Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 5

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

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.

Il più misterioso dei libri

Immaginate di trovare, sepolto fra gli innumerevoli tomi custoditi gelosamente all’interno di una biblioteca gesuita, un misterioso manoscritto antico. Immaginate che questo manoscritto sia redatto in una lingua incomprensibile, o forse crittografato affinché soltanto gli iniziati siano in grado di leggerlo. Immaginate che sia corredato da fantastiche illustrazioni a colori di piante che non esistono, diagrammi di pianeti sconosciuti, strani marchingegni e strutture a vasche comunicanti in cui esseri femminili stanno immersi in liquidi scuri… e poi diagrammi intricati, agglomerati di petali, tubi, bizzarre ampolle, simboli raffiguranti cellule o esseri proteiformi…

Questo non è l’inizio di un film o di un romanzo. Questo è quello che accadde veramente a Wilfrid Voynich, mercante di libri rari, nel 1912, quando acquistò dal Collegio gesuita di Mondragone un lotto di libri antichi. Da quasi un secolo il cosiddetto “manoscritto Voynich” sconcerta gli esperti, impenetrabile a qualsiasi tentativo di decifrazione, e il dibattito sulla sua autenticità non è ancora giunto a conclusione.

Il libro sembra una sorta di compendio o catalogo biologico-naturalistico. I lunghi elenchi e indici numerati fanno riferimento alle illustrazioni ed evidentemente le analizzano con descrizioni meticolose. Il problema, se davvero si tratta di un’enciclopedia naturalistica, è che non sappiamo a quale natura si riferisca, visto che le piante disegnate a vividi colori non sono note ad alcun botanico. Anche i diagrammi che sembrano riferirsi all’astronomia (sarebbero riconoscibili alcuni segni zodiacali) lasciano interdetti gli studiosi. Ora, crittografare una lingua è possibile, ma crittografare un’immagine è davvero un’opera inaudita. Forse potremmo capire qualcosa in più se sapessimo chi è l’autore del manoscritto…

Un’analisi agli infrarossi avrebbe evidenziato una firma, in seguito cancellata: “Jacobi a Tepenece”. Questa firma sarebbe dunque quella di Jacobus Horcicki, alchimista del 1600 alla corte dell’imperatore Rodolfo II. Questo controverso sovrano, personaggio malinconico e schivo, interessato più all’occultismo e all’arte che alla politica, costruì la più grande wunderkammer del suo tempo, ammassando e catalogando oggetti meravigliosi da tutto il mondo, testi esoterici e dipinti dal valore inestimabile. Secondo molti studiosi era talmente ossessionato dalle arti oscure che il manoscritto Voynich potrebbe essere il risultato di una complessa truffa ai suoi danni. L’imperatore, come in molti sapevano, era disposto a sborsare somme enormi per acquistare testi magici ed alchemici. E allora perché non fabbricarne uno, dalla lingua incomprensibile, dalle immagini fantastiche, per impressionarlo e spillargli un bel po’ di quattrini? Forse gli anonimi truffatori avevano inizialmente firmato la loro opera con il nome dell’alchimista più famoso, Jacobus Horcicki appunto, per poi ritornare sui loro passi e cancellarlo, considerandolo un azzardo troppo rischioso?

La tesi del falso è supportata in gran parte dagli studi crittografici: nonostante non sia mai stato decifrato, nel linguaggio utilizzato nel manoscritto ci sono alcuni indizi che “puzzano” di bufala. La struttura sintattica, ad esempio, sembrerebbe semplicissima, fin troppo elementare; alcune parole, poi, vengono spesso ripetute consecutivamente, in alcuni casi addirittura per quattro volte. Eppure nessun esperto è riuscito a scoprire quale sia il metodo con cui il libro è stato composto, visto che non vi è utilizzato nessuno dei sistemi crittografici che sappiamo essere noti all’epoca.

All’inizio del 2011 è stata finalmente condotta un’analisi al carbonio-14 per datare il manoscritto. E, come c’era da aspettarsi, ecco l’ennesima sorpresa! Il manoscritto risale a un periodo compreso fra il 1404 e il 1438, e quindi è ben più antico di quanto finora ritenuto. Purtroppo questa scoperta non mette il punto finale alle discussioni…

Infatti le analisi al radiocarbonio non possono essere effettuate sugli inchiostri, ma soltanto sulle pagine. Se gli anonimi truffatori seicenteschi fossero riusciti a procurarsi un po’ di carta originale del 1400 su cui scrivere, allora la loro burla metterebbe nel sacco anche le nostre tecnologie.

Il mistero del manoscritto Voynich resiste dunque al passare del tempo. Ma da oggi anche voi, crittografi dilettanti, potrete cimentarvi nella decifrazione, perché il libro è stato finalmente pubblicato online per la consultazione gratuita. E se proprio non ambite ad essere i primi a svelare l’enigma, vi consigliamo ugualmente di sfogliarlo, anche soltanto per lasciarvi conquistare dal fascino che queste pagine emanano. Perché, diciamocelo sinceramente, gran parte dei cosiddetti “misteri” valgono soprattutto per le emozioni e la poesia che ci regalano finché restano insondabili e imperscrutabili… simboli mitici di ciò che sta al di là della nostra comprensione. E il manoscritto Voynich, che sia un falso oppure no, è capace di gettarci nell’incanto dell’ignoto.

Le scansioni delle pagine dell’intero manoscritto si trovano su questo sito. Questa invece è la pagina di Wikipedia, che riassume bene le varie ipotesi, teorie e ricerche nate attorno al libro.