Issue 10 Property Spring 2003
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head
I. As a Load Off Your Shoulders:
II. As No-Brainer:
Paradoxically, there are those whose dumb-as-dirt demeanor, evident in their slack jaws and gazeless stares, makes them seem as if they deserve to lose the heads they obviously are not using. Surely, this writer isn't the only nabob of negativism to have noted the uncanny similarity between the stunned, "where's-the-rest-of-me?" expression characteristic of severed heads and the trademark frozen grin and lights-are-on-but-nobody's-home gaze of George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, and other zero-forehead public figures.1
Typically, we see politicians, pundits, and the rest of the chattering class on TV, from the neck up, as talking heads—a term rich in symbolism. Listening to the just-shoot-me vacuities of bantering news anchors and Sunday morning pundits, one can't help but wonder if they're positive proof of the theory, propounded by some of the doctors who experimented on freshly guillotined heads in revolutionary France, that consciousness survives decapitation. The history of Dr. Guillotin's ingenious machine abounds in gothic tales of severed heads that responded to the sound of their own names, a head transfused with the blood from a living dog (reportedly, its lips quivered and its eyelids fluttered), and the heads of rival members of the National Assembly which, when tossed into the same sack, sank their teeth into each other so tenaciously that they couldn't be separated.2 A Dr. Séguret claimed that heads whose open eyes were exposed to the sun "promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling," while a head whose tongue was pricked with a lancet retracted it immediately, "the facial features [grimacing] as if in pain."3
The evidence for the survival of awareness (as opposed to brain activity) after decapitation remains inconclusive. According to Dr. Ron Wright, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of Broward County Florida, "After your head is cut off by a guillotine, you have 13 seconds of consciousness (+/- 1 or 2). [...] The 13 seconds is the amount of high energy phosphates that the cytochromes in the brain have to keep going without new oxygen and glucose."4 Naturally, electrochemical activity is no guarantor of conscious thought, although as Wright notes, there are alleged instances of disembodied heads blinking in response to questions, "two for yes and one for no."5
If bodiless heads can think, what about headless bodies? Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken springs immediately to mind. On September 10, 1945, Fruita, Colorado resident Lloyd Olsen sent—or attempted to send—Mike the way of all fryers with a well-aimed whack. Amazingly, the rooster survived his beheading; the next morning, Olsen discovered him pecking and preening (phantom head syndrome?), his reflex actions intact, thanks to a brainstem that had miraculously escaped the vorpal blade. Sustained by grain and water dripped into his exposed esophagus, Mike went on to sideshow fame. He lived for another 18 months before succumbing, at last, to decapitation-related complications.6
Historical flashbacks to a decapitated chicken who lives to strut another day, and to guillotined heads who seem to recognize the sound of their names, bring us full circle to meditations on TV's talking heads. The symbolic resonances between severed heads (and the headless bodies they imply) and the ubiquitous image of the disembodied and seemingly brainless pol, pundit, or newsdroid, floating onscreen like a pickled head in a bell jar, reverberate in "Headless Reporter Continues Work," a wire-service report from the future brought to you by the humor website futurefeedforward.com.7
Datelined 4 March 2005, the story is an account of an event that hasn't happened yet, but will, according to the site's revolutionary Temporal Networking Technologies. Apparently, 20/20 reporter John Stossel (widely reviled in progressive media circles as a flack for corporate interests) was—er, will be—decapitated while filming a skeptical look at alternative energy when a wind turbine whirs unexpectedly to life. Doctors act quickly, sealing off Stossel's neck and leaving his "'enteric nervous system' or 'gut brain'" in command of his mouth and mind.8 In no time flat, he's back in action and ready to kick tree-hugger butt, talking tough "through a vocoder linked to special contact microphones affixed to his neck":
Responding angrily to questions about his decision to forego use of a prosthetic head, Stossel noted that he felt no embarrassment about being headless and that colleagues at ABC agreed that he has done some of his best work in years since the accident: "Do I wish it hadn't happened? Sure. Am I any less of a reporter just because I haven't got a head? No way."9
III. As Fetish Object:
Drift-net fishing through the Internet's deeps brings up numerous examples of decapitation fetishism, a queasy mix of necro-porn, splatter movie, and upchuck humor guaranteed to appall even the most politically incorrect post-feminists. One needn't be a born-again Dworkinite, brandishing Intercourse like a Gideon bible, to get creeped out while browsing The Axe & Guillotine website ("The Best in Beheading"), Necromancer's website ("Behead and Debreast"), Mickey Jay's website ("Beheading"), Scanbastard's website ("Beheading"), Mocktoad Manipulations ("Beheading"), or any of the scores of sites that cater to snuff fetishism, a twisted little limb on the family tree of pathological sexuality, at the juncture of S&M and necrophilia.10
The pay-per-view website The Fantasy Decapitation Channel (not to be confused with The Fantasy Hanging Channel) is all beheading, all the time. For $24.95 a month, subscribers can savor grand guignol photoplays such as "Lover's Block" ("Two babes go naked on the block!"), "Annabelle's Head on a Platter," and "Double Decap Delight," all of which feature women, nude but for panties, messily beheaded by swords, axes, and scarily convincing guillotines.11 The executioners are usually men—though occasionally they're goth babes in latex fetish gear—but the victims are always female.
In this weirdly chaste torture garden, a sort of soap-opera De Sade, the men are always clothed, and maintain a respectful distance from the female victim; male desire is displaced onto the falling blade, which penetrates her soft, virginal neck in a Freudian metaphor that's as subtle as a bag of axes. Where most hetero-guy porn sites obsess over double-"D" cups, The Fantasy Decapitation Channel rejoices in double decaps; here, the climactic moment comes when a jet of gore geysers out of the neck stump of some sweet young thing—a necrophilic parody of ejaculation depicted with obsessive realism, thanks to the sleight-of-eye made possible by image-manipulating software.
In lustmord porn like the stories archived at Chez Marquis, death by decapitation is the ultimate erotic buzz; here, as in the autoerotic asphyxiations endlessly replayed in the novels of William S. Burroughs, death is precisely synched to the split second of orgasm. To the authors of such fantasies, it is an ecstatic agony, beautiful as the chance meeting, on a chopping block, of sex and death. In "A Rolling Head Gathers No Moss," by the pseudonymous Marquis of Chez Marquis, the supermodel Kate Moss has "the best sex of her life on the guillotine where Madonna died."12 In the Marquis's story, the death-blow and the "little death," as the French call orgasm, come together in an emotional crescendo of exquisite pain:
His cock twitched inside me, ready to deposit its final load. I took a deep breath—my last—and pressed the button. The blade fell flawlessly, as I had known it would. It sliced through my neck like a hot knife through butter. There was no pain. The world tumbled, then righted itself as my head landed in the basket. My headless corpse reared up on the table, in the throes of an ecstasy, a passion so complete that it defies words. And as red faded quickly to black, the last thing I saw was my lover's face, and on it a look of purest pleasure.13
Here, Marquis lives up to his namesake, who re-imagined murder as an erotic thrill beyond all others. To the Sadean imagination, power—power without limit, unbound by conscience—is the ultimate high. It extends the ego, godlike, to the edge of infinity, transforming everything within its sphere into the raw material of the lord and master's pleasure. A casebook example of sadism, decap fantasies draw their voltage from the utter subjugation of the other, her (almost always her) reduction to a paraphilic object—a mute, manipulable toy on which the author of the fantasy can exhaust his desires. At its most extreme, this objectification refunctions the head—metonym for the human and repository of the psyche, of all that makes us unique, thinking beings—into a pocket vagina, as in the Chez Marquis story "Giving Head":
I gasped as I fucked her dying, disembodied head. [...] To my astonishment I realized that I had gone all the way through her. The top four or five inches of my erection emerged from the bloody stump of her neck.
The antics of her headless body were comic, but also deeply erotic. Her hands reached up to feel around for a head that wasn't there any more.14
But Freud holds no patent on the psychosexual subtext of decapitation. As Daniel Gerould points out in Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore, "Severed male heads and decapitated bodies play a prominent role in the decadent art and literature of the late 19th century, particularly in the biblical stories of Judith and Salome. Flaubert, Huysmans, Laforgue, and Wilde in literature, and Moreau, Klimt, Beardsley, and Munch in painting are the best known of a whole host of male fin-de-siecle artists obsessed by visions of vengeful, headhunting, 'demonic' women."22 Think of "The Climax," Beardsley's drawing of Wilde's lascivious Salome, pursing her lips to kiss the severed, still dripping head of John the Baptist.
Meanwhile, the gentle sex was hunting heads in actual fact. The huge crowds that flocked to public guillotinings in 19th century France included a significant number of women who, as one of the characters in Henri Monnier's 1829 short story The Execution notes, reportedly found the spectacle more titillating than men did.23 Nor was the arousal of female bloodlust in the presence of the National Razor, as the French called their decapitation machine, unique to the 19th century: In a note to his novel Justine (1791), de Sade observes that "whenever there is a public assassination ... almost always women are in the majority" because "they are more inclined to cruelty than we are," a predilection the Divine Marquis attributes, curiously, to the fact that "they have a more delicate nervous system."24
Fittingly, the guillotine itself was mythologized, in the mass imagination, as a man-eating Black Widow, yet another manifestation of the Romantic archetype of the femme fatale. Gendered feminine in French ("la guillotine"), the machine was referred to as Guillotin's daughter, and soon acquired nicknames such as "Dame Guillotine" and "The Widow." Her white wood not yet stained, a guillotine was known as a "virgin" until she had tasted her first blood. Taking one's place on a virgin machine—lying flat on one's belly on the plank known as the bascule, head in the pillory-like lunette that holds it in place so the blade can do its work—was called "mounting Mademoiselle." After her ritual deflowering, a guillotine was painted red; lying on her was known as "mounting Madame."25 In the same spirit, the Scottish decapitation machine, the precursor of the guillotine, was called the Maiden. According to Regina Janes, a specialist in 18th century culture, "The last man to die by the Maiden, the earl of Argyle in 1685, declared 'as he pressed his lips on the block, that it was the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed.'"26
IV-XIII. As Polysemic Perversity, Abject Object, Undead Fetish, Disquieting Muse, Signpost at the Edge of the Civilized World, Relic of Ancient Barbarities, Face of Contemporary Cruelty, Symbol of Political Protest, Mind/Body Split made flesh, and Exploratory Probe Launched into the Afterworld:
Any way you slice it, the severed head is an enigmatic object, and this essay only begins to tease out the tangled meanings wrapped around it. Ghastly and fascinating, perverse and polyvalent, the severed head stares back at us, its clouded eyes depthless as a dead fish's and as deep as starless space. Inert, yet all too human, it hovers disconcertingly between being and thing-ness. Like all corpses, it is a human object, a poster child for Freud's uncanny and Kristeva's abject. Yet, unlike a headless body or a severed limb, which evoke pity, grief, fear and horror at the sight of another human reduced to a broken doll, the head's eternal status as the mind's throne and the movie screen of the soul (via the face) make it not merely pitiable or dreadful (although it is those things, too) but powerfully mesmeric, an undead fetish whose fascinations are a witches' brew of repulsion and attraction.
I'm looking at the photographer Scott Lindgren's portrait of a breathtakingly lifelike sculpture of a decapitated Chinese head, which appears in the 2000 calendar of the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Presented to the Museum by Dr. Charles D. Hart in 1896, it may be Japanese in origin, and is made of unknown materials, although X-rays have revealed that it has a wooden armature. "Its purpose is unknown," the photo caption notes, "whether to serve as a substitute for a real trophy head, or as a stage prop."27
For my purposes, the Mütter head will serve as an alas-poor-Yorick aid to contemplation, a disquieting muse. Studying its soulless eyes, brow knitted in pain; the braided pigtail looped around its neck-stump; the trickle of blood oozing from one nostril, and the weirdly labial folds of the horrific gash in one cheek (did the executioner miss on first try?), I think of the severed head as a signpost at the edge of the modern world, marking our border-crossing into precivilized times. Sad, battered, and bloody, the Chinese head in the Mütter calendar looks like the gruesome relic of a more barbarous age, like the infamous woodcut of Vlad the Impaler having dinner amid a forest of spears writhing with impaled victims or the eye-curdling 1905 photo, reproduced in The Tears of Eros by George Bataille, of the murderer tortured to death in the unspeakable Chinese punishment known as the "Hundred Pieces."28
In fact, decapitation is still with us, perpetuated by totalitarian regimes, fanatical sects, lone psychopaths and anyone else in need of a particularly humiliating slap in his victim's face, an indignity that heaps desecration on death. It's especially popular among Islamist terrorists such as the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines or the Pakistani group that cut off Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's head after killing him. Beheading is voguish, too, in nations under Koranic law, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where according to Amnesty International, the accused are routinely decapitated after confessions extorted under torture, for "apostasy, witchcraft, sexual offenses, and crimes involving both hard and soft drugs."29 In the age of biotech, nanotech, cloned sheep, and the cracking of the genomic code, there are corners of the world where the Reign of Terror never ended. Heads (often women's) roll in the noonday sun, their blood lapped up by thirsty sand.
(Lest I be accused of stooping to Orientalist caricature in my evocations of Muslim cruelty, I'll take time to point out the obvious, namely that the kinder, gentler slaughterbench of American capital punishment is hardly more humane in its methods, with the possible exception of lethal injection. Decapitation, Saudi-style, is unquestionably more gory, but it's also swifter, and closer to a painless end, than our more civilized methods of strangulation by hanging, asphyxiation by gas, death by firing squad, and, most notoriously, being fried alive in the electric chair. Accounts of the botched 1997 electrocution of convicted killer Pedro Medina describe flames shooting out of Medina's facemask and smoke that stank of burned flesh, making the Saudi sword seem like sweet relief by comparison.30)
Staring at the anonymous Mütter head, I think, too, of decapitation as political protest, from Renaissance Florentines' embrace of the Biblical story of Judith as a metaphor for their righteous resistance to Medici rule, to "Margaret on the Guillotine," an anti-Thatcher tune on Morrissey's 1988 record, Viva Hate (a politically incorrect fantasy, complete with guillotine-clang sound effect, that earned the pop star a visit from the police), to Paul Kelleher's ritual decapitation, in 2002, of a statue of Lady Thatcher. Kelleher said he believed the ideology of conservatives like Thatcher was doing "irreparable damage" to the world in which his two-year-old son was growing up. "I haven't really hurt anybody," he said. "It's just a statue, an idol we seem to be worshipping."31
But somewhere behind the cloud of meanings conjured up by the severed head lies a severed head—a pathetic, flesh-and-blood being who experienced the mind/body split at its most cruelly literal. What must it feel like to be a thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing being one instant and, with the flash of a blade, a heap of dead meat the next? And how can we imagine the unimaginable—that 13-second eternity when your body twitches, headless, on the bascule and your head sits in the sawdust-strewn basket, staring skyward, still thinking, thinking of what? Do you squint into the glare of the sun before your consciousness flickers into nothingness? Do you wrinkle your nose when a fly walks across it? Does 13 seconds stretch into a frozen moment, as it does in the movies, time enough to rewind and fast-forward through a life? Does your severed head experience a sort of phantom limb—or, rather, ghost body—syndrome? Where are you when you lose your head?
In his gothic fantasia, Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head, the 19th-century Belgian romantic painter Antoine Weirtz puts our heads in the lunette and drops the blade:
A horrible noise is buzzing in his head.
This is the noise of the blade coming down.
The executed prisoner believes that he has been struck by lightning, not by the blade. Incredible! The head is here, under the scaffold, but it is convinced that it is still up above, a part of the body waiting all the while for the blow that must separate it from the trunk. ...
...The eyes of the condemned prisoner roll in their bloody sockets.
...They stare fixedly toward the sky, he thinks he sees the immense canopy of the sky tear in two and two parts draw apart like huge curtains. In the infinite depths behind, there appears a blazing furnace, where the stars seem engulfed and consumed forever.32
Here is where words wink out like dying stars, lost in the endless night of the unthinkable. Shorn of the organ that makes meaning, the decapitated never ask what a severed head means. Or, perhaps, by losing their heads, they find out at last, but cannot tell us. Their lips tremble, their eyelids flutter, two for yes and one for no, but 13 seconds is too brief an eternity to tell the living the meaning of life.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. A frequent commentator on new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture, he is the editor of Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture and the author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. His most recent book is the essay collection, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (www.levity.com/markdery; link defunct—Eds.).
Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the New York Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, Goldman Sachs Gives, the Danielson Foundation, and many generous individuals. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.
© 2003 Cabinet Magazine