Exploring the odd – The chat/interview with BizzarroBazar’s Ivan Cenzi
Ivan Cenzi is the soul of BizzarroBazar, a wonderful website that tries to understand the world by its oddest aspects – just like I do with Ayzad.com. The main difference is that he is much more poetic than me and he doesn’t specialize in unusual sexualities but in studying death and whatever upsets the apparent order of our daily lives. As morbid as it sounds, it is actually what a lazy journalist would define ‘a celebration of life’. Ivan too is different from what you’d expect: positive, enthusiastic… and all right, I’ll admit he also is driven by that somewhat unsettling fever of sharing his discoveries that all the odd explorers have. This must be why, in the rare occasions we get to meet, we like to lose ourselves in long conversations bordering on surrealism and yet unequaled as a therapy to save us from the shallowness and triviality closing in on everyone. The last time we tried to figure out what the hell it is we are doing with our lives
Hi, Ivan! I just introduced you in a rather vague way… Shall you tell my readers something more about you?
I am an explorer of perturbations and a collector of marvels. The latter are both the multitude of physical items that end up in my private closets and which I sometimes bring along at my lectures, and especially the stories that for years I have been discovering and relating on my blog, in my books, etc. Weird and often disconcerting stories, but authentic and able to subtly question our beliefs. But what about you? Who are you?
My mini-bio on Ayzad.com says I am a reformed journalist. In other words, one day I decided to only write stuff that made my readers feel better instead of scaring and enraging them. So, since one of my major passions is studying the most unusual forms of sexuality, I became a popularizer through books, events, lectures and more. I also believe to be the sole personal coach in Italy specializing in solving extreme eroticism-related issues. How did you end up doing whatever you do yourself?
What I do in the end is not to limit my curiosity. So I can counter with: how could you live anyway else?
Maybe it was just literature’s fault. When I was a kid, my parents’ huge wooden bookshelves were an irresistible abyss of diverse texts: when you dug in you could find Salgari and Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe and the Bhagavadgītā, Peter Kolosimo and Konrad Lorenz, hypnotism and natural sciences manuals, and more. For a young and precocious reader, all of those voices necessarily suggested a whole universe crowded with marvels and mysteries.
Today my job is marvel – the underlying feeling of every philosophy, art, religion or science; it is the door allowing me access to every possible world, not to mention the sole plausible reaction to the paradoxical cosmos we live in. To marvel before the oddness of men and nature, before the vertigo of sex and death – really, how can you live anyway else?
I wonder that myself when I observe so many people who never venture beyond the desolation of television, since I still have a kind of fetishism for “weird” books. On the other hand, we also ought to admit that philosophy is maybe just a collateral effect of a less noble curiosity. Access to your field of interest usually is via a taste for morbidity, as well as the attraction for shocking excess leads to mine. How comes that you eventually get to appreciate its sublime side?
I suspect that if you choose a taboo-related field, specializing in stuff so adult that make adults themselves uncomfortable, it can paradoxically be related to a sort of Peter Pan syndrome. They forbade us to say «shit» out loud, so we keep repeating that. More than that, we made a profession out of it – and so, according to the rules of proper fellows, we are unimpeachable because we work. Suck on that.
In other words, maybe we still revel in the primal instinct of jumping into puddles, don’t you believe? Getting our hands dirty with whatever the majority of people finds abominable. On the other hand, we go even further: we discover the diamonds hidden in that filth, and that you just have to overcome a little cognitive bias – or merely recognize it – to access new and fruitful perspectives. Liminal territories reflect by their very nature a cultural profile, they help us see the entire map. And they are fucking fun and exciting to boot.
And yet this approach is far from common. Of course I like to see myself as an enlightened intellectual, but from time to time I wonder whether I am just a nut. In your experience, who are the outsiders fixated on loving the world starting from its darkest corners? Sometimes I even suspect it is all about a bad timing, kind of like when I was bullied as a kid because I read superheroes comics, I used computers and I loved science fiction… which today are immensely successful and definitely mainstream industries. All in all, the wunderkammer spirit, even in its merely mental form, was a classic in the past and maybe will be back into fashion in a few years. Hence: are we really outsiders? Do we do this for snobbery? Alienation? Fad? Chronic adolescence?
Years ago, when I finally met you in person after a long correspondence, during dinner we amiably chatted with a very pretty girl who looked anything but alienated. And yet her hobby was to sew up vaginas using surgical suturing thread. At the last conference I spoke at – Piero Angela’s CICAP, which is as separated from a death nerds club as it gets – a posh lady approached me after my lecture to discuss at length about adipocere and how to make soap out of cadavers, beaming for having found someone she could talk about such beloved topics without sounding insane.
I don’t know about your experience, but through all of these years thanks to my job I met lots of extraordinary people: the number of weirdos is very close to zero. Truth to be told, anyone reaching my site or yours looking for a simple sensationalistic would get quickly bored. My readers cultivate eccentric but never morbid interests. After all, as I am fond of repeating, curiosity cannot be morbid (a word coming from morbus, meaning illness which itself derives from ‘ill-fitting’), because curiosity is always a form of adaptation, a healthy evolutive advantage.
Well, maybe my field is a little different because my audience’s curiosity is often born out of an erotic instinct, which feeds on irrationality by its own nature. So yes, I do have a few weirdos – but usually, when they get in touch with a certain way of dealing with sexuality that mixes appreciation, sociology and self-irony, the unhealthy aspects get defused and turn into a more positive passion. Since you mentioned the CICAP debunkers, it is quite similar to what happens when paranormal geeks discover the beauty of science: all of a sudden they disregard ghosts and aliens, simply because reality is much more “magical” and fascinating than fantasy.
I like the idea of anomalies as evolutive advantages, although differentiating between adaptation and degeneration isn’t always easy. For example, I am always rather perplexed when I have to write about furverts – especially since they took a crazy Nazi turn! In your case, what is the most bizarre thing you encountered?
I really couldn’t tell. My line of work is quite absurd, so I end up not noticing the oddness surrounding me because that’s just my everyday life. Someone occasionally smiles and points out «Do you realize what you just said?» and that’s when I take note that some phrases might sound a little bit peculiar. Stuff like: «I must have misplaced a leech in the car», or «This afternoon I am going to visit the guy who found a mummified nun in his basement».
All right, so let me change my question. Which oddities did you not explore, and why?
There are stories I choose not to tell. Call it my editorial policy or my ethical code, as you wish. When the subject has already been dissected better than I could, or risks taking pulp or trashy tones, I just let go. It is a very thin line, and I might well have taken a wrong step once or twice in my career. But, generally speaking, if a topic doesn’t light a spark in my eyes and doesn’t keep me awake at night as I feverishly study sources… I abandon it.
You are a tightrope walker yourself, always balancing on the edge… What is your deontology? Did you ever self-censored yourself?
So much dealing with BDSM made me understand how facing whatever unsettles us isn’t just a matter of intellectual honesty, but almost a moral duty. Not necessarily to learn to love it no matter what, but because moving out of your comfort zone is the best way to gain a clearer perspective on things and, consequently, on ourselves. Hunter Thompson, the one of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, called it edgework. This is why I try writing about everything I meet in a sensible and a tad ironic way, without being disrespectful.
The one deliberate exception was for the virped, short for ‘virtuous pedophiles’ movement. Those guys face enormous hardships as they work to change how pedophile tendencies are perceived, from a pure social menace to a psychological condition that can be declared, managed and hopefully treated without reprisals. Despite the very interesting social implications of that subject, I chose not to deal with it in order to save myself from any involvement in the predictable media and political fracas which is bound to explode when the Italian “journalists” will eventually (years too late) notice this news and will ramble on that. If I really have to write about child rapists, I prefer to denounce the true and more dangerous ones.
I feel personal disgust more than censorship here. So you can still get upset after all?
You see, I spend lots of time preaching consent culture, so what upsets me the most is the lack of it. Which makes me think one thing: I don’t get particularly astounded if I watch a triple anal fisting scene. Nor you do if you observe an autopsy. Have we always been like this? Did we become so? Does this make us better or worse? What does shock or move us instead?
It makes us feel cool, ain’t it? «Two Girls One Cup, bland newbie stuff for us, who have been watching Genki-Genki videos before it was cool». When you realize you developed a stronger than average stomach, you forget all modesty. Well, this is possibly where I see a bit of vanity and self-delusion on our part. It’s just habit: there is nothing heroic to it. We deal in extreme subjects, so it is natural for the taboo effect to fade.
On the one hand it is better this way, for removing your gut feelings helps a clearer analysis. On the other hand, my dear fellow, those emotions have gone forever. You will never feel the thrill of the first whipping again, nor I the turmoil of holding a human skull in my hand for the first time. Luckily, the things that shock and move me are neverending. As Chesterton wrote, ‘the world won’t die for lack of wonders, but of wonder’.
I can see what you mean and I don’t feel especially superior for my quasi-ennui either. I believe this is mostly due to how, behind the violent appearance of BDSM practices and of the gestures of extreme eroticism, there actually is the strongest empathy – a quest for transcendence, even. Conversely, within your field of study the cruelty, oppression or abuse of power are often very real. However, no matter how real or simulated, why does this imagery feel so appealing? Where is the art in all of this?
Allow me a small ethimological aside. The origin of cruelty is interesting due to its duplicity: the word comes both from cruor (blood, wounded flesh) and crudus (raw). Lévi-Strauss sees in the passage from eating raw food to cooking one of the foundations of civilization; similarly, when the polis were built those behaviors that felt too animal-like were banned out of the (symbolic) city walls. Cruelty was condemned and banned from civilization too, deciding that violence shall be well bound within legitimate contexts such as peacekeeping or some highly ritualized sacred areas. To think of ourselves as superior to the other creatures therefore becomes imperative, distinguishing our Culture from Nature: we can’t stand how our bodies and instincts remind us of being animals. Those who allow their beastly soul prevail are barbarians (originally meaning ‘stutterers’, unable to speak the Greek language and living outside of civilization and of the logos). This Nature-Culture dualism, and the related shame of “still” feeling animal instincts, never went away as you also know very well. The disgust for our bodies’ expressions (noises, secretions, infections and illnesses) is one aspect, as much as the taboo for putrefaction.
Well, cruelty intrigues me because it puts us in touch with all of that; even today, the cruel ones are never ourselves but always the others, the barbarians. And yet we then tune in to television talk show where our fellow humans are pilloried and shamed (a modern take on human sacrifice), or whose ratings depend on furious arguments… or we share videos featuring bullying, revenge porn or slut-shaming… or we slow down when passing a road accident, watch boxing matches, peek at the pictures of capital executions… and we adore lurid stories, from Sophocles to Tarantino, from Shakespeare to video games. Don’t misunderstand me: I find this inner ambiguity of ours extremely interesting. There is no point in demonizing it, so we are better off exploring it. Maybe the right strategy is to turn it into a creative force. It’s no wonder that the best art still is the cruel one, ripping something inside of us.
Let me put it this way, then. Does absorbing and processing weirdness bring any advantage? Which ones? Or are we just deluding ourselves?
No, I don’t think we are deluded. Valuing exotic and weird stuff means to cultivate an idea of the world which is not fossilized onto ourselves and our little belly buttons. It means to allow and desire the surprise, the unforeseen, even the danger. It partly means wishing to sabotage the Common Vision.
A long time ago a friend told me my work was political, taking me aback. But maybe in the end there was some truth to it, in the sense that what I do is often to deconstruct monsters (the “barbarians”, the different ones) to unveil their marvelous side.
I am curious to know how do you see your own work yourself; whether you inscribe it into a political statement. Is sexual freedom really revolutionary, or is it conservative – just a sop, the opium to feed the people with while the Illuminati eat the planet up?
Oh, so much has been written about this subject… and possibly often misconstruing it. I have grown the impression that education to sexuality – which isn’t just your basic sex ed – is an indispensable tool to give people their awareness and control back: over their own bodies and over the urges which drive them. In this light, it is a necessary step in order to stop being victims of whatever is happening and of social manipulation, not to mention to overcome terrible plagues like gender-based violence. True sexual freedom can only be reached through this sort of awareness, or you only fall into the neoliberal trap of believing you are so uninhibited, when you actually remain just a paying customer of prepackaged erotic products. Or even worse: you become the product itself.
My job consists in facilitating people toward the information, the way of thinking that allows reaching that erotic deliverance. Pity that, without even having to bring conspiracies into play, so many people are so scared and confused by sexuality that they cannot even conceive of reading what I write.
Talking about that: what sort of erotic dreams does someone like you have? I don’t know about you, but I usually have pretty mundane dreams.
Hmm… I’d say I have pretty varied dreams, but no erotic ones probably because I satisfy my fantasies when I am awake. And what does someone like you, whose ‘mundane’ job involves stuff like anatomical venuses and experimental taxidermy, dream?
I don’t have those wonderful adventure and fantasy dream of my youth anymore. My job however influences my perceptions during the day, sometimes embarrassingly so.
A couple of days ago I was in a restaurant, and I noticed how the owner had the unusual idea of hanging on the other side of the main room a reproduction of a beautiful vanitas from the Eighteenth century, complete with skull and hourglass. After paying my bill, I went closer to the picture to better admire it, and I realized there was no skull at all: the painting only depicted some horrible flowers in a reed basket.
I could tell countless similar intrusions of my obsessions in my perception of the world. A few months ago I passed a sign saying ‘Mastro legno: legnami e compensati’ [literally: ‘Wood master: timbers and plywood’, but in Italian the last three words can also be read as ‘hit me and take your satisfaction’] – and I instinctively thought «Well, this is a seriously demanding masochist!»… The sad thing is I was dead serious. We are all a bit influenced by our trade in the end. What experience did change you the most?
Learning that I have a degenerative neurological pathology. It happened some years ago, as I was taking photographs of the University of Padua pathological anatomy collection with Carlo Vannini. Writing my book His Anatomical Majesty, became a much more personal journey than I had expected, since trying to comprehend the deeper meaning of illness and suffering (the true modern mysteries) had suddenly turned into a personal urgency. Also thanks to that work, I managed to find a new supply of wonder even in living with the pains and above all with uncertainty. A lack of certainty that, I realized, was there already after all. This is just my body reminding me that I have no control over it at all. A visible and daily memento mori, and therefore a precious one. Maybe it changed my priorities some, the rate between duties and pleasures.
And there you are: what’s pleasure?
The surest and deepest source of enjoyment (sexual or otherwise) I have ever known is fantasy. I often saw you admonish your readers about the distance between fantasizing and putting ideas into practice, and it looks like you give more importance to the latter. And you are right, when you refer for example to the difference between self-styled BDSM experts who only watched a couple of strange porn videos, and those who dedicated their whole life to exploring sensuality. However when you kinky experts start pontificating, I always feel this vague and slight smugness! You look at people who don’t turn their fantasies into reality kind of from your high thrones. I vindicate the supremacy of fantasy over reality instead.
The big gurus of concreteness, of petty sensuality, were never any good at giving advice about how to have sex beyond the event horizon, they never said what it feels like to make love as you are sucked into a black hole and matter condense so much that the escape velocity becomes faster than light. Fantasists can know this and a thousand more things, no proof required. Fantasy is, for example, the omnipotence of conceiving an impossible sexuality:
“Lonely lemur calls drifted from islands of swamp cypress […] Spasms shook his body and green erogenous slime poured from glands under his gills covering the two bodies with a viscous bubble – softening flesh and bones to jelly – He sank into the client – Spines rubbed and merged in little shocks of electric pleasure – He was sucked into other testicles – A soft pearly grotto closed round him pulsing tighter and tighter – He melted to sperm fingers caressing the penis inside – Quivering contractions as he squirmed throught pink tumescent flesh to a crescendo of drumbeats shot out in a green flare falling into slow convolutions of underwater sleep” (William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 1962).
Did you ever see anything like that, at your BDSM parties? No, my dear, fantasy wins over reality hands down!
And I’d be the smug one? Tsk… Of course fantasy is the basis of every pleasure, but the good part is finding the way to actually turn dreams into reality. And even in the worst case you can always use a couple of pretty cool neurological tricks, or the evocative power of erotic hypnosis.
So I’ll over-smug you, wearing my Dalì mustaches and saying: if a dream needs to turn into reality to please you, that is a pretty petty dream. (Hey, I just noticed this is the closest thing to a television tussle we can get into when we talk. Erotic hypnosis and alien sex… I wonder how come they never invite us to those Sunday yellow talk shows.)
I guess we better go back to territories closer to your haunts and move from Eros to Thanatos: with the understanding of death you get from your studies, how do you live your life?
I may be more familiar than the average with death-related phenomena, its psychological implications and the history of the symbols we used to try and give it a meaning. However I wouldn’t say I “understand” death, or I wouldn’t spend so much time studying it. And you really cannot free yourself from the “black and white game”, seeing opposites everywhere even when we clearly know that life and death are the same process. You need to keep reflecting on that every day, or you risk falling back into that delusion.
How do I live my life? Well, trying to remember that it must be trodden lightly, like a dance, without taking it too seriously.
I admit I expected a more circumstantial answer, but let me fix that. For example, as an expert on decay and death, how would you see yourself as a father? I’m asking because in my case I have a rather cynical view of the world due to a deep knowledge of the statistics about the troubles awaiting the future generations. This is enough for me to keep well away from having children, and yet I try to make the world a little better for those who do.
I prefer not to have children myself. I’d rather be an “acquired relative” of my friends’. Right: I really wouldn’t mind being that slightly crazy uncle with lots of strange tales to tell, and you can talk about the most absurd stuff with. That wouldn’t be bad: enjoying all the advantages without ever having to change a diaper!
What if in the end we recognized that the ideal goal was “just” a very normal life, the white picket fence kind?
I’m afraid it’s a little too late for that now. We will look into each other’s eyes and sigh: seems like we botched it, ain’t it dude?
So what goal are you aiming for in order not to botch it? What are your future plans?
Laughing at everything. Appreciating the pointless. Dying still curious.
Oh, so we’re going heavy on philosophy, huh? So listen to this: ask yourself the hardest question for you to answer.
The questions that can be answered are those worthless to ask.