The Severed Head

The Severed Head: Capital Visions

Julia Kristeva
Translated by Jody Gladding
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/kris15720
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    The Severed Head
    Book Description:

    Informed by a provocative exhibition at the Louvre curated by the author, The Severed Head unpacks artistic representations of severed heads from the Paleolithic period to the present. Surveying paintings, sculptures, and drawings, Julia Kristeva turns her famed critical eye to a study of the head as symbol and metaphor, as religious object and physical fact, further developing a critical theme in her work- the power of horro-and the potential for the face to provide an experience of the sacred.

    Kristeva considers the head as icon, artifact, and locus of thought, seeking a keener understanding of the violence and desire that drives us to sever, and in some cases keep, such a potent object. Her study stretches all the way back to 6,000 B.C.E., with humans' early decoration and worship of skulls, and follows with the Medusa myth; the mandylion of Laon (a holy relic in which the face of a saint appears on a piece of cloth); the biblical story of John the Baptist and his counterpart, Salome; tales of the guillotine; modern murder mysteries; and even the rhetoric surrounding the fight for and against capital punishment. Kristeva interprets these "capital visions" through the lens of psychoanalysis, drawing infinite connections between their manifestation and sacred experience and very much affirming the possibility of the sacred, even in an era of "faceless" interaction.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53038-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Art & Art History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    FRANÇOISE VIATTE

    Exhibitions let us see some portion of the work done in a museum. Nonetheless, they don’t represent the essence of it and in any case only show us the results, however provisional, of prior research. But these events seem to receive more attention that any other activity, no doubt because of their brevity—a few weeks, their selective nature—a small space with rare works, and especially because of the engagement they presuppose. An exhibition is meant to be captivating or at least convincing and arresting. An exhibition is valued for its critical quality and the depths of its interrogation....

  4. ALIBI?
    (pp. xv-xxiv)
    RÉGIS MICHEL
  5. 1 ON DRAWING; OR, THE SPEED OF THOUGHT
    (pp. 1-8)

    No distance between the thought and the hand: their instantaneous unity grasps and redraws the most concentrated interiority into visible bodies. No trial and error: the artist’s mind, identified with the gesture, trims away the expanse, carves out shadow and light, and, on the flat exteriority of a medium like paper, makes an intention, a judgment, a taste appear, voluminous. Simply through the precision of the lines, their placement, their movement, where they thicken into darkness, where they thin out into light. Drawing has always seemed to me the proof of a maximal concentration through which the most subjective intelligence,...

  6. 2 THE SKULL: CULT AND ART
    (pp. 9-27)

    But let us return to the head: skull and face.

    Does art descend from the metamorphosis of the gods, as Malraux thinks, or does it anticipate the religious rituals of which it is part, by elaborating the same powers and the same virtues? The artifacts produced through “art” since prehistory confirm the second hypothesis rather than the first.¹ Before or simultaneous with the invention of gods, many effigies possessed the power to protect prehistoric humans from the spirit world and the night. “Work,” rather than “labor,” our ancestors’ archaic occupation, which produced these objects, had concealing them from human eyes...

  7. 3 WHO IS MEDUSA?
    (pp. 28-36)

    A beautiful story of severed heads runs through Greek antiquity: that of the Gorgons, three winged monsters with female bodies and serpents for hair, whose look changed the one who dared to gaze on them to stone: Medusa, Euryale, and Stheno. In the beginning, Medusa is a young woman who draws attention to herself: seduced and then raped by Poseidon, she proves to be fertile, since she gives birth to fraternal twins, the horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. A long legend transforms her into a terrible power. To simplify, let us say that the monster is killed twice: first,...

  8. 4 THE TRUE IMAGE: A HOLY FACE
    (pp. 37-46)

    I grew up in the shadow of icons. Shadow is very much the right word, because I remember no single particular feature: on a raised base of greenish-brown lacquered wood were hollowed flesh-colored faces haloed in gold. Large dark eyes turning inward sometimes attracted my attention, before becoming blurred in the intoxication of incense, flowers, and candles.

    Like absolute proof—proof of time rediscovered and the indestructible continuity of European history—the Holy Face of Laon made its reappearance recently in my life. In the Saint Paul Chapel, opening on the northern arm of the transept, left of the Choir,...

  9. 5 A DIGRESSION: ECONOMY, FIGURE, FACE
    (pp. 47-64)

    We have just passed a capital moment in the destiny of the West that no history book mentions, so occupied are we with conceiving history as a sequence of wars or economic and scientific conquests. The planetary reign of the image, of which we are becoming increasing aware, should nevertheless lead us to question more intently what we did before its arrival and its variations.

    We can now assert, without much risk of error, that from the sixth to the twelfth century—from the “discovery” of the legendary imprints of Christ’s face on cloth to his pictorial representation in the...

  10. 6 THE IDEAL FIGURE; OR, A PROPHECY IN ACTUALITY: SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
    (pp. 65-73)

    Many of us have now lost the memory of these myths, stories, metamorphoses, and economies. Others, from distant lands, never knew them. Nevertheless, we are all overwhelmed by the severed head laid on a platter: source of multiple, irresolvable personal and cultural projections. I am contemplating the splendid Solario, in love with a Saint John more asleep than tortured, already savoring paradise, or else the dance that Salome is preparing for him. This drawing and its theme seem to me—at this point in our journey—to mark the first crossroads in modern figuration. They are a condensation of the...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 BEHEADINGS
    (pp. 74-90)

    John the Baptist, prefigurer par excellence, lends his figure to the figuration of the invisible par excellence: the passage.

    Figuration is now ready to accommodate the mythical and biblical memory of beheadings. Because a history of decapitation really does exist in the various civilizations, one that is coming to be reconstructed.¹ Texts, legends, fantasies detail a thousand and one variations of severed heads. Their historical significance and local color echo the tormented vision of the artist who claims them and brings them back to life, each time contemporary in the graphic cut or crimson tint of his works. The graphic...

  13. 8 FROM THE GUILLOTINE TO THE ABOLITION OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
    (pp. 91-102)

    In opposition to the imaginary intimacy with death, which transforms melancholy or desire into representation and thought, lies the rational realization of the capital act. Vision and action are polar opposites here, and the revolutionary Terror confronts us with that revolting abjection practiced by humanity under the guise of an egalitarian institution of decapitation.

    The extravagances of the debates that took place in the Assembly, especially those on October 9 and December 1, 1789, would elicit peals of laughter today, if the rationalist repression and the democratic “right-thinking” that they demonstrated were not so monstrous, as much in the speeches...

  14. 9 POWERS OF HORROR
    (pp. 103-120)

    The power of horror is contagious. It figures but it disfigures as well: the source of a resurgence in our representations that cut through the forms, volumes, contours to expose the pulsing flesh. From disfiguration to expressionism, to abstraction, to minimalism—and back. When Grünewald paints a bald, clean-shaven, grimacing Man’s Head, he inscribes an imbecilic agony into this effigy sticking out its dumbfounded tongue, into these creased wildcat eyes, and into the furrowed skin of the cheeks, to the point of morbid pleasure. Fascination and abjection, ecstasy and vomit—pain has neither subject nor object: between the two, it...

  15. 10 THE FACE AND THE EXPERIENCE OF LIMITS
    (pp. 121-132)

    It is not only because you risk losing it that your head is precious. Far be it from me to imply that only decapitation, real or imaginary, can lead the artist, or anyone else, to embellish the face. Nevertheless, the threat or promise of the invisible confers upon the facial expression an ideal beauty for which the death mask constitutes the paralyzed limit.

    The history of the portrait, up to the modern flayings that have taken over for it, shows us what certain writers, travelers at the end of night, have tried to make clear. Fixed, mobile, exchanged, viewed from...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 133-150)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 151-162)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 163-166)