Subversive farts & musical anuses

Those who have been reading me for some time know my love for unconventional stories, and my stubborn belief that if you dig deep enough into any topic, no matter how apparently inappropriate, it is possible to find some small enlightenments.
In this post we will attempt yet another tightrope walking exercise. Starting from a question that might sound ridiculous at first: can flatulence give us some insight about human nature?

An article appeared on the Petit Journal on May 1st 1894 described “a more or less lyrical artist whose melodies, songs without words, do not come exactly from the heart. To do him justice it must be said that he has pioneered something entirely his own, warbling from the depth of his pants those trills which others, their eyes towards heaven, beam at the ceiling“.
The sensational performer the Parisian newspaper was referring to was Joseph Pujol, famous by his stage name Le Pétomane.

Born in Marseille, and not yet thirty-seven at the time, Pujol had initially brought his act throughout the South of France, in Cette, Béziers, Nîmes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, before eventually landing in Paris, where he performed for several years at the Moulin Rouge.
His very popular show was entirely based on his extraordinary abilities in passing wind: he was able to mimic the sound of different musical instruments, cannon shots, thunders; he could modulate several popular melodies, such as La Marseillese, Au clair de la lune, O sole mio; he could blow out candles with an air blast from 30 centimeters away; he could play flutes and ocarinas through a tube connected with his derriere, with which he was also able to smoke a cigarette.
Enjoying an ever-increasing success between XIX and XX Century, he even performed before the Prince of Whales, and Freud himself attended one of his shows (although he seemed more interested in the audience reactions rather than the act itself).

Pujol had discovered his peculiar talent by chance at the age of thirteen, when he was swimming in the sea of his French Riviera. After sensing a piercing cold in his intestine, he hurried back to the shore and, inside a bathing-hut, he discovered that his anus had, for some reason, taken in a good amount of sea water. Experimenting throughout the following years, Pujol trained himself to suck air into his bottom; he could not hold it for very long, but this bizarre gift guaranteed him a certain notoriety among his peers at first, and later among his fellow soldiers when he joined the army.
Once he had reached stage fame, and was already a celebrated artist, Pujol was examined by several doctors who were interested in studying his anatomy and physiology. Medicine papers are a kind of literature I very much enjoy reading, but few are as delectable as the article penned by Dr. Marcel Badouin and published in 1892 on the Semaine médicale with the title Un cas extraordinaire d’aspiration rectale et d’anus musical (“An extraordinary case of rectal aspiration and musical anus”). If you get by in French, you can read it here.
Among other curiosities, in the article we discover that one of Pujol’s abilities (never included in his acts on grounds of decency) was to sit in a washbowl, sucking in the water and spraying it in a strong gush up to a five-meter distance.

The end of Joseph Pujol’s carreer coincided with the beginning of the First World War. Aware of the unprecedented inhumanity of the conflict, Pujol decided that his ridiculous and slightly shameful art was no longer suitable in front of such a cruel moment, and he retired for good to be a baker, his father’s job, until his death in 1945.
For a long time his figure was removed, as if he was an embarassement for the bougeoisie and those French intellectuals who just a few years earlier were laughing at this strange ham actor’s number. He came back to the spotlight only in the second half of XX Century, namely because of a biography published by Pauvert and of the movie Il Petomane (1983) directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, in which the title character is played by Italian comedian Ugo Tognazzi with his trademark bittersweet acting style (the film on the other hand was never released in France).

Actually Pujol was not the first nor the last “pétomane”. Among his forerunners there was Roland the Farter, who lived in XII-Century England and who earned 30 acres of land and a huge manorfor his services as a buffoon under King Henry II. By contract he went on to perform before the sovereign, at Christmas, “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle and one fart).
But the earliest professional farter we know about must be a medieval jester called Braigetóir, active in Ireland and depicted in the most famous plate of John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581).

The only one attempting to repeat Pujol’s exploits in modern times is British performer Paul Oldfield, known as Mr. Methane, who besides appearing on Britain’s Got Talent also recorded an album and launched his own Android app. If you look for some of his videos on YouTube, you will notice how times have unfortunately changed since the distinguished elegance shown by Pujol in the only remaining silent film of his act.


Let’s get back now to our initial question. What does the story of Joseph Pujol, and professional farters in general, tell us? What is the reason of their success? Why does a fart make us laugh?

Flatulence, as all others bodily expressions associated with disgust, is a cultural taboo. This means that the associated prohibition is variable in time and latitude, it is acquired and not “natural”: it is not innate, but rather something we are taught since a very early age (and we all know what kind of filthy behavior kids are capable of).
Anthropologists link this horror for bodily fluids and emissions to the fear of our animal, pre-civilized heritage; the fear that we might become primitive again, the fear of seeing our middle-class ideal of dignity and cleanliness crumble under the pressure of a remainder of bestiality. It is the same reason for which societies progressively ban cruelty, believed to be an “inhuman” trait.

The interesting fact is that the birth of this family of taboos can be historically, albeit conventionally, traced: the process of civilization (and thus the erection of this social barrier or fronteer) is usually dated back to the XVI and XVII Centuries — which not by chance saw the growing popularity of Della Casa’s etiquette treatise Il Galateo.
In this period, right at the end of the Middle Ages, Western culture begins to establish behavioral rules to limit and codify what is considered respectable.

But in time (as Freud asserted) the taboo is perceived as a burden and a constriction. Therefore a society can look for, or create, certain environments that make it acceptable for a brief period to bend the rules, and escape the discipline. This very mechanism was behind the balsphemous inversions taking place in Carnival times, which were accepted only because strictly limited to a specific time of the year.

In much the same way, Pujol’s fart shows were liberating experiences, only possible on a theatrical stage, in the satyrical context of cabaret. By fracturing the idealistic facade of the gentleman for an hour or so, and counterposing the image of the physiological man, the obscenity of the flesh and its embarassements, Pujol on a first level seemed to mock bourgeois conventions (as later did Buñuel in the infamous dinner scene from his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty).
Had this been the case, had Pujol’s act been simply subversive, it would had been perceived as offensive and labeled as despicable; his success, on the other hand, seems to point in another direction.

It’s much more plausible that Pujol, with his contrived and refined manners conflicting with the grotesque intestinal noises, was posing as a sort of stock comic character, a marionette, a harmless jester: thanks to this distance, he could arguably enact a true cathartic ritual. The audience laughed at his lewd feats, but were also secretely able to laugh at themselves, at the indecent nature of their bodies. And maybe to accept a bit more their own repressed flaws.

Perhaps that’s the intuition this brief, improper excursus can give us: each time a fart in a movie or a gross toilet humor joke makes us chuckle, we are actually enacting both a defense and an exorcism against the reality we most struggle to accept: the fact that we still, and anyway, belong to the animal kingdom.

Roland Topor

 

Ogni giorno ripetersi: “Non sarò mai più così giovane come oggi”.
(Roland Topor)

Roland Topor (1938-1997) è stato un illustratore, disegnatore, pittore, scrittore, poeta, regista, paroliere, attore e cineasta francese.

Nato a Parigi da genitori polacchi, Topor si distingue come creatore narrativo per immagini dallo stile originale e trasgressivo – è curioso notare che la parola “topor” significa in polacco “ascia” – attivo nei campi più svariati dell’espressione figurativa nella quale infondeva carattere umoristico e dissacrante: dalla pittura all’illustrazione, dall’incisione alla fotografia, dalla scultura alla scenografia teatrale, dal cinema alla musica, dalla letteratura alla televisione.

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Nella sua opera, frutto di una vita indipendente da committenze continuative e da conformismi di ogni tipo, sempre a contatto umano ed artistico con personaggi del mondo dell’arte e della cultura internazionale, emergono affinità e richiami ad alcuni dei movimenti artistici del novecento quali l’esperienza Dada, la derivazione Cobra, il lavoro con Fluxus, le esperienze dei pittori gestuali, la trasgressione della Body-Art, l’ironia della Pop Art e, alle radici, la conoscenza della grande illustrazione didascalica dell’Ottocento: il tutto condito da umorismo nero e da amore per la libertà.

Topor non si occupa veramente dell’inconscio, ma dell’inaccettabile. La sua fantasia dissimula con crudezza la globalità strana del mondo. Nulla gli è estraneo ma il mondo intero è al di là del percettibile, perché quello che sembra più evidente , più banale – la morte, la sofferenza – in realtà non lo sono.” (Alberto e Gianmaria Giorgi)

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Artista poliedrico e spiazzante, Roland Topor è stato troppo frettolosamente dimenticato e accantonato dall’immaginario collettivo, sia a causa di una sua difficile catalogabilità, che per una sconcertante violenza insita nelle sue opere. Dotato di un’ironia beffarda e dissacrante, Topor ha sempre fatto venire i brividi lungo la schiena ai soloni della critica ufficiale.
Nella sua eccentrica carriera artistica ha fatto di tutto: dalla pittura all’illustrazione, dal teatro alla fotografia, dall’incisione alla scultura, dal cinema d’animazione ai romanzi, dalla musica alla televisione. E tutto questo continuamente sperimentando nuovi linguaggi espressivi e rimanendo fedele alle sue convinzioni e ai suoi principi. Erede del nichilismo dadaista, è riuscito con la sua enigmatica arte a demolire qualsiasi forma di autorità precostituita, ridimensionando contemporaneamente sia il borioso sapere scolastico che la cultura ufficiale imperante. Illuminante il fatto che abbia frequentato la rinomata Accademia di Belle Arti “dal bar di fronte”, come amava ricordare, rifiutando così di diventare un’artista/pollo di batteria come tanti altri.

Un individuo, per sopravvivere, deve dissimulare la sua virulenza.
Deve svolgere un’attività utile a una comunità umana, a un gruppo sociale.
Deve dare l’impressione di essere sincero. Deve apparire UOMO NORMALE.
La sola rivolta individuale consiste nel sopravvivere.

(Roland Topor)

La sua immaginazione sadica e il suo tagliente umorismo nero hanno disvelato, senza mezzi termini, l’assurdità nascosta nel reale, regalandoci un intimo e perturbante brivido. I suoi esseri umani immondi e mostruosi, raffigurati in preda ai piaceri più sfrenati e aggressivi, fanno pensare alle fantasie devianti di un moderno Hieronymous Bosch.

Viviamo i dettagli angoscianti delle sue opere, fino quasi a sentirne l’acre odore e ad apprezzare, sconvolti, l’elasticità delle carni lacerate. Il mondo rivela la sua doppiezza, l’ipocrisia strisciante e l’artista, indignato, la mostra in tutta la sua repellente virulenza.

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Il campo dell’indagine dell’artista è dunque l’uomo con le sue frustrazioni nella società e quindi l’irrealtà delle situazioni quotidiane, l’allucinante e l’assurdo che diventano normalità sono rappresentati con la perversione del realismo, la crudeltà della verità, l’inquietudine dell’ironia più dissacrante… Il suo lavoro è concentrato non tanto sui significati convenzionali delle cose e degli esseri, quanto su ciò che questi offrono di ulteriore alla vista, sull’abisso su cui si aprono e sul mondo che lasciano intravedere e in cui ci si può perdere. Il posto del pubblico è proprio sul baratro, dove deve provare il gusto di sfiorare il pericolo e la fine.” (Gilberto Finzi)

CRONOLOGIA MINIMA

1962 – Crea con Alejandro Jodorowsky e Fernando Arrabal il Movimento Panico.

Dal 1961 al 1965 – Contribuisce alla rivista satirica Hara Kiri, oltre che pubblicare vignette sul New York Times e sul Newyorker.

1965 – Crea, con il collega René Laloux, il cortometraggio di animazione Les Escargots, premio speciale della giuria al Cracovia Film Festival.

1971 – Crea i disegni per i titoli di testa di Viva la muerte (di F. Arrabal).

1973 – René Laloux dirige Il Pianeta Selvaggio (La Planète Sauvage), su disegni e sceneggiatura di Topor, basato su un romanzo di fantascienza di Stefan Wul. Il lungometraggio di animazione vince il premio della giuria al Festival di Cannes.

1974 – Topor ha un cameo in Sweet Movie di Dusan Makavejev.

1976 – Roman Polanski dirige L’inquilino del terzo piano (The Tenant) adattando il romanzo di Topor Le locataire chimérique.

1979 – Recita nel ruolo di Renfield nel Nosferatu di Werner Herzog.

1983 – Crea con Henri Xhonneux la popolare serie TV Téléchat, una parodia dei telegiornali con pupazzi di un gatto e di un’ostrica.

1989 – Con Henri Xhonneux co-scrive la sceneggiatura del film Marquis, ispirato alla vita e alle opere del Marchese de Sade. Il cast è costituito da attori in costume con maschere di animali.

Per guadagnare da vivere io non dispongo che dei prodotti derivati dalla mia paura…
La realtà in sé è orribile, mi dà l’asma. La realtà è insopportabile senza gioco,
il gioco consente un’immagine della realtà. Io non posso perdere
il contatto con la realtà, ma per sopportarla ho bisogno
di questo gioco astratto che mi permette di trovare
quello che può essere ancora umano.

(Roland Topor)