- Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture
The National Theatre's 2006 production of Measure for Measure was a version for our time. Detainees interned by the monstrously self-satisfied Angelo shuffled around in orange jump suits, hooded and shackled. But squeamish, if titillating, decorum held the production back from pushing the analogy too far. The axe man did his bed-trick business (beheading not Claudio but the substituted body of an already-dead prisoner) behind a backlit screen that turned the swing and fall of the outsized axe and the arc of the projectile head into shadow puppet-theatre and comedy. Anticipated by gasps and nervous laughter, the Provost entered—"Here is the head; I will carry it myself"—portentously swinging . . . a bucket. Sloshing around in suggestively red liquid but shielded by translucent plastic was the outline of something heavy and head shaped. There is no shortage of heads in Regina Janes's Losing Our Heads—mounds of trophy heads tallied by Assyrian bookkeepers; the head-racks and cranium goblets of the Celts; guillotined heads rolling into baskets—but the severed heads that trouble our present get a look in only between the dashes of a subclause on the back cover.
Decapitation "makes visible a violence" (ix), but violence is not the focus of Janes's fast-paced study. The dark allure of the severed head is that it deals in symbolism as well as savagery. The enigmatic serenity of John the Baptist's head poking out of Salome's gauzy reticule in Klimt's "Judith II " can compel our attention more urgently than a shrunken trophy head gathering dust in a museum case. The impish play of the title—Losing Our Heads—signals that there will be a light touch to Janes's formidable scholarship. The gaiety and élan with which she conducts her investigation into "Beheadings in Literature and Culture" is facilitated by her focus on decapitation as "the capital symbolic act of violence" (4). Janes can never resist a pun, and her teasingly purposeful use of them confirms her investment in the severed head's status as a text: "when a discourse is in crisis, a severed head is [End Page 137] likely to turn up" (xiii). As a floating signifier through the ages, its meanings are assigned specific codes within each culture. "Beheading is the body's catachresis: a violation of the rules of the body's grammar that generates a sensation of dismay, horror, delight, or absurdity" (12). A gifted, light-touch synthesizer, Janes illustrates the shifting semiotics of severed heads in the classical world: icon of annihilation for the petrified Greeks; wonder-working trophy for exuberant Celtic head hunters; instrument of control for utilitarian Romans.
By following the changing symbolism of the severed head, Janes subtly re-writes both Foucault's Discipline and Punish (which she quotes) and Francis Barker's The Tremulous Private Body (which she doesn't). While working within the general lines of Foucault's argument—the body moves offstage as spectacular punishment gives way to carceral occlusion—she fixes her gaze on a singularly high-visibility manifestation, the bouncing severed head. She adduces seventeenth-century prints in which executioners' assistants crouch like wicket-keepers to catch the head in midair, or those that freeze-frame the heads of Protestant martyrs in midflight. The kinetic head is a resistant head that grounds its protest in the continuing presence of the body. For Janes, the "humanitarian" turn of the Enlightenment and the growth of sympathy that it entails find expression in the seemingly unmotivated bouncing heads of early-eighteenth-century literature. Gulliver in Brobdignag witnesses a malefactor's head, sheared clean by the axe, give "such a Bounce, as made me start," and Janes seizes on the physical shock of the startled spectator as the index of a new sensibility: "The bouncing head forms part of a critique that invokes the body, though the body is not yet a ground on which one can base an argument" (64). A text that itself bounces so...