On Tuesday night, LA based academic Paul Koudounaris, author of noted art-book, “Empire of Death,” stopped by Gowanus’ Morbid Anatomy Library to deliver one of his well-polished slide show lectures on mummies and necromancy, this one entitled “Sicilian Sex Ghosts.” The name of the venue might conjure images to make one squirm, but inside, the medical curio and book stacked rooms—curated by Joanna Ebenstein, a self-titled “expert in surrealism and 19th century hysteria,”—is professorial, even cozy. (While I didn’t get a chance to look too closely at the exhibits, Ebenstein obviously brings a prim eye to some unseemly medical history.) Enough hip and bookish types were piqued by the alliance of rogue intellectualism represented by Ebenstein and Koudounaris to make it a standing room only event.
Koudounaris developed the night’s lecture itself out of a close study of pre-modern folktales from in and around Palermo’s Capuchin monastery; but the concept of erotically fixated supernatural forms is ageless—found in modern flicks like Ghost; the middle-age hagiography of saint Theresa of Avila and of course that ancient number about Leda and the Swan. Koudounaris pointed out in his intro that the idea has received a boost of late, most recently via the singer Keishsa who back in September claimed to have “had sex with a ghost.”
How society judges such claims is determined by context, Ebenstein says: “In the middle ages we called it sainthood, in the 1900s they were hysterics, now they’re called Schizophrenics.” Beyond the interest held by the subject itself there is the appeal of Koudounaris himself, a uniquely gifted speaker in his 40’s with wild looks. His back-length long hair—and long Fu-Manchu beard—is braided with baubles gleaned from far-out locales. His Keith Richards ensemble was topped off with an oversized Wellington hat. But what really makes Koudournaris’ talk spark is his empathy for his pre-modern characters. More than once of some bizarre near-pagan rite with unintended consequences he’d remind the past-everything medically enlightened audience with a sly smile, “Its an idea right? It might not be the best idea, but its at least an idea.” (As in the tale of a faithful, if misguided, 16th century-era wife who, sex-starved, endeavors to enlarge her husband’s penis with a cloth she had rubbed upon a famous mummified Lothario, only to be haunted by terrifying orgasms inflicted upon her by this “sort of saint’s” ghost.)
The only minor fault with such apercus are that if anything they’re too effective at suspending disbelief. During a post-talk Q and A Koudournaris was confronted with a studiously attentive female audience member who wanted to know how it is that a professed Roman Catholic, with her received ideas on afterlife and all, could, you know, actually “experience sex with a ghost?” While technically a metaphysically correct query, it sort of glossed over the material’s Fortean thesis that the world can be a pretty weird place filled with synergistic and inexplicable connections. Nevertheless, not one to insult a customer, Koudounaris delivered a game answer on the difference of “dogma and how individual faith is experienced.” Asked later on, if a devotion to such spectral phenomenon tips his Wellington to at least some belief in it’s inherent premise; in other words “how much of this stuff do you actually believe?” Koudounaris (who describes modernity as “a myth of context”) was polite but unmistakable. He said. “I believe that something happened. I’m not sure it was of a supernatural origin though!”
(Images: Paul Koudounaris/ Photo: Monique Mantell)