A Savage Fascination (Part Two)

In the first part of this special we talked about cannibals, but also more generally about the concept of the Savage, object of contempt and fascination in the 19th century.
We analyzed a fictional tale and pointed out how the indigenous people were often used as pure literary devices to titillate the reader’s voyeurism. The tone of superiority is akin to the one that can be found in many reports of authentic expeditions of that time.

If this approach has disappeared today, at least from the most evident narratives, the presumption of some kind of Western supremacy over the supposed backwardness of traditional societies remains, at least in part. No luck in trying to “dispel the myth that in ‘primitive societies’ there is a subsistence economy that can hardly guarantee the minimum necessary to the survival of society(1)The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018). ; another common idea about these communities is that they live in a more ‘natural’ way.
The use of this adjective may seem positive, even a form of admiration or appreciation, but we know that opposing Nature to Culture — one of the tenets of Western thought — often conceptually serves the purpose of distancing (our own) civilization from (other people’s) barbarism.

As we said, those tribes which harbor traditional elements are still the object of enormous curiosity. I myself have spoken extensively about them over the years, although I have tried to describe their customs in a detailed and detached way.
One thing not many are aware of, however, is that today many tours are organized in remote areas of the globe, for those who can afford them; they offer to discover (I quote from a brochure) the “world’s last intact systems of tribes, clans and rituals“.

It is perhaps one of the few chills left in the great machine of global tourism, the extreme frontier of exoticism. Exclusive trips with a more or less marked ethnological background, whose participants, however, are not anthropologists but tourists: to a cynical observer, it would seem the appeal lies in taking selfies with the natives, or in those traditional dances staged by tribe members for the benefit of white men’s cameras.

But one should not make the mistake of judging (or worse, being outraged) on the basis of some photos found on the internet. What are these tours really like, how are they organized, what activities do they offer? What is their underlying philosophy? Who takes part in these expeditions, and why?

Marco is a long-time reader of Bizzarro Bazar, and he happened to try one of these organized tours just this year. After following with interest the report of his adventure trip on social media, I asked him to tell us its implications in more depth. The interview he gave me is therefore a unique opportunity to find an answer to these questions.
(Note: from this point on, all the beautiful photos you will see were taken by him.)

Can you tell us in a few words what kind of person you are, what do you do, what are your interests?

My name is Marco Mottura, I’m thirty six years old and I’m from Busto Arsizio. In everyday life I am a graphic designer, and as a second job (or you could call it a paid hobby) I am a videogame journalist. Video games have obviously always been one of my greatest passions, along with board games, horror movies, crossover music and my beloved Juventus.

I am fascinated by all that is strange, dark and macabre. I am a convinced atheist. I always wear black or gray. Cannibal Holocaust is my all-time favorite movie. I am obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

How did you find out about the possibility of this trip?

Actually the fault is indirectly yours, dear Mr. Cenzi. Thanks to Bizzarro Bazar a few years ago I discovered The Last Tuesday Society in London, and after visiting Viktor Wynd’s wunderkammer during one of my trips to the City I could not help but follow the eccentric millionaire on Instagram. A year ago I saw some of the pics he posted while he was in Papua New Guinea to attend the passing ceremony in which the young people of the Sepik River tribes turn into Crocodile-Men. I asked him some questions about such an unusual and bloody ritual, and at the end of our chat Wynd’s reply was: “In 2019, however, I will be returning over here, if you want you can come with me.” He was serious about it, I was too… and so I really left.

What were the travel options?

You had to choose between two different trips, eleven days each, or purchase the complete package (which was far beyond my budget). The first part was focused on nature, with birdwatching and floral-themed excursions, while the second half was undoubtedly more extreme, and culminated with a visit to the very remote mummies of Aseki. No need to specify which of the two I opted for.

What did you expect from this experience? What motivation led you to embark on this adventure?

I found myself in a particular phase of my life, in a moment of deep personal crisis after a period of depression and many other hardships. Following my girlfriend’s advice, I decided to do something for myself and myself only: seeking that extreme exoticism that fascinates me so much (all those Mondo movies I’d seen during adolescence must have left their mark), I decided to go for an adventurous and potentially risky trip. Even in the worst-case scenario, dying in a real-life B-movie plot looked like the perfect ending for the type of existence I’ve always tried to live.

The prospect of escaping from my everyday life, the idea of staring into an unknown and distant universe and experiencing a cultural shock fascinated me. Before this experience I had never even been camping!

Tell us briefly how the journey took place.

The expedition was open to ten people from all over the world, plus the two leaders. The first group leader was the aforementioned Viktor Wynd, the eccentric English dandy and artist (2) I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer. president of the Last Tuesday Society, while the other one was Stewart McPherson, a naturalist among the world’s foremost experts on carnivorous plants: an authority in his field, with 35 species discovered and 25 books published on the subject.

Eight of the participants were men, four women: a total of eight British, two Americans, one South African and myself to represent Italy. The youngest was twenty-eight, the oldest forty-five.

We met at the airport of the capital, Port Moresby, and from there we immediately left for the Trobriand Islands. We spent three nights there, then we moved to Lae, then we went by jeep to the region where the mummies are (stopping at Bulolo, an isolated city of miners, and spending one night in a village lost in the mountains). Then we went back to Lae again and then straight to Madang, where the journey ended. All in all we traveled many, many miles — often on almost impassable roads—, took four internal air flights and encountered many different landscapes and cultures along the way, for this nation has the greatest biodiversity on Earth.

What were the experiences and details you found most striking?

It is difficult to summarize such an adventure in a few words: what’s really striking is the powerful sensation of being out of regular time and space. The absolute darkness of night in the forest, the starry sky so bright and breathtaking that it doesn’t even seem like your own sky, the sunset colors, those peculiar huts that can be seen here and there. But also the moments of pure horror — the fishing and quartering of a sea turtle we witnessed as soon as we lay foot on the pier in Trobriand (over there they live on a subsistence economy, what is captured is eaten and used to make crafts), or the giant spider that sneaked into my room on the very first evening — these things immediately threw me into the atmosphere I expected from Papua New Guinea.

One of the most magical moments was seeing the “shark callers” of the village of Kaibola, who within five minutes with a coconut rattle literally drew the sharks to themselves, and then caught them using a simple line with their bare hands. Only a few dozen people in the world are still able to perform that strange and very effective ritual, entering into full communion with the sea to charm their prey. Returning to the shore we were surrounded by a herd of playful dolphins, we ate the freshly caught shark, and then explored an underground cave until we reached a source of fresh water. All within a couple of hours.

Of course, mummies were also an unforgettable sight, as well as the aforementioned night spent in a village in the Aseki region, inside a hut without electricity, without running water or anything else (but with a lot of booze brought along by our English companions!) .

Was there a cultural difference that stood out and surprised you more than the rest?

Definitely seeing the effects of the Betel nut on the people’s mouth condition. Anyone from 6 to 99 years old is accustomed to chewing the kernel of this green fruit, the size of an apricot, mixing it with a mustard plant and with a powder made from burnt shells they call lime. The combination of these three elements determines a strongly alkaline chemical reaction, which stains their teeth and gums with a very intense blood red color… in addition to corroding the entire inside of the mouth, often with carcinogenic results. Despite this, they continue to take Betel nut for its energizing effects: I did try this awful-tasting kernel, and the result was halfway between alcohol and amphetamines.

Another peculiarity lies in the different customs, namely the way of approaching others. An example: for many remote villagers, brushing their teeth is an unusual and incomprehensible practice. While I had a toothbrush in my mouth, I found myself surrounded by some twenty people, all gathered a few meters away to observe my strange ritual: at that moment I felt like an animal in a zoo.

Was there any unpleasant episode during the trip?

Absolutely none. Indeed, the kindness of these people was touching and even sort of unsettling. People literally have NOTHING yet never skimp on a smile, a courtesy, a gesture of good heart. They act out of a pure sense of hospitality, without expecting anything in return: they just seem happy to meet someone different, odd-looking, coming from who knows where, so they welcome strangers in their homes very naturally. People will get in a line just to shake your hand; I’ve seen folks of all ages stop any activity they were doing to chase our van for a few meters.

These are situations that make you reconsider the way you look at the world — and that’s true even for a convinced nihilist like me, who seldom sees any hope for the present and the future: the context here is so different from what we are used to in our ‘civilized’ society.

What was the relationship between your party and the indigenous people you met? What was their attitude towards you? Have you ever felt uncomfortable?

Papua New Guinea is a vast country, in which 850 languages are spoken, and it’s inhabited by many microscopic communities with extremely limited means, but in general it is not as savage as perhaps one could imagine. Even in the mountains of Aseki, in the middle of the jungle, several hours by car from the city, you may come across some solitary hut displaying Coca-Cola billboards or ads for Digicel, the local telecom provider.

Of course, there are still some particularly inaccessible areas, and populations that may have remained somewhat isolated, but it was certainly not our intention to venture in such areas (it would have been dumb, disrespectful and irresponsible). Having said that, it still made us smile to hear the Trobriand inhabitants talk about the ‘2019 explosion of tourism’ as they were referring to a total of seventy people (including us!) who have come from those parts since the beginning of the year.

I was amazed to see how little the locals were interested in our technology: everyone knows what a smartphone or a camera is, and while getting a picture taken still arouses a minimum of interest, no one seemed impressed by our hi-tech gadgets. Ironically, my famous toothbrush interested them far more than a smartwatch.

The only moment in which I felt I was not in control of the situation, happened on our arrival in the Trobriand Islands: we found ourselves on the main pier and all the locals were obviously curious, and ran towards us to see the dimdim (foreigners) up close. All of a sudden we saw ourselves surrounded by a few hundred people who were trying to attract our attention to sell us food and artifacts. I did not actually feel threatened, of course, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little bit scared that it could degenerate at any moment. In fact, I think the only tension was in our minds, given the truly exquisite ways of the inhabitants of that province.

Let’s get to the critical part. We talked about it, and you know that I have some issues with this type of organized travels. They seem to be a late-capitalist version of 19th/20th century colonialism: we no longer use muskets and whips, of course, but it is difficult to lift the suspicion that we are still taking advantage of these poor areas, cloaking this exploitation under exotic narratives and selling the “thrilling adventure” package to bored Western tourists. What do you think about it?

Let’s not fool ourselves: extreme exoticism, the element of risk, a fascination for lost paradises (without forgetting the collective image of these places created by horror movies) are all undeniable parts of the equation. I would be lying if I said an alternative destination would have been just as exciting: the peculiar cult of the dead of the Aseki region, the mummies, the idea of getting so close as to touch them, these are all factors that drew me towards this journey. So yes, there is a nuance of dark tourism, no sense in trying to deny it.

Having said that, rather than a squalid revision of some colonialist enterprises, I believe this has more to do with the incurable nature of the thrill-seeker: no indigenous person has been ‘exploited’, on the contrary, I believe that in some cases it was us westerners who got a little ripped off! In order to access the mummy site in the village of Angapena, after exhausting negotiations we had to pay: $3,000 in cash, one power generator, two Samsung Galaxy phones, plus a whole lot of food supplies. In short, the locals are certainly not naive people eager to be exploited, and indeed they seem to have understood very well how to do business.

Well, honestly, it seems to me that exchanging smartphones for the mummies of ancestors is the perfect example of that logic — Mark Fisher called it ‘capitalist realism’(3)”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009) in which everything becomes monetizable and even the sacred is turned into a simple product. On the other hand this is not surprising if, as you pointed out, Coca-Cola advertising is present even in the thick of the jungle.
Regarding your presence there, what was the organizers’ approach?

I can assure you their approach was one of rigorous respect for local populations, cultures, flora and fauna (McPherson, a naturalist, was extremely attentive and diligent regarding all environmental aspects): the infamous cannibalism was never mentioned, not even once, and the word ‘cannibal’ was never brought up by anyone. Because it is alright to seek strong emotions, or to be charmed by macabre or bloody traditions; but the reality of Papua New Guinea certainly does not require further fabrications. To give you an example, the killing of a poor pig by smashing sticks on its head was an almost unbearable sight, impossible for us to understand. There was no need to add cannibalism lore to it.

Judging from what you wrote on social media, before leaving you were convinced that the trip could be very dangerous. You even made a will! In retrospect, was there really an element of danger or was the journey safer than you expected?

Flying over those lands is objectively much more dangerous than elsewhere, due to climatic conditions. All in all it was a tough experience, and sometimes physically stressful (although never really impossible); it is certainly not as hard as climbing Mount Everest, but if you opt for a similar destination it means you’re willing to test your limits. As far as I was concerned, I had taken into account every possibility, and was ready to accept even a tragic outcome with great serenity. The excitement in not being sure of coming back was a reflection of some self-destructive tendencies that I won’t deny.

Having returned home safely, I can say that the journey turned out to be infinitely less dangerous than I expected. But then again, Stewart McPherson and his organization never presented the trip as a one-way ticket for would-be suicides. If anything the only true psychological terrorism, fueling false myths, came from much more official sources such as the site of the Farnesina Crisis Unit: Papua New Guinea might be poor and have plenty of problems, but it’s unfair to describe it (like they do) as an ‘all-round dangerous country’, and to advise against any type of unnecessary travel. The reality I have seen with my own eyes is quite different.

What is the most beautiful thing or feeling you came away with?

Such an experience is quite hard to explain to those who have not lived it. I wanted to take a leap into the dark, but in the end I came back with a wealth of emotions, memories, sensations that really turned my life upside down. Certain situations make you come to terms with your limits, kicking you out of your comfort zone, and you immediately bond with those close to you: it is unsettling to find yourself in a universe that is still your own, but is not your own. You cannot come back from such a journey exactly as you were before leaving: some things are bound to get under your skin and affect you. And in the end these feelings are so powerful that you might find you never have enough, a bit like the Betel nut.

I believe this chat provides interesting food for thought: in a globalized world, nothing really remains ‘intact’. Does it make sense to worry about it, or is it part of an unstoppable process of change? Do these tours bring our sensitivity closer to that of distant peoples, thus reducing prejudices, biases and misinformation — or do they perpetuate an essentially ethnocentrist Western vision?

I’ll leave you readers with the task of forming your own idea. For my part I thank Marco again for his kindness and helpfulness (you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram).

Note

↑ 1. The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).
↑ 2. I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer.
↑ 3. ”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009)

The primitive seduction: two unusual “savages”

In 1929, New York’s Knopf publishing house issued the book Lobagola: An Africa Savage’s Own Story. This remarkable autobiography, written by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, told the adventurous and bizarre life of a “stranger in the XX Century“.
Bata LoBagola was born in West Africa, in a region of Dahomey (now Benin) so remote that it had not been yet reached by white men. Bata had his first encounter with Europeans in the last years of XIX Century when, together with some other members of his tribe, he ventured to the coast and saw a ship getting ready to set sail. When they got to the ship in a canoe, the “savages” were welcomed aboard by merchants, who for an hour or so toured them across the boat; but when the ship left the bank without warning, Bata’s friends, scared, jumped in the water and were devoured by sharks. Bata, who had been delayed under the deck, escaped that fate but had to leave for a different continent’s unknown lands. He was only seven years old.

He landed in Scotland, where he spent his adolescence under the protection of a generous benefactor, and was educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Almost by chance, he found out he could earn a little money in the entertainment world, simply telling about his country of origin and his people. So he started to perform in vaudevilles and small traveling shows, answering the audience’s questions and performing traditional dances. Being well-learned, intelligent and an excellent speaker, he soon became more than a simple sideshow attraction, and began being invited to speak before ethnologists and anthropologists. Traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, LoBagola lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and at Oxford, becoming some kind of “cultural ambassador” for West Africa and of his people’s uses and customs.

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To understand why audiences were so fascinated with this “savage”, we have to think about the mentality of that time. In the second half of XIX Century, intensifying colonialism had brought to the discovery of several primitive people, and simultaneously the new modern anthropology was born. On a popular level, adventure novels focusing on the exploration of virgin lands were among the most successful publications. And the insatiable desire for exotism mixed with a widespread and open racism, with the curiosity of seeing the backward primitive man with one’s own eyes; so much so that when he was invited to Philadelphia in 1911, LoBagola earned the definition of “best exhibit in the entire Museum“. As his promotional pamphlet put it, he really seemed “too refined for the primitive crudities of his tribe and too wild for sophisticated society“.

Bata Lobagola was by now a sort of celebrity, constantly touring as a cultural informant in schools and universities, but unfortunately his life took a turn for the worse. Bata had problems with alcohol and a tendency to be involved in small brawls, but the actual sword of Damocles hanging over his head was his homosexuality. Arrested several times for sodomy and minor misdemeanor, he ended up in prison for good in 1931 for petty theft and sexual crimes. The following year the Bureau of Naturalization, whose officials evidently thought something was wrong, began pressing LoBagola, eventually forcing him to confess a truth no one suspected until then.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola’s real name was Joseph Howard Lee, and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not everything, in his book, was made up: Joseph Lee had probably been in Glasgow in his youth, as his pages show a certain knowledge of the town, and according to several accounts he had a slight scottish accent. But for sure his childhood had not been spent among lions and elephants — much as it was certain that lions and elephants did not “team up”, as he had written in a creative page of his book, to hunt down humans.
If some readers, who were familiar with West Africa, had realized by the time his false autobiography appeared that his descriptions were pure fantasy, University professors never started to doubt his version. All the most curious if we consider that in the same book the idea is candidly suggested that one could tell anything about Africa to white men, and they would believe it.
Racial discrimination can be considered one of the factors behind LoBagola’s false identity: since 1907, pretending to be a savage ensured him certain privileges that paradoxically he wouldn’t had been able to attain as an afroamerican. He died in 1947 in Attica maximum security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of the time were detained.

But his strange fraud had an excellent predecessor.

George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703, declaring to be native of Formosa (Taiwan), at the time a faraway island of which very little was known. Psalmanazar had astonishing habits: he only ate raw, cardamom-spiced meat, he slept sitting upright in a chair, performed complex every-day rituals to honor the Sun and Moon, and followed an unknown calendar. And his tales of his native land were fabulous and cruel — particularly his descriptions of the annual ritual sacrifices of 18.000 young boys, culminating in cannibalism.
George Psalmanazar was invited to talk about Formosan culture in the most important intellectual clubs, and even lectured before the Royal Society.
In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a book which immediately had enormous success and several reprints. Everywhere Formosa was the talk of the day: readers and intellectuals were fascinated by the accounts of these savages who only wore a golden plate to cover their genitals, who dwelled in underground homes feeding on snakes, and occasionally eating human flesh. Besides reporting on Formosa’s customs and traditions, Psalmanazar also detailed language and alphabet, so convincingly that many german grammars went on including this information even decades after the hoax had been confessed.

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In 1706, facing growing skepticism and the accounts of those travelers who had actually been to Formosa, Psalmanazar had to drop the mask: he actually was born in France, was educated by Jesuits, and his only talents were a huge knowledge and an uncommon attitude for languages. So much so that he succeded in constructing one from scratch, to support his lies and reach fame.
Before dying in 1763, he wrote a second book of memoirs, published posthumously, where he uncovered some details about the creation of his hoax. But not even in this last autobiography did he reveal his true name, which today still remains a mystery.

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In spite of his last years’ religious convertion and his remorse for the scam, Psalmanazar’s work is now regarded as a small masterpiece of ingenuity. Besides a functioning language, the author gave his fantastic island a history, cults and traditions, even several different coins and over precise ceremonial outfits, and today his fresco seems to anticipate, on the account of its obsessive care for detail, some modern literary constructions (think of Tolkien’s appendices about his imaginary Middle Earth’s genealogy, linguistics, botany, etc.).
But there’s more, as historian Benjamin Breen writes:

As I devoured the immense creativity on display in Description of Formosa, it occurred to me that Psalmanazar was also telling us something fundamental about the origins of modernity. The world of seafarers, merchants, slaves, and transported criminals that created Europe’s overseas empires was built upon elaborate fictions, from Prester John to Jonathan Swift. Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.
These works raised profound questions about the nature of truth and fiction. Is the act of travel also an act of authorship, of inventing a reality that we each filter through our individual preconceptions? How do we understand worlds that differ so fundamentally from our own that they almost seem to be other planets?

(B. Breen, Made in Taiwan?: An Eighteenth-Century Frenchman’s Fictional Formosa)

For LoBagola’s story, the main source is a wonderful podcast on Futility Closet. LoBagola’s autobiography can be found on Amazon. George Psalmanazar’s story is splendidly told in Banvard’s Folly, and Description of Formosa is available on the Internet Archive.

Viaggi spaziali

L’esplorazione spaziale, iniziata in modo pionieristico alla fine degli anni ’60, ha conosciuto un momento “morto” negli ultimi decenni, ma oggi sta tornando ad essere parte integrante dei progetti delle grandi agenzie aerospaziali. Gli Stati Uniti hanno pianificato i primi viaggi su Marte per la metà degli anni 2030; ESA, Russia e Cina sembra abbiano in progetto missioni similari. Ma al di là dello stimolo che questi salti nell’ignoto regalano alla nostra fantasia, ci sono dei lati oscuri con cui fare i conti (che sono poi quelli che ci interessano, qui a Bizzarro Bazar!).

Innanzitutto, teniamo presente che le enormi distanze da superare pongono diversi grattacapi. Prendiamo ad esempio una missione su Marte. Il vero problema, sostengono i professori della NASA, sarebbe il costo del “biglietto” di ritorno. Far decollare una nave spaziale dalla Terra richiede già una quantità di carburante inimmaginabile, e dotare il mezzo di una quantità di combustibile tale da permettere il viaggio di rientro è al momento pura utopia. Questo significa che il volo verso Marte sarebbe di sola andata. I primi pionieri dovrebbero divenire dei veri e propri coloni, disposti non soltanto ad esplorare il nuovo pianeta, ma a fondarvi una comunità. Dovrebbero essere scelte coppie in grado di riprodursi, per dar vita alla prima vera colonia marziana che comprenda bambini nati e cresciuti sul Pianeta Rosso. Quanti di voi non esiterebbero un attimo a lasciarsi tutto alle spalle per iniziare una nuova vita su Marte? Quale uomo accetterebbe di partire sereno, sapendo che non farà mai più ritorno, che non vedrà mai più il mare, i suoi famigliari, gli uccelli nel cielo?

Parecchi, a quanto sembra. Da quando il Journal of Cosmology ha indetto il “sondaggio”, almeno 500 volontari si sono presentati all’appello. Persone per cui l’avventura, la curiosità e la gloria valgono più di ogni altra cosa; persone che non hanno più nessun legame; persone che sognano un’epopea spaziale da quando hanno 10 anni. Forse sarà proprio questo il bacino al quale gli scienziati attingeranno, in un prossimo futuro, per selezionare gli equipaggi di questa epocale “invasione”.

Ma i viaggi spaziali sono anche lunghi, e il lato più cupo della nostra personalità può prendere il sopravvento. Lo spazio può diventare una gabbia fatta di paranoie, illusioni e depressione, fatto da cui gli scrittori di fantascienza ci mettono in guardia da molti anni. Innanzitutto, la solitudine. Una solitudine inimmaginabile. Finora i viaggi sono stati troppo brevi per una qualche manifestazione psicologica in questo senso. Ma la NASA continua a ponderare gli effetti dannosi dell’isolamento per lunghi periodi di tempo, tanto da investire 1,74 milioni di dollari nella Virtual Space Station, una sorta di “psicologo-robot” che dovrebbe aiutare e dare consigli agli astronauti depressi dalla profonda solitudine. Nel 2008, uno studio condotto al NHC HealthCare in Maryland Heights ha indicato che un cane robotico si è rivelato un ottimo rimedio per la solitudine dele persone anziane, quasi quanto un cucciolo reale… anche se l’immagine di un astronauta solo nello spazio, che parla e coccola un cane-robot non è delle più confortanti.

Nello spazio, un posto che a torto riteniamo “vuoto”, si spargono radiazioni di vario tipo. Senza la protezione dell’atmosfera, queste radiazioni possono essere pericolose. E non si tratta qui soltanto delle temibili esplosioni di raggi gamma (evento talmente raro da essere trascurabile), ma anche semplicemente delle più comuni radiazioni cosmiche: alcuni esperimenti hanno dimostrato che l’esposizione a questi raggi può causare alterazioni nell’ippocampo, l’area del cervello responsabile della creazione di nuove cellule cerebrali e ritenuta responsabile dell’apprendimento e degli stati di umore. Proteggere con scudi appropriati gli astronauti potrebbe significare ridurre i danni cerebrali e la depressione di un viaggio al di fuori dell’orbita terrestre.

Un altro problema dei viaggi astrali è la fornitura e la purificazione dell’aria. Molti studi condotti sugli scalatori di alta quota hanno dimostrato come uno scarso approvvigionamento di ossigeno porti a un calo di attenzione, di capacità cognitiva e di riconoscimento linguistico. In situazioni ancora più estreme, a ridotto apporto di ossigeno, si verificano danni permanenti al cervello. Per questo si stanno dotando le astronavi di potenti rilevatori, in grado di accorgersi in largo anticipo di un cambio nell’aria della capsula. Vengono sviluppati anche dei software in grado di “misurare” la coerenza delle risposte degli astronauti a determinate domande, per prevenire eventuali danni psichici.

Aggiungete a questo quadro lo stress del lavoro di un astronauta, costantemente vigile e attento, che deve tenere sott’occhio i parametri della missione, controllare l’equipaggiamento, sapendo che soltanto un po’ di lamiera lo protegge dall’agghiacciante vuoto siderale. Molte persone, in situazioni molto meno stressanti, si imbottiscono di psicofarmaci. L’uso e l’abuso di tali sostanze (già oggi utilizzate a bordo delle stazioni spaziali) sarà un ennesimo grattacapo da risolvere. E pensate anche solo per un momento a questa situazione: non siete voi a impazzire nello spazio, ma il vostro collega. Se nella vostra giornata quotidiana c’è sempre un orario di fine lavoro, che vi permette di staccare la spina, beh, su una navicella spaziale non esiste. Per quanto professionali gli astronauti si possano dimostrare, dovranno anche essere addestrati a far fronte a qualsiasi imprevisto, persino il crollo psicologico di uno dei membri dell’equipaggio.

Ed arriviamo infine alla questione più spinosa e difficile. Cosa fare quando un astronauta muore nello spazio?

La mitica Mary Roach, giornalista scientifica autrice dell’imperdibile Stecchiti (2005), ha da poco scritto un libro sui viaggi spaziali. Con la sua consueta scrupolosa curiosità, ha indagato anche il problema della morte nello spazio. E ci ha illuminato sulle ultime tendenze della NASA al riguardo.

La morte, già di per sé destabilizzante, diviene ancora più insostenibile in un ambiente estremo come il cosmo. Nessuno sa come un piccolo gruppo isolato nello spazio possa reagire di fronte alla scomparsa di un membro: sentimenti di paura, perdita di controllo, rabbia, colpa o attribuzione di colpa possono instaurarsi. Di fronte a un decesso che colpisce inaspettatamente un membro dell’equipaggio durante una missione, il tempo per preparare il corpo sarà soltanto di 24 ore, per prevenire infezioni. Ad ogni astronauta verrà chiesto di riempire un diario in cui annotare e sfogare le proprie emozioni al riguardo.  Il corpo, dopo una cerimonia funebre che ricordi quelle terrestri (che serva da guida per la difficile situazione e riaffermi i valori che ci accomunano), verrà deposto in un modulo apposito, studiato per eseguire la cosiddetta Promession: si tratta di un “compostaggio” ecologico dei resti umani, per mezzo del quale il corpo viene completamente congelato, poi scosso violentemente fino a ridurre la salma in una fine polverina. La capsula contenente il cadavere polverizzato verrà poi estromessa dall’astronave, là dove nessuno può vederla, trattenuta da un braccio meccanico, e lì resterà fino a quando l’astronave non rientrerà sulla Terra (ritraendosi poco prima dell’impatto con l’atmosfera); una volta atterrata potrà finalmente avere degna sepoltura. Una particolare attenzione verrà mantenuta sui “sopravvissuti”, per evitare crolli psicologici e follia.

Ecco l’articolo di Mary Roach in cui viene spiegata l’intera procedura (in inglese).

Il sogno di “fare l’astronauta” non ha mai perso il suo fascino. Ma oggi, quando questa fantasia sta quasi per diventare realtà, gli scienziati continuano a interrogarsi su quali siano le vere barriere con cui dovremo fare i conti. E pare che i mostri più pericolosi, gli alieni più letali, prenderanno corpo nella nostra stessa mente.

L’esploratore cieco

Nato nel 1786, James Holman era cresciuto con un unico desiderio: il suo grande sogno era viaggiare per il mondo. Sfortunatamente, il padre non aveva esattamente gli stessi piani per lui. All’età di 13 anni venne spedito nella Marina Reale Britannica, nel pieno delle Guerre Napoleoniche, e vi rimase per 12 anni. Nello svolgimento delle sue funzioni a bordo della flotta, però, venne colpito da una misteriosa malattia che gli procurava dolori insostenibili e che, con il passare del tempo, lo portò alla cecità completa.

James aveva solo 25 anni. Le medaglie all’onore di guerra che si era guadagnato gli interessavano poco, se non poteva riavere la vista. Visto che i medici non sapevano aiutarlo, se ne andò a Edimburgo a studiare medicina per conto suo. Resosi conto che la cecità era davvero irreversibile, il giovane James se ne fece una ragione. Ma non si piegò all’idea che la sua vita fosse finita lì.

L’unica cosa che lo spingesse avanti, l’unica che tenesse a bada la depressione, era per lui trovarsi in un luogo completamente sconosciuto. Grazie ai suoi altri sensi, che aveva imparato ad acuire, e a una sua personale tecnica di ecolocazione (pare sia stato fra i primi a utilizzare il battito del bastone per determinare il perimetro di un’area), James cominciò a viaggiare. Prima in Europa. Poi in Russia. Poi, in qualunque continente ancora poco esplorato.

James viaggiava sempre esclusivamente da solo. Non conosceva lingue straniere, era praticamente senza soldi, e l’unico attrezzo che portava con sé era una sorta di rudimentale macchina da scrivere. Ma aveva dalla sua una memoria prodigiosa, e un fascino personale unico. E così partì per anni e anni di viaggi e avventure.

Venne catturato in Siberia dalle autorità che lo sospettavano una spia (non potevano credere che la sua cecità fosse autentica); cercò di lanciare una ribellione contro la tratta di schiavi in Africa; cacciò elefanti selvatici a Ceylon; in Cina fu uno dei pochi occidentali a lanciare moniti sulla crescente conflittualità sociale che sarebbe poi sfociata nella ribellione di Taiping; cartografò buona parte dell’Australia allora inesplorata; e i suoi resoconti sulle popolazioni indigene di Zanzibar, Seychelles e Madagascar sono ancora oggi apprezzati dagli antropologi.

Il “viaggiatore cieco”, così veniva chiamato, divenne presto uno scrittore best-seller; poi, scemata la novità, la gente se ne dimenticò. Lui, però, continuò a viaggiare: soltanto un costante cambio di aria e scenario potevano risollevarlo dalla malattia. Sempre senza un soldo, sempre senza grosse conoscenze linguistiche, ma armato di un’incrollabile fiducia nella benevolenza del prossimo, James Holman visitò i quattro angoli del globo fino alla morte, avvenuta a 70 anni. Rimase, fino a buona parte del XX secolo, l’uomo che aveva maggiormente viaggiato della storia. Ancora oggi, in Africa, scorre il fiume Holman, così chiamato in suo onore.

In un’epoca in cui alla gente cieca si dava in mano una ciotola per mendicare, perché venivano considerati totalmente disabili, la figura solitaria di Holman che batteva il suo bastone da passeggio esplorando il continenti più selvaggi e pericolosi doveva avere un’aura quasi soprannaturale; e anche oggi le sue imprese hanno mantenuto un fascino unico.

Per chi conosce l’inglese, la biografia di riferimento è A Sense of The World, di Jason Roberts.