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.

Scheletri viventi

Il circo è sempre stato interessato ai limiti del corpo umano: dagli acrobati, agli equilibristi, ai contorsionisti, ai mangiatori di spade e via dicendo, le imprese eroiche e spettacolari degli artisti circensi impressionano proprio perché il corpo viene portato oltre i confini delle sue normali capacità. Allo stesso modo, in quelle colorate e pittoresche baracconate che erano i freakshow, il corpo mostrava invece l’aspetto oscuro e osceno della sua fantasia. Ma anche qui, per colpire l’immaginario del pubblico, l’esibizione della deformità passava per gli estremi – nani e giganti, donne obese e uomini magrissimi.

Questi ultimi, in particolare, venivano chiamati living skeletons, “scheletri viventi”, e costituivano uno dei numeri classici di ogni freakshow. Già da qualche secolo i medici riportavano nei testi scientifici i rari casi di magrezza estrema; ma fu Isaac Sprague, nato nel 1841, che decise per primo di esibirsi di fronte ad un pubblico come scheletro vivente.

Fino all’età di dodici anni Isaac era stato un ragazzino normale; poi, a causa di qualche disfunzione mai chiarita, cominciò a perdere peso rapidamente. In poco tempo il profilo dello scheletro si affacciò alla superficie della sua pelle, la sua massa muscolare si restrinse all’inverosimile e di conseguenza Isaac divenne così debole da non potersi più permettere di lavorare né con il padre ciabattino, né come garzone all’emporio locale. Aveva un costante bisogno di nutrimento per affrontare la giornata e recuperare quel minimo di energia sufficiente a tenerlo cosciente: portava al collo una borraccia riempita di latte e zucchero dalla quale beveva ogni volta che sentiva le forze abbandonarlo.
La sua magrezza estrema attirava lo sguardo e i commenti velenosi dei passanti, ed Isaac si era rassegnato a vivere sopportando tutto questo. Era alto un metro e settanta, e pesava meno di 20 chili.

Un giorno però, nel 1865, Isaac volle farsi un giro al luna park, e lì venne notato da uno dei promoter che gli offrì di esibirsi. Sulle prime Isaac rifiutò, ma in breve tempo si fece strada in lui una riflessione più razionale. Lavorare, non poteva; la gente avrebbe comunque e sempre guardato con repulsione e curiosità il suo corpo – e allora tanto valeva che pagassero per farlo.

La scelta di Isaac Sprague di unirsi al luna park itinerante fu quella giusta: esibendosi come “scheletro vivente” nel giro di una manciata di mesi la sua popolarità crebbe talmente che venne provinato da P. T. Barnum in persona, e assunto per la cifra davvero notevole di 80 dollari a settimana. La sua fortuna fu breve: quando l’American Museum di Barnum prese fuoco per la seconda volta nel 1868, Isaac riuscì a sfuggire all’incendio per puro miracolo, magra e sparuta ombra di ossa e pelle che correva con sforzi inimmaginabili fra le fiamme. Dopo la brutta esperienza Sprague lasciò il mondo del freakshow per un po’; si sposò, ebbe tre figli di robusta costituzione, scrisse perfino un’autobiografia. Ritornato con il circo a causa di problemi finanziari, dovuti forse anche alla sua passione per il gioco d’azzardo, morì in povertà il 5 gennaio del 1887.

Un altro celebre scheletro vivente era Dominique Castagna, francese nato in Borgogna, a Saligny, nel 1869. La sua storia però è ben più triste di quella di Sprague.

Se Isaac poteva, nella sfortuna, almeno vantare un volto di bell’aspetto, Dominique aveva una faccia che pochi avrebbero definito attraente: il naso schiacciato e gli occhi bulbosi e sporgenti davano al suo viso un aspetto contorto e innaturale. All’età di due anni il suo corpo smise di svilupparsi normalmente, e da bambino crebbe emaciato e pallido. A dodici anni Castagna era alto 1 metro e 40 e pesava 22 chili: i concittadini lo evitavano per il suo aspetto macilento che scambiavano per qualche malattia mortale o contagiosa, e a sua volta lui imparò ad evitare la gente, vivendo secluso in casa, solitario ed introverso.

La storia racconta che Castagna, una volta adulto, trovò un lavoro d’ufficio a Monaco, l’unico impiego che il suo corpo fragile gli permetteva di assumere. Si dice che un suo collega che lavorava nello stesso ufficio, un certo Cruzel, lo convinse a tentare la strada del sideshow, e Dominique si decise a vincere una volta per tutte la sua timidezza: salì per la prima volta sul palcoscenico nel 1896 a Marsiglia. Ebbe un immediato successo.

Così Castagna e Cruzel divennero soci. Cruzel, in qualità di suo manager, gestiva gli ingaggi e fu lui ad inventare il nome d’arte vincente per Castagna: The Mummy, la mummia. Negli anni che seguirono fra i due nacque e si cementò un’amicizia vera, forse l’unica che Dominique avesse mai avuto. Per la prima volta in vita sua c’era qualcuno che non si mostrava disgustato dal suo aspetto, che non lo giudicava ma che anzi condivideva con lui la faticosa vita nomade e lo sosteneva con affetto nelle difficili esibizioni, quando Dominique era costretto a sopportare gli sguardi del pubblico, da solo sul palco.

Ma tutto ha una fine. Cruzel si innamorò di una donna; possiamo soltanto immaginare quanto questa novità possa aver riempito di angoscia e dolore Castagna, all’idea di rimanere ancora una volta da solo. Le sue paure, infine, si concretizzarono: Cruzel lasciò lo show business e si sposò.
Dominique Castagna decise che non voleva sopportare oltre una vita di solitudine, e si sparò nel 1905 in una camera d’hotel a Liegi, in Belgio.