- Forging A Head and Forging Ahead—Miller’s Head Cases
“Gloria was lying in a pool of blood with her head cut off” (Kristeva 1998, 3). The opening line of Julia Kristeva’s 1996 novel Possessions evokes an uncanny scene of decapitation, as the protagonist, Stephanie Delacour, finds her friend, Gloria Harrison, impeccably dressed in an ivory satin dress with matching shoes, hands manicured, legs tanned, so familiar, yet utterly unfamiliar. All this is captured in the most laconic of ways: “There was nothing missing except her head” (2). Stephanie’s immediate reaction to finding her friend in a pool of blood is all but dramatic. Rather than lamenting the death of her friend, she begins reflecting on the 2,000-year long tradition of representing and painting the severed head of Saint John the Baptist being presented to Salome, from Venetian mosaics to the paintings of Caravaggio, Da Vinci and Raphael, and the poetry of Mallarmé. She reflects on the unique capacity of the artist to represent such horrors, to make visible what the rest of us cannot see, to bring beauty and meaning to what otherwise might seem mundane and meaningless. We are thus quickly removed from the scene of a friend lying, decapitated, in a pool of blood, to a reflection on the aesthetics of decapitation.
To be sure, it is no coincidence that Kristeva chooses to begin her novel here, in an encounter with a decapitated woman, and through her friend’s inner monologue about beheadings in the realm of art. Only two years after the publication of Possessions, in 1998, Kristeva curated an exhibit at the Louvre, Visions Capitales, which showcased artistic representations of severed heads from antiquity to the present. The catalog for the exhibit, authored by Kristeva, appeared in English in 2012 as The Severed Head: Capital Visions, and on the cover we find one of the many representations of Saint John the Baptist’s head being served on a plate, this one painted by Andrea Solario, and on display at the Louvre. In the brief prelude to the text, Kristeva proposes that “the image may be our only remaining link to the sacred,” and suggests [End Page 274] that the many cruel stories behind the severed heads of the exhibition remind us that “a humanity possessed by the urge for death and terrorized by murder acknowledges that it has, in fact, arrived at a fragile and overwhelming discovery: the only resurrection possible may be … representation.”
It is this very idea that motivates Elaine P. Miller’s Head Cases: Julia Kristeva on Philosophy and Art in Depressed Times. Here, art, and particularly uncanny art such as the paintings Kristeva chose for the exhibition at the Louvre, is presented as a beacon of hope in the face of the horrors that define our times. Like Kristeva, Miller views modernity as a time deeply marked by depression and melancholia, and she proposes that works of art and aesthetic experience—and the thought process that follows from that experience—are perhaps the only means by which we can work through not only individual depression but also the melancholia that characterizes our culture as a whole.
At the heart of Miller’s book, and of much of Kristeva’s work, is the image. It is the image that defines modernity understood as a culture of depression, yet it is also the image that serves as a starting point for our capacity to wrestle meaningfully with the depression of our times. On the one hand, Miller thus focuses on a central theme in Kristeva’s work, namely her critique of modernity as a culture of the spectacle, one that proliferates images without content and leaves us numb and motionless, zapping away in front of our televisions or getting lost in a two-dimensional landscape of glossy billboards and idealized representations. The ‘new maladies of the soul’ that Kristeva has brought attention to throughout her work—and that she herself encounters as a...