Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 1

Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.

I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.

The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.

There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).

  • The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
  • In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
  • Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.

  • In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
  • More recent trends: plunging into a decomposing whale carcass to cure rheumatism. Caitlin Doughty (whom I interviewed here) teaches you all about it in a very funny video.

  • Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”

  • A long, in-depth and thought-provoking article on cryonics: if you think it’s just another folly for rich people who can’t accept death, you will be surprised. The whole thing is far more intriguing.
  • For dessert, here is my interview for The Thinker’s Garden, a wonderful website on the arcane and sublime aspects of art, history and literature.

The misfortunes of Willie Dee

As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.

(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)

In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.

The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.

Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.

Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.

Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.

After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.

At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.

Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.

Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.

The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.

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Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum:  “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.

Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.

With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.

The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.

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The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.

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(Thanks, Andrea!)

The Museum of Failure

I have a horror of victories.
(André Pieyre de Mandiargues)

Museums are places of enchantment and inspiration (starting from their name, referring to the Muses). If they largely celebrate progress and the homo sapiens‘ highest achievements, it would be important to recognize that enchantment and inspiration may also arise from contemplating broken dreams, misadventures, accidents that happen along the way.

It is an old utopian project of mine, with which I’ve been flirting for quite a long time: to launch a museum entirely dedicated to human failure.

Lacking the means to open a real museum, I will have to settle for a virtual tour.
Here is the map of my imaginary museum.

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As you can see, the tour goes through six rooms.
The first one is entitled Forgotten ingenuity, and here are presented the lives of those inventors, artists or charlatans whose passage on this Earth seems to have been overlooked by official History. Yet among the protagonists of this first room are men who knew immense fame in their lifetime, only to fall from hero to zero.
As a result of an hypertrophic ego, or financial recklessness, or a series of unfortunate events, these characters came just one step away from victory, or even apparently conquered it. Martin F. Tupper was the highest grossing anglo-saxon XIX Century poet, and John Banvard was for a long time the most celebrated and successful painter of his era. But today, who remembers their names?
This introduction to failure is a sort of sic transit, and pushes the visitor to ask himself some essential questions on the ephemeral nature of success, and on historical memory’s inconsistency.

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John Banvard (1815-1891)

The second room is entirely dedicated to odd sciences and wrong theories.
Here is a selection of the weirdest pseudoscientific ideas, abandoned or marginalized disciplines, complex systems of thought now completely useless.
Particular attention is given to early medical doctrines, from Galen‘s pneuma to Henry Cotton‘s crazy surgical therapies, up to Voronoff‘s experiments. But here are also presented completely irrational theories (like those who maintain the Earth is hollow or flat), along other ones which were at one point influential, but now have an exclusively historical value, useful perhaps to understand a certain historical period (for instance, the physiognomy loved by Cesare Lombroso, or Athanasius Kircher‘s musurgy).

This room is meant to remind the visitor that progress and scientific method are never linear, but rather they develop and grow at the cost of failed attempts, dead-end streets, wrong turns. And in no other field as in knowledge, is error as fundamental as success.

The third room is devoted to Lost challenges. Here are celebrated all those individuals who tried, and failed.
The materials in this section prove that defeat can be both sad and grotesque: through multimedia recreations and educational boards the visitors can learn (just to quote a few examples) about William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, who persisted in composing poems although his literary abilities were disatrous to say the least; about the clumsy and horrendously spectacular attempt to blow up  a whale in Florence, Oregon, or to free a million and a half helium balloons in the middle of a city; and of course about the “flying tailor“, a classic case of extreme faith in one’s own talent.

flying_tailor

Next, we enter the space dedicated to Unexpected accidents, often tragic-comic and lethal.
A first category of failures are those made popular by the well-known Darwin Awards, symbolically bestowed upon those individuals who manage to kill themselves in very silly ways. These stories warn us about overlooked details, moments of lessened clarity of mind, inability to take variables into account.
But that is not all. The concept behind the second section of the room is that, no matter how hard we try and plan our future in every smallest detail, reality often bursts in, scrambling all our projects. Therefore here are the really unexpected events, the hostile fate, all those catastrophes and fiascos that are impossible to shun.

This double presentation shows how human miscalculation on one hand, and the element of surprise “kindly” provided by the world on the other, make failure an inevitable reality. How can it be overcome?

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The last two rooms try to offer a solution.
If failure cannot be avoided, and sooner or later happens to us all, then maybe the best strategy is to accept it, freeing it from its attached stygma.

One method to exorcise shame is to share it, as suggested by the penultimate room. Monitors screen the images of the so-called fail videos, compilations of homemade footage showing common people who, being unlucky or inept, star in embarassing catastrophes. The fact these videos have a huge success on the internet confirms the idea that not taking ourselves too seriously, and being brave enough to openly share our humiliation, is a liberating and therapeutic act.
On the last wall, the public is invited to hang on a board their own most scorching failure, written down on a piece of paper.

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The final room represents the right to fail, the joy of failing and the pride of failure.
Here, on a big bare wall, failure and fortune are represented as yin and yang, each containing the other’s seed, illusory opposites concealing only one reality – the neverending transformation, which knows no human category such as success or failure, indifferent, its vortex endlessly spinning.
To take failure back means to sabotage its paralyzing power, and to learn once again how to move and follow the rythm.

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Above the exit door, an ironic quote by Kurt Vonnegut reminds the visitor: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different“.

Ballonfest 1986

On that saturday morning, September 27, 1986, Cleveland was ready for an explosion of wonder.
For six months a Los Angeles company, headed by Treb Heining, had been working to organize the event which would break, in a spectacular way, a weird world record held at the time by Disneyland: in the first hours of the afternoon, a million and a half helium-filled balloons would be released simultaneously in the city sky.

The event was planned by United Way, a nonprofit organization, as part of the fundraising campaign for its activities supporting families in Cleveland.
In Public Square, Heining and his team mounted a huge structure, 250×150 feet wide, supporting a single, huge net built from the same material of the Space Shuttle cargo nets. Under this structure, for hours and hours more than 2.500 students and volunteers had been filling the colored balloons which, held by the net, formed a waving and impressive ceiling. After a first few hours of practice, their sore fingers wrapped in bandage aids, they had begun working automatically, each one of them tying a balloon every 20 seconds. Originally two millions baloons were meant to be prepared, but since some “leaks” had occurred, with several hundreds balloons escaping the net, it was decided to stop at a lower number.

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Every precaution had been taken so that the release was completely safe: United Way worked together with the city, the Federal Aviation Administration, the fire and police department, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Furthermore, the balloons were made of biodegradable latex, and organizers estimated that they would pop or deflate right over Lake Erie, only to decompose quickly and with no environmental impact.
With all this apparently meticulous preparation, no one could suspect that the joyful, colored party could turn into a nightmare.


Weather conditions were not the best: a storm was coming, so the organizers opted for an early release. At 1.50 pm the net was cut loose, and a gigantic cloud of balloons rose up against the buildings and the Terminal Tower, amidst cheering children, the applause and whooping of the crowd.

Like the mushroom cloud from an explosion, expanding in slow motion, the mass ascended in the sky to form a multicolored column.
That is when things took an unexpected turn.

The balloons met a current of cool air which pushed them back down, towards the ground. In little time, the city was completely invaded by a myriad of fluctuating balloons which covered the streets, moving in group, obscuring the sky, preventing drivers from seeing the road and hindering boats and helicopters. According to the witnesses, it felt like moving through an asteroid belt: some cars crashed because drivers steered to avoid a wave of balloons pushed by wind, or because they were distracted by the surreal panorama.

But the worse was yet to come: Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen, had gone out the day before, and were reported missing; the Coast Guard, who was looking for them, spotted their boat near a a breakwater, but had to abandon the search because balloons filled the sky and covered the surface of the water, making it hard for both boats and helicopters.
The two bodies later washed ashore.

During the next days balloons kept raising concern: they caused the temporary shut down of an airport runway, and scared some horses in a pasture so much so that the animals suffered permanent damage. The balloons ended up on the opposite shore of Lake Erie, some 100 km away, so complaints began to come even from Canada. Also because, according to some environmentalists, the plastic was not at all “biodegradable” and would have soiled the coast for at least six months.
Other criticism involved the waste of such large quantities of helium, a gas that is a non-renewable resource on Earth, and which some scientists (including late Nobel Phisics Laureate R. Coleman Richardson) believe there already is a shortage of.

This attempt to create something unforgettable, in the end, was meant to be one of those joyful, purely aesthetic, wonderfully useless experiences that bring out the child in all of us. As laudable this idea was, it turned out to be maybe a little too naive and planned without taking into account with the due consideration all possible consequences. The game ended quite badly.
United Way was sued for several million dollars, turning the fundraising campaign into a failure. The due damages to one of the fishermen’s wife and to the horse breeder were settled for undisclosed terms. This disastrous stunt, which ended in the red and in wide controversy, is the perfect example of a world record nobody will attempt to break again.
Treb Hining and his company, in the meantime, still are in the balloon business, working for the Academy Award, the Super Bowl and many presidential conventions: his team is also in charge of dispersing three thousand pounds of confetti (yep, 100% biodegradable this time) on Times Square, every New Year’s Eve.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – II

Mell Kilpatrick

CAR CRASHES & OTHER SAD STORIES

(2000, Taschen)

Kilpatrick era un fotografo che operò nell’area di Los Angeles dalla fine degli anni ’40 fino all’inizio degli anni ’60. Seguendo le pattuglie della polizia nelle loro chiamate, ebbe l’occasione di documentare suicidi, omicidi, ma soprattutto incidenti stradali mortali.

Questo splendido volume illustrato sella Taschen offre una selezione dei suoi scatti, quasi sempre notturni, che mostrano l’inizio di una piaga che arriva fino ai giorni nostri. È difficile descrivere le emozioni che si provano di fronte a queste fotografie. Da una parte c’è ovviamente l’empatia per le vittime, mentre la nostra mente cerca di immaginare cosa possano aver provato; ma dall’altra, ed è questo che rende affascinante la collezione di immagini, interviene il filtro del tempo. Questi incidenti provengono da un’epoca lontana, sono grida anonime nello scorrere del tempo, e il flash dona alle scene dell’impatto un’atmosfera mutuata dai film noir dell’epoca (sarà un caso, ma Kilpatrick, come secondo lavoro, faceva il proiezionista in un cinema). Eppure anche una certa amara ironia scorre talvolta in alcuni scatti, come quando i cadaveri sono fotografati sullo sfondo di allegre pubblicità commerciali.

Forse le fotografie hanno acquisito, nel tempo, più significato di quanto non fosse negli originari intenti dell’autore; ma viste oggi, queste auto d’epoca, con i loro grovigli di lamiere e di carne, non possono non ricordare le pagine memorabili dedicate da James G. Ballard agli incidenti automobilistici intesi come nuova mitologia moderna, ossessionante e intimamente sessuale. Immagini bellissime ma destabilizzanti, appunto perché saremmo tentati di iscriverle nel mito (del cinema, della letteratura, della fotografia) proprio quando ci mostrano il lato più reale, banale e concreto della morte.

Paul Collins

LA FOLLIA DI BANVARD

(2006, Adelphi – Fabula)

Il meraviglioso libro di Paul Collins ha come sottotitolo la frase: “Tredici storie di uomini e donne che non hanno cambiato il mondo”. Le sue tredici storie sono davvero straordinarie, perché raccontano di alcuni individui che sono arrivati a tanto così dal cambiare il corso della storia. E poi, hanno fallito.

Scritto in una prosa accattivante e piacevolissima, La follia è tutto una sorpresa dietro l’altra, e ha la qualità dei migliori romanzi. Di volta in volta malinconico ed esilarante, ha il merito di provare a ridare dignità ad alcuni “dimenticati” della scienza e della storia, ognuno a modo suo geniale, ma per qualche motivo vittima di un fatale errore, e delle sue amare conseguenze.

A partire da John Banvard, il folle del titolo: non l’avete sicuramente mai sentito nominare, ma a metà dell’Ottocento era il pittore vivente più famoso del mondo… René Blondlot, insigne professore francese di fisica, che fece importanti e apprezzate scoperte prima di prendere un clamoroso abbaglio, annunciando di aver scoperto i “raggi N”… oppure Alfread Beach, inventore della metropolitana pneumatica, che non prese mai piede non perché non funzionasse, ma perché lui si inimicò il sindaco di New York, tanto da sfidarlo costruendo di nascosto un tratto di metropolitana proprio sotto il municipio… e ancora, cialtroni e imbroglioni da premio Nobel per la lettaratura: William H. Ireland, ad esempio, ossessionato da Shakespeare, ne imparò talmente bene la calligrafia e lo stile da riuscire a produrre falsi e intere opere teatrali, giudicate all’epoca fra le migliori del Bardo; oppure George Psalmanazar, che si inventò di essere originario di Formosa (all’epoca ancora inesplorata, e in cui nemmeno lui aveva mai messo piede), arrivando a descriverne la cultura, le tradizioni, la religione, la flora e la fauna e perfino inventandosi un complesso linguaggio.

Uomini straordinari, folli, herzoghiani, che per un attimo hanno sfiorato la grandezza (magari con intuizioni scientifiche quasi corrette), prima di terminare la loro parabola nel dimenticatoio della Storia. Un divertito elogio della fallibilità umana intesa come voglia di tentare, di esplorare il limite; perché se anche si cade, la caduta testimonia talvolta l’irriducibile vitalità dell’essere umano.