Ship of Fools: The Deviant’s Exile and Other Wrecks

In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.

The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.

Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.

Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.

Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).

On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.


The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:

The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.

(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)

On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.

This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.

A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.

Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.

We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.

The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.

But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.

That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?

There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.

And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.

Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.

What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.

The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.

The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.

Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.

Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice

We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.

Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.

Neapolitan Ritual Food

by Michelangelo Pascali

Everybody knows Italian cuisine, but few are aware that several traditional dishes hold a symbolic meaning. Guestblogger Michelangelo Pascali uncovers the metaphorical value of some Neapolitan recipes.

Neapolitan culture shows a dense symbology that accompanies the preparation and consumption of certain dishes, mostly for propitiatory purposes, during heartfelt ritual holidays. These very ancient holidays, some of which were later converted to Christian holidays, are linked to the passage of time and to the seasons of life.
The symbolic meaning of ritual food can sometimes refer to the cyclic nature of life, or to some exceptional social circumstances.

One of the most well-known “devotional courses” is certainly the white and crunchy torrone, which is eaten during the festivities for the Dead, between the end of October and the beginning of November. The almonds on the inside represent the bones of the departed which are to be absorbed in an vaguely cannibal perspective (as with Mexican sugar skeletons). The so-called torrone dei morti (“torrone of the Dead”) can also traditionally be squared-shaped, its white paste covered with dark chocolate to mimick the outline of a tavùto (“casket”).

The rhombus-shaped decorations on the pastiera, an Easter cake, together with the wheat forming its base, are meant to evoke the plowed fields and the coming of the mild season, more favorable for life.


The rebirth of springtime, after the “death” of winter, finds another representation in the casatiello, the traditional Easter Monday savory pie, that has to be left to rise for an entire night from dusk till dawn. Its ring-like shape is a reminder of the circular nature of time, as seen by the ancient agricultural, earthbound society (and therefore quite distant, in many ways, from the linear message of Christian religion); the inside cheese and sausages once again represent the dead, buried in the ground. But the real peculiarity, here, is the emerging of some eggs from the pie, protected by a “cross” made of crust: a bizarre element, which would have no reason to be there were it not an allegory of birth — in fact, the eggs are placed that way to suggest a movement that goes “from the underground to the surface“, or “from the Earth to the Sky“.

In the Neapolitan Christmas Eve menu, “mandatory courses are still called ‘devotions’, just like in ancient Greek sacred banquets”, and “the obligation of lean days is turned into its very opposite” (M. Niola, Il sacrificio del capitone, in Repubblica, 15/12/2013).
The traditional Christmas dinner is carried out along the lines of ancient funerary dinners (with the unavoidable presence of dried fruit and seafood), and it also has the function of consuming the leftovers before the arrival of a new year, as for example in the menestra maretata (‘married soup’).

But the main protagonist is the capitone, the huge female eel. This fish has a peculiar reproduction cycle (on the account of its migratory habits) and is symbolically linked to the Ouroboros. The capitone‘s affinity with the snake, an animal associated with the concept of time in many cultures, is coupled with its being a water animal, therefore providing a link to the most vital element.
The capitone is first bred and raised within the family, only to be killed by the family members themselves (in a ritual that even allows for the animal to “escape”, if it manages to do so): an explicit ritual sacrifice carried out inside the community.

While still alive, the capitone is cut into pieces and thrown in boiling oil to be fried, as each segment still frantically writhes and squirms: in this preparation, it is as if the infinite moving cycle was broken apart and then absorbed. The snake as a metaphor of Evil seems to be a more recent symbology, juxtaposed to the ancient one.

Then there are the struffoli, spherical pastries covered in honey — a precious ingredient, so much so that the body of Baby Jesus is said to be a “honey-dripping rock” — candied fruit and diavulilli (multi-colored confetti); we suppose that in their aspect they might symbolize a connection with the stars. These pastries are indeed offered to the guests during Christmas season, an important cosmological moment: Macrobius called the winter solstice “the door of the Gods“, as under the Capricorn it becomes possible for men to communicate with divinities. It is the moment in which many Solar deities were born, like the Persian god Mitra, the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn, or the Greek Apollo — a pre-Christian protector of Naples, whose temple was found where the Cathedral now is. And the Saint patron Januarius, whose blood is collected right inside the Cathedral, is symbolically close to Apollo himself.
Of course the Church established the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the proximity of the solstice, whereas it was first set on January 6:  the Earth reaches its maximum distance from the Sunon the 21st of December, and begins to get closer to it after three days.

The sfogliatella riccia, on the other hand, is an allusion to the shape of the female reproductive organ, the ‘valley of fire’ (this is the translation of its Neapolitan common nickname, which has a Greek etymology). It is said to date back to the time when orgiastic rites were performed in Naples, where they were widespread for over a millennium and a half after the coming of the Christian Era, carried out in several peculiar places such as the caves of the Chiatamone. This pastry was perhaps invented to provide high energetic intake to the orgy participants.

Lastly, an exquistely mundane motivation is behind the pairing of chiacchiere and sanguinaccio.
Chiacchiere look like tongues, or like those strings of paper where, in paintings and bas-relief, the words of the speaking characters were inscribed; and their name literally means “chit-chat”. The sanguinaccio is a sort of chocolate black pudding which was originally prepared with pig’s blood (but not any more).
During the Carnival, the only real profane holiday that is left, the association between these two desserts sounds like a code of silence: it warns and cautions not to contaminate with ordinary logic the subversive charge of this secular rite, which is completely egalitarian (Carnival masks hide our individual identity, making us both unrecognizable and also indistinguishable from each other).
What happens during Carnival must stay confined within the realm of Carnival — on penalty of “tongues being drowned in blood“.

Il divoratore di bambini

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La Svizzera, si sa, è un posto tranquillo e la capitale elvetica, Berna, accoglie il visitatore con il distillato delle migliori attrattive nazionali: aria fresca, cucina prelibata, pulizia, precisione e ordine. Il centro storico della città è perfettamente conservato, e sorge sulla penisola all’interno di un’ansa del fiume Aare. Proprio nel cuore di questo gioiello di architettura medievale, quasi a contrastare con l’operosa ma placida atmosfera della Kornhausplatz, si erge un simbolo tutt’altro che mite e sereno. Si tratta del Kindlifresser, il Mangiatore di Bambini.

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Alla base della colonna decorata, il fregio mostra degli orsi bruni (simbolo della città), armati di tutto punto, che partono per la guerra suonando strumenti militari come una cornamusa e un tamburo. In alto, invece, ecco il vero protagonista della composizione: un orco, appollaiato su un capitello corinzio, si infila in gola un bambino nudo, mentre altri neonati spuntano da un sacco per le provviste.

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La Kindlifresserbrunnen, costruita nel 1546, è una delle fontane più antiche della città, ed è anche un esempio di come la storia e la cultura possano talvolta “perdersi” e venire dimenticate: oggi, infatti, nessuno sa perché quella statua stia lì, e quale fosse il suo significato originario.

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Quello che si sa di certo è che l’autore della scultura è Hans Gieng, a cui secondo gli studiosi si devono quasi tutte le splendide fontane cinquecentesche che adornano la Città Vecchia, come ad esempio il bellissimo Sansone che uccide il leone (Simsonbrunnen). Ma, a differenza delle altre, l’orco che divora i bambini non è una rappresentazione classica facilmente comprensibile, e non essendo rimasto negli archivi nessun accenno al suo senso allegorico originale, per gli storici il Kindlifresser rimane un mistero.

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Le teorie sono diverse. Secondo alcuni, potrebbe trattarsi di una raffigurazione di Crono, il Titano della mitologia Greca che, per non essere spodestato dai propri figli, li divorò ad uno ad uno mentre erano ancora in fasce (unico sopravvissuto: Zeus).

Un’altra teoria vede nella grottesca figura una sorta di monito per la comunità ebraica della città. In effetti pare che il vestito del Kindlifresser fosse originariamente pitturato in giallo, colore dei Giudei; anche il copricapo che indossa ricorda effettivamente il cappello conico imposto in Germania agli ebrei askenaziti, assieme alla rotella cucita sulle vesti o sul mantello. Se questo fosse vero, la statua avrebbe avuto allora un intento denigratorio collegato alla cosiddetta “accusa del sangue“, cioè alla diceria che gli israeliti praticassero sacrifici e omicidi rituali.

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Ma le ipotesi non si fermano qui. C’è chi suppone che il Kindlifresser sia il fratello maggiore del Duca Berchtold V. von Zähringen, fondatore di Berna, che in un accesso di follia avrebbe mangiato i bambini della città; secondo altri, il personaggio misterioso sarebbe il Cardinale Matthäus Schiner, comandante militare in diverse battaglie nel Nord Italia; secondo altri studi potrebbe trattarsi di uno spauracchio pensato perché i bambini stessero alla larga dalla celebre fossa degli orsi che si apriva lì vicino; infine, l’inquietante figura potrebbe semplicemente essere una maschera collegata alla Fastnacht, il Carnevale nato proprio nelle prime decadi del 1500 e ancora oggi celebrato in Svizzera.

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La ridda di congetture non intacca la foga con cui il Kindlifresser, da 500 anni, consuma il suo crudele pasto; spaventando i bambini bernesi, attirando frotte di turisti e ispirando artisti e scrittori.

Su Battileddu

Il Carnevale, si sa, è la versione cattolica dei saturnalia romani e delle più antiche festività greche in onore di Dioniso. Si trattava di un momento in cui le leggi normali del pudore, delle gerarchie e dell’ordine sociale venivano completamente rovesciate, sbeffeggiate e messe a soqquadro. Questo era possibile proprio perché accadeva all’interno di un preciso periodo, ben delimitato e codificato: e, nonostante i millenni trascorsi e la secolarizzazione di questa festa, il Carnevale mantiene ancora in parte questo senso di liberatoria follia.

Ma a Lula, in Sardegna, ogni anno si celebra un Carnevale del tutto particolare, molto distante dalle colorate (e commerciali) mascherate cittadine. Si tratta di un rituale allegorico antichissimo, giunto inalterato fino ai giorni nostri grazie alla tenacia degli abitanti di questo paesino nel salvaguardare le proprie tradizioni. È un Carnevale che non rinnega i lati più oscuri ed apertamente pagani che stanno all’origine di questa festa, incentrato com’è sul sacrificio e sulla crudeltà.

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Il protagonista del Carnevale lulese è chiamato su Battileddu (o Batiledhu), la “vittima”, che incarna forse proprio Dioniso stesso – dio della natura selvaggia, forza vitale primordiale e incontrollabile. L’uomo che lo interpreta è acconciato in maniera terribile: vestito di pelli di montone, ha il volto coperto di nera fuliggine e il muso sporco di sangue. Sulla sua testa, coperta da un fazzoletto nero da donna, è fissato un mostruoso copricapo cornuto, ulteriormente adornato da uno stomaco di capra.

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Le pelli, le corna e il viso imbrattato di cenere e sangue sarebbero già abbastanza spaventosi: come non bastasse, su Battileddu porta al collo dei rumorosi campanacci (marrazzos) mentre sotto di essi, sulla pancia, penzola un grosso stomaco di bue che è stato riempito di sangue ed acqua.

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Per quanto possa incutere timore, su Battileddu è una vittima sacrificale, e la rappresentazione “teatrale” che segue lo mostra molto chiaramente. Il dio folle della natura è stato catturato, e viene trascinato per le strade del villaggio. Il rovesciamento carnascialesco è evidente nei cosiddetti Battileddos Gattias, uomini travestiti da vedove che però indossano dei gambali da maschio: si aggirano intonando lamenti funebri per la vittima, porgendo bambole di pezza alle donne tra la folla affinché le allattino. Ad un certo punto della sfilata, le finte vedove si siedono in cerchio e cominciano a passarsi un pizzicotto l’una con l’altra (spesso dopo aver costretto qualcuno fra il pubblico ad unirsi a loro); la prima a cui sfuggirà una risata sarà costretta a pagare pegno, che normalmente consiste nel versare da bere.

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In questo chiassoso e sregolato corteo funebre, intanto, su Battileddu continua ad essere pungolato, battuto e strattonato dalle funi di cuoio con cui l’hanno legato i Battileddos Massajos, i custodi del bestiame, uomini vestiti da contadini. È uno spettacolo cruento, al quale nemmeno il pubblico si sottrae: tutti cercano di colpire e di bucare lo stomaco di bue che il dio porta sulla pancia, in modo che il sangue ne sgorghi, fecondando la terra. Quando questo accade, gli spettatori se ne imbrattano il volto.

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Alla fine, lo stomaco di su Battileddu viene squarciato del tutto, e il dio si accascia nel sangue, sventrato. Si alza un grido: l’an mortu, Deus meu, l’an irgangatu! (“l’hanno ucciso, Dio mio, lo hanno sgozzato!”). Ecco che le vedove intonano nuovi lamenti e mettono in scena un corteo funebre, ma le parole e i gesti delle “pie donne” sono in realtà osceni e scurrili.

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Nel frattempo un altro capovolgimento ha avuto luogo: due dei “custodi” sono diventati bestie da soma e, aggiogati ad un carro come buoi, l’hanno tirato per le strade durante la rappresentazione. È su questo carro che viene issato il corpo esanime della vittima, per essere esibito alla piazza in alcuni giri trionfali. Ma la finzione viene presto svelata: un bicchiere di vino riporta in vita su Battileddu, e la festa vera e propria può finalmente avere inizio.

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Questa messa in scena della passione e del cruento sacrificio di su Battileddu si ricollega certamente agli antichi riti agricoli di fecondazione della terra; la cosa davvero curiosa è che la tradizione sarebbe potuta scomparire quando, nella prima metà del ‘900, venne abbandonata. È ricomparsa soltanto nel 2001, a causa dell’interesse antropologico cresciuto attorno a questa caratteristica figura, nell’ambito dello studio e valorizzazione delle maschere sarde. Ora, il dio impazzito che diviene montone sacrificale è di nuovo tra di noi.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNGkd056N9Q]

(Grazie, freya76!)

Holi

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/40123818]

In India, fra la fine di febbraio e l’inizio di marzo, i colori esplodono nelle strade. Si tratta della festa tradizionale chiamata Holi; due giorni in cui, in modo vagamente simile al nostro carnevale, le regole sociali e le distanze fra le varie caste vengono abolite (entro certi ragionevoli limiti).

I significati simbolici di Holi sono molteplici. Originariamente la festa commemorava un episodio dei Purāṇa, in cui Prahlada resiste alle imposizioni di suo padre Hiranyakashipu e, contro la volontà di quest’ultimo, continua ad essere fedele a Vishnu; a farne le spese è però sua sorella, Holika, che morirà bruciata sulla pira. Al di là delle scritture tradizionali, Holi simboleggia principalmente la fine della stagione invernale e l’inizio della primavera: la terra diviene fertile, si riempie di colori e la vita rifiorisce.


Nel tempo, la festa ha addolcito i suoi tratti religiosi in favore di celebrazioni più popolari, gioiose e spensierate. Nel giorno centrale del Holi, si allestiscono enormi falò di fronte a cui si prega e si canta; in seguito polveri profumate e colorate, e tinozze di acqua similmente tinta e aromatizzata, vengono distribuiti fra la gente. Comincia allora una vera e propria battaglia, folle e selvaggia, in cui gli eccitati partecipanti vengono bersagliati di nuvole variopinte e sgargianti.


E’ davvero un ritorno alla vita, liberatasi dal tetro spettro dell’inverno; e il colore si fa veicolo di allegria, essenza stessa del ringraziamento alla divinità che ci ha donato di godere delle mille sfumature della realtà.


Ecco la pagina (inglese) di Wikipedia sul Holi.