Flesh and Dream: Anatomy of Surrealism

A few days ago I was invited to speak at the Rome Tatttoo Museum for Creative Mornings, a cultural event held every month around the world; it is a free and informal breakfast combined with a conference on a set theme, the same for all 196 cities in which the initiative takes place. January’s theme was SURREAL, and I therefore decided to talk about the relationship between anatomy and surrealism. Here is the revised transcription of my speech.

Brussels, 1932.
Near the railway station the annual Foire du Midi is held, gahtering in the capital all the traveling carnivals that tour Belgium.


Our protagonist is this man, just over thirty years old, who’s wandering around the fair and looking at the various attractions until his gaze is captured by a poster advertising Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical museum.

Dr. Spitzner is not even a real doctor, rather an anatomist who tried to set up a museum in Paris; he did not succeed, and started traveling with the carnival. His collection, behind a pedagogical façade (the museum is supposed to inform the public about the risks related to venereal diseases or alcohol abuse), is designed above all to arouse the audience’s mobrid curiosity and voyeurism.


The first thing that attracts the attention of our man is a beautiful wax sculpture of a sleeping woman: a mechanism makes her raise and lower her chest, as if she were breathing. The man pays the ticket and enters the sideshow. But past the red velvet curtains, a vision of wonder and horror appears before his eyes. Pathological waxes show the ravages of syphilis, monstrous bodies like those of the Tocci siamese twins are represented along scenes of surgical operations. Women appear to be operated by “phantom” hands, without arms or bodies. The same sleeping Venus seen at the entrance is dismantled under the eyes of the public, organ after organ, in a sort of spectacular dissection.

The man is upset, and the vision of the Spitzner museum will forever change his life.
In fact, our protagonist is called Paul Delvaux, a painter who until then has only painted post-impressionist (yet quite unimpressive!) bucolic landscapes.

After his visit to the Spitzner museum, however, his art will take a completely different path.
His paintings will turn into dreamlike visions, in which almost all the elements seem to refer to that original trauma or, better, to that original epiphany. The strange non-places which the figures inhabit seem to be suspended halfway between De Chirico‘s metaphysical landscapes and the fake neoclassical sceneries used in fairgrounds; his paintings are populated with sleeping venuses and female nudes, showing a cold and hieratic eroticism, and dozens of skeletons; the train station will become another of Delvaux’s obsessions.

Regarding that experience Delvaux will declare, many years later:

That disturbing, even a little morbid atmosphere, the unusual exhibition of anatomical waxes in a place meant for  joy, noise, lights, joviality […] All this has left deep traces in my life for a very long time. The discovery of the Spitzner museum made me veer completely in my conception of painting.

(cited in H. Palouzié e C. Ducourau, De la collection Fontana à la collection Spitzner, In Situ [En ligne], n.31, 2017)

But why was Delvaux so touched by the vision of the inside of the human body?
In Bananas (1971), Woody Allen wakes up after taking a blow on the head, and upon touching the wound he looks at his fingers and exclaims: “Blood! That should be on inside”. I believe this to bethe most concise definition of anatomy as a Freudian repression/denial.


What is inside the body should remain off-scene (obscene). We should never see it, because otherwise it would mean that something went wrong. The inside of our body is a misunderstood territory and a real taboo – we will later attempt to see why.
So of course, there is a certain fascination for the obscene, especially for a man like Delvaux who came from a rigid and puritan family; a mixture of erotic impulses and death.


But there’s more: those waxes have a quality that goes beyond reality. What Delvaux experienced is the surrealism of anatomy.
In fact, whenever we enter an anatomical museum, we’re accessing a totally alien, unsettling, absurd dimension.

It is therefore not surprising that the Surrealists, to whom Delvaux was close, exploited anatomy to destabilize their audience: surrealists were constantly searching for this type of elements, and experiences, which could free the unconscious.
Surrealism also had a fascination for death, right from its very beginnings. One example is the Poisson soluble, Breton‘s syllogy which accompanied the Manifesto (the idea of a “soluble fish” can make us smile, but is in truth desperately dramatic), another is the famous creative game of the “exquisite corpse“.
The Surrealist Manifesto stated it very clearly: “Surrealism will introduce you to Death, which is a secret society”.

So Max Ernst in his collage wroks for Une semaine de bonté often used scraps of anatomical illustrations; Roland Topor cut and peeled his characters with Sadeian cruelty, hinting at the menacing monsters of the unconscious lurking under our skin; Réné Magritte covered his two lovers’ faces with a cloth, as if they were already corpses on the autopsy table, thus giving the couple a funereal aspect.

But Hans Bellmer above all put anatomy at the core of his lucid expressive universe, first with his series of photos of his handcrafted ball-joint dolls, with which he reinvented the female body; and later in his etchings, where the various anatomical details merge and blur into new configurations of flesh and dream. All of Bellmer’s art is obsessively and fetishly aimed at discovering the algorithm that makes the female body so seductive (the “algebra of desire”, according to its own definition).

In the series of lithographs entitled Rose ouverte la nuit, in which a girl lifts the skin of her abdomen to unveil her internal organs, Bellmer is directly referring to the iconography of terracotta/wax anatomical models, and to ancient medical illustrations.

This idea that the human body is a territory to explore and map, is directly derived from the dawn of the anatomical discipline. The first one who cut this secret space open for study purposes, at least in a truly programmatic way, was Vesalius. I have often written about him, and to understand the extent of his revolution you might want to check out this article.

Yet even after Vesalio the feelings of guilt attached to the act of dissection did not diminish – opening a human body was still seen as a desecration.
According to various scholars, this sense of guilt is behind the “vivification” of the écorchés, the flayed cadavers represented in anatomical plates, which were shown in plastic poses as if they were alive and perfectly well – an iconography partly borrowed from that of the Catholic saints, always eager to exhibit the mutilations they suffered during martyrdom.

In the anatomical plates of the 17th and 18th centuries, this tendency becomes so visionary as to become involuntarily fantasy-like (see R. Caillois, Au cœur du fantastique, 1965).
A striking example is the following illustration (from the Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano by Valverde, 1556) showing a dissected cadaver which in turn is dissecting another one: surrealism ante litteram, and a quite extraordinary macabre fantasy.

At the time scholars were quite aware of the aesthetic problem: two of the greatest anatomists of the late 17th century, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, became bitter enemies precisely because they disagreed on which kind of aesthetics was more suitable for the anatomical discipline.


Bidloo, in his treatises, had ordered the illustrations to be as realistic as possible. Dissection was shown in a very graphic way, with depictions of tied bodies and fixing pins. This was no idealized view at all, as realism was pushed to the extreme in a plate which even included a fly landing on the corpse.

On the other hand, Ruysch’s sensibility was typical of wunderkammern, and as he embellished his animal preparations with compositions of shells and corals, he did so also with human preparations, to make them more pleasing to the eye.

His anatomical preparations were artistic, sometimes openly allegorical; his now-lost dioramas were quite famous in this regard, as they were made entirely from organic materials (kidney stones used as rocks, arteries and dried veins as trees, fetal skeletons drying their tears on handkerchiefs made from meninges, etc.).

Often the preserved parts were embellished with laces and embroidery made by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel, who from an early age helped her father in his dissections (she can be seen standing on the right with a skeleton in her hand in Van Neck‘s Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch).

We could say that Ruysch was both an anatomist and a showman (therefore, a forerunner of that Dr. Spitzner whose museum so impressed Delvaux), who exploited his own art in a spectacular way in order to gain success in European courts. And in a sense he won his dispute with Bidloo, because the surreal quality of anatomical illustrations remained almost unchallenged until the advent of positivism.

Going back to the 1900s, however, things start to radically change from the middle of the century. Two global conflicts have undermined trust in mankind and in history; traditional society begins breaking down, technology enters the people’s homes and work becomes more and more mechanized. Thus a sense of loss of idenity, which also involves the body, begins to emerge.


If in the 1930s Fritz Kahn (above) could still look at anatomy with an engineering gaze, as if it were a perfect machine, in the second half of the century everything was wavering. The body becomes mutant, indefinite, fluid,  as is the case in Xia Xiaowan‘s glass paintings, which change depending on the perspective, making the subject’s anatomy uncertain.

Starting from the 60s and the 70s, the search for identity implies a reappropriation of the body as a canvas on which to express one’s own individuality: it is the advent of body art and of the customization of the body (plastic surgery, tattoos, piercing).
The body becomes victim of hybridizations between the organic and the mechanical, oscillating between dystopian visions of flesh and metal fused together – as in Tetsuo or Cronenberg’s films – and cyberpunk prophecies, up to the tragic dehumanization of a fully mechanized society depicted by Tetsuya Ishida.

In spite of millenarians, however, the world does not end in the year 2000 nor in the much feared year 2012. Society continues to change, and hybridization is a concept that has entered the collective unconscious; an artist like Nunzio Paci can now use it in a non-dystopian perspective, guided by ecological concerns. He is able to intersect human anatomy with the animal and plant kingdom in order to demonstrate our intimate communion and continuity with nature; just like Kate McDowell does in her ceramics works.

The anatomical and scientific imagery becomes disturbing, on the other hand, in the paintings of Spanish artist Dino Valls, whose characters appear to be victims of esoteric experiments, continually subjected to invasive examinations, while their tear-stained eyes suggest a tragic, ancestral and repeated dimension.

Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin used the body – both the imperfect and different body, and the anatomized body, literally cut into pieces – to represent the beauty of the soul in an aesthetic way. A Catholic fervent, Witkin is truly convinced that “everything is illuminated”, and his research has a mystical quality. Looking for the divine even in what scares us or horrifies us, his aim is to expose our substantial identity with God. This might be the meaning of one of his most controversial works, The Kiss, in which the two halves of a severed head are positioned as if kissing each other: love is to recognize the divine in the other, and every kiss is nothing but God loving himself. (Here you can find my interview with Witkin – Italian only.)

Valerio Carrubba‘s works are more strictly surrealistic, and particularly interesting because they bring the pictorial medium closer to its anatomical content: the artist creates different versions of the same picture one above the other, adding layers of paint as if they were epidermal layers, only the last of which remains visible.

Anatomy’s still-subversive power is testified by its widespread use within the current of pop surrealism, often creating a contrast between childish and lacquered images and the anatomical unveiling.

Also our friend Stefano Bessoni makes frequent reference to anatomy, in particular in one of his latest works which is dedicated to the figure of Rachel, the aforementioned daughter of Ruysch.

Much in the same satirical and rebellious vein is the work of graffiti artist Nychos, who anatomizes, cuts into pieces and exposes the entrails of some of the most sacred icons of popular culture.
Jessica Harrison reserves a similar treatment to granma’s china, and Fernando Vicente uses the idea of vanitas to spoof the sensual imagery of pin-up models.

And the woman’s body, the most subject to aesthetic imperatives and social pressures, is the focus of Sally Hewett‘s work, revolving around those anatomical details that are usually considered unsightly – surgical scars, cellulite, stretch marks – in order to reaffirm the beauty of imperfection.

Autopsy, the act of “looking with one’s own eyes”, is the first step in empirical knowledge.
But looking at one’s own body involves a painful and difficult awareness: it also means acknowledging its mortality. In fact, the famous maxim inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself“, was essentially a memento mori (as evidenced by the mosaic from the Convent of San Gregorio on the Appian Way). It meant “know who you are, understand your limits, remember your finitude”.

This is perhaps the reason why blood “should be on the inside”, and why our inner landscape of organs, adipose masses and vascularized tissues still seems so unfamiliar, so disgusting, so surreal. We do not want to think about it because it reminds us of our unfortunate reality of limited, mortal animals.

But our very identity can not exist without this body, though fleeting and fallible; and our denial of anatomy, in turn, is exactly the reason why artists will continue to explore its imagery.
Because the best art is subversive, one that – as in Banksy’s famous definition – should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfotable.

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.

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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.

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.

Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)

Paul_Delaroche,_La_jeune_martyre,_1855_(5658755020)

She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.

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But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.

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If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.

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Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.

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Death and the Maiden  poster big cartel to post

Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.

La morte e la fanciulla

Necrofilia al femminile

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Nella cultura occidentale, Eros e Thanatos sono interconnessi da sempre: il desiderio sessuale, che è esuberanza di vita, si rispecchia nel suo opposto, certo, ma talvolta vi coincide, trasfigurandosi. L’espressione francese la petite mort, usata per riferirsi all’orgasmo, fiorisce dall’idea che l’unione fisica sia una vera e propria fusione dei sensi – quindi annullamento dell’io e abbandono dell’identità singola. L’erotismo, scrive Bataille, “apre la strada alla morte. La morte apre la strada alla negazione delle nostre vite individuali”: per Foucault implica “l’esperienza della finitezza dell’essere, del limite e della trasgressione”, e nell’erotismo moderno le uniche forme di trasgressione ancora possibili sono quelle che vanno dal naturale al contro-naturale – verso la macchina, la bestia e il cadavere.

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La vicinanza di amore e morte è talmente presente nell’arte e nella letteratura (soprattutto nell’ 800, si pensi al topos della “bella morta” che attraversa le opere dei preraffaelliti come di Poe, Baudelaire e dei romantici) che sorprende quanto invece le indagini psichiatriche sulla necrofilia siano, in confronto, rare e sporadiche.

Pur accettandone le versioni artistiche e in qualche modo mascherate dal simbolo, sembra quasi che il desiderio necrofilo fosse per gli studiosi il più orrendo e abominevole dei tabù: perfino Freud si rifiuta di parlarne approfonditamente e, dopo averlo menzionato in una sola frase, esclama: “Ma basta con questo tipo di orrore!” (La vita sessuale). Bisognerà aspettare il 1989 per il primo vero studio sull’argomento, ad opera di Rosman & Resnick, che analizzarono 122 casi e suddivisero questa parafilia in tre tipi: omicidio necrofilo, necrofilia regolare e fantasia necrofila – distinguendoli ulteriormente dalla cosiddetta pseudonecrofilia (quando cioè l’atto necrofilo è opportunista o incidentale). Nel 2011 Aggrawal pubblica l’unica ricerca interdisciplinare davvero approfondita, Necrophilia: Forensic and Medicolegal Aspects, che suggerisce nuove e più dettagliate classificazioni.

Escludendo le derive più estreme (assassinio, mutilazioni, cannibalismo), nella maggioranza dei casi il necrofilo è una persona dalla bassa autostima, che ha provato il sesso tradizionale e ne è rimasto insoddisfatto o umiliato: la motivazione più comune che spinge il necrofilo a desiderare il contatto con i morti è il bisogno di un partner che non opponga resistenza e che non possa rifiutarlo. In altri casi, essendo stato esposto in giovane età al contatto con un morto, il terrore provato è stato trasformato in pulsione sessuale, come spesso accade nei feticismi. Seguendo la sua fissazione, il necrofilo ricerca occupazione in luoghi di lavoro che consentano un accesso più facile ai cadaveri, come ospedali o agenzie funebri. Non è raro che la necrofilia si sviluppi in direzione “romantica”, acquisendo cioè una componente di affetto reverenziale per la salma, che non viene semplicemente violata ma spesso accarezzata, confortata, come se fosse possibile donarle ancora gioia o piacere. Alcuni necrofili hanno espresso il loro disgusto per gli operatori funebri che mostrano poco rispetto per i morti: paradossalmente, nella loro fantasia, il cadavere non è un morto, e deve essere nuovamente umanizzato, “riportato in vita”, cioè considerato come una persona vera e propria.

Nella nostra immaginazione la figura del necrofilo è sempre maschile, e la sua “preda” una giovane e bella donna. Ma cosa accade quando la parte attiva è una donna, e il partner inerme e indifeso un uomo?

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Come nota Lisa Downing nel suo saggio sulla necrofilia nella letteratura francese dell’ 800, Desiring The Dead, il ripetuto focalizzarsi sulla penetrazione del cadavere negli scritti medici ha implicitamente relegato la necrofilia al regno della perversione maschile; pur essendo questa parafilia piuttosto rara (almeno stando alle statistiche forensi), la percentuale femminile si aggira attorno al 10-15% dei casi di cui siamo a conoscenza.

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Nel 1979 in California, all’età di 23 anni, Karen Greenlee era alla guida di un carro funebre: doveva consegnare una salma di un uomo di 33 anni al cimitero per il funerale. Decise invece di scappare con il morto, e venne trovata due giorni dopo, ancora in compagnia del cadavere. All’epoca non c’erano leggi in California contro la necrofilia, quindi la Greenlee venne denunciata per furto di autoveicolo e per disturbo di cerimonia funebre. Ma nella bara venne trovata una lettera in cui Karen dettagliava i suoi incontri erotici con altri 40 cadaveri maschili, e la donna fu bandita dalla professione. In seguito, la madre del morto che Karen aveva sequestrato la citò per danni morali ed emotivi, e la Greenlee venne condannata a un periodo di carcere, una multa e un forzato trattamento psichiatrico.

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Nel 1985, poco prima di ritirarsi a vita privata sotto nuovo nome, Karen Greenlee accettò di essere intervistata dal giornalista Jim Morton, in un articolo che diverrà noto con il titolo The Unrepentant Necrophile (“la necrofila impenitente”). Si tratta di un documento straordinario, per più di un motivo. Se inizialmente provava vergogna per i suoi desideri, all’epoca dell’intervista Karen sembra aver ormai accettato la sua condizione, e non è certo timida nel descrivere ciò che le piace:

il freddo, l’aura di morte, l’odore della morte, l’ambiente funerario… trovo l’odore della morte molto erotico. C’è odore e odore. Se prendi un corpo che ha galleggiato nella baia per due settimane, o una vittima di incendio, ecco, quello non mi attrae molto, ma un corpo imbalsamato di fresco è tutta un’altra cosa. C‘è anche questa attrazione per il sangue. Quando stai sopra a un corpo, tende a espellere sangue dalla bocca, mentre fai l’amore appassionatamente…

Nelle sue parole, il cadavere è oggetto d’amore e regala un’euforia particolare, quasi estatica; racconta inoltre di come si è introdotta di notte in obitori e tombe, e dice di essere stata sorpresa nell’atto più di una volta, senza conseguenze troppo gravi. Ma forse il momento più interessante è quando afferma che la domanda più comune che la riguarda è sempre la stessa: “come fa esattamente?”.

Per me non è un problema dire come lo faccio, ma chiunque abbia un po’ di esperienza sessuale non dovrebbe avere bisogno di chiederlo. La gente ha questo pregiudizio che ci debba per forza essere la penetrazione per la gratificazione sessuale, che è una stupidaggine! La parte più sensibile di una donna è comunque la parte frontale, e quella va stimolata. A parte questo, ci sono differenti aspetti dell’espressione sessuale: il contatto fisico, il 69, anche semplicemente tenersi per mano.

Il fatto che Karen Greenlee denunci la nozione fallocentrica e l’eccessiva importanza data alla penetrazione, è assolutamente in linea con la sua figura trasgressiva: questa donna infrange il tabù del sesso con i morti, e al tempo stesso inverte le gerarchie e i ruoli tradizionalmente femminili. Se n’è accorta Lena Wånggren, che nel suo saggio Death And Desire parla della necrofilia femminile come tragressione di genere: qui è la donna a “cacciare” e possedere, e il maschio diviene inerme e inanimato – l’esatto opposto della consueta figurazione che vede il maschio attivo e la femmina come passivo ricettacolo per la procreazione. La Greenlee non soltanto riduce il maschio a un oggetto, ma lo priva anche del mito del pene e della penetrazione.

In effetti, sembra che a suscitare scandalo sia proprio questo aspetto, ancor più che la necrofilia in sé: la Greenlee ricorda un fidanzato che, quando scoprì i suoi desideri, la schiaffeggiò e le disse che “non ero nemmeno una donna, e potevo andare a scoparmi i miei morti”. Ricorda anche uomini convinti di riuscire a “curarla”:

I ragazzi pensavano sempre che andassi alla ricerca di corpi morti perché mi mancava qualcosa, e che se fossi stata con loro mi avrebbero cambiato, e che loro erano quelli in grado di soddifarmi così tanto che non avrei più avuto bisogno dei cadaveri.

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La storia di Karen Greenlee ha ispirato nel 1992 il racconto We So Seldom Look On Love di Barbara Gowdy, da cui è stato in seguito tratto il film Kissed (1996) di Lynne Stopkewich. Entrambe le opere seguono piuttosto fedelmente la vicenda della Greenlee, e ne approfondiscono ulteriormente gli aspetti legati alla trasgressione dei comportamenti sessuali di genere.

Vagina dentata

The Latin expression vagina dentata defines one of the most ancient archetypes of mankind: mythical representations of female genitalia equipped with ferocious dentition can be found in very different cultures and traditions.

In what can be read as an early warning against the dangers of the vagina, Hesiod recounts how, even before being born, Chronos castrated his understably surprised father Uranus from inside his mother Gaia’s vulva. In many other mythological tales, the hero on his quest has to pass through the gigantic vagina, armed with teeth, of a goddess: this happens in the Maori foundation myths, as well as in those of the Chaco tribes of Paraguay, or the Guyanese people. From North America populations to South East Asia, this monstrous menace was a primal fear. In Europe, particularly in Ireland and Grat Britain, cathedrals and castle fortifications sported the Sheela na Gig, gargoyles showing oversized, unsettling vulvas.

As you can guess, this myth is linked to an exquisitely masculine unconscious terror, so much so that Sigmund Freud interpreted it as a symbol of castration anxiety, that fear every male adolescent feels when first confronted with the female reproductive organ. Others see it as an allegory of the frustration of masculine vigor, which in a sexual intercourse enters “triumphantly” and always leaves “diminished”. In this sense, it is clear how the vagina dentata might be related to the ancient theme of the puella venenata (the “poisonous girl”), to other myths such as the succubus (which was perhaps meant to explain nocturnal emissions), and female spermophagus figures, who feed on men’s vital force, as for example the Mesopotamian demon Lilith.

The history of the vagina dentata, which was sometimes told to children, could have also served as a deterrent against molesters or occasional sex. Even in recent times, during the Vietnam War, a legend circulated among American troops regarding Viet Cong prostitutes who allegedly inserted razor blades or broken glass in their intimate parts, with the intent of mutilating those unwary soldiers who engaged in sex.

What few people know is that, in a purely theoretical way, a toothed vagina could be biologically possible. Dermoid cysts are masses of specialized cells; if these cells end up in the wrong part of the body, they can grow hair, bones or teeth. Inguinal dermoid cysts, however, do not localize in the vaginal area, but usually near ovaries. And even in the implausible scenario of a complete dentition being produced, the teeth would be incapsulated inside the cyst’s own tissue anyway.

Therefore, despite stories on the internet about mysterious “medical cases” of internal cysts growing teeth that pierce the uterus walls, in reality the vagina dentata remains just a fascinating myth.

As expected, this uncanny idea has been exploited in the movies: the most recent case is the comedy horror film Teeth (2007, directed by M. Lichtenstein), the story of a young girl who finds out her private parts behave rather aggressively during intercourse. Less ambitious, and more aware of the humorous potential of its subject matter, is the Japanese B-movie Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (2004, by T. Nakano).

In Tokyo Gore Police (2008, by Y. Nishimura) a mutant girl grows a crocodile mandible in place of her thighs:

Many great authors have written about vagina dentata, including the great Tommaso Landolfi, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Mario Vargas Llosa and others.