The Abominable Vice

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“.

On the “fantastic physiology” of the uterus, there is a splendid article (in Italian language) here. Wikipedia has also a page on the history of masturbation. I also recommend Orgasm and the West. A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, by R. Muchembled.

Sade, A Dark Diamond

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After thirty years of legal battles, the manuscript of the 120 Days of Sodom of the Marquis de Sade has returned to France. It is a roll of sheets of paper glued one to the other, like an ancient sacred (or, better, sacrilegious…) book, 12 meters long and 11.5 centimeters wide, written in microscopic calligraphy on the front and back. A colossal work, very long, composed in secret by the Divine Marquis while he was a prisoner in the Bastille. And during the assault on the prison, on that famous July 14, 1789, the manuscript disappeared in the turmoil. Sade died convinced that the work he considered his masterpiece had been lost forever. The manuscript, however, has traveled through Europe amidst incredible vicissitudes (well summarized in this article), until the news a few days ago of its purchase for 7 million euros by a private collection and its probable inclusion in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This means that the book – and consequently its author – will soon be declared national heritage.

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This recognition comes on the 200th anniversary of the author’s death: it took so long for the world to fully realize the value of his work. Sade paid for his artistic research with prison and posthumous infamy, and for this reason he is the most interesting case of collective removal in the history of literature. Western society has not been able to tolerate his writings and, above all, their philosophical implications for two centuries. Why? What do his pages contain that is so scandalous?

Let’s first of all clarify that erotic scenes are not the problem: the libertine literary tradition was already well established before Sade, and counted several books that can certainly be defined as “cruel”. Sade, in fact, was a mediocre writer, with repetitive and boring prose and limited linguistic originality; but this is also an important element, as we will see later. So why so much indignation? What was unacceptable was the total philosophical inversion made by Sade: inversion of values, theological inversion, social inversion. Sade’s vision, very complex and often ambiguous, starts from the idea of evil.

The problem of evil crosses centuries and centuries of Christian philosophy and theology (in the concept of theodicy). If God exists, how can he allow evil to exist? To what end? Why did he not want to create a world free of temptations and simply good?

According to the Enlightenment, God does not exist. Only Nature exists. But good and evil are nevertheless clearly defined, and for man to tend to the good is natural. Sade, on the other hand, goes a step further. Let us look, he suggests, at what is happening in the world. The wicked, the violent, the cruel, have a more prosperous life than virtuous people. They indulge in vice, in pleasures, at the expense of the weak and virtuous people. This means that Nature is on their side, that indeed finds benefit from their behavior, otherwise it would punish their actions. Therefore, Nature is evil, and doing evil means to agree to her will – that is, actually doing something right. Man, according to Sade, tends to good only by habit, by education; but his soul is black and turbid, and outside the rules imposed by society man will always try to satisfy his pleasures, treating his fellow men as objects, humiliating them, subduing them, torturing them, destroying them.

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Sade’s research has been compared to that of a mystic; but where the mystic goes towards the light, Sade, on the contrary, seeks the darkness. No one before or after him has ever dared to descend so deeply into the dark side of man, and paradoxically he succeeds in doing so by pushing rationalist thought to its extreme consequences. Goya’s famous painting comes to mind, The sleep of reason generates monstersreading Sade, one has the distinct impression that it is reason itself that creates them, if taken to excess, to the point of questioning moral values.

Here then is the last resort: not only not to condemn evil anymore, but even to promote it and assume it as the ultimate goal of human existence. Obviously, we must remember that Sade spent most of his life in prison for these very ideas; thus, as the years passed, he became increasingly bitter, furious and full of hatred towards the society that had condemned him. It is not surprising that his writings composed in captivity are the most sulphurous, the most extreme, in which Sade seems to take pleasure in destroying and unhinging any moral code. The result is, as we said, a total inversion of values: charity and piety are wrong, virtue brings misfortune, murder is the supreme good, every perversion and human violence is not only excused but proposed as an ideal model of behavior. But did he really believe this? Was he serious? We will never know for sure, and that is what makes him an enigma. All we can say for sure is that there is almost no trace of humor in his writings.

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His personality was flamboyant and never tame, perpetually restless and tormented. Impulsive, sexually hyperactive, even his writing was feverish and unrestrained. In The 120 Days of Sodom, Sade proposes to decline all possible human perversions, all the violence, cataloging them with maniacal precision: an encyclopedic novel, colossal even in size, compiled on the sly because at one point the authorities forbade him pen, paper and inkwell. Sade came to write it with a piece of wood using makeshift inks, and sometimes even with his own blood, in order not to interrupt the flow of thoughts and words that flowed from him like a river in flood. For such a character, there were no half measures.

His work is against everything and everyone, with a nihilism so desperate and terminal that no one has ever had the courage to replicate it. It is our black mirror, the abyss we fear so much: reading him means confronting absolute evil, his work continually challenges any of our certainties. Bataille wrote: “The essence of his works is destruction: not only the destruction of the objects, of the victims staged […] but also of the author and his own work.” His prose, we said, is neither elegant nor pleasant; but do you really believe that, given the premises, Sade was interested in being refined? His work is not meant to be beautiful, quite the contrary. Beauty does not belong to him, it disgusts him, and the more revolting his pages are, the more effective they are. What interests him is to show us the rotten, the obscene.

I ignore the art of painting without colors; when vice is within reach of my brush, I draw it with all its hues, all the better if they are revolting. (Aline and Vancour, 1795)

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It is understandable, then, why, in his own way, Sade is absolutely unique in the entire history of literature. We need him too, we need his cruelty, he is our dark twin, the repressed and the denied coming back to haunt us. We can be scandalized by his positions, or rather, we must be scandalized: this is what the Divine Marquis would want, after all. What true artists have always done is to propose dilemmas, doubts, crises. And Sade is a dilemma from beginning to end, one that has displaced even scholars for a long time. Bataille compared Sade’s work to a rocky desert, beautifully summarizing the sense of bewilderment he makes us feel:

It is true that his books differ from what is habitually considered literature as an expanse of deserted rocks, devoid of surprises, colorless, differing from the pleasant landscapes, streams, lakes, and fields we delight in. But when will we be able to say that we have succeeded in measuring the full size of that rocky expanse? […] The monstrosity of Sade’s work bores, but this boredom itself is its meaning. (Literature and Evil, 1957)

At the beginning of the twentieth century Sade was finally recognized as a monumental figure in his own way, and his rediscovery (by Apollinaire, and then by the Surrealists) dominated the entire twentieth century and continues to be unavoidable today. The purchase of the manuscript becomes symbolic: after two centuries of obscurantism, Sade returns triumphantly to France, with all the honors and laurels of the case. But it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for a text such as The 120 Days to be metabolized in the same way that our society manages to incorporate and render inoffensive taboos and countercultures – it really is too indigestible a morsel. A cry of revolt against the whole universe, able to resist time and its ruins: a black diamond that continues to spread its dark light.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie IV

Paolo Albani e Paolo Della Bella

FORSE QUENEAU – ENCICLOPEDIA DELLE SCIENZE ANOMALE

(1999, Zanichelli)

Raymond Queneau (l’autore di Esercizi di stile, I fiori blu e Zazie nel metrò, per intenderci) aveva in progetto di compilare una “Enciclopedia delle scienze inesatte”; la ricerca avrebbe dovuto essere inclusa nei suoi studi sui fous littéraires, cioè quegli autori che non seguono strade battute e “integrate” nella società in cui vivono. Partendo da questa idea, Albani e Della Bella realizzano quello che è a tutt’oggi il più completo e indispensabile compendio enciclopedico sulle scienze anomale. Indispensabile, perché ci permette di curiosare in una galassia semisepolta di teorie bislacche, folli o magari plausibili ma dimenticate; e poi perché approcciarsi a queste scienze “non ortodosse”, se da un lato diverte, e molto, dall’altro spinge a riflettere. Ogni voce dell’enciclopedia è contrassegnata da un simbolo che rimanda a diversi ambiti o categorie, in modo da comprendere subito di cosa stiamo parlando. Le dieci categorie sono le seguenti:

1. Scienze e teorie elaborate da eterodossi scientifici e mattoidi scienziati;
2. Scienze e teorie inventate da letterati e artisti;
3. Scienze e teorie comiche, effimere, parodie di scienze;
4. Scienze della fantascienza e utopiche;
5. Scienze e teorie non riconosciute, marginalizzate, alternative alla scienza ufficiale;
6. Scienze e teorie dimenticate, scomparse, abortite;
7. Scienze potenziali, al confine di altre scienze;
8. Scienze e teorie bizzarre, avanzate da studiosi accademicamente riconosciuti;
9. Scienze occulte, paranormali, magiche, religiose;
10. Studi su pseudoscienze, su mattoidi scienziati ed eterodossi scientifici.

Dalle teorie sulla Terra cava, alla “bestemmiologia”, dalle più disparate cosmogonie alternative fino alla teologia genetica,ogni pagina dell’enciclopedia è un’incessante sorpresa che dimostra come nella storia della scienza ci sia sempre stato qualcuno che cercava di immaginare le cose da una nuova prospettiva. Sarebbe facile, e rassicurante, ridurre molte di queste teorie ad infantilismi o errori concettuali. Siamo abituati a dire: “ieri pensavamo che…, mentre oggi sappiamo che…”, come se la verità fosse stata raggiunta senza ombre di dubbio. Eppure qualsiasi conquista è provvisoria, e ogni sapere viene invariabilmente ampliato, ridefinito, corretto, in un costante affinamento. E tutto questo è possibile perché una moltitudine di uomini, alcuni scienziati, altri artisti, altri pazzoidi strampalati, continuano a porsi domande ed elaborare risposte. Che molte di queste teorie siano bislacche e assurde non fa che testimoniare il fascino dell’infinita ricerca: l’uomo che esce dipinto da queste pagine è, per fortuna, sempre pronto a dimenticare le “verità assodate”, e immaginare possibilità e punti di vista inediti e diversi.

Piero Bocchiaro

PSICOLOGIA DEL MALE

(2009, Laterza)

Perché si fa il male? Chiunque, posto in una determinata condizione, sarebbe in grado di farlo? Il piccolo, apparentemente innocuo libriccino di Piero Bocchiaro racchiude in realtà uno specchio nel quale non vorremmo (ma dovremmo) fissare lo sguardo. Prendendo spunto da quattro dei più famosi e controversi esperimenti di psicologia sociale (l’esperimento di Milgram, quello di Darley e Latané, l’arcinoto esperimento carcerario di Stanford e un ulteriore esperimento di Zimbardo), Bocchiaro estende i risultati della ricerca “in laboratorio” ad alcuni fatti di cronaca, per analizzarli alla luce dei dati sperimentali. Si affrontano quindi il caso del gerarca nazista Eichmann; il delitto Genovese, giovane italo-americana assassinata dinanzi allo sguardo passivo di 38 testimoni; la tragedia dell’Heysel, stadio belga scenario di un sanguinoso scontro fra tifoserie; e le torture di Abu Ghraib, carcere tristemente noto per gli atti disumani perpetrati da alcuni militari americani sui detenuti iracheni. Con linguaggio chiaro e comprensibile anche ai non addetti ai lavori, l’autore ci accompagna attraverso decenni di ricerche psicologiche che indagano le motivazioni della violenza e del mancato soccorso.

Sapevate che se venite aggrediti in un posto affollato avete paradossalmente meno possibilità di essere soccorsi che se l’aggressione accade in un vicolo semideserto? Siete davvero sicuri che rifiutereste l’ordine di un superiore che vi intima di usare violenza su un vostro collega? Quando vedete in televisione episodi di sciacallaggio, giudicate quelle persone dei “vandali” e siete intimamente convinti che voi, una cosa del genere, non la fareste proprio mai? Purtroppo, le ricerche in ambito della psicologia sociale dimostrano che tutti, chi più chi meno, posti nella “giusta” situazione straordinaria, sono capaci e pronti a fare ciò che, in momenti più normali, definirebbero “azioni malvagie”. Scopriamo così che molte delle nostre certezze sono piuttosto fragili: la nostra auto-immagine di persone buone e generose, pronte ad intervenire per aiutare il prossimo, e di certo lontane da pulsioni di violenza, viene a poco a poco messa in discussione. Eppure, nel momento in cui ci rendiamo conto dei meccanismi psicologici che scattano in situazioni di emergenza, ne usciamo rafforzati; e chissà che, grazie a questo piccolo libro, non finiremo magari per riconoscere il “tranello mentale” in cui stiamo cadendo, e riuscire ad agire nel modo in cui davvero desideriamo agire.

Arte pericolosa

La performance art, nata all’inizio degli anni ’70 e viva e vegeta ancora oggi, è una delle più recenti espressioni artistiche, pur ispirandosi anche a forme classiche di spettacolo. Nonostante si sia naturalmente inflazionata con il passare dei decenni, a volte è ancora capace di stupire e porre quesiti interessanti attraverso la ricerca di un rapporto più profondo fra l’artista e il suo pubblico. Se infatti l’artista classico aveva una relazione superficiale con chi ammirava le sue opere in una galleria, basare il proprio lavoro su una performance significa inserirla in un adesso e ora che implica l’apporto diretto degli spettatori all’opera stessa. Così l’obiettivo di questo tipo di arte non è più la creazione del “bello” che possa durare nel tempo, quanto piuttosto organizzare un happening che tocchi radicalmente coloro che vi assistono, portandoli dentro al gioco creativo e talvolta facendo del pubblico il vero protagonista.

Dagli anni ’70 ad oggi il valore shock di alcune di queste provocazioni ha perso molti punti. Le performance sono divenute sempre più cruente per riflettere sui limiti del corpo, generando però un’assuefazione generale che è una vera e propria sconfitta per quegli artisti che vorrebbero suscitare emozioni forti. Ancora oggi ci si può imbattere però in qualche idea davvero coinvolgente ed intrigante. Fanno infatti eccezione alcuni progetti che pongono davvero gli spettatori al centro dell’attenzione, permettendo loro di operare scelte anche estreme.

È il 1974 quando Marina Abramović, la “nonna” della performance art, mette in scena il suo “spettacolo” più celebre, intitolato Rhythm 0. L’artista è completamente passiva, e se ne sta in piedi ferma e immobile. 72 oggetti sono posti su un tavolo, un cartello rende noto al pubblico che quegli oggetti possono essere usati su di lei in qualsiasi modo venga scelto dagli spettatori. Alcuni di questi oggetti possono provocare piacere, ma altri sono pensati per infliggere dolore. Fruste, forbici, coltelli e una pistola con un singolo proiettile. Quello che Marina vuole testare è il rapporto fra l’artista e il pubblico: consegnandosi inerme, sta rischiando addirittura la sua vita. Starà agli spettatori decidere quale uso fare degli oggetti posti sul tavolo.

All’inizio, tutti i visitatori sono piuttosto cauti e inibiti. Man mano che passa il tempo, però, una certa aggressività comincia a farsi palpabile. C’è chi taglia i suoi vestiti con le forbici, denudandola. Qualcun altro le infila le spine di una rosa sul petto. Addirittura uno spettatore le punta la pistola carica alla testa, fino a quando un altro non gliela toglie di mano. “Ciò che ho imparato è che se lasci la decisione al pubblico, puoi finire uccisa… mi sentii davvero violentata… dopo esattamente 6 ore, come avevo progettato, mi “rianimai” e cominciai a camminare verso il pubblico. Tutti scapparono, per evitare un vero confronto”.

1999. Elena Kovylina sta in piedi su uno sgabello, con un cappio attorno al collo. Indossa un cartello in cui è disegnato un piede che calcia lo sgabello. Per due ore rimarrà così, e starà al pubblico decidere se assestare una pedata allo sgabello, e vederla morire impiccata, oppure se lasciarla vivere. Sareste forse pronti a scommettere che nessuno avrà il coraggio di provare a calciare lo sgabello. Sbagliato. Un uomo si avvicina, e toglie l’appoggio da sotto i piedi di Elena. Fortunatamente, la corda si rompe e l’artista sopravvive.

L’artista iracheno Wafaa Bilal, colpito profondamente dalle sempre più pressanti dichiarazioni di odio xenofobo verso la sua cultura, definita “terrorista” e “animalesca”, decide nel 2005 di sfruttare internet per un progetto d’arte che riceve ampia risonanza. Per un mese Wafaa vive in una stanzetta simile a quella di una prigione, collegato al mondo esterno unicamente tramite il suo sito. Una pistola da paintball è collegata con il sito, e chiunque accedendovi può direzionare l’arma e sparare dei pallini di inchiostro verso l’artista. Un mese sotto il continuo fuoco di qualsiasi internauta annoiato. Il titolo del progetto è “Spara a un iracheno”, e vuole misurare l’odio razziale su una base spettacolare. Le discussioni in chat che l’artista conduce aiutano il pubblico a chiarire motivazioni e moventi delle più recenti “sparatorie”, con il risultato che molti utenti dichiarano che quel progetto ha “cambiato loro la vita”, oltre a fruttare numerosi premi all’artista mediorientale.

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Eccoci arrivati ai giorni nostri. L’artista russo Oleg Mavromatti è già assurto agli onori della cronaca per un film indipendente in cui si fa crocifiggere realmente. La crocifissione non è una prerogativa esclusiva di Gesù Cristo, rifletteva l’artista, e infatti sul suo corpo, durante il supplizio, era scritto a chiare lettere “Io non sono il vostro Dio”. Ma non è bastato e, condannato sulla base di una legge russa che tutela la religione dalle offese alla cristianità, Oleg ha dovuto autoesiliarsi in Bulgaria.

Ha iniziato da poco un nuovo progetto intitolato Ally/Foe (Alleato/Nemico): il suo corpo, attaccato a cavi elettrici, è sottoposto a scariche sempre maggiori, come su una vera e propria sedia elettrica da esecuzione. Unica variabile: saranno gli utenti che, tramite internet, decideranno con diverse votazioni quante e quali scosse dovrà subire. Quello che l’artista vuole veicolare è una domanda: quando la gente ha la piena libertà di azione, come la utilizza? Se aveste l’opportunità di decidere della vita di un’altra persona, come sfruttereste questo potere?

Oleg è sicuro che questo tipo di libertà verrà utilizzata dagli internauti per farlo sopravvivere – ma è pronto a subire seri danni o addirittura a morire se il suo sacrificio dovesse dimostrare una verità sociologica tristemente diversa.

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Vagina dentata

The Latin expression vagina dentata defines one of the most ancient archetypes of mankind: mythical representations of female genitalia equipped with ferocious dentition can be found in very different cultures and traditions.

In what can be read as an early warning against the dangers of the vagina, Hesiod recounts how, even before being born, Chronos castrated his understably surprised father Uranus from inside his mother Gaia’s vulva. In many other mythological tales, the hero on his quest has to pass through the gigantic vagina, armed with teeth, of a goddess: this happens in the Maori foundation myths, as well as in those of the Chaco tribes of Paraguay, or the Guyanese people. From North America populations to South East Asia, this monstrous menace was a primal fear. In Europe, particularly in Ireland and Grat Britain, cathedrals and castle fortifications sported the Sheela na Gig, gargoyles showing oversized, unsettling vulvas.

As you can guess, this myth is linked to an exquisitely masculine unconscious terror, so much so that Sigmund Freud interpreted it as a symbol of castration anxiety, that fear every male adolescent feels when first confronted with the female reproductive organ. Others see it as an allegory of the frustration of masculine vigor, which in a sexual intercourse enters “triumphantly” and always leaves “diminished”. In this sense, it is clear how the vagina dentata might be related to the ancient theme of the puella venenata (the “poisonous girl”), to other myths such as the succubus (which was perhaps meant to explain nocturnal emissions), and female spermophagus figures, who feed on men’s vital force, as for example the Mesopotamian demon Lilith.

The history of the vagina dentata, which was sometimes told to children, could have also served as a deterrent against molesters or occasional sex. Even in recent times, during the Vietnam War, a legend circulated among American troops regarding Viet Cong prostitutes who allegedly inserted razor blades or broken glass in their intimate parts, with the intent of mutilating those unwary soldiers who engaged in sex.

What few people know is that, in a purely theoretical way, a toothed vagina could be biologically possible. Dermoid cysts are masses of specialized cells; if these cells end up in the wrong part of the body, they can grow hair, bones or teeth. Inguinal dermoid cysts, however, do not localize in the vaginal area, but usually near ovaries. And even in the implausible scenario of a complete dentition being produced, the teeth would be incapsulated inside the cyst’s own tissue anyway.

Therefore, despite stories on the internet about mysterious “medical cases” of internal cysts growing teeth that pierce the uterus walls, in reality the vagina dentata remains just a fascinating myth.

As expected, this uncanny idea has been exploited in the movies: the most recent case is the comedy horror film Teeth (2007, directed by M. Lichtenstein), the story of a young girl who finds out her private parts behave rather aggressively during intercourse. Less ambitious, and more aware of the humorous potential of its subject matter, is the Japanese B-movie Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (2004, by T. Nakano).

In Tokyo Gore Police (2008, by Y. Nishimura) a mutant girl grows a crocodile mandible in place of her thighs:

Many great authors have written about vagina dentata, including the great Tommaso Landolfi, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Mario Vargas Llosa and others.