THE MAGNETIC ATTRACTION OF THE RIDICULOUS

In the Bay of Naples, in the mid 19th century, ruled a kind of unspoken code of silence around a ghost called ‘il ballerino sfigato’ (‘the oddball dancer’), also known under the name of ‘l’uccelo strambo’ (‘the freaky bird’). When a foreigner asked about him, he could receive a wide variety of answers, all of them characterized by not keeping the slightest relationship with the question. For example, the answer could be: “Quarter past six” or “By trampling them barefoot in a barrel”, or even “Just behind you!” and when you turned round you were hit in the nape with a rolling pin.

Such strange behavior caught the attention of a young british traveler named Sylvester Maslow, who at that time was touring Italy, one of the fundamental countries in the itinerary of the “Grand Tour.” Maslow had set out on the Grand Tour five years before prompted by an unfounded suicide charge. In an outpouring of rashness typical of youth, young Maslow decided to find out for himself the enigma behind the ghost of Naples, and to this end he paid a considerable sum to the owner of the palazzo where the ghost was supposed to inhabit, in exchange for letting him spend a night alone in that ancient stone building.

At dusk, Maslow lit the candles of a bronze candlestick and, lighting up his steps with it, began to roam the deserted palazzo. Soon he got the first signs of the ghost in the form of the slaps he received at regular intervals by an invisible hand. “Ghost! Show yourself! Don’t be a coward! ”, the young man provoked him. But with that, the only thing he achieved was stronger slaps. So, he stopped provoking it and, stunned by the blows, lay down on the first bed he found and fell asleep. But, around midnight, a rush of cold air made him shake and he woke up startled. Someone had pulled back the curtains and opened the balcony to let the moonlight pass. Then he saw the ghost, and regretted have asked him to let himself be seen.

There, before Maslow, it was deployed what seemed to him the most pathetic spectacle ever seen by the human eye (alongside “Maple Syrup”, a stage play he had witnessed in Birmingham a few years before with a syrup as protagonist). The ghost turned out to be a pretentious dancer who, wearing pointe shoes, flittered to and fro making continuous little jumps on tiptoe and waving his arms simulating the flight of a bird. With the head up and lips pursed, he danced in the moonlight, and occasionally turned to smile his audience composed exclusively of the young Maslow who, although he wanted to escape, was paralyzed by a mysterious force that also prevented him from closing his eyes.

The same strange paralysis had seized him when attending the performance of “Maple Syrup”, that mess about a syrup that went around the world in search of adventure and ended up being smeared on the chubby torso of an Eskimo. Just as then, now Maslow had no choice but to witness the histrionic jumping around of the ghost dancer, who seemed to Maslow to want to imitate the first attempts at a bird’s flight from its nest high on a branch. Finally, after about an hour and a half that it felt like an eternity, Maslow observed hopefully that at last the bird seem to have gotten the hang of the art of flying. The jumps became increasingly high, until, in an amazing ‘monkey flip’, he jumped out the nest, which meant throwing himself out the balcony to the street. Marlow did not know whether this last act was accidental or premeditated, but he didn’t give a damn about it either. At the moment the ghost disappeared through the balcony, he was freed from his invisible bonds, and quickly jumped out of bed and ran to the majestic entrance of the palace. And did not stop his crazy race until he felt safe, inside Vesuvius volcano.

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