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.

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Anatoly Moskvin, a linguist and philologist born in 1966 in Nizhny Novgorod, had earned the unquestioning respect of his fellow academics.
He fluently spoke thirteen languages, and was the author of important studies and academic papers. Great expert of Celtic folklore and of Russian funerary customs, at the age of 45 he was still living with his parents; he refrained from drinking or smoking, collected dolls and it was murmured that he was a virgin. But everybody knows that geniuses are always a little eccentric.

Yet Anatoly Moskvin was hiding a secret. A personal mission he felt he had to accomplish, driven by compassion and love, but one he knew his fellow citizens, not to mention the law, would have deemed crazy.
That very secret was to seal his fate, behind the walls of the mental institute where Anatoly Moskvin now spends his days.

Nizhny Novgorod, capital of the Volga District and the fifth Russian city, is an important cultural centre. In the surroundin areas several hundred graveyards cand be found, and in 2005 Moskvin was assigned the task of recording all the headstones: in two years he visited more than 750 cemeteries.
It was a tough job. Anatoly was forced to walk alone, sometimes for 30 km a day, facing harsh condistions. He had to spend many nights outdoors, drinking from puddles and taking shelter in the abandoned barns of the inhospitable region. One night, caught in the dark, to avoid freezing to death he found no better option than to break in the cemetery burial chamber and sleep in a coffin which was already prepared for next morning’s funeral. When at dawn the gravediggers arrived, they found him sleeping: Anatoly dashed off shouting his excuses – among the general laughter of undertakers who luckily did not chase after him.

The amount of data Mskvin gathered during this endeavour was unprecedented, and the study promised to be “unique” and “priceless”, in the words of those who followed its development. It was never published, but it served as the basis for a long series of articles on the history of Nizhny Novgorod’s cemeteries, published by Moskvin between 2006 and 2010.
But in 2011 the expert’s career ended forever, the day the police showed up to search his home.

Among the 60.000 books in is private library, stacked along the walls and on the floor, between piles of scattered paper and amidst a confusion of objects and documents, the agents found 26 strange, big dolls that gave off an unmistakable foul odor.
These were actually the mummified corpses of 26 little girls, three to 12-year-olds.
Anatoly Moskvin’s secret mission, which lasted for twenty years, had finally been discovered.

Celt druids – as well as Siberian shamans – slept on graves to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. For many years Anatoly did the same. He would lay down on the grave of a recently buried little girl, and speak with her. How are you in that tomb, little angel? Are you cold? Would you like to take a walk?
Some girls answered that they felt alright, and in that case Anatoly shared their happiness.
Other times, the child wept, and expressed the desire to come back to life.
Who would have got the heart to leave them down there, alone and frightened in the darkness of a coffin?

Anatoly studied mummification methods in his books. After exhuming the bodies, he dried them with a mixture of salt and baking soda, hiding them around the cemetery. When they dried out completely, he brought them home and dressed them, providing a bit of thickness to the shrunken limbs with layers of fabric. In some cases he built wax masks, painted with nail polish, to cover their decomposed faces; he bought wigs, bright-colored clothes in the attempt of giving back to those girls their lost beauty.


His elderly parents, who were mostly away from home, did not realize what he was doing. If their son had the hobby of building big puppets, what was wrong with that? Anatoly even disguised one of the bodies as a plush bear.

Moskvin talked to these little bodies he had turned into dolls, he bought them presents. They watched cartoons together, sang songs, held birthday parties.

But he knew this was only a temporary solution. His hope was that science would someday find a way to bring “his” girls back to life – or maybe he himself, during his academic research, could find some ancient black magic spell that would achieve the same effect. Either way, in the meantime, those little girls needed to be comforted and cuddled.

You can’t imagine it”, said during the trial the mother of one of the girls Moskvin stole from the cemetery and mummified. ”You can’t imagine that somebody would touch the grave of your child, the most holy place in this world for you. We had been visiting the grave of our child for nine years and we had no idea it was empty. Instead, she was in this beast’s apartment. […] For nine years he was living with my mummified daughter in his bedroom. I had her for ten years, he had her for nine.”.

Anatoly replied: “You abandoned your girls in the cold – and I brought them home and warmed them up”.

Charged with desecration of graves and dead bodies, Moskvin faced up to five years in prison; but in 2012 he was declared suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, unfit to stand trial, and thus sentenced for coercitive sanitary treatment. In all probability, he will never get out of the psychiatric institute he’s held in.

The little girls never awoke.

Moskvin’s story is somehow analogue to the ones I told in this series of posts:
L’amore che non muore – I   (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – II  (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – III  (English)

Astral Colonel NOF4’s telepathic voyages

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To write is to travel without the hassle of the luggage, Salgari wrote. For Mauriac, “a writer is essentially a man who does not resign himself to loneliness“. Both these concepts, the mental voyage and the struggle with solitude, are good ways to understand the life and work of NOF4, whose original name was Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti.

We don’t get to choose life. We keep telling ourselves we are in control, but sometimes the boat’s wheel is broken from the beginning. The life that was destined to Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti was a painful one: born in Rome in  1927, on New Year’s Eve, son of Concetta Nannetti and of unknown father, he soon grew to be clearly different from other kids. At the time, this meant there was only one destination for him on the horizon – the insane asylum. Oreste entered a mental hospital for the first time at age 10, after having been committed to a charity institution three years before. In 1948 he was charged with insulting a public official, but the judge acquitted him on the grounds of deminished responsibility (“total mind defect“); he then spent some 10 years at the Santa Maria della Pietà psychiatric hospital, before being definitively transferred to Volterra. Oreste arrived to the asylum in Volterra in the worst possible moment, when the hospital was still ruled by a prison regime, with barred and locked windows and the order to address the male nurses as “guards”. Things slowly began to improve after 1963, but the police atmosphere continued, although with increasingly lighter tones, until the hospital was abandoned in 1979 after the Basaglia Law. In 1973 Nannetti was dismissed, and transferred to the Bianchi Institute. He died in Volterra in 1994, and to look at his life, now, it all seems to be spent under the sign of civil negation, beginning with that ignominious initials on his birth certificate, “NN”, “Non Noto” (“unknown”), where his father’s name was supposed to be. The life of a poor son of a bitch that ought to be removed, erased, forgot. Just another failed mutation.

But Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti, in spite of everyone, absolutely left a trace of his passage on this reality, in fact he cut it, sliced it, incised it. And he wrote, to travel with his mind and fight his way through loneliness.

During his years of internment in Volterra, Nannetti engraved his feverish masterpiece: a colossal, immense “graffiti book” on the wall of the Ferri section. 180 meters long (590ft) and 2 meters high (6ft), the graffiti was accomplished by using the buckle from his waistcoat (all the patients wore one) to carve the plaster.  Later, Nannetti began “writing” in this same way on the concrete banister of a big staircase, adding another 106 meters (347ft) by 20 centimeters (8in) to his work. His production also consists of more than 1.600 writings and drawings on papers, including several postcards: these postcards, which he never sent and which were adressed to imaginary relatives, are another attempt to win his battle over an unthinkable solitude.

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If his said and miserable biography, which you just read summarized in a single paragraph, was Nannetti’s “official” life, as one could see it from the outside, through his writings and graffiti his real story comes out, his true reality.
In this dimension, Oreste was not just Oreste, but rather an “astronautical mining engineer in the mental system“, “saint of the photo-electric cell“, and called himself Nanof, Nof, or mainly NOF4. This acronym meant indiscriminately “Nannetti Oreste Fernando”, “French Oriental Nuclear”, or even “French Oriental Nations”, while 4 was the identification number he received at the beginning of his internment. How many multitudes live inside a man who defines himself as “Nations”?
NOF4’s “mining” work consisted in studying and digging through reality, and his graffiti really was his “mining key” to access the unfathomable depths of the psyche. In it we read that “glass, metal sheets, metals, wood, the bones of the human being and of animals and the eye and the spirit are all controlled through the reflective magnetic cathode beam; all images who possess a body heat are living matter, and they can even die twice“.

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NOF4 can telepathically communicate with aliens: “Nannetti’s texts are about imaginary nations taking over other imaginary nations, about spaceflights, about telepathic connections, about fantastic characters, poetically described as tall, spinach-like and with a Y-shaped nose, about hypertechnological weapons, about mysterious alchemic combinations, about magical virtues of metals, ecc.“. (Quaderni d’altri tempi, II,6)

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As a paranoid agent under cover in Burroughs‘ Interzone, Nannetti received dispatches from beyond and reported his psychic investigation’s results on the concrete wall: “I have gathered some news by telepathic means, which will seem weird to you but are true: 1. The Earth is still, and stars turn on Earth’s side; 2. The woman has got no father, your father was a woman“. Heroic, borderline scientist inside his “nuclear observatory“, NOF4 measured magnetic fluxes, saw forests made of metal pylons and antennas with his mind’s eye, and kept carving his graffiti with his buckle.
The dense lines of text of which [the graffiti] is composed, with drawings and illustrations sometimes interrupting it, give the idea of a constant flow of words, sounds, images. An encyclopedia of the world almost treated as inner dialogue, and delivered to the world itself with urgence, maybe chaotically, but surely with a strong determination“, writes sociologist Adolfo Fattori, and his words are echoed by Lara Fremder: “Maybe this is how it went, it happened that a man with no history tried to write one for himself, and in order to do that he chose a wall, a big wall, a 180 meters surface, the whole facade of the psychiatric hospital. And he began to write and draw and to collect everything inside carved pages on the wall. […] What I think, what I love to think, is that NOF4 had other interlocutors to have a conversation with, and he showed them his drawings, and handed them the keys to his own mining system. I love to imagine these interlocutors really understood that lunatic well, studying with him projects and plans for other dimensions, surely not for this one, where day after day we witness a slow agony of meaning and beauty“.

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The psychiatric hospital in Volterra, closed in 1979, is in a state of complete abandon. Of Nannetti’s graffiti, which is considered a world masterpiece of outsider art, little was saved (a piece was detached in 2013 for preservation). Only some parts of it still stand, and we have just a few photocopies of his writings and drawings. If not for Aldo Trafeli, a male nurse who was the only one to talk to Nannetti, eventually becoming his friend, we probably wouldn’t even know his story.

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Among the still existing parts of the graffiti, one in particular is the visible trace of Nannetti’s kindness. In some points, the lines of text go up and down: when asked about this strange “wave”, Oreste replied that he did it because he didn’t want to disturb the other patients, who sat against the wall warming in the sun; he could have asked them to move, but he preferred to continue his carvings around their heads.

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Nannetti, the “nuclear safecracker”, the “astral colonel”, never went past elementary school. But, even without being a person of letters, in writing he found a spaceship to explore his own illness and pain.
NOF4 was not alone anymore, NOF4 could travel: “as a free butterfly singing, the whole world is mine… and everything makes me dream…

The only existing moving images of NOF4.

Here’s the italian Wiki page about NOF4. The quotes in the post come from a marvellous monographic number of  Quaderni d’altri tempi entirely dedicated to Nannetti.
(Thanks, gery!)