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.

“Julia Pastrana” is coming!

I’m excited to announce the imminent release of my new book: Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman, for Logos Edizioni.

The book traces the life of Julia Pastrana (Sinaloa, 1834 – Moscow, March 25, 1860), who suffered from hypertrichosis and gingival hypertrophy; as a famous circus performer and “curiosity of nature”, she toured extensively the US and Europe, first with her manager J.W. Beach, and then with her husband Theodore Lent. While on tour in Moscow she gave birth to a child, also suffering from hypertrichosis, who survived for only three days. Julia fell victim to puerperal sepsis and five days later she followed the same fate of her son. After her death, Theodore Lent had both mother and baby embalmed, and continued to exhibit the two mummies in London and across Europe until his own death in 1884. The body of Julia Pastrana was exhibited at various fairs in Norway from 1921 until the 70s, and was eventually forgotten inside a warehouse…

The vicissitudes this woman had to endure, both before and after her death, make her an absolutely unique and relevant figure, so much so that she still inspires artists from all over the world: I think her story is quite exceptional even compared to the already incredible ones of many other freakshow performers, because it contains the germs of many current issues.

To me, Julia Pastrana unwillingly embodied a sort of tragic heroine; and like all the best tragedies, her story is about human cruelty, the clash between nature and culture, the need for love and redemption — but also the ambiguity, the uncertainty of existence. To tell all this, an objective, classic essay would not have been enough. I felt I had to try a different direction, and I decided to let her tell us her story.

Using the first person singular was a rosky choice for two reasons: the first is that there are parts of her existence we know very little about, and above all we ignore what her true feelings were. But this actually allows for a modicum of speculation, and gave me a bit of room for poetic invention even when sticking to historical facts.

The second problem is of an ethical nature, and that is what worried me the most. ulia Pastrana has had to suffer various prejudices which unfortunately are not only a reflection of the era in which she lived: even today, it is hard to imagine a tougher destiny than being born a woman, physically different, and of Mexican nationality. Now, I am none of these three things.
To fully convey the archetypal significance of her life, I tried to approach her with empathy and humility, the only two feelings that allowed me to insert some touches of fantasy without lacking respect.

I really hope that the finished text bears the evidence of this scrupulousness, and that it might entice the reader to an emotional participation in Julia’s troubled life.

Fortunately, the task of doing justice to Julia did not fall on my shoulders alone: Marco Palena, a young and talented illustrator, graced the book with his wonderful works.
Right from our very first discussions, I immediately found he had that same meticulous carefulness — even a bit obsessive at times — that also guided me in reconstructing the historical context where the events took place. The result of this extreme consideration is evident in Marco’s illustrations, which I find particularly sweet and of a rare sensitivity.

Pastrana, who was unfortunate in life as in death, finally found peace in 2013 thanks to the joined efforts of artist Laura Anderson Barbata, governor Mario López Valdez and the Norwegian authorities: her body was transferred from Oslo to Mexico, and buried in Sinaloa de Leyva on February 12 in front of hundreds of people.
Our book is not intended to be yet another biography, but rather a small tribute to an extraordinary woman, and to the indelible mark that her figure left in the collective imagination.
Julia is still alive.

“Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman” will be available starting October 21st, but you can pre-order your copy in English at this link.
(I remind you that ordering my books online through the official Bizzarro Bazar bookshop helps support my work.)
Finally, I invite you to follow Marco Palena on his official website, Facebook and Instagram pages.

La rianimazione dei cadaveri

Il fulmine colpisce la torre più alta del castello. L’elettricità, sfrigolando lungo i cavi, si propaga attraverso i bulbi di un macchinario dai mille quadranti impazziti. L’assistente abbassa un’enorme leva, e il corpo sotto al lenzuolo ha un fremito. Il barone, vestito di un camice bianco, urla con gli occhi allucinati: “È VIVO!”, mentre una mano ricoperta di cicatrici si solleva dolorosamente…

L’idea di uno scienziato che rianima parti di cadaveri tramite le scariche elettriche è entrato nell’immaginario collettivo con il romanzo di Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ovvero il moderno Prometeo, pubblicato nel 1818, e con tutti i film che ha ispirato – ma quest’idea non è strettamente una fantasia. Il fatto che nessuno sia ancora riuscito a rianimare un cadavere, non vuol dire che nessuno ci abbia provato.

Mary Shelley, infatti, non inventò dal nulla le basi scientifiche del suo romanzo. Si ispirò invece alle scoperte di un ricercatore italiano, il grande Luigi Galvani.

Galvani è ricordato principalmente per i suoi studi su quella che definì “elettricità animale”, e per i suoi esperimenti sulle rane: nel 1780, facendo passare una corrente elettrica attraverso i nervi di alcune rane sezionate, osservò contrazioni muscolari e movimenti delle gambe degli anfibi.


Ma fu suo nipote, Giovanni Aldini, che portò le scoperte di Galvani ad uno spettacolare traguardo, che ricorda più da vicino le imprese del Barone Frankenstein.

Annoiato di avere a che fare con le rane, Aldini decise di passare a qualcosa di più stimolante. Cosa succederebbe, si chiese, se collegassimo all’elettricità il cadavere di un uomo?

Fu così che Aldini divenne il pioniere della rianimazione dei cadaveri. L’elettrificazione del corpo umano divenne il suo più grande show, che portò in giro per l’Europa, offrendo al pubblico un sensazionale – e agghiacciante – spettacolo.

La dimostrazione più celebre rimane quella svoltasi a Londra, al Royal College of Surgeons, il 17 gennaio 1803. L’assassino ventiseienne George Forster, impiccato per l’omicidio di moglie e figlio, appena staccato dalla forca fu portato nella sala del collegio. Aldini collegò i poli di una batteria rame-zinco da 120 volt a diverse parti del corpo di Forster: al volto innanzitutto, quindi alla bocca e alle orecchie. I muscoli della mascella ebbero uno spasmo e l’espressione dell’assassino divenne una smorfia di dolore. L’occhio sinistro si aprì, fissando sbarrato il suo torturatore. Aldini divenne l’onnipotente burattinaio di quella marionetta disarticolata: fece battere un braccio sul tavolo, inarcare la schiena, fece aprire i polmoni in un angosciato respiro.

Poi, il gran finale. Collegò un polo ad un orecchio, e infilò l’altro nel retto. Il cadavere cominciò una danza grottesca e terribile. Scrisse l’inviato del London Times: “la mano destra si è alzata stringendo il pugno, le gambe e i fianchi hanno iniziato a muoversi. Agli spettatori non informati su quel che stava succedendo è davvero sembrato che il corpo di quel disgraziato fosse sul punto di riprendere vita”.

In un altro dei suoi spettacoli scientifici, Aldini operava su una testa tagliata di vitello. Tirava fuori la lingua con l’aiuto di un gancio, poi al momento di accendere la corrente la lingua rientrava con tanta forza da portarsi dietro il gancio, emettendo un suono di risucchio che orripilava gli astanti.

Un altro pioniere della scienza convinto che proseguendo questi studi si sarebbe giunti a sconfiggere la morte era Andrew Ure.

Le sue dimostrazioni erano, se possibile, ancora più incisive di quelle di Aldini. Nel 1818 a Glasgow, il 4 novembre, Ure collegò il cadavere dell’assassino condannato a morte Matthew Clydesdale con una batteria ancora più potente, da 270 volt. Collegò il midollo spinale al nervo sciatico, e “tutti i muscoli del corpo si agitarono all’istante secondo un movimento convulsivo, come in un violento tremore causato dal freddo”. Il collegamento fra nervo frenico e diaframma provocò “un respiro completo, no, meglio dire faticoso… il petto si sollevò e si riabbassò, la pancia si spinse in fuori e poi ricadde, con il rilassamento e il ritirarsi del diaframma”. Infine, con l’usuale senso del climax, Ure unì i poli della batteria ad un nervo scoperto sulla nuca e al tallone.

“Tutti i muscoli si gettarono simultaneamente in un movimento spaventoso: rabbia, orrore, disperazione, angoscia e sorrisi terribili si unirono in un’orribile espressione sul volto dell’omicida, producendo un effetto di gran lunga più terrificante delle rappresentazioni di Füssli o Kean”. Alcuni spettatori persero i sensi, altri fuggirono dalla sala.

Ure era convinto di poter arrivare a rianimare davvero i morti, continuando questi esperimenti. “C’è una probabilità che la vita possa essere donata di nuovo, – scriveva – e questo evento, comunque poco desiderabile nel caso di un assassino, e forse contrario alla legge, avrebbe tuttavia ricevuto il perdono in un caso: se fosse stato sommamente onorevole e utile alla scienza”.

Lo sappiamo: gli scienziati sono persone scrupolose e precise, che pazientemente esaminano risultati e dati. È difficile ammetterlo, ma la scienza ha anche contribuito alla genesi di folli visionari e imbonitori da circo, che magari qualche volta hanno cambiato la storia… ma per la maggior parte no. La rianimazione elettrica di tessuti morti sembra un traguardo ormai abbandonato dalla moderna ricerca.

Il barone Victor Frankenstein sta ancora aspettando che il fulmine colpisca la più alta torre del suo castello. Ma almeno sa di non essere solo.

Le informazioni sono tratte dallo splendido libro Elefanti in acido di Alex Boese (2009, Baldini Castoldi Dalai editore).