Art by Dr Louzou.

[…] by common accord they glide towards one another underwater, the female shark using its fins, Maldoror cleaving the waves with his arms; and they hold their breath in deep veneration, each one wishing to gave for the first time upon the other, his living portrait. When they are three yards apart they suddenly and spontaneously fall upon one another like two lovers and embrace with dignity and gratitude, clasping each other as tenderly as brother and sister. Carnal desire follows this demonstration of friendship. Two sinewy thighs press tightly against the monster’s viscous flesh, like two leeches; and arms and fins are clasped around the beloved object, while their throats and breasts soon form one glaucous mass amid the exhalations of the seaweed; amidst the tempest which was continuing to rage; by the light of lightning-flashes; with the foaming waves for marriage-bed; borne by an undersea current and rolling on top of one another down into the unknown deeps, they joined in a long, chaste and ghastly coupling!… At last I had found one akin to me… from now on I was no longer alone in life…! Her ideas were the same as mine… I was face to face with my first love!

I always loved this sulfurous description of the intercourse between Maldoror and a shark, found in the second chant of Lautréamont’s masterpiece.
It came back to mind when a friend recently suggested I look up Malcolm Brenner. You know you’ve found an interesting guy, when Wikipedia introduces him as an “author, journalist, and zoophile“.
Malcolm, it seems, has a thing for dolphins.

Now, zoophilia is a very delicate topic — I tried to address it in this post (Italian only) — because it doesn’t only touch on sensitive areas of sexuality, but it also concerns animal rights. I’m returning on the subject in order to tell two very different stories, which I find particularly remarkable: they are both about sexual encounters between humans and dolphins.
The first one is, indeed, Brennan’s.

I advise you to invest 15 minutes of your time and watch the extraordinary Dolphin Lover, embedded below, which chronicles the unconventional love story between Malcom and a female dolphin named Dolly.
The merit of this short documentary lies in the sensitivity with which it approaches its subject: a man who was abused at a tender age, still visibly marked by what he believes has been a wonderful sentimental and spiritual connection with the animal.
Viewing the video certainly poses an intriguing variety of questions: besides the intrinsic problems of zoophilia (the likelihood of inter-species love, the validity of including zoophiliac tendencies within a pathological spectrum, the issue of consent in animals), some daring points are made, such as the parallellism that Malcom puts forward with inter-racial marriages. “150 years ago, black people were considered degenerate subspecies of the human being, and at the time miscegenation was a crime in many states, as today inter-species sex or bestiality is a crime in many states. And I’m hoping that in a more enlightened future zoophilia will be no more regarded as controversial or harmful than interracial sex is today.

The documentary, and Brenner’s book Wet Goddess (2009), caused some stir, as you would expect. “Glorifying human sexual interactions with other species is inappropriate for the health and well being of any animal. It puts the dolphin’s own health and social behavioral settings at risk”, said expert Dr. Hertzing to the Huff Post.

But if you think the love story between Malcom and Dolly is bizarre, there’s at least another one that surpasses it in weirdness. Let me introduce you to Margaret Lovatt.

Margaret Lovatt. Foto: Matt Pinner/BBC

When she was younger, Margaret — who has no inclination or interest in zoophilia at all — was the target of a male dolphin’s erotic attention. And there would be nothing surprising in this: these mammals are notorious for their sexual promiscuity with trainers and other humans who are swimming with them. At times, they even get aggressive in their sexual advances (proving, if there ever was any need to, that consent is a stricly human concern).

In other words, the fact that a dolphin tried to hit on her is anything but unusual. But the context in which this happened is so delightfully weird, and her story so fascinating, that it deserves to be told.

Virgin Islands, early 1960s.
Doctor John C. Lilly was at the peak of his researches (which, many decades later, earned him a way cooler Wiki description than Brennan’s). This brilliant neuroscientist had already patented several manometers, condensers and medical meters; he had studied the effects of high altitude on brain physiology; he had created a machine to visualize brain activity through the use of electrodes (this kind of stimulation, still used today, is called “Lilly’s wave”). Intrigued by psychoanalisis, he also had already abandoned more conventional areas of scientific investigation to invent sensory deprivation tanks.

Built in 1954 and initally intended as a way to study brain neurophysiology in the absence of external stimuli, isolation tanks had unexpectedly turned out to be an altered-state-inducing tool, prompting a sort of deep and meditative trance. Lilly began to see them as spiritual or psychic vessels: “I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe.” This discovery led to the second part of his career, that saw him become an explorer of consciousness.

The early Sixties were also the time when John Lilly began to experiment with LSD, took interest in aliens and… in dolphins.

The scientist was convinced that these mammals were extremly intelligent, and he had discovered that they seemed able to replicate some human sounds. Wouldn’t it be nice, Lilly thought,if we could communicate with cetaceans? What enlightening concepts would their enormous brains teach us? He published his ideas in Man and Dolphin (1961), which instantly became a best-seller; in the book he prophetized a future in which dolphins would widen our perspective on history, philosophy and even world politics (he was confident a Cetacean consulting Seat could be established at the United Nations).

Lilly’s next step was to raise funds for a project aimed at teaching dolphins to speak English.
He tried to involve NASA and the Navy — as you do, right? —, and succeded. Thus Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute, a marine secret laboratory on the caraibic island of St. Thomas.

This is the context in which, in 1964, our Margaret began working with Peter, one of the three dolphins being studied at Lilly’s facility. Margaret moved in to live inside the dolphinarium for three months, in contact with Peter for six days a week. Here she gave English lessons to the animal, for instance teaching him how to articulate the words “Hello Margaret”.
‘M’ was very difficult […]. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.
But Peter also showed to be curious about many other things: “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.

Spending so much time on intimate terms with the dolphin introduced Lovatt to the cetacean’s sexual needs: “Peter liked to be with me. He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand.” At that point, in order not to interrupt their sessions, Margaret began to manually satisfy Peter’s necessities, as they arose. “I allowed that. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. […] It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.

As months went by, John Lilly gradually lost interest in dolphins. He increasingly committed himself to his scientific research on psychedelics, at the time of great interest for the Government, but this eventually became a personal rather than a professional interest:  as recalled by a friend, “I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy.”

Psychedelic counter-culture icons: Ginsberg, Leary & Lilly.

The lab lost its fundings, the dolphins were moved to another aquarium in Miami, and Margaret didn’t hear about Peter until a few weeks later. “I got that phone call from John Lilly. John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.
Just like Dolly in Malcolm Brenner’s account, Peter too had decided to stop breathing (which is voluntary in dolphins).

After more than a decade, in the late 1970s, Hustler magazine published a sexploitation piece about Margaret Lovatt and her “sexual” relationship with Peter, which included an explicit cartoon. Unfortunately, despite all attempts to put her story back within the frame of those pioneering experiments, Margaret was marked for many years as the woman who made love to dolphins.
It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she declared in a Guardian interview. “The worst experiment in the world, I’ve read somewhere, was me and Peter. That’s fine, I don’t mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.

Towards the end of his career, John Lilly became convinced that some gigantic cosmic entities (which he visualized during his acid trips) were responsible for all inexplicable coincidences.
Appropriately enough, just as I was finalizing this post, I stumbled upon one of these coincidences. I opened the New York Times website to find this article: a team of scientists from the University of Chile just published a paper, claiming to have trained an orca to repeat some English words.

So Lilly’s dream of communicating with cetaceans lives on.
Brennan’s dream, on the other hand, is still controversial, as are zoophile associations such as the German ZETA (“Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Enlightenment”), who believe in a future without any sexual barrier between species.
A future where one can easily make love to a dolphin without awakening anyone’s morbid curiosity.
Without anyone necessarily writing about it in a blog of oddities.

(Thanks, Fabri!)

The Dangerous Kitchen – V

Nella prima puntata di “Dangerous Kitchen” vi avevamo introdotto all’affascinante mondo del pesce fermentato, consigliandovi il surströmming. Ora però dobbiamo proprio dirvelo, è tempo che lo sappiate: il surströmming è roba da bambini… i veri uomini mangiano lo hákarl.

Antica tradizione vichinga, lo hákarl è una preparazione a base di squalo diffusa in Islanda e in Groenlandia. I due squali comunemente utilizzati a scopi alimentari sono lo squalo elefante e lo squalo della Groenlandia. I problemi però sono due: il primo è che gli squali non fanno pipì, ma espellono l’urea direttamente dalla pelle, che contiene quindi una concentrazione altissima di acido urico; il secondo è che la carne di questi squali è adattata alle bassissime temperature polari ed è piena di sostanze velenose. In particolare contiene una tossina, l’ossido di trimetilammina, che, se digerita, si scinde in trimetilammina. Qual è l’effetto della trimetilammina? La peggiore sbornia della vostra vita. A causa di questa neurotossina, i cani da slitta che si sono nutriti della carne di questo squalo non riescono più a stare in piedi.

Come fare allora per cibarsi di questi giganti marini senza finire tutti sbronzi a zonzo per la tundra ghiacciata? Ecco che ci viene in aiuto la ricetta dello hákarl. Che, preparatevi, è conosciuto anche come squalo marcio o squalo putrefatto.

Prendete la vostra tonnellata di squalo (alcuni esemplari superano i 1000 kg), togliete testa e interiora, poi con una gru o una ruspa meccanica calatelo in una fossa scavata nella sabbia sassosa; lo coprirete con pietre e sassi fino a formare una montagnetta sopra al corpo, e infine vi adagerete dei massi più grossi in modo da pressare il pesce per bene. Lasciate fermentare per un periodo che va da 6 a 12 settimane, durante le quali i fluidi dannosi, l’acido urico e gli altri prodotti putrefattivi coleranno dal corpo. Estraete quindi la carne semidecomposta e macellatela in grosse strisce che appenderete ad essiccare. (Alcuni per praticità macellano lo squalo prima di seppellirlo; oggigiorno i giovani vogliono tutto e subito).

Appeso a seccare, lo hákarl resta per diversi mesi esposto a diversi cicli naturali di congelamento e disgelo, finché non sviluppa una caratteristica crosta scura. A quel punto eliminerete la crosta, e servirete la carne tagliata a pezzettini (minuscoli, per carità) su uno stuzzicadenti, accompagnandola da un bicchierino di acquavite. Oggi potete trovarlo anche in alcuni supermercati, risparmiandovi un bel po’ di fatica.

Dobbiamo essere sinceri: lo hákarl è talmente estremo che perfino in Islanda e in Groenlandia non tutti sono disposti ad assaggiarlo. L’odore è più penetrante di quello dell’urina stantia, e il gusto aggiunge al sentore di ammoniaca anche la nauseante dolcezza della carne avariata. Alcuni recensori sottolineano che lo stesso nome “hákarl” sembra quasi un’onomatopea dei suoni gutturali che emetterà la vostra gola mentre si contorcerà nel tentativo di inghiottire il fetido pezzettino di pesce.

Ma se volete mettere alla prova il vostro animo vichingo, questo cibo tradizionale è senza dubbio il primo passo per entrare nel Valhalla… se non l’ultimo.


The Whale Theatre

Every kid loves to think about Jonah in the belly of the big fish. Just like the Baron Münchhausen in the whale, or Pinocchio in the shark, living for some time inside one of these great sea animals is a fantastic idea which inspired artists and writers for centuries.

Well, you can probably guess what we are about to tell you. Yes, somebody actually lived inside a fish. Better yet, he built a theatre out of it.

This is Simon-Max, a French opera-bouffe tenor (1852-1923). He maily performed in Paris, but once he reached wide acclaim he managed to diversify his business, and in 1893 he already owned a casino in Villerville, a coastal city in Lower Normandy.

Just about at the time he opened his casino, news arrived that a whale was beached near the town. It was actually not so unusual for whales to end up beached on the coast of Normandy due to the low tide, as shown in this postcard published that same year (1893).

Simon-Max bought the whale from the local fishermen, and sold the oil and meat obtained from the animal. But then he decided that  he was going to try something unprecedented, using its skin. He built a theatre-museum inside the mounted cetacean.

The size of the animal in the original poster ads may be a little exaggerated, but they convey the idea of what the theatre might have looked like. The public entered through the whale’s mouth, watched the show in the interior room, which could host almost a hundred people, then exited through a small door in the tail. This attraction, called Théatre-Baleine (whale theatre), earned Simon-Max a huge amount of money, and made the city of Villerville quite famous for over a year. The tenor, inside his whale, performed an act called Jonas Revue (“Jonah Revisited”) which quickly became a hit.

The whale theatre was then transferred to the Paris Casino, but the following winter was completely destroyed by a fire.