Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – III

New miscellanea of interesting links and bizarre facts.

  • There’s a group of Italian families who decided, several years ago, to try and live on top of the trees. In 2010 journalist Antonio Gregolin visited these mysterious “hermits” — actually not as reclusive as you might think —, penning a wonderful reportage on their arboreal village (text in Italian, but lots of amazing pics).

  • An interesting long read on disgust, on the cognitive biases it entails, and on how it could have played an essential role in the rise of morals, politics and laws — basically, in shaping human societies.
  • Are you ready for a travel in music, space and time? On this website you get to choose a country and a decade from 1900 to this day, and discover what were the biggest hits back in the time. Plan your trip/playlist on a virtual taxi picking unconceivably distant stops: you might start off from the first recordings of traditional chants in Tanzania, jump to Korean disco music from the Eighties, and reach some sweet Norwegian psychedelic pop from the Sixties. Warning, may cause addiction.
  • Speaking of time, it’s a real mystery why this crowdfunding campaign for the ultimate minimalist watch didn’t succeed. It would have made a perfect accessory for philosophers, and latecomers.
  • The last issue of Illustrati has an evocative title and theme, “Circles of light”. In my contribution, I tell the esoteric underground of Northern Italy in which I grew up: The Only Chakra.
  • During the terrible flooding that recently hit Louisiana, some coffins were seen floating down the streets. A surreal sight, but not totally surprising: here is my old post about Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where from time to time human remains emerge from the ground.

  • In the Pelican State, you can always rely on traditional charms and gris-gris to avoid bad luck — even if by now they have become a tourist attraction: here are the five best shops to buy your voodoo paraphernalia in NOLA.
  • Those who follow my work have probably heard me talking about “dark wonder“, the idea that we need to give back to wonder its original dominance on darkness. A beautiful article on the philosophy of awe (Italian only) reiterates the concept: “the original astonishment, the thauma, is not always just a moment of grace, a positive feeling: it possesses a dimension of horror and anguish, felt by anyone who approaches an unknown reality, so different as to provoke turmoil and fear“.
  • Which are the oldest mummies in the world? The pharaohs of Egypt?
    Wrong. Chinchorro mummies, found in the Atacama desert between Chile and Peru, are more ancient than the Egyptian ones. And not by a century or two: they are two thousand years older.
    (Thanks, Cristina!)

  • Some days ago Wu Ming 1 pointed me to an article appeared on The Atlantic about an imminent head transplant: actually, this is not recent news, as neurosurgeon from Turin Sergio Canavero has been a controversial figure for some years now. On Bizzarro Bazar I discussed the history of head transplants in an old article, and if I never talked about Canavero it’s because the whole story is really a bit suspect.
    Let’s recap the situation: in 2013 Canavero caused some fuss in the scientific world by declaring that by 2017 he might be able to perform a human head transplant (or, better, a body transplant). His project, named HEAVEN/Gemini (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion), aims to overcome the difficulties in reconnecting the spinal chord by using some fusogenic “glues” such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan to induce merging between the donor’s and the receiver’s cells. This means we would be able to provide a new, healthier body to people who are dying of any kind of illness (with the obvious exception of cerebral pathologies).
    As he was not taken seriously, Canavero gave it another try at the beginning of 2015, announcing shortly thereafter that he found a volunteer for his complex surgical procedure, thirty-year-old Russian Valery Spiridonov who is suffering from an incurable genetic disease. The scientific community, once again, labeled his theories as baseless, dangerous science fiction: it’s true that transplant technology dramatically improved during the last few years, but according to the experts we are still far from being able to attempt such an endeavour on a human being — not to mention, of course, the ethical issues.
    At the beginning of this year, Canavero announced he has made some progress: he claimed he successfully tested his procedure on mice and even on a monkey, with the support of a Chinese team, and leaked a video and some controversial photos.
    As can be easily understood, the story is far from limpid. Canavero is progressively distancing himself from the scientific community, and seems to be especially bothered by the peer-review system not allowing him (shoot!) to publish his research without it first being evaluated and examined; even the announcement of his experiments on mice and monkeys was not backed up by any published paper. Basically, Canavero has proved to be very skillful in creating a media hype (popularizing his advanced techinque on TV, in the papers and even a couple of TEDx talks with the aid of… some picturesque and oh-so-very-Italian spaghetti), and in time he was able to build for himself the character of an eccentric and slightly crazy genius, a visionary Frankenstein who might really have found a cure-all remedy — if only his dull collegues would listen to him. At the same time he appears to be uncomfortable with scientific professional ethics, and prefers to keep calling out for “private philantropists” of the world, looking for some patron who is willing to provide the 12.5 millions needed to give his cutting-edge experiment a try.
    In conclusion, looking at all this, it is hard not to think of some similar, well-known incidents. But never say never: we will wait for the next episode, and in the meantime…
  • …why not (re)watch  The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost?
    This trashy little gem feature the tragicomic adventures of a rich and racist surgeon — played by Ray Milland, at this point already going through a low phase in his career — who is terminally ill and therefore elaborates a complex scheme to have his head transplanted on a healthy body; but he ends waking up attached to the shoulder of an African American man from death row, determined to prove his own innocence. Car chases, cheesy gags and nonsense situations make for one of the weirdest flicks ever.

Happy Birthday! – VII

Seven, among all numbers, is probably the richest in symbolic meanings.
A sacred number in many traditions (from Judaism to Christianity, from Pythagoras to Islam, from Buddhism to Shinto), it indicates the perfection of a completed cycle and the harmony of the opposites. Seven is the number of both the virtues and sins, seven are the wonders of the world, seven were the ancient skies, the seas, the chakras or the Kings of Rome…
And today — in a more modest way, but not without much rejoicing — seven is also how old this blog is!

So, what surprises does the future hold?

The first one is a new upcoming book in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, a book that took quite a while to complete — but time was spent for a good reason, as I will explain as soon as it is launched in September.

The second tasty news is a “secret project”, which has been absorbing me for the last few months: it is a venture I care so much about that it’s really hard for me to resist the urge of talking about it. Yet I prefer to postpone, for another two or three weeks, any revelation of this arcane design, when everything will be just perfect… so hold tight!

In the meantime, the excuse of this virtual birthday is really an occasion to thank you all once again, as “thanks” is never too often said. To those who read, comment and write me in private goes all my gratitude for the love and enthusiasm I witnessed in these first seven years of oddities and wonders.

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Hidden Eros

Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.

(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)

We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.

An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.

Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.

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Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.

The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.

Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.

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 Gioco del domino, in avorio intarsiato alla maniera dei marinai, con tavole erotiche.

Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.

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Walking stick knob handle.

Paintings with hidden pictures.

A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.

Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.

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The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.

Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.

Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.

 

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The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.

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Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.

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Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.

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In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.

 

Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.

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The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).

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The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.

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In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.

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A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?

That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.

Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.

Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?

Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.

So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.

Untitled-2

The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk:
Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.

Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1

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In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

 

Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.

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[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.