A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
by Frances Larson
336 pages, Granta
Review by Pat Black
Severed is a measured, erudite study of the act of cutting off human heads, whether in battle, in art, as a punishment, in the name of science, or just for giggles.
Anthropologist Frances Larson’s prose would be suited to the sort of subject matter which pops up in a charming, if somewhat soporific Sunday night BBC4 documentary. About pottery found in Pompeii, say; or long, commentary-free static shots of Chinese walled gardens; or what Jane Austen wore to the disco. Larson delves into her subject matter with enviable restraint.
Famous historical beheadings curtsey politely before beginning this dance. Scottish schoolchildren know fine well how many strikes it took for the axeman to remove Mary Queen of Scots’ head, for example, but this will be fresh tomatoes for some. We also meet poor knock-kneed Charles I, facing the public for the last time – and indeed the body of the man who signed his death warrant, Oliver Cromwell, which suffered the curious indignity of being decapitated by the state long after he was dead; and of course, the ultimate his n’ hers of decapitation, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Larson examines the performance aspect of public execution, especially in Revolutionary France, where people even got to rehearse their own famous last words the night before the steel came down.
We also pore over the very British craze for shrunken heads, collected in tropical places where remote tribes soon understood the economics behind supply and demand. Because these noggins were clipped from the necks of “savages”, and not good old Christian white folks, then Victorian society thought this was alright – to begin with.
Then we have heads taken as trophies in battle, particularly in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. Some soldiers who took a sneaky look at what was cooking in the pot back at their base could sometimes discover that someone was boiling the flesh off some Japanese soldier’s head. It is, after all, the best way to clean a skull.
Larson sees this as an adjunct to the dehumanising effects warfare can have on ordinary, even mild-mannered people; but perhaps it goes a little deeper than that. It’s difficult to misread a sign with a skull stuck at the top of it, after all.
In some places, skulls are still viewed as holy relics, objects of veneration. The supposedly inviolate nature of the severed heads of Christian martyrs is examined. Apparently Saint Denis carried his own head a couple of miles down the road after he was divorced from it, while it continued to preach in the name of Christ. This put me in mind of some holy statues I saw carved into the stonework outside some churches near Paris, whose heads had been cut off in their own right during the Revolution.
The Resurrectionist fervour is dissected, in tandem with the commonplace experience of young medics during anatomy classes with legitimately donated cadavers – encompassing the horror, the fascination, and ultimately the miracle of the human body as an instrument of education. In discussing another curiously Victorian practice – collecting skulls, linked to the discredited science of phrenology – we discover there are a lot of skulls out there, stored in vaults underneath your favourite museums, grinning away in the darkness.
Larson largely leaves Islamic State’s charming videos to one side, only addressing them as an example of decapitation as theatre, similar to public executions in the past, with a similar effect on those watching. Nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes. She also looks at an early Damien Hirst artwork, where the teenage artist poses alongside a freshly severed head in a morgue. Larson includes this photograph in the book, and I guess I asked for that. The pair of them look like someone has just cracked a smashing joke.
The nightmare scenario is forensically examined: if one’s head should be suddenly severed, is death instantaneous? Does the abrupt truncation of the nerves and instant loss of blood pressure have the same effect on the consciousness as flicking a light switch? Or is there a horrible delay, where you’re fully aware of everything for a few seconds, including pain? Anecdotal evidence and less-than-morally-rigid experiments which aimed to solve this riddle are detailed throughout this chapter. The answer, Larson discovers, is frustratingly out of reach: “The precise moment of death is as enigmatic as ever.”
Finally, Larson dusts the frost off the practice of cryogenically freezing severed heads. This is an option for people with deep pockets as well as long necks, in the hope that future technology will be sufficiently advanced to be able to reanimate the brains of the rich and famous who opt for a post-mortem dip in the ice cream and frozen sprouts drawer.
Imagine that. One day our descendants could see Donald Trump’s reanimated head attached to the body of a physically perfect superman. Or a killer robot exoskeleton. With lasers. “YOU’RE FIRED!”
It seems that cryogenic freezing may be a waste of time, as the process has a destructive effect on brain cells. But stranger days are always closer than you think. There was a story just this last week from the US about something which would have resembled material from the realms of sci-fi up until recently.
A young boy had his head “clinically severed” in a car accident, only to have his skull reattached to his spinal column through a miracle of modern medicine. Clearly he was fortunate in terms of a lack of nerve and tissue damage, but the boy is currently walking again. And, get this – he’s three quarters of an inch taller.
Severed is a fascinating book – not to everyone’s tastes, obviously, but a quirky look at the act of one’s head coming away from one’s neck. Disappointingly, there’s not one single reference to Highlander, but don’t let that put you off.
Oh – I meant to say. There’s a parcel at the door for you. The label said “From John Doe”. I’ve left it on the kitchen table.