoni, loro sarebbero ancora più pecore.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Fernando Arrabal.