Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 18

Me, preparing this post.

Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.

Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).

Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.

  • Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
  • Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
    You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
    As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
    For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.
  • On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
  • Although he had proclaimed himself innocent, Hew Draper was imprisoned in the Tower of London for witchcraft. Once in his cell, he began sculpting this stuff on the wall. Suuuure, of course you’re innocent, Mr. Draper.

  • Here’s a nice article (Italian only) on death & grief in the digital era, mentioning Capsula Mundi, the Order of the Good Death, as well as myself.
  • Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
  • There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
  • Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.

  • A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
    “Another one?”, I hear you say.
    Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
  • Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
    Here’s a useful infographic:

  • Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
  • On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)

  • Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.

The Homunculus Inside

Paracelsushomunculus, the result of complicated alchemic recipes, is an allegorical figure that fascinated the collective uncoscious for centuries. Its fortune soon surpassed the field of alchemy, and the homunculus was borrowed by literature (Goethe, to quote but one example), psychology (Jung wrote about it), cinema (take the wonderful, ironic Pretorius scene from The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935), and the world of illustration (I’m thinking in particular of Stefano Bessoni). Even today the homunculus hasn’t lost its appeal: the mysterious videos posted by a Russian youtuber, purportedly showing some strange creatures developed through unlikely procedures, scored tens of millions of views.

Yet I will not focus here on the classic, more or less metaphorical homunculus, but rather on the way the word is used in pathology.
Yes beacuse, unbeknownst to you, a rough human figure could be hiding inside your own body.
Welcome to a territory where the grotesque bursts into anatomy.

Let’s take a step back to how life starts.
In the beginning, the fertilized cell (zygote) is but one cell; it immediately starts dividing, generating new cells, which in turn proliferate, transform, migrate. After roughly two weeks, the different cellular populations organize into three main areas (germ layers), each one with its given purpose — every layer is in charge of the formation of a specific kind of structure. These three specialized layers gradually create the various anatomical shapes, building the skin, nerves, bones, organs, apparatuses, and so on. This metamorphosis, this progressive “surfacing” of order ends when the fetus is completely developed.

Sometimes it might happen that this very process, for some reason, gets activated again in adulthood.
It is as if some cells, falling for an unfathomable hallucination, believed they still are at an embryonic stage: therefore they begin weaving new structures, abnormal growths called teratomas, which closely resemble the outcome of the first germ differentiations.

These mad cells start producing hair, bones, teeth, nails, sometimes cerebral or tyroid matter, even whole eyes. Hystologically these tumors, benign in most cases, can appear solid, wrapped inside cystes, or both.

In very rare cases, a teratoma can be so highly differentiated as to take on an antropomorphic shape, albeit rudimentary. These are the so-called fetiform teratomas (homunculus).

Clinical reports of this anomaly really have an uncanny, David Cronenberg quality: one homunculus found in 2003 inside an ovarian teratoma in a 25-year-old virginal woman, showed the presence of brain, spinal chord, ears, teeth, tyroid gland, bone, intestines, trachea, phallic tissue and one eye in the middle of the forehead.
In 2005 another fetiform mass had hairs and arm buds, with fingers and nails. In 2006 a reported homunculus displayed one upper limb and two lower limbs complete with feet and toes. In 2010 another mass presented a foot with fused toes, hair, bones and marrow. In 2015 a 13-year-old patient was found to carry a fetiform teratoma exhibiting hair, vestigial limbs, a rudimentary digestive tube and a cranial formation containing meninxes and neural tissue.

What causes these cells to try and create a new, impossible life? And are we sure that the minuscule, incomplete fetus wasn’t really there from the beginning?
Among the many proposed hypothesis, in fact, there is also the idea that homunculi (difficult to study because of their scarcity in scientific literature) may not be actual tumors, but actually the remnants of a parasitic twin, incapsulated within his sibling’s body during the embryonic phase. If this was the case, they would not qualify as teratomas, falling into the fetus in fetu category.

But the two phenomenons are mainly regarded as separate.
To distinguish one from the other, pathologists rely on the existence of a spinal column (which is present in the fetus in fetu but not in teratomas), on their localization (teratomas are chiefly found near the reproductive area, the fetus in fetu within the retroperitoneal space) and on zygosity (teratomas are often differentiated from the surrounding tissues, as if they were “fraternal twins” in regard to their host, while the fetus in fetu is homozygote).

The study of these anomalous formations might provide valuable information for the understanding of human development and parthenogenesis (essential for the research on stem cells).
But the intriguing aspect is exactly their problematic nature. As I said, each time doctors encounter a homunculus, the issue is always how to categorize it: is it a teratoma or a parasitic twin? A structure that “emerged” later, or a shape which was there from the start?

It is interesting to note that this very uncertainty also has existed in regard to normal embryos for the over 23 centuries. The debate focused on a similar question: do fetuses arise from scratch, or are they preexistent?
This is the ancient dispute between the supporters of epigenesis and preformationism, between those who claimed that embryonic structures formed out of indistinct matter, and those who thought that they were already included in the egg.
Aristotle, while studying chicken embryos, had already speculated that the unborn child’s physical structures acquire solidity little by little, guided by the soul; in the XVIII Century this theory was disputed by preformationism. According to the enthusiasts of this hypothesis (endorsed by high-profile scholars such as Leibniz, Spallanzani and Diderot), the embryo was already perfectly formed inside the egg, ab ovo, only too small to be visible to the naked eye; during development, it would just have to grow in size, as a baby does after birth.
Where did this idea come from? An important part was surely played by a well-known etching by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, who was among the first scientists to observe seminal fluid under the microscope, as well as being a staunch supporter of the existence of minuscule, completely formed fetuses hiding inside the heads of sperm cells.
And Hartsoeker, in turn, had taken inspiration precisely from the famous alchemical depictions of the homunculus.

In a sense, the homunculus appearing in an ancient alchemist’s vial and the ones studied by pathologists nowadays are not that different. They can both be seen as symbols of the enigma of development, of the fundamental mystery surrounding birth and life. Miniature images of the ontological dilemma which has been forever puzzling humanity: do we appear from indistinct chaos, or did our heart and soul exist somewhere, somehow, before we were born?

Little addendum of anatomical pathology (and a bit of genetics)
by Claudia Manini, MD

Teratomas are germ cell tumors composed of an array of tissues derived from two or three embryonic layers (ectoderm, mesoderm, endoderm) in any combination.
The great majority of teratomas are benign cystic tumors mainly located in ovary, containing mature (adult-type) tissues; rarely they contains embryonal tissues (“immature teratomas”) and, if so, they have a higher malignant potential.
The origin of teratomas has been a matter of interest, speculation, and dispute for centuries because of their exotic composition.
The partenogenic theory, which suggests an origin from the primordial germ cell, is now the most widely accepted. The other two theories, one suggesting an origin from blastomeres segregated at an early stage of embryonic development and the second suggesting an origin from embryonal rests have few adherents currently. Support for the germ cell theory has come from anatomic distribution of the tumors, which occurs along the body midline of migration of the primordial germ cell, from the fact that the tumors occur most commonly during the reproductive age (epidemiologic-observational but also experimental data) and from cytogenetic analysis which has demonstrated genotypic differences between omozygous teratomatous tissue and heterozygous host tissue.
The primordial germ cells are the common origins of gametes (spermatozoa and oocyte, that are mature germ cells) which contain a single set of 23 chromosomas (haploid cells). During fertilization two gametes fuse together and originate a new cell which have a dyploid and heterozygous genetic pool (a double set of 23 chromosomas from two different organism).
On the other hand, the cells composing a teratoma show an identical genetic pool between the two sets of chromosomes.
Thus teratomas, even when they unexpectedly give rise to fetiform structures, are a different phenomenon from the fetus in fetu, and they fall within the scope of tumoral and not-malformative pathology.
All this does not lessen the impact of the observation, and a certain awe in considering the differentiation potential of one single germ cell.

Kurman JR et al., Blaustein’s pathology of the female genital tract, Springer 2011
Prat J., Pathology of the ovary, Saunders 2004

Modificazioni corporali estreme

Oggi parliamo di un argomento estremo e controverso, che potrebbe nauseare parecchi lettori. Chi intende leggere questo articolo fino alla fine si ritenga quindi avvisato: si tratta di immagini e temi che potrebbero urtare la sensibilità della maggioranza delle persone.

Tutti conoscono le mode dei piercing o dei tatuaggi: modificazioni permanenti del corpo, volontariamente “inflitte” per motivi diversi. Appartenenza ad un gruppo, non-appartenenza, fantasia sessuale o non, desiderio di individualità, voglia di provarsi di fronte al dolore… il corpo, rimasto tabù per tanti secoli, diviene il territorio privilegiato sul quale affermare la propria identità. Ma le body modifications non si fermano certo ai piercing. Attraverso il dolore, il corpo così a lungo negato diviene una sorta di cartina di tornasole, la vera essenza carnale che dimostra di essere vivi e reali.

E la libertà di giocare con la forma del proprio corpo porta agli estremi più inediti (belli? brutti?) che si siano mai visti fino ad ora. Ci sono uomini che desiderano ardentemente la castrazione. Donne che vogliono tagliare in due il proprio clitoride. Maschi che vogliono liberarsi dei capezzoli. Gente che si vuole impiantare sottopelle ogni sorta di oggetto. O addirittura sotto la cornea oculare. Bisognerebbe forse parlare di “corponauti”, di nuovi esploratori della carne che sperimentano giorno dopo giorno inedite configurazioni della nostra fisicità.

Alcune di queste “novità del corpo” sono già diventate famose. Ad esempio, il sezionare la lingua per renderla biforcuta: le due metà divengono autonome e si riesce a comandarle separatamente. La divisione della lingua è ancora un tipo di pratica, se non comune, comunque almeno conosciuta attraverso internet o il “sentito dire”. La maggior parte degli adepti dichiara che non tornerebbe più ad una lingua singola, per cui dovremmo credere che i vantaggi siano notevoli. Certo è che gran parte di queste modificazioni corporali avviene senza il controllo di un medico, e può portare ad infezioni anche gravi. Quindi attenti.


Diverso è il discorso per le amputazioni volontarie di genitali o altre estremità. Nelle scene underground (soprattutto americane) si ricorre all’aiuto dei cosiddetti cutters. Si tratta di medici o di veterinari che si prestano a tagliare varie parti del corpo dei candidati alla nuova vita da amputati. E i tagli sono di natura squisitamente diversa. C’è chi decide di farsi portar via entrambi i testicoli, o i capezzoli, chi opta per sezionare il pene a metà, chi ancora si fa incidere il pene lasciando intatto il glande, chi vuole farsi asportare i lobi dell’orecchio. La domanda comincia  a formarsi nelle vostre menti: perché?

Scorrendo velocemente il sito, dedicato alle modificazioni corporali, c’è da rimanere allibiti. Sembra non ci sia freno alle fantasie macabre che vogliono il nostro fisico diverso da ciò che è.

Per rispondere alla domanda che sorge spontanea (“Perché?”) bisogna chiarire che queste modificazioni rimandano a un preciso bisogno psicologico. Non si tratta  – soltanto – di strane psicopatologie o di mode futili: questa gente cambia il proprio corpo permanentemente a seconda del desiderio che prova. Se vogliamo vederla in modo astratto, anche le donne che si bucano i lobi dell’orecchio per inserirci un orecchino stanno facendo essenzialmente la stessa cosa: modificano il loro corpo affinché sia più attraente. Ma mentre l’orecchino è socialmente accettato, il tagliarsi il pene in due non lo è. Lo spunto interessante di queste tecniche è che sembra che il corpo sia divenuto l’ultima frontiera dell’identità, quella soglia che ci permette di proclamare quello che siamo. In  un mondo in cui l’estetica è assoggettata alle regole di mercato, ci sono persone che rifiutano il tipo di uniformità fisica propugnata dai mass media per cercare il proprio individualismo. Potrà apparire una moda, una ribellione vacua e pericolosa. Ma di sicuro è una presa di posizione controcorrente che fa riflettere sui canoni di bellezza che oggi sembrano comandare i media e influenzare le aspirazioni dei nostri giovani. Nel regno simbolico odierno, in cui tutto sembra possibile, anche la mutilazione ha diritto di cittadinanza. Può indurre al ribrezzo, o all’attrazione: sta a voi decidere, e sentire sulla vostra pelle le sensazioni che provate. Certo questo mondo è strano; e gli strani la fanno da padrone.