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.


All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
(E.A. Poe)

∼ Inferior Mirages ∼

Very hot air close to the ground, colder air above. Light rays refracted from distant objects get deviated by the column of scorching air moving upwards. Here is the classical mirage of Sahara Bedouins, fresh oasis among the dunes and water poodles where there is nothing but dusty desert.

A mirage which is bound to also haunt another kind of nomad, the soul who cannot help but travel because he’s a victim of the highway blues, and he knows all too well that the tarmac road might look wet under the torrid sun.

The more we get close to it, the more the illusion vanishes. We hurry towards the much coveted water to find it was mere deceit; and all our hurrying did was worsen our thirst. “If a mirage were water, why is water not seen by those nearby?Nāgārjuna asked – The way this world is seen as real by those afar is not so seen by those nearby for whom it is signless like a mirage“. Maybe we too will be soon close enough to the truth to realize it is an illusion.

∼ Superior Mirages∼

The ocean liner, in the dark night brightened only by the stars, eased out majestically on the water. Aboard, feasting passengers: on the horizon, a strange mist. Reginald Lee was on watch:

A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead, […] in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.

A dark mist, a vague tremor just above the horizon, but too far away to seem like a menacing sign. Then, from the nothingness of that fog, without warning, like a giant bursting on the scene from a funeral curtain, came the huge milky silhouette.

It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship.

It looks like it might have gone that way: the Titanic probably sank due to a mirage. The mountain of ice remained hidden until the very last moment inside the sidereal light, which had been bended by the cold of the sea.

Ironically, this was the same kind of mirage which gave another ship, albeit fantastic, an eternal and persistant place in sailors’ fantasies. The immortal Flying Dutchman, floating over the ocean waves, perhaps owes his legend to the illusion called “superior mirage”. Superior, because its phantasmagoria appears above the horizon, and sometimes ships sailing beyond the Earth’s curve, which we shouldn’t be able to see, look like they are suspended in mid air.

Like mountaineers, who fear and respect the mountain, the people of the sea knew a secret which escaped the mainland inhabitants. They were aware of the insidious nature of water, they knew all about whirlpools always ready to gape unexpectedly, about the visions, the magical fires up on the mast, the terrible twin monsters waiting for ships to pass in the narrow strip between Sicily and Calabria.

∼ Fata Morgana ∼

It is right on the Straits of Messina that the Castle in the Sky is sometimes spotted, home to the Enchantress, cruel sister of Arthur son of Pendragon. The witch’s magical arts make the winged castle visible both from the coast of the island and from the opposite shore. Many believed they could conquer its trembling stronghold, and drowned.

Thus Morgan le Fay, “Fata Morgana”, gave her name to the rarest among superior mirages, capable of blending together three or more layers of inverted and distorted objects, in a constantly changing visual blur. The ultimate mirage, where nothing is what it seems; impossible apparitions of distant gloomy towers, enchanted cities, ghost forests. The horizon is not a promise anymore, but a mocking imposture.

∼ The Mirage of Everything ∼

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

What Zhuangzi is not considering is the possibility that both him and the butterfly might be a dream: someone else’s dream.
Quantum physicists, who are the modern poets, mystics, artists, suggest ours could potentially be a holographic cosmos. According to some scientists, the whole universe might be a simulacrum, a sophisticated simulation (atoms-pixels), us being the characters who little by little are realizing they’re part of a game. Galileo’s method is now teaming up with the opium eaters’ lucid hallucinations, and math itself seems to tell us that “life is but a dream“.

Among the supporters of the hypothesis of the universe being an elaborate fiction inside an alien algorythm, there is a controversial, visionary innovator who is trying to keep us safe from the dangers of strong AI. His inconceivable plan: to fuse our cerebral cortexes with the Net, forever freeing us from the language virus and, in time, reprogramming  our already obsolete bodies from the inside. Mutate or die!
And this mutation is going  to happen, rest assured, not in two hundred years, but in the next ten or fifteen.

Today we take a look around, and all we see is mirage.
For thousands of years philosophers have been discussing the Great Dream, but never before the veil of Maya has been so thin, so close to be torn at any moment.
What does it mean for us to accept the possible unreality of everything? Does it entail an absolute relativism, does it mean that killing is nothing serious after all, that nothing has value? Weren’t Hassan-i Sabbāh‘s last words “nothing is true, everything is permitted”?
[Old Uncle Bill smiles slyly from his parallel universe, surrounded by seductive centipede-boys.]
Are we instead to understand mirage as a liberation? Because death will finally turn out to be that “passage” every enlightened guru told us about, and this is not the true world? But does a true world really exist? Or is it just another mirage within a mirage?

Zhuangzi, the butterfly man, again:

All the while, the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman — how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming!  It is a dream even for me to say that you are dreaming.

(Thanks, Bruno!)

Sailing On Top of The Mountains

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.

(Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless, 2009)

This was the genesis of Fitzcarraldo, and chasing this dream Herzog actually lifted a steamboat to the top of a mountain, in order to take it from the  Rio Camisea to the Urubamba; a gigantic effort that entailed death and madness, during what is probably the most legendary and extreme film production in history.

The epic of contrast (here: the boat on the mountain, the sophistication of opera against the barbaric jungle) is what always seduced men into attempting the impossible.
And yet, eighty years before Fitzcarraldo, there was a man to whom this very endeavour seemed not at all visionary. A man who, in this idea of a boat climbing up a mountain slope, saw the future.

Pietro Caminada (1862-1923), was born from the marriage betweeen Gion Antoni Caminada, a Swiss who had emigrated from the Grisons canton to Italy, and Maria Turconi, from Milan. Fascinated since an early age by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci, he studied engineering and was forced, like many others at the time, to sail towards Argentina together with his brother Angelo, looking for a job. After stopping for a brief tour of Rio de Janeiro, however, he was stunned by the city. He came back on the ship only to get hold of his luggage, and said to his brother: “I’m staying here“.

During the fifteen years he spent in Rio, Caminada worked on several projects regarding the town plan, the harbor refurbishing, and transportation: he transformed the Arcos da Lapa Aqueduct, built in 1750, into a viaduct for the transit of the Bonde, the folkloristic yellow tram which caracterized the Brazilian city until 2011. He was even chosen to design from scratch the new capital, Brasilia, sixty years before the town was actually built.
After this brilliant start, Caminada relocated back to Italy, in Rome. In addition to a wife and three daughters, he also brought with him his most ambitious project: making the Alps navigable.

Certainly this idea had a foremost practical purpose. Connecting Genoa to Konstanz via the Splügen Pass would have allowed for an otherwise unthinkable commercial development, as waterways were affordable and inexpensive.
But in Caminada’s proposal there also was an element of challenge, as if he was defying Nature itself; a fact the papers at the time never ceased to stress. An article, which appeared on the magazine Ars et Labor (1906-1912), began like this:

Man always seems to turn his creativity against the firmest and most solid laws of Nature. He is like a rebellious kid who fancies especially what is forbidden.
— Ah, you did not give me wings, he says to Nature, well I will build me some and fly anyway, in spite of your plans! You made my legs weak and slow, well I will build me an iron horse and run faster than your fastest creatures […]. As wonderful as a moving train might be, it does not upset any of the fundamental principles of Nature’s system; but to sail through the mountains, to sail upwards, to sail across steep slopes expecting this miracle to come only from the energy of channeled water, that is something that turns our most certain knowledge of navigation upside down, something contrary to water’s immutable ways of being […].

The beauty of Caminada’s method to bring boats across the Alps resided in its simplicity. It mainly consisted of a variation of the widely used ship-lock system.
If building a lock “stairway” on different levels remained unthinkable, according to the engineer everything would be easier with an inclined plane:

Imagine holding a cylindrical tube filled with water in a vertical position, the water plane will be round: if the pipe is tilted, the water plane, while always horizontal, will acquire a shape which will be the more elliptical and elongated the more the tube gets close to the horizontal position. If water is let out of the pipe, any floating body on the water plane will come down with it, along a diagonal […]. Thus, if the tube is held vertical the floating body will go up or down following a vertical line: if inclined, the floating body in addition to moving up or down will also travel horizontally. On this simple idea of tubular locks I have built my system of inclined canals, with two lanes in opposite directions.

chiuse   chiuse3

Caminada’s double tubular ship-locks ran in parallel, sharing common usptream and downstream water basins.

One lock is full, the other empty. In the full lock is placed the descending ship; in the empty one, the other boat that has to climb up. The two locks communicate at the bottom through channels or syphons. Upon opening the syphon, the water moves from the full lock to the empty one, lowering and carrying downards the boat in the full lock while lifting up the one in the empty lock, until they reach the same level […]. The operation is completed by closing the communication duct and completely emptying the lock with the descending ship, while from the upstream basin comes the necessary water to fill the lock where the upgoing boat is.

This system, patented by Caminada around the world since 1907, had a huge resonance in those years. It was discussed in articles published by international papers, in conventions and meetings, so much so that many thought the project would become real over a very short time.
Cesare Bolla, who lived in Ticino and disapproved deeply of Caminada’s ideas, even wrote a tongue-in-cheek little poem in 1908, making fun of the inevitable, epochal trasformation that was about to hit Lugano:

Outside my tavern, I’ve put on display
A sign on the window, saying: “Seaside Hotel”.
Folks round here, by a sacred fire consumed,
Only by ships and sails are amused.
[…] it won’t be long, for our own sake,
we’ll gaze at the sea instead of this lake.
Ships will pass in great abundance
All headed for the lake of Constance.

The engineer never stopped working on his dream.

«Caminada — as Till Hein notes — struggled for his vision. He went over and over the details of his project, he built miniatures of his lock system, in many variations. And eventually he built a gigantic model, for the great Architecture Exposition in Milan. With unflinching zeal he tried to convince politicians and officials». He was, like the Bündner Tagblatt once wrote, «an erupting volcano» and had «a restless head, with hair down to his shoulders» […].

(T. Gatani, Da Genova a Costanza in barca attraverso le Alpi, La Rivista, n. 12, dicembre 2012)

But the Genoa-Kostanz route imagined by Caminada was bound to collide, on one hand, with the interests of a Swiss “railroad lobby” who endorsed the building of a train line through the Splügen Pass; on the other, there was Austria, which dominated northeastern Italy and was determined to see that the Kingdom of Savoy couldn’t set a direct connection with Germany, be it by train or ship.

In 1923, at the age of sixty, Caminada died in Rome, and his waterways never became a reality.
His project, which only fifteen years before was seen as the upcoming future, ended up like its inventor in the “mass grave” of memories — except for some sporadic exhibition, and a little country road still bearing his name, situated in the vicinity of the airport entitled to his beloved Leonardo Da Vinci.

Looking back today, the most unfortunate and even sarcastic detail of the story might be a prophecy uttered by King Victor Emmanuel III: when Caminada showed him his plans during a private hearing on January 3, 1908, the King replied: “One day I will be long forgotten, but people will still be talking about you“.

Caminada’s motto, which he repeated throughout his life, is however still true. In two simple Latin words, it encompasses every yearning, every tension towards human limits, every courageous desire of exploring the boundaries: Navigare necesse. It is essential to navigate.

For human beings, setting sail towards new horizons still is, and always will be, a necessity and an imperative.

(Thanks, Emiliano!)