Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.
Yesterday, at the age of 87, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away.
This man remains an adorable, unique paradox. Clumsy director yet a crafty old devil, completely foreign to the elegance of images, who only ever made movies to scrape out a living. A man who unwillingly changed the history of cinema.
His intuition — even slightly accidental, according to the legend — was to understand B-movies had the task of filling, unveiling mainstream cinema’s ellipses: the key was to try and put inside the frame everything that, for moral or conventional reasons, was usually left off-screen.
A first example were nudies, those little flicks featuring ridiculous plots (if any), only meant to show some buttocks and breasts; a kind of rudimental sexploitation, not even aiming to be erotic. H. G. Lewis was the first to realize there was a second taboo besides nudity that was never being shown in “serious” movies, and on which he could try to cash in: violence, or better, its effects. The obscene view of blood, torn flesh, exposed guts.
In 1960 Hitchcock, in order to get Psycho through censorship, had to promise he would change the editing of the shower scene, because someone in the examination board thought he had seen a frame where the knife blade penetrated Janet Leigh’s skin. It doesn’t matter that Hitch never really re-edited the sequence, but presented it again a month later with no actual modification (and this time nobody saw anything outrageous): the story is nonetheless emblematic of Hays Code‘s impositions at the time.
Three years later, Lewis’ Blood Feast came out. An awfully bad movie, poorly directed and even more awkwardly acted. But its opening sequence was a bomb by itself: on the scene, a woman was stabbed in the eye, then the killer proceeded to dismember her in full details… all this, in a bathtub.
In your face, Sir Alfred.
Of course today even Lewis’ most hardcore scenes, heirs to the butcheries of Grand Guignol, seem laughable on the account of their naivety. It’s even hard to imagine splatter films were once a true genre, before gore became a language.
Explicit violence is today no more than an additional color in the director’s palette, an available option to knowingly choose among others: we find it anywhere, from crime stories to sci-fi, even in comedies. As blood has entered the cinematic lexicon, it is now a well-thought-out element, pondered and carefully weighed, sometimes aestheticised to the extremes of mannerism (I’m looking at you, Quentin).
But in order to get to this freedom, the gore genre had to be relegated for a long time to second and third-rank movies. To those bad, dirty, ugly films which couldn’t show less concern for the sociology of violence, or its symbolic meanings. Which, for that very same reason, were damn exciting in their own right.
“Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem“, Lewis loved to repeat. “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type“.
Today, with the death of its godfather, we may declare the splatter genre finally filed and historicized.
But still, any time we are shocked by some brutal killing in the latest Game of Thrones episode, we should spare a thankful thought to this man, and that bucket of cheap offal he purchased just to make a bloody film.
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.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
The Order of the Good Death
Caitlin Doughty’s Youtube channel and her book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.
La nostra serie di articoli sui tabù alimentari, The Dangerous Kitchen, è conclusa da tempo; ma torniamo a parlare di cucina. Nouvelle cuisine, potremmo dire, se non altro “nuova” e sconosciuta all’assaggio per la maggioranza di chi legge (e per chi scrive). Da non scartare a priori in tempi di crisi e di dilemmi etici sulle crudeltà verso gli animali da macello, la roadkill cuisine offre innumerevoli vantaggi per la buona forchetta. L’ingrediente di base sono infatti le carcasse degli animali accidentalmente colpiti ed uccisi sulle strade.
Certo, ad una prima occhiata l’idea di andare a caccia di animali selvatici spiaccicati, staccarli dall’asfalto, portarli in cucina, scuoiarli e metterli in pentola può sembrare un po’ distante dalle raffinatezze nostrane. Sarà perché le asettiche confezioni di carne già preparata al supermercato ci aiutano a dimenticare il “lavoro sporco” del curare e preparare l’animale. Eppure, a pensarci bene, superando la nostra ripugnanza per il corpo morto, quale differenza ci sarebbe fra un coniglio di allevamento e una lepre investita da un’auto? Si tratta pur sempre di cibo altamente vitaminico e proteico, senza grassi saturi e di sicuro privo di conservanti, coloranti, steroidi, nitriti, nitrati o altri additivi chimici alimentari. E se poi vi capitasse di trovare un cervo morto, avreste lo stesso identico bottino di una partita di caccia… meno la violenza del massacro volontario.
Bisogna però prestare particolare attenzione alla scelta dell’animale: il rischio è quello delle malattie. I due principi di base, a sentire i sostenitori di questa particolare dieta, sono: “Quanto fresco è? Quanto è spiaccicato?“. C’è evidentemente una bella differenza, per fare un esempio, fra una volpe sbalzata sul bordo della strada e morta per trauma cranico, ma il cui corpo è ancora intatto, rispetto a un’altra a cui sono passati sopra una dozzina di veicoli.
La carne, inoltre, va cotta più del normale, proprio come si farebbe con la selvaggina, per evitare infezioni batteriche. In ogni caso, il consiglio è di evitare del tutto i ratti, se non volete ritrovarvi con la poco simpatica leptospirosi.
Mangiare animali vittime di incidenti stradali è legale, o perlomeno non regolamentato, nella maggior parte degli stati: le eccezioni riguardano normalmente specie protette, o di grossa taglia, come cervi o alci. In Alaska, ad esempio, il corpo di un caribu investito da un’auto è proprietà dello Stato, e normalmente viene macellato dai volontari sul luogo dell’incidente. La carne viene poi distribuita alle mense dei poveri. Ma dagli orsi e dalle alci in Canada, alle celeberrime zuppe di scoiattolo e gli stufati di opossum degli Stati Uniti, fino ai barbecue di canguro in Australia, diverse tradizioni culinarie “insospettabili” dimostrano che praticamente tutto è commestibile. In America, la roadkill cuisine è piuttosto diffusa, tanto da essere perfino divenuta un topos da barzelletta per ridicolizzare una certa fascia medio-bassa della popolazione del Sud (i redneck, termine spregiativo per gli “zotici” del Sud).
Tra i propugnatori di questo stile di alimentazione vi sono però anche ambientalisti critici del sistema industriale di produzione della carne, veri e propri amanti degli animali, e la loro è una scelta di vita. Jonathan McGowan mangia esclusivamente piccole vittime del traffico da 30 anni: “Ho visto quanto erano sporchi gli animali nelle fattorie, e quanto erano poco salutari. Una volta andavo anche al mercato della carne, dove gli animali erano trattati in maniera grottesca dagli allevatori. Non ero contento di ciò che vedevo, per nulla“. Questo il suo motivo per passare a piccioni, gabbiani, tassi, talpe e corvi falcidiati dalle macchine.
L’ex-biologo Arthur Boyt gratta via donnole, ricci, scoiattoli e lontre dalle strade vicino alla sua dimora in Cornovaglia addirittura da 50 anni. Pur appassionato di cani (sia detto senza ironia), afferma che il gusto del labrador è squisito come l’agnello. Non sopporta che la carne vada sprecata, ma non ucciderebbe un animale per nulla al mondo.
L’attivista Fergus Drennan, impegnato in lotte per l’ambiente e contro le fattorie industrializzate, confessa invece che, nonostante apprezzi la roadkill cuisine, lui non potrebbe mai mangiare animali domestici: “una delle poche cose che tendo ad evitare sono gatti e cani. In teoria, non dovrei avere problemi a mangiarli… ma hanno sempre nomi e targhette sui loro collari, e siccome ho due gatti, è un po’ troppo per me“.
Lasciando da parte cani e gatti, ecco una tabella nutrizionale che abbiamo tradotto dalla pagina Wiki inglese dedicata alla roadkill cuisine:
Due le spontanee domande che, a questo punto, il neofita gourmet delle carogne arrotate si starà certamente ponendo. 1. Non sono un biologo: come faccio a sapere con sicurezza quale animale mi trovo di fronte? 2. Una volta identificato, come lo cucino?
Non disperi il nostro impavido sperimentatore del gusto. Masticando un po’ d’inglese, entrambi i dubbi avranno risposta. Per riconoscere gli animali spiaccicati, non c’è miglior soluzione della guida di Roger Knutson dall’esplicito titolo Flattened Fauna (“Fauna appiattita”), che descrive aspetto, abitudini e particolarità biologiche delle specie pelose più comuni, dunque a rischio investimento, sulle strade dell’America del Nord. Per quanto riguarda le modalità di cottura, nessuno invece batte Buck Peterson, vero esperto del settore e autore di numerosi ricettari che coniugano un leggero humor nero con la serietà nell’approccio (soprattutto per quanto riguarda i consigli igienico-sanitari). Anche se non avete alcuna intenzione di convertirvi a questa particolare arte culinaria, noi vi consigliamo ugualmente il suo The Original Road Kill Cookbook: se non altro, è un ottimo libro da tenere in bella vista sul bancone della cucina, quando avete ospiti a cena.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
(Articolo a cura del nostro guestblogger Andrea Ferreri)
Il suo negozio si chiama Body Bakery, cioè la “panetteria dei corpi”. Se volete visitarla, dovete fare un po’ di strada, perché è a Ratchabury, a 100 km da Bangkok, in Thailandia. Il fornaio si chiama Kittiwat Unarrom, ha 35 anni, e, quando andate a trovarlo nel suo negozio, vi arriva subito la sensazione di essere capitati nel rifugio di un serial killer: nelle vetrine sono in esposizione teste, braccia, mani, intestini, attaccati a ganci come se fossero pezzi di carne in esposizione in una macelleria.
Kittiwat li rende simili al vero grazie alla sua abilità nel manipolare acqua e farina, cui aggiunge però cioccolato, resine e coloranti tutti naturali, uvetta, anacardi e gli altri seducenti sapori cui siamo abituati nelle nostre città. Insomma, quei rimasugli di corpi li potete anche mangiare: basta solo superare l’idea che siete diventati cannibali.
L’idea di produrre un pane così raccapricciante nasce da una massima buddista secondo la quale “ciò che vedi potrebbe non essere vero quanto ciò che pensi”. E, infatti, quelli che sembrano i resti di un massacro nascondono la fragranza e la freschezza del pane, alimento della vita. «Quando i miei clienti vedono i miei lavori – racconta Kittiwat – scappano via, non vogliono nemmeno provare a mangiarli. Però, se li assaggiano, scoprono che sono solo pane e ne traggono una lezione: mai giudicare dalle apparenze!».
La food art fa parte della cultura artistica asiatica: in Thailandia c’è una vera e propria scuola di scultori di frutta che producono capolavori, per esempio, lavorando su un cocomero. Ma c’è anche una vicinanza profonda, antropologica, dello spirito thai alla morte (ne trovate un esempio in questo articolo). Così, il “fornaio di Hannibal Lecter” realizza le sue opere in perfetta sintonia con il suo ambiente culturale. Ma intorno a lui fioccano le leggende: si dice che suo padre lavorasse all’obitorio di Bangkok e che Kittiwat abbia passato la vita dividendosi tra il forno di famiglia e i cadaveri dimenticati sui tavoli di marmo della morgue.
È quasi tutto vero. Kittiwat viene da una famiglia di fornai e ha imparato a fare il pane a 10 anni, ma dal 2006, quando cioè si è laureato in Belle Arti e ha cominciato a realizzare le sue sculture “alimentari”, il suo mestiere si è trasformato in qualcosa di più raffinato, in uno strano, irrituale tentativo di raccontare il proprio mondo religioso. Si è documentato studiando libri di medicina, visitando musei anatomici e ha conquistato una straordinaria conoscenza dei suoi materiali base: l’acqua e la farina. Le sue opere sono incredibilmente somiglianti al vero, perturbanti e violente, ma non sono pensate soltanto con l’intenzione di creare disagio. Incartando i suoi lavori come se fossero alimenti (e di fatto lo sono), Kittiwat mette i clienti di fronte al loro lato oscuro, alla capacità di vedere la morte non più come un evento dal quale fuggire, ma come qualcosa da mangiare. Peccato però che questo aspetto sia passato in secondo piano: negli ultimi anni, anche grazie alla celebrità regalata da internet, lo spettacolo horror del suo obitorio commestibile è diventato un’attrazione turistica che potete trovare perfino nelle guide.
Necrofilia al femminile
Nella cultura occidentale, Eros e Thanatos sono interconnessi da sempre: il desiderio sessuale, che è esuberanza di vita, si rispecchia nel suo opposto, certo, ma talvolta vi coincide, trasfigurandosi. L’espressione francese la petite mort, usata per riferirsi all’orgasmo, fiorisce dall’idea che l’unione fisica sia una vera e propria fusione dei sensi – quindi annullamento dell’io e abbandono dell’identità singola. L’erotismo, scrive Bataille, “apre la strada alla morte. La morte apre la strada alla negazione delle nostre vite individuali”: per Foucault implica “l’esperienza della finitezza dell’essere, del limite e della trasgressione”, e nell’erotismo moderno le uniche forme di trasgressione ancora possibili sono quelle che vanno dal naturale al contro-naturale – verso la macchina, la bestia e il cadavere.
La vicinanza di amore e morte è talmente presente nell’arte e nella letteratura (soprattutto nell’ 800, si pensi al topos della “bella morta” che attraversa le opere dei preraffaelliti come di Poe, Baudelaire e dei romantici) che sorprende quanto invece le indagini psichiatriche sulla necrofilia siano, in confronto, rare e sporadiche.
Pur accettandone le versioni artistiche e in qualche modo mascherate dal simbolo, sembra quasi che il desiderio necrofilo fosse per gli studiosi il più orrendo e abominevole dei tabù: perfino Freud si rifiuta di parlarne approfonditamente e, dopo averlo menzionato in una sola frase, esclama: “Ma basta con questo tipo di orrore!” (La vita sessuale). Bisognerà aspettare il 1989 per il primo vero studio sull’argomento, ad opera di Rosman & Resnick, che analizzarono 122 casi e suddivisero questa parafilia in tre tipi: omicidio necrofilo, necrofilia regolare e fantasia necrofila – distinguendoli ulteriormente dalla cosiddetta pseudonecrofilia (quando cioè l’atto necrofilo è opportunista o incidentale). Nel 2011 Aggrawal pubblica l’unica ricerca interdisciplinare davvero approfondita, Necrophilia: Forensic and Medicolegal Aspects, che suggerisce nuove e più dettagliate classificazioni.
Escludendo le derive più estreme (assassinio, mutilazioni, cannibalismo), nella maggioranza dei casi il necrofilo è una persona dalla bassa autostima, che ha provato il sesso tradizionale e ne è rimasto insoddisfatto o umiliato: la motivazione più comune che spinge il necrofilo a desiderare il contatto con i morti è il bisogno di un partner che non opponga resistenza e che non possa rifiutarlo. In altri casi, essendo stato esposto in giovane età al contatto con un morto, il terrore provato è stato trasformato in pulsione sessuale, come spesso accade nei feticismi. Seguendo la sua fissazione, il necrofilo ricerca occupazione in luoghi di lavoro che consentano un accesso più facile ai cadaveri, come ospedali o agenzie funebri. Non è raro che la necrofilia si sviluppi in direzione “romantica”, acquisendo cioè una componente di affetto reverenziale per la salma, che non viene semplicemente violata ma spesso accarezzata, confortata, come se fosse possibile donarle ancora gioia o piacere. Alcuni necrofili hanno espresso il loro disgusto per gli operatori funebri che mostrano poco rispetto per i morti: paradossalmente, nella loro fantasia, il cadavere non è un morto, e deve essere nuovamente umanizzato, “riportato in vita”, cioè considerato come una persona vera e propria.
Nella nostra immaginazione la figura del necrofilo è sempre maschile, e la sua “preda” una giovane e bella donna. Ma cosa accade quando la parte attiva è una donna, e il partner inerme e indifeso un uomo?
Come nota Lisa Downing nel suo saggio sulla necrofilia nella letteratura francese dell’ 800, Desiring The Dead, il ripetuto focalizzarsi sulla penetrazione del cadavere negli scritti medici ha implicitamente relegato la necrofilia al regno della perversione maschile; pur essendo questa parafilia piuttosto rara (almeno stando alle statistiche forensi), la percentuale femminile si aggira attorno al 10-15% dei casi di cui siamo a conoscenza.
Nel 1979 in California, all’età di 23 anni, Karen Greenlee era alla guida di un carro funebre: doveva consegnare una salma di un uomo di 33 anni al cimitero per il funerale. Decise invece di scappare con il morto, e venne trovata due giorni dopo, ancora in compagnia del cadavere. All’epoca non c’erano leggi in California contro la necrofilia, quindi la Greenlee venne denunciata per furto di autoveicolo e per disturbo di cerimonia funebre. Ma nella bara venne trovata una lettera in cui Karen dettagliava i suoi incontri erotici con altri 40 cadaveri maschili, e la donna fu bandita dalla professione. In seguito, la madre del morto che Karen aveva sequestrato la citò per danni morali ed emotivi, e la Greenlee venne condannata a un periodo di carcere, una multa e un forzato trattamento psichiatrico.
Nel 1985, poco prima di ritirarsi a vita privata sotto nuovo nome, Karen Greenlee accettò di essere intervistata dal giornalista Jim Morton, in un articolo che diverrà noto con il titolo The Unrepentant Necrophile (“la necrofila impenitente”). Si tratta di un documento straordinario, per più di un motivo. Se inizialmente provava vergogna per i suoi desideri, all’epoca dell’intervista Karen sembra aver ormai accettato la sua condizione, e non è certo timida nel descrivere ciò che le piace:
il freddo, l’aura di morte, l’odore della morte, l’ambiente funerario… trovo l’odore della morte molto erotico. C’è odore e odore. Se prendi un corpo che ha galleggiato nella baia per due settimane, o una vittima di incendio, ecco, quello non mi attrae molto, ma un corpo imbalsamato di fresco è tutta un’altra cosa. C‘è anche questa attrazione per il sangue. Quando stai sopra a un corpo, tende a espellere sangue dalla bocca, mentre fai l’amore appassionatamente…
Nelle sue parole, il cadavere è oggetto d’amore e regala un’euforia particolare, quasi estatica; racconta inoltre di come si è introdotta di notte in obitori e tombe, e dice di essere stata sorpresa nell’atto più di una volta, senza conseguenze troppo gravi. Ma forse il momento più interessante è quando afferma che la domanda più comune che la riguarda è sempre la stessa: “come fa esattamente?”.
Per me non è un problema dire come lo faccio, ma chiunque abbia un po’ di esperienza sessuale non dovrebbe avere bisogno di chiederlo. La gente ha questo pregiudizio che ci debba per forza essere la penetrazione per la gratificazione sessuale, che è una stupidaggine! La parte più sensibile di una donna è comunque la parte frontale, e quella va stimolata. A parte questo, ci sono differenti aspetti dell’espressione sessuale: il contatto fisico, il 69, anche semplicemente tenersi per mano.
Il fatto che Karen Greenlee denunci la nozione fallocentrica e l’eccessiva importanza data alla penetrazione, è assolutamente in linea con la sua figura trasgressiva: questa donna infrange il tabù del sesso con i morti, e al tempo stesso inverte le gerarchie e i ruoli tradizionalmente femminili. Se n’è accorta Lena Wånggren, che nel suo saggio Death And Desire parla della necrofilia femminile come tragressione di genere: qui è la donna a “cacciare” e possedere, e il maschio diviene inerme e inanimato – l’esatto opposto della consueta figurazione che vede il maschio attivo e la femmina come passivo ricettacolo per la procreazione. La Greenlee non soltanto riduce il maschio a un oggetto, ma lo priva anche del mito del pene e della penetrazione.
In effetti, sembra che a suscitare scandalo sia proprio questo aspetto, ancor più che la necrofilia in sé: la Greenlee ricorda un fidanzato che, quando scoprì i suoi desideri, la schiaffeggiò e le disse che “non ero nemmeno una donna, e potevo andare a scoparmi i miei morti”. Ricorda anche uomini convinti di riuscire a “curarla”:
I ragazzi pensavano sempre che andassi alla ricerca di corpi morti perché mi mancava qualcosa, e che se fossi stata con loro mi avrebbero cambiato, e che loro erano quelli in grado di soddifarmi così tanto che non avrei più avuto bisogno dei cadaveri.
La storia di Karen Greenlee ha ispirato nel 1992 il racconto We So Seldom Look On Love di Barbara Gowdy, da cui è stato in seguito tratto il film Kissed (1996) di Lynne Stopkewich. Entrambe le opere seguono piuttosto fedelmente la vicenda della Greenlee, e ne approfondiscono ulteriormente gli aspetti legati alla trasgressione dei comportamenti sessuali di genere.
S. Musitelli – M. Bossi – R. Allegri
STORIA DEI COSTUMI SESSUALI IN OCCIDENTE
Quando Enkidu, l’animalesco “uomo primordiale” inviato dagli Dei, terrorizza le campagne con la sua bestiale presenza, contro di lui Gilgamesh non invia un esercito o degli assassini, bensì una prostituta. Arrivata nel luogo dove si trova Enkidu, la donna si spoglia e si offre alle sue voglie; Enkidu la possiede, e da quel momento le belve scappano da lui, le gazzelle si allontanano timorose – egli è divenuto umano, grazie alla prostituta che lo ha “civilizzato” tramite l’atto sessuale. È con questa orgogliosa rivendicazione del sesso come cultura prima ancora che natura che comincia l’affascinante storia della sessualità occidentale. Una storia piena di sorprese, a partire dall’antichità classica, greca e romana, molto differenti l’una dall’altra per abitudini e fissazioni erotiche, per poi continuare con l’età cristiana e la nascita della “repressione” della sessualità nel duplice Medioevo, fatto di amor cortese e cinture di castità, di peccati danteschi e delizie boccaccesche; passando poi per i libertini francesi, il Rinascimento che vede in ogni corte i “cornuti indiavolati e i cornuti gentili”, ed arrivando infine alla liberazione sessuale degli anni ’70, il femminismo e l’orgoglio gay. Una storia della sessualità che è soprattutto storia dei costumi e della nostra stessa civiltà, perché perfino nel privato dell’alcova il modo in cui facciamo l’amore rispecchia i valori e gli ideali del nostro tempo.
(2000, Xenia Edizioni)
Il tabù per eccellenza, eppure diffuso in tutto il mondo in diversi tempi e modalità, è senza dubbio la pratica di cibarsi della carne di un proprio simile. Questo atto, rivestito di significati magici, rituali e addirittura giuridici (quando ad esempio veniva imposto come pena), si disvela in tutta la sua complessità simbolica attraverso le pagine del libro di Laura Monferdini: di grande interesse, perché distanti dalla nostra sensibilità, sono ovviamente quelle società in cui l’antropofagia veniva accettata e praticata regolarmente. Privato dello status di tabù perché iscritto in un sistema culturale ed etnografico ben preciso, il cannibalismo può divenire di volta in volta un atto iniziatico, di rafforzamento della virtù, oppure legato alle festività per il raccolto, oppure ancora vero e proprio rito in onore del defunto, come nel caso della consumazione delle ceneri paterne (patrofagia). Dalle cerimonie di casta azteche agli indios Tupinamba, si arriva infine al cannibalismo profano e “impazzito” dei serial killer contemporanei, ma anche in questi permane un elemento di ritualità, seppure deviata e perversa. Perché in fondo mangiare la carne di un uomo è sempre atto magico, volto ad interiorizzare le qualità del defunto. E se credete che oggi il cannibalismo sia esclusivamente un delitto e non abbia più il valore simbolico di un tempo, ripensate a quello che fanno (metaforicamente) migliaia di persone durante la comunione cristiana.
Joel-Peter Witkin is considered one of the greatest and most original living photographers, who has risen over the years to become a true legend of modern photography. He was born in Brooklyn in 1939, to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who separated because of the irreconcilability of their religious positions. From a young age, therefore, Witkin knew the profound influence of the dilemmas of faith. As he repeatedly recounted, another pivotal episode was witnessing a car accident as a child going to mass one day with his mother and brother; in the confusion of sheet metal and shouting, little Joel suddenly found himself alone and saw something rolling toward him. It was the head of a young girl. Joel bent down to caress her face, talk to her and soothe her, but before he could reach out a hand, someone took him away. This seminal anecdote already contains some of what would become true thematic obsessions for Witkin: spirit, compassion for suffering, and the search for purity through overcoming what frightens us.
After graduating with a degree in the arts, and beginning his career as a war photographer in Vietnam, in 1982 Witkin obtained permission to take some photographs of anatomical preparations, and was loaned a longitudinally dissected human head for 24 hours. Witkin decides to place the twin halves in the act of kissing: the effect is destabilizing and moving, as if the moment of death were an extreme reconciliation with the self, a recognition of one’s divine part and finally loving it without reservation.
The Kiss is the shot that makes the photographer suddenly famous, for better or worse: while some critics immediately understand the powerful emotional charge of the photograph, many cry scandal, and the University itself, upon discovering his use of the preparation, decides that Witkin is persona non grata. He therefore moves to New Mexico, where he can at any time cross the border and thus circumvent the stringent American laws on the use of corpses. From that moment on, Witkin’s work focuses precisely on death, and on the “different.”
Working with corpses or body parts, with models who are transsexual, mutilated, dwarfed, or suffering from various deformities, Witkin creates baroque compositions with a clear pictorial matrix (prepared with maniacal precision from sketches and sketches), often reinterpreting great works by Renaissance masters or important religious episodes.
Shot rigorously in the studio, where every minute detail can be controlled at the artist’s leisure, the photographs are then further worked on in the development stage, in which Witkin intervenes by scratching the surface of the photos, drawing on them, ruining them with acids, cutting and reworking them according to a variety of techniques to achieve his unmistakable “antiqued” black and white in the manner of an old daguerreotype.
Despite the rough and extreme subjects, Witkin’s gaze is always compassionate and “in love” with the sacredness of life. Even the confidence that his subjects accord him, in being photographed, is precisely to be attributed to the sincerity with which he searches for signs of the divine even in the unfortunate or different physiques: Witkin has the rare gift of bringing out an almost supernatural sensuality and purity from the strangest and most twisted bodies, capturing the light that seems to emanate precisely from the suffering they have experienced. What is even more extraordinary, he does not need the body to be alive to see, and photograph, its blinding beauty.
Here are our five questions to Joel-Peter Witkin.
1. Why did you decide it was important for you to depict death in your photographic work?
Death is a part of everyone’s life. Death is also the great divider of human belief to secular’s — it is the timeless nod, to the religious, it is eternal life with God.
2. What would you say is the purpose, if any, of your post-mortem photography work? Are you just photographing the bodies, or do you seek something more?
To photograph death and human remains is “holy work”. What and whom I photograph is truly ourselves. I see beauty in the specimens I photograph.
3. As with all things that challenge our denial of death, the macabre and unsettling tone of your pictures could be regarded by some as obscene and disrespectful. Were you interested in a particular shock value, and how do you feel towards the taboo nature of your subject?
The great paintings and sculpture of the past have always dealt with death. I like to say that “Death is like lunch—it’s coming!”. Before, people were born and died in their homes. Now we are born and die in institutions. We wear numbers on our wrists. We die alone.
So, of course, people now are shocked at seeing, in a sense, themselves. I believe nothing should be taboo. In fact when I am privileged to photograph death, I am usually very touched by the spirit still present in people.
4. Was it difficult to approach the corpses, on a personal level? Are there any particular and interesting anecdotes regarding the circumstances of some of your photographs?
When I photographed Man Without a Head (a dead man sitting in a chair at a morgue whose head had been removed for research), he was wearing black socks. That made it a little more personal. The doctor, his assistant and I lifted this dead man from the dissecting table and placed the body on the steel chair. I had to work with the dead man, in that I had to balance his arms so that he didn’t fall onto the floor. The floor in the photograph was covered with the blood that streamed out of his neck where the head had been removed I was grateful to him for working with me.
5. Would you like a post-mortem picture be taken of you after you die? How would you like to imagine that photo?
I have already made arrangements to have my organs removed after my death in order to help the living. Whatever remains will be buried at a military cemetery since I am an army veteran. Therefore, I will miss the opportunity you have asked about!
P.S. [Referencing this blog’s motto] I don’t want to “keep the world weird” —I want to make it more loving!