Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 13

GIF art by Colin Raff

These last times have been quite dense, in the wake of the publication of The Petrifier.
Allow me a breif summary. 1) On the Italian magazine Venerdì di Repubblica a nice article by Giulia Villoresi came out: it starts out by reviewing the book but soon shifts to the wider subject of new aesthetics of the macabre, saving some nice words for this blog. 2) I was featured on the Swiss website Ossarium for their series Death Expert of the Month, and upon answering one of their three questions I recounted a tragic episode that particularly influenced my work. 3) I also took part in The Death Hangout, a podcast + YouTube series in which I chatted for half an hour with hosts Olivier and Keith, discussing museums and disturbing places, the symbolic meaning of human remains, the cruelty and bestiality of death, etc. 4) Carlo Vannini‘s photographs served as an inspiration to the talented Claudia Crobatia of A Course In Dying for her excellent considerations on the morbid but fruitful curiosity of the generation that grew up with websites like Rotten.com.

Let’s start immediately with the links, but not before having revisited a classic 1972 Monty Python sketch, in which Sam Peckinpah, who in those years was quite controversial for his violent westerns, gets to direct a movie about British upper class’ good old days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeYznvQvnsY

  • The blog Rocaille – dedicated to the kind of Beauty that lurks in the dark – is one of my favorite virtual spaces. And recently Annalisa visited the wunderkammer Theatrum Mundi (I also wrote about it a while ago), which in turn is one of my favorite concrete spaces. So, you can imagine, I was twice as delighted.
  • Another friend I unconditionally admire is relic hunter Elizabeth Harper, who runs the All The Saints You Should Know website. A few days ago she published a truly exceptional account of the Holy Week processions in Zamora, Spain: during those long days dedicated to the celebration of Christ’s death, she witnessed a paradoxical loosening of social and sexual inhibitions. But is it really a paradox? Maybe not, if, as Georges Bataille pointed out, eroticism is ultimately an anticipation of death itself, which erases individual boundaries. This might be why it is so strictly connected to ecstasy, and to the sacred.

  • Since we’re talking Bataille: in his obscene Story of the Eye, there’s this unforgettable passage where the protagonist Simone slips between her legs the eyeball she tore off the corpse of a priest (the engraving above, inspired by the scene in question , is by Bellmer).
    This eyed vagina, or vagina oculata, is an extreme and repulsive image, but it has an archetypal quality and it is representative of the complex eye/egg analogy that underlies the whole story.
    Following the same juxtaposition between creation (bringing to light) and vision, some have inserted a pinhole camera into the female genitalia. The Brainoise blog talks about it in a fascinating article (Italian only): several artists have in fact tried to use these rudimentary and handcrafted appliances in a Cronenberg-like fusion with the human body.
  • By the way, one of the first posts on Bizzarro Bazar back in 2009 was dedicated to Wayne Martin Belger’s pinhole cameras, which contain organic materials and human remains.
  • Toru Kamei creates beautiful still, or not-so-still, life paintings. Here are some of his works:

  • When it comes to recipes, we Italians can be really exasperating. Post a pic of chicken spaghetti, and in zero time you will be earning many colorful and unlikely names. A food nazi Twitter account.

  • Above is a mummified skeleton found 15 years ago in the Atacama desert of Chile. Many thought — hoped — it would be proved to be of alien origin. DNA tests have shown a much more earthly, and touching, truth.
  • A typical morning in Australia: you wake up, still sleepy, you put your feet down and you realize that one of your slippers has disappeared. Where the heck can it be? You’re sure you left it there last night, beside the other one. You also don’t recall seeing that three-meter python curled up in the bedroom.

  • Everybody knows New Orleans Mardi Gras, but few are familiar with its more visceral version, held each year in several Cajun communities of South Louisiana: the courir de Mardi Gras. Unsettling masks and attires of ancient origin mocking noblemen’s clothes and the clergy, armies of unruly pranksters, bring chaos in the streets and whipped by captains on horseback, sacrificial chickens chased through muddy fields… here are some wonderful black and white photos of this eccentric manifestation. (Thanks, Elisa!)

  • There are several “metamorphic” vanitas, containing a skull that becomes visible only if the image is looked at from a certain distance. This is my favorite one, on the account of the unusual side view and the perfect synthesis of Eros and Thanatos; anybody knows who the artist is? [EDIT: art by Bernhard Gutmann, 1905, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Thanks Roberto!]

  • Country homes in Vermont often feature a special, crooked window that apparently serves no practical purpose. Perhaps they are meant to discourage witches that might be fluttering around the house.
  • My Twitter went a little crazy since I posted the photos of this magnificent goat, found mainly in Siria and Lebanon. The breed is the result of careful genetic selection, and it won several beauty contests for ruminants. And I bet this cutie would break many a heart in the Star Wars Cantina, too.

  • Finally, I would like to leave you with a little gift that I hope is welcome: I created a playlist on Spotify for all readers of Bizzarro Bazar. A very heterogeneous musical offer, but with a common denominator which is ultimately the same underlying this blog: wonder. Whether it’s an experimental indie piece, a dark melody, a tattered and frenzied polka, a nostalgic song, some old blues about death, an ironic and weird reinterpretation of a classic theme, or an example of outsider music played by homeless people and deviant characters, these tunes can surprise you, transport you to unusual soundscapes, sometimes push you out of your comfort zone.
    Each song has been selected for a specific reason I could even explain in a didactic way — but I won’t. I will leave you the pleasure of discovery, and also the freedom to guess why I included this or that.
    The playlist consists of more than 8 hours of music (and I will continue to add stuff), which should be enough for anyone to find a little something, maybe just a starting point for new research and discoveries. Enjoy!

Le Violon Noir

Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.

Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne.
His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.

In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district.
Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.

Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.

In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.

The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):

On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.

(in Marc Pincherle, Jean-Marie Leclair l’aîné, 1952,
quoted in
Musicus Politicus, Qui a tué Jean-Marie Leclair?, 2016)

The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.

And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.

But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.

The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.

If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.

You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.

(Thanks, Flavio!)

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 12

Eli Bowen “the Legless Wonder” with his family welcome you to this new batch of oddities and news from around the world! Let’s start!

  • Could there be a solution to appeal vegans, vegeterians and meat lovers? It’s called post-animal bio-economy, and among other things it involves growing laboratory meat from stem cells.
    A totally painless method for animals, who could at last lead their happy lives without us giving up a steak, a glass of milk or a poached egg. These would note be alternative products, but the same products, developed in a much more sustainable way in respect to linear agriculture (which has proven problematic for the quantity of land, chemicals, pesticides, energy resources, needed water and work, and emissions of greenhouse gases).
    Take the highly controversial foie gras: in the near future it could be produced from the stem cells gathered from the tip of a duck’s feather. It might seem a bit sci-fi, but the first lab foie gras is already here, and this journalist tasted it.
    There are just two obstacles: on one hand, the costs of lab meat are still too high for large-scale production (but this shouldn’t take too long to fix); on the other, there’s the small detail that this is a cultural, and not just agricultural, revolution. We will find out how traditional farmers will react, and above all if consumers are rady to try these new cruelty-free products.

  • The city of Branau am Inn, in Austria, is sadly known as the birthplace of a certain dictator called Adolf. But it should be remembered for another reason: the story of Hans Steininger, a burgomaster who on September 28, 1567, was killed by his own beard. A thick and prodigiously long set of hair, which turned out to be fatal during a great fire: while escaping the flames, mayor Hans forgot to roll his 2-meters-long beard and put it in his pocket, as he usually did, tripped on it and fell down the stairs breaking his neck.
    As in the 1500s there was no such thing as the Darwin Awards, his fellow citizens placed a nice plaque on the side of the church and preserved the killer beard, still visible today at Branau’s Civic Museum.

  • But if you think silly deaths are an exclusively human achievement, hear this: “due to the humidity in its environment and how slowly a sloth moves, plant life will grow in its fur. This, combined with poor eyesight, leads to some sloths grabbing their own arms, thinking it’s a tree branch, and falling to their deaths.” (via Seriously Strange)

  • Furthermore, there’s the genius rodent who slipped into a 155-years-old mousetrap on exhibit in a museum. Slow clap.
  • You’re always so nervous and depressed, they said.
    Why don’t you learn a musical instrument, just to chill out and amuse yourself?, they said.
    It served them well.

  • The Flying Dutch of the 20th Century was called SS Baychimo, a cargo ship that got stuck in the Alaskan ice in 1931 and was abandoned there. For the next 38 years the ghost ship kept turning up and was spotted on several occasions; somebody even managed to board it, but each time the Baychimo successfully escaped without being recovered. (Thanks, Stefano!)
  • The terrible story of “El Negro”: when collectors of natural curiosities didn’t just ship animal skins back to Europe from the Colonies, but also the skin of human beings they dug out of their graves during the night.

  • Since we’re talking about human remains, the biggest traveling mummy exhibit was launched eight years ago (featuring a total of 45 mummies). You never got to see it? Neither did I. Here are some nice pictures.
  • Japanese aesthetics permeates even the smallest details: take a look at these two pages from a late-XVII C. manuscript showing the different kinds of design for wagashi (tipical pastries served during the tea ceremony. Ante litteram food porn.
  • Some researchers form the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland created music specifically studied to be appealing to cats, with frequences and sounds that should be, at least in theory, “feline-centric“. The tracks can be bought here even if, to be honest, my cats didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by the music samples. But then again, those two are fastidious and spoiled rotten.
  • An article published two years ago, and unfortunately still relevant today: transgender people have a hard time being recognized as such, even when theyr’e dead.

“Almost ready dear, let me put on some pearls and we can go out.”

  • Among the most bizarre museums, there is the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships. It consists of objects, donated by the public, that symbolize a terminated relationship: the pearl necklace given as a gift by a violent fiancé to his girlfriend, in the attempt to be forgiven for his last abuses; an axe used by a woman to chop all of her ex-grilfriend’s furniture into pieces; the Proust volumes that a husband read out loud to his wife — the last 200 hundred pages still untouched, as their relationship ended before they’d finished reading the book. Well, can a love story ever last longer than the Recherche? (via Futility Closet)

In closing, I’d like to remind you that on Saturday 17 I will be in Bologna, at the library-wunderkammer Mirabilia (via de’ Carbonesi 3/e) to launch my new book from the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. You will also get to meet photographer Carlo Vannini and Professor Alberto Carli, curator of the Paolo Gorini Anatomical Collection. I hope to see you there!

Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c71RCAyLS1M

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.

Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and  mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.

This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of  love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.

This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.

Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.

And maybe he really, finally was.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 3

New miscellanea of interesting links and bizarre facts.

  • There’s a group of Italian families who decided, several years ago, to try and live on top of the trees. In 2010 journalist Antonio Gregolin visited these mysterious “hermits” — actually not as reclusive as you might think —, penning a wonderful reportage on their arboreal village (text in Italian, but lots of amazing pics).

  • An interesting long read on disgust, on the cognitive biases it entails, and on how it could have played an essential role in the rise of morals, politics and laws — basically, in shaping human societies.
  • Are you ready for a travel in music, space and time? On this website you get to choose a country and a decade from 1900 to this day, and discover what were the biggest hits back in the time. Plan your trip/playlist on a virtual taxi picking unconceivably distant stops: you might start off from the first recordings of traditional chants in Tanzania, jump to Korean disco music from the Eighties, and reach some sweet Norwegian psychedelic pop from the Sixties. Warning, may cause addiction.
  • Speaking of time, it’s a real mystery why this crowdfunding campaign for the ultimate minimalist watch didn’t succeed. It would have made a perfect accessory for philosophers, and latecomers.
  • The last issue of Illustrati has an evocative title and theme, “Circles of light”. In my contribution, I tell the esoteric underground of Northern Italy in which I grew up: The Only Chakra.
  • During the terrible flooding that recently hit Louisiana, some coffins were seen floating down the streets. A surreal sight, but not totally surprising: here is my old post about Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where from time to time human remains emerge from the ground.

  • In the Pelican State, you can always rely on traditional charms and gris-gris to avoid bad luck — even if by now they have become a tourist attraction: here are the five best shops to buy your voodoo paraphernalia in NOLA.
  • Those who follow my work have probably heard me talking about “dark wonder“, the idea that we need to give back to wonder its original dominance on darkness. A beautiful article on the philosophy of awe (Italian only) reiterates the concept: “the original astonishment, the thauma, is not always just a moment of grace, a positive feeling: it possesses a dimension of horror and anguish, felt by anyone who approaches an unknown reality, so different as to provoke turmoil and fear“.
  • Which are the oldest mummies in the world? The pharaohs of Egypt?
    Wrong. Chinchorro mummies, found in the Atacama desert between Chile and Peru, are more ancient than the Egyptian ones. And not by a century or two: they are two thousand years older.
    (Thanks, Cristina!)

  • Some days ago Wu Ming 1 pointed me to an article appeared on The Atlantic about an imminent head transplant: actually, this is not recent news, as neurosurgeon from Turin Sergio Canavero has been a controversial figure for some years now. On Bizzarro Bazar I discussed the history of head transplants in an old article, and if I never talked about Canavero it’s because the whole story is really a bit suspect.
    Let’s recap the situation: in 2013 Canavero caused some fuss in the scientific world by declaring that by 2017 he might be able to perform a human head transplant (or, better, a body transplant). His project, named HEAVEN/Gemini (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion), aims to overcome the difficulties in reconnecting the spinal chord by using some fusogenic “glues” such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan to induce merging between the donor’s and the receiver’s cells. This means we would be able to provide a new, healthier body to people who are dying of any kind of illness (with the obvious exception of cerebral pathologies).
    As he was not taken seriously, Canavero gave it another try at the beginning of 2015, announcing shortly thereafter that he found a volunteer for his complex surgical procedure, thirty-year-old Russian Valery Spiridonov who is suffering from an incurable genetic disease. The scientific community, once again, labeled his theories as baseless, dangerous science fiction: it’s true that transplant technology dramatically improved during the last few years, but according to the experts we are still far from being able to attempt such an endeavour on a human being — not to mention, of course, the ethical issues.
    At the beginning of this year, Canavero announced he has made some progress: he claimed he successfully tested his procedure on mice and even on a monkey, with the support of a Chinese team, and leaked a video and some controversial photos.
    As can be easily understood, the story is far from limpid. Canavero is progressively distancing himself from the scientific community, and seems to be especially bothered by the peer-review system not allowing him (shoot!) to publish his research without it first being evaluated and examined; even the announcement of his experiments on mice and monkeys was not backed up by any published paper. Basically, Canavero has proved to be very skillful in creating a media hype (popularizing his advanced techinque on TV, in the papers and even a couple of TEDx talks with the aid of… some picturesque and oh-so-very-Italian spaghetti), and in time he was able to build for himself the character of an eccentric and slightly crazy genius, a visionary Frankenstein who might really have found a cure-all remedy — if only his dull collegues would listen to him. At the same time he appears to be uncomfortable with scientific professional ethics, and prefers to keep calling out for “private philantropists” of the world, looking for some patron who is willing to provide the 12.5 millions needed to give his cutting-edge experiment a try.
    In conclusion, looking at all this, it is hard not to think of some similar, well-known incidents. But never say never: we will wait for the next episode, and in the meantime…
  • …why not (re)watch  The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost?
    This trashy little gem feature the tragicomic adventures of a rich and racist surgeon — played by Ray Milland, at this point already going through a low phase in his career — who is terminally ill and therefore elaborates a complex scheme to have his head transplanted on a healthy body; but he ends waking up attached to the shoulder of an African American man from death row, determined to prove his own innocence. Car chases, cheesy gags and nonsense situations make for one of the weirdest flicks ever.

Christmas presents – II

Has the consumistic frenzy infected you yet, like every year? Are you panicking at the last minute, wiping out every good idea and whatever creativity has left you? All the other presents seem more original than yours?
Here are some gift ideas from Bizzarro Bazar.

Survival stockings
This year we haven’t heard any prophecy about the end of the world but, as you know, the Apocalypse is always near. So here is the perfect tactical stocking to hang by the fireplace, fully-equipped with pockets for your ninja weapons, handles, snap-hooks, velcro and zippers, designed to hold every essential MacGyver tool.

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tactical-christmas-stocking-8464RuckUp Christmas Tactical Stocking

Half pint
Speaking of survival, it should be noted that the festive period always deliver a hard blow to your liver. If this year you’re considering the idea of limiting your alcohol assumption, but you fear you will lose your face with your friends, here is the clever half pint glass that looks like a pint glass, when seen from the side.

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Zombie slippers
With the first cold, there is nothing better than slip your feet in something warm. Even better if it is the mouth of a zombie, quietly gnawing on your ankles as you relax by the fireplace.

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VENKON – Calde Pantofole di Peluche a Disegno Zombie

Calendars to your (bad) taste
Wonders of Christmas: we are bound to give a present even to people we cannot stand. Most of the times we then resort to the most trivial and impersonal gift there can be, the calendar. But why not pushing things a little further, and spoil the whole year 2016 for your worst enemy?
One solution could be those calendars which redefine the concept of bad taste: the one offering monthly pictures of dogs pooping, or the roadkill calendar.

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2016 Pooping Pooches Calendar

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Roadkill Calendar 2016

And, after the calendars for enemies, here are those for friends. Still weird, but with a much more refined irony, the Crap Taxidermy wall calendar presents the most hilarious taxidermy gone wrong.

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The calendar from our friends at Morbid Anatomy, on the other hand, is a thing of pure beauty. It features photographs exploring the collections from 12 different Museums all around the world, and on its pages  someimportant dates for the lovers of macabre are noted, such as Edward Gorey‘s birth, the Dia de los Muertos or the Santa Muerte festivities.

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Morbid Anatomy Curious Collections 2016 Wall Calendar

Candles
Another classic present, if a bit corny, are artistic candles. The ones we suggest here are granted to surprise those who light them up.

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melting-reindeer-skeleton-candles-3577PyroPet Candles Dyri Candle, Light Blue

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Dinosaur Egg Candle

Flower grenade
In this time of warlike tensions, it’s time to go back putting flowers in your guns. You can do it in your own garden, throwing this grenade made of clay that is designed to melt with the first rain, releasing its seeds and granting the blooming of lively colors from this instrument of death.

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7745Flower Grenade

Christmas songs
Lastly, what would Christmas be without traditional songs? This year you can delight your relatives coming over to lunch with a playlist of Christmas melodies performed (or, better, shouted) by goats. Surprisingly, behind this project there is the charity action of ActionAid, aiming to raise awareness of the importance of goats in the fight to poverty. Enjoying your relatives’ dismay as you know deep in your heart that you have done a good deed, is really invaluable.

All I Want For Christmas Is A Goat

Musica a cranio aperto

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Mentre cammina lungo il corridoio dell’ospedale, una lontana melodia raggiunge l’orecchio di un infermiere. Da dove proviene?
Un violinista sta suonando il suo strumento, ma non si tratta di un paziente in un letto di corsia che ammazza la noia con un concertino improvvisato: in realtà, il musicista è bloccato su una poltroncina operatoria, la testa richiusa in una specie di morsa che ricorda vagamente una versione steampunk della Cura Ludovico di Arancia Meccanica… e mentre il suo archetto si muove sinuoso avanti e indietro carezzando le corde, e liberando le note, alcuni chirurghi stanno infilando dei lunghi spilloni di metallo attraverso un buco nel suo cranio, fino nel profondo del suo cervello esposto.

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Il violinista si chiama Roger Frisch, ed ha alle spalle quarant’anni di carriera come musicista da camera, pedagogo e suonatore d’orchestra. Il 1992 vide il suo debutto come solista al Carnegie Hall, e da allora egli è stato spesso primo violino.

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Ma nel 2009 Frisch scoprì di non riuscire più a muovere correttamente l’archetto: la sua mano destra era affetta da un leggero tremolio. Per qualsiasi altra persona l’entità del tremore sarebbe stata trascurabile, ma per Frisch si trattava di un problema che metteva a repentaglio la sua intera professione.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3QQOQAILZw]

La procedura chirurgica a cui Roger Frisch ha deciso di sottoporsi è la Stimolazione Cerebrale Profonda (SCP). Il cranio viene trapanato, degli elettrodi sono impiantati nel subtalamo e collegati poi con un pacemaker che verrà posizionato sottocute a livello della clavicola oppure nell’addome.

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Utilizzata come sostegno esclusivamente sintomatologico (la malattia rimane, ma i suoi effetti vengono alleviati) per tremori essenziali, distonia, Parkinson, e molte altre patologie motorie, la SCP è una terapia integrativa a quella farmaceutica, e si basa sulla stimolazione elettrica delle zone danneggiate del cervello. Sulla rete si possono trovare dei video che elogiano gli effetti all’apparenza “miracolosi” di questa tecnica, come ad esempio quello qui sotto.

[youtube www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uohp7luuwJI&start=53]

Questi filmati, per quanto impressionanti, vanno comunque presi con le pinze: nonostante la Stimolazione Cerebrale Profonda sia praticata ormai da vent’anni con effetti spesso benefici, i medici non hanno ancora compreso con precisione come essa agisca sul tessuto nervoso stimolato. La procedura è lunga e difficoltosa per il paziente, che deve rimanere sveglio durante l’intera operazione e sottoporsi a continui test affinché i neurochirurghi possano “aggiustare il tiro” e posizionare gli elettrodi nel punto esatto in cui saranno davvero efficaci. Inoltre gli effetti collaterali che possono insorgere sono i più imprevedibili e vari, molto spesso perfino complicati da diagnosticare: alcuni pazienti, ad esempio, mostrano una decisa modificazione della personalità (che però potrebbe anche essere conseguenza della ritrovata libertà); altri un’ipersessualità che in alcuni casi incrina perfino le dinamiche coniugali, oppure alterazioni del linguaggio, o ancora allucinazioni ed inedite tendenze suicide. Insomma, il rapporto benefici/effetti collaterali a lungo termine può variare, e deve essere discusso a fondo anche con i congiunti del paziente. Nel caso di Frisch, oltre alle verifiche “classiche” a cui vengono sottoposti i pazienti durante l’operazione (disegnare spirali, ripetere scioglilingua, svolgere semplici compiti con le mani), è essenziale che lui suoni il suo violino. Soltanto così medici e paziente si possono rendere conto di quale esatta posizione dell’elettrodo riduca effettivamente il tremore.

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Ma Frisch non è il solo, né il più noto personaggio ad aver suonato in sala operatoria in queste strane condizioni.

Chi ha seguito la celebre serie televisiva True Detective, prodotta da HBO, si ricorderà certamente il personaggio del carcerato Charlie Lang, e magari ha già visto l’attore in questione, Brad Carter, in alcune puntate di CSI, Bones, The Mentalist, Justified o Dexter.

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Oltre a condurre una fortunata carriera d’attore, Brad Carter è però anche un musicista country. Da diversi anni ormai soffre di tremore essenziale, una patologia degenerativa che potrebbe tramutarsi in breve tempo in una forma di Parkinson. Brad ha subìto ben due interventi di Stimolazione Cerebrale Profonda, che descrive come “la cosa peggiore che abbia mai provato in vita mia“. L’operazione principale, della durata di sette ore, prevedeva che Brad ne passasse sei rimanendo sveglio: “il talamo controlla anche il linguaggio e c’erano momenti in cui ho completamente perduto la mia capacità di parlare. È stata la cosa più surreale di cui io abbia mai fatto esperienza“.

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Essendo il cinquecentesimo paziente a subire l’intervento all’UCLA, l’ospedale ha chiesto a Brad di poter filmare l’operazione; la performance eseguita sulla sua chitarra artigianale è stata postata live su Twitter e nel giro di poco tempo è diventata virale, venendo vista da 30 milioni di persone soltanto il primo giorno e facendo velocemente il giro del pianeta. Ne hanno parlato i telegiornali di tutto il mondo, da Hong Kong all’Australia all’Iran.

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Brad-Carter

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Grazie a questa inaspettata pubblicità, Brad Carter ha potuto finanziare su Kickstarter quello che sarà, presumibilmente, il suo primo e unico album professionale. Se la SCP ha infatti rallentato il tremore alla mano destra, le sue condizioni si stanno inesorabilmente aggravando, e la registrazione di questo lavoro è stata una vera e propria lotta contro il tempo. Oggi il disco, intitolato semplicemente Carter, è in prevendita sul sito ufficiale dell’artista. Una piccola rivincita sulla malattia che gli sta portando via la cosa per lui più preziosa: “Sono un chitarrista dal 1988, la musica è il mio primo amore. Faccio l’attore per vivere, ma ho sempre la musica a cui ritornare, è una parte della mia anima. […] D’un tratto guardi tutte le tue abilità, e ciò che sei veramente, svanire di fronte ai tuoi occhi. È dura,  quando lo vedi succedere. E non puoi farci nulla. [… ] Quello che mi è stato offerto è la speranza, che prima non avevo.

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wejrPcnhmA8]

(Grazie, Ipnosarcoma!)

L’uccello lira, e la memoria sonora

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Avevamo già parlato dello straordinario menura, o uccello lira, in questo articolo. L’istrionico pennuto australiano è in grado, grazie ad una siringe (l’organo canoro degli uccelli) particolarmente raffinata e flessibile, di imitare alla perfezione innumerevoli richiami di altre specie di uccelli, di emettere più suoni contemporaneamente, di riproporre in maniera realistica anche rumori meccanici come martelli pneumatici, carrelli di macchine fotografiche e vari altri attrezzi. Sono i maschi ad aver sviluppato quest’arte, per attrarre le femmine: uno studio ha dimostrato che le imitazioni riescono ad ingannare perfino i passeri australiani, che pensano sia un maschio della loro specie ad emettere il richiamo.

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La stupefacente abilità dell’uccello lira è da sempre risaputa in Australia. Ma quando nel 1969, durante una ricognizione al New England National Park vicino a Dorrigo, nel Nuovo Galles del Sud, il ranger Neville Fenton registrò un menura che riproduceva le note di un flauto, rimase intrigato. Dove aveva potuto imparare quella melodia, l’uccello?
Scoprì che un altro ricercatore, Sydnedy Curtis, aveva già registrato quel tipo di richiamo tempo prima, nello stesso parco.

Decise di investigare e, dopo qualche indagine, emerse una storia incredibile: nelle vicinanze del parco c’era una fattoria, il cui proprietario aveva l’abitudine di suonare il flauto per il suo menura domestico. Una volta liberato, evidentemente l’uccello doveva aver portato con sé la memoria di quelle melodie. Cosa c’è di incredibile? Tutto questo era successo negli anni ’30.

Nei trenta anni successivi, le melodie suonate al flauto dal contadino erano state tramandate di generazione in generazione, entrando a far parte dell'”archivio” di richiami utilizzati dai menura della zona. Neville Fenton inviò le sue registrazioni all’ornitologo Norman Robinson. Poiché il menura è capace di produrre vari suoni allo stesso momento, Robinson filtrò il richiamo, riuscendo a distinguere le diverse linee melodiche che l’uccello cantava contemporaneamente: si trattava di versioni leggermente modificate di due canzoni che erano popolari negli anni ’30, The Keel Row e Mosquito’s Dance. Il musicologo David Rothenberg confermò l’ipotesi.

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Una volta che un uccello lira ha imparato un richiamo, non lo dimentica quasi mai. E questi suoni vengono trasmessi alle generazioni successive. Così, alcuni menura a Victoria ricreano rumori che non si sentono ormai quasi più, come ad esempio suoni di asce e di seghe, oppure scatti di macchine fotografiche in disuso da anni. “Sono gli uccelli più famosi e più fotografati, per questo imitano ancora tutti questi vecchi suoni”, conferma Martyn Robinson dell’Australia Museum di Sydney.

Se i menura mantengono in vita dei brandelli sonori del passato, questi rumori raccontano una storia: ad esempio, gli uccelli lira che vivono allo zoo di Adelaide hanno convissuto per mesi con un cantiere edile, ed ora ne imitano il frastuono alla perfezione. Ma nel caso dei volatili più anziani, catturati per metterli al riparo dalla deforestazione, i richiami ci riportano l’eco di asce e seghe, come dicevamo, ma anche motoseghe, conversazioni radio, motori di jeep, sirene di antifurti, perfino esplosioni. La narrazione che emerge dai suoni che gli uccelli, oggi in gabbia, continuano ad emettere, è quella dell’irruzione dell’uomo nella foresta, dell’abbattimento di un ecosistema, e infine della loro stessa riduzione in cattività. Certo, è soltanto un richiamo amoroso: ma è difficile, dalla nostra prospettiva, non leggervi una sorta di amara memoria d’un popolo prigioniero, il canto che ricorda come avvenne la catastrofe.

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A proposito di uccelli in grado di “registrare” il passato degli uomini, un altro aneddoto ci sembra interessante. Intorno al 1800, esplorando l’Orinoco settentrionale, nell’attuale Venezuela, il naturalista Alexander von Humboldt venne a sapere che una tribù locale, quella degli Ature, era stata recentemente sterminata. Il raid dei nemici non aveva lasciato superstiti, quindi il linguaggio degli Ature era morto con loro, in quella violenta e sanguinosa battaglia.
Eppure…

All’epoca del nostro viaggio un vecchio pappagallo ci venne mostrato a Maypures, del quale gli abitanti ci dissero, e il fatto è notevole, “che non capivano cosa dicesse, perché parlava la lingua degli Ature”.