Stoned spiders

1948, University of Tubingen, Germany.
Zoologist H. M. Peters was frustrated. He was conducting a photographic research on the way orb-weaver spiders build their web, but he had encountered a problem: the arachnids he was studying insisted on performing this task of astounding engineering only during the night hours, very early in the morning. This schedule, besides forcing him to get up at an ungodly hour, made photographic documentation quite hard, as the spiders preferred to move in total darkness.
One day Peters decided to call on a collegue, young pharmacologist Dr. Peter N. Witt, for assistance. Would it be possible to somehow drug the spiders, so they would change this routine and start weaving their webs when the sun was already up?

Witt had never had any experience with spiders, but he soon realized that administering tranquilizers or stimulants to the arachnids was easier than he thought: the little critters, constantly thirsty for water, quickly learned to drink from his syringe.
The results of this experiment, alas, turned out to be pretty worthless to zoologist Peters. The spiders kept on building their webs during the night, but that was not the worst part of it. After swallowing the medicine, they weren’t even able to weave a decent web: as if they were drunk, the arachnids produced a twisted mesh, unworthy of being photographed.
After this experience, a disheartened Peters abandoned his project.
In Dr. Witt’s mind, instead, something had clicked.

Common spiders (Araneidae) are all but “common” when it comes to weaving. They build a new web every morning, and if byt he end of the day no insect is trapped, they simply eat it. This way, they are able to recycle silk proteins for weeks: during the first 16 days without food, the webs look perfect. Whe nthe spider gets really hungry, it begins sparing the energy by building a wider-meshes web, suitable to catch only larger insects (the spider is in need of a substantial meal).
After all, for a spider the web isn’t just a way to gather food, but an essential instrument to relate with the surrounding world. Most of these arachnids are almost totally blind, and they use the vibrations of the strands like a radar: from the perceived movements they can understand what kind of insect just snagged itself on the web, and if it is safe for them to approach it; they can notice if even a single thread has broken, and they confidently head in the right direction to repair it; they furthermore use the web as a means of communication in mating rituals, where the male spider remains on the outer edges and rythmically pinches the strings to inform the female of its presence, in order to seduce her without being mistaken for a juicy snack.


During his experimentation with chemicals, Dr. Witt noticed that there seemed to be a significative correspondence between the administered substance and the aberrations that the spiderweb showed. He therefore began feeding the spiders different psychoactive drugs, and registering the variations in their weaving patterns.
Dr. Witt’s study, published in 1951 and revised in 1971, was limited to statistical observation, without attempting to provide further interpretations. Yet the results could lead to a fascinating if not very orthodox reading: it looked like the spiders were affected in much the same way humans react to drugs.


Under the influence of weed, they started regularly building their web, but were soon losing interest once they got to the outer rings; while on peyote or magic mushrooms, the arachnids movements became slower and heavier; after being microdosed with LSD, the web’s design became geometrically perfect (not unlike the kaleidoscopic visions reported by human users), while more massive doses completely inhibited the spiders’ abilities; lastly, caffeine produced out of control, schizoid results.

Spiderweb after high doses of LSD-25.

Clearly this “humanized” interpretation is not scientific to say the least. In fact, what really interested Witt was the possibility of using spiders to ascertain the presence of drugs in human blood or urine, as they had proved sensitive to minimal concentrations, which could not be instrumentally detected at the time. His research continued for decades, and Witt went from being a pharmacologist to being an entomology authority. He was able to recognize his little spliders one by one just by looking at their webs, and his fascination for these invertebrates never faded.
He kept on testing their skills in several other experiments, by altering their nervous system through laser stimulation, administering huge quantities of barbiturics, and even sending them in orbit. Even in the absence of gravity, in what Witt called “a masterpiece in adaptation”, after just three days in space the spiders were able to build a nearly perfect web.

Near the end of the Seventies, Witt discontinued his research. In 1984 J. A. Nathanson re-examined Witt’s data, but only in relation to the effects of caffeine.
In 1995 Witt saw his study come back to life when NASA successfully repeated it, with the help of statistic analysis software: the research showed that spiders could be used to test the toxicity of various chemicals instead of mice, a procedure that could save time and money.

Anyway, there is not much to worry regarding the fate of these invertebrates.
Spiders are among the very few animals who survived the biggest mass extinction that ever took place, and they are able to resist to atmospheric conditions which would be intolerable to the majority of insects. Real rulers of the world since millions of years, they will still be here a long time — even after our species has run its course.

Lanterns of the Dead


In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.




Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).


A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.



But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.


One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.


Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

Subversive farts & musical anuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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