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Losing Our Heads

Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture

Regina Janes
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 255
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  • Book Info
    Losing Our Heads
    Book Description:

    What is the fascination that decollation holds for us, as individuals and as a culture? Why does the idea make us laugh and the act make us close our eyes? Losing Our Heads explores in both artistic and cultural contexts the role of the chopped-off head. It asks why the practice of decapitation was once so widespread, why it has diminished - but not, as scenes from contemporary Iraq show, completely disappeared - and why we find it so peculiarly repulsive that we use it as a principal marker to separate ourselves from a more barbaricor primitive past?Although the topic is grim, Regina Janes's treatment and conclusions are neither grisly nor gruesome, but continuously instructive about the ironies of humanity's cultural nature. Bringing to bear an array of evidence, the book argues that the human ability to create meaning from the body motivates the practice of decapitation, its diminution, the impossibility of its extirpation, and its continuing fascination. Ranging from antiquity to the late nineteenth-century passion for Salome and John the Baptist, and from the enlightenment to postcolonial Africa's challenge to the severed head as sign of barbarism, Losing Our Heads opens new areas of investigation, enabling readers to understand the shock of decapitation and to see the value in moving past shock to analysis. Written with penetrating wit and featuring striking illustrations, it is sure to captivate anyone interested in his or her head.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4361-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Prologue: Head Matters
    (pp. 1-9)

    Human beings have often cut off one another’s heads. They do not always cut off another’s head. They often strenuously disapprove cutting off heads, yet someone somewhere is always cutting off someone else’s head for some reason. Why?

    Evolutionary and sociobiologists say it is “nature,” articulated in the genetic code, expressed in brain function as a response to experience. Edward O. Wilson argues that headhunting confers evolutionary advantages on skilled practitioners and tribes. Robin Fox proposes man as a hunting primate whose innate violence and aggression are only loosely controlled by culture. Steven Pinker includes “a drive for dominance and...

  5. 1 Introduction to a Beheading
    (pp. 10-40)

    Beheading is among the most ancient, widespread, and enduring of human cultural practices. Examples occur in every place, time, and level of culture. In Ashurbanipal’s Nineveh, seventh-century b.c.e. Assyrians heaped heads beneath palm trees, the harvested fruits of victory, tallied by meticulous scribes (fig. 1.1). In his fourteenth-century progresses, Tamerlane piled heads into monitory mountains. Heads were carried aloft by Japanese warriors of the twelfth century, shrunk by Jivaro in the twentieth, tossed by Aztecs in their ball games, collected in baskets by Jehu and the Nazis, preserved in niches by pre-Roman Celts. Headsmen took them off throughout Europe until...

  6. 2 Bouncing Heads and Scaffold Dramas
    (pp. 41-66)

    There was a time when severed heads were at the center of things. Then heads were head, and the head of state took off others’ heads in state. Under the Tudors, the ad hoc battlefield decollations of the Middle Ages were restaged as great public scaffold dramas. Coinciding with administrative centralization, formal staging projected the power of the state and the authority of its head, eliminating dynastic contenders, rival claimants, religious disputants, ambitious men skeptical of female rule, and common criminals disruptive of the sovereign’s peace.¹ The heads removed were set up in central places: on the Parliament house, on...

  7. 3 Power to the People: His Pike and Her Guillotine
    (pp. 67-96)

    The French Revolution saw two kinds of beheadings. Through the little national window of the guillotine, one kind looked toward our own time and the technological perfection of impersonal violence. Aloft on pikes, the other looked back a much longer way. Heads speared on pikes, posted on bridges, gates, and walls, or heaped beside a tent, are far more ancient than the guillotine and far more widespread in their geographic dispersal. But the guillotine, like other works of human art, has accrued meanings more complex than the simpler work of human hands that severs a head and impales it on...

  8. 4 At the Sign of the Baptist’s Head
    (pp. 97-138)

    From 1860 to 1910, there flourished in England, France, and Germany a vogue for representing decapitating ladies, focused particularly on Herodias and her daughter. No guillotines need apply; the sword had revived for a hands-on struggle over gender roles. Suddenly, every author, painter, or composer whose name one knew was producing a work on the theme of Herodias or Salome and the decollation of St. John the Baptist. Stéphane Mallarmé began his “Hérodiade” in 1864, inaugurating the deluge and leaving the poem unfinished, still open on his worktable at his death in 1898.¹ In prose there followed Gustave Flaubert (1877),...

  9. 5 African Heads and Imperial Décolletage: Beheadings in the Colonies
    (pp. 139-175)

    On a boat crewed by “starving cannibals” whose only intelligible remark is “Eat ’im,” Joseph Conrad’s Marlow journeys intoThe Heart of Darkness. He hopes he looks more appetizing than the other Europeans on board his ship. Free from ancient fears of ingestion and incorporation, Marlow finds African cannibalism more amusing than frightening. Among the Bangula, following Conrad, Norman Sherry also reports jocular, anecdotal, food cannibalism. The pilot of a steamer, asked if he really ate human flesh, replied, “Ah! I wish I could eat everybody on earth,” and a missionary once talked to a man who had reportedly killed...

  10. 6 Epilogue: Craniate Origins and Headless Futures
    (pp. 176-196)

    Heads, the body’s metaphor for hierarchy and metonymy for wholeness, are in trouble. This is not news, save that the observation has moved from the avant garde to popular platitude. In the 1930s, Georges Bataille celebrated theAcéphale, the headless man, and his new world.Acéphale, a journal published by dissident surrealists between 1936 and 1939, with an acephalic man for emblem, lived only four issues. Freed from his head as a prisoner from prison, headless man plunges into a world without foundation and without head, committed to destruction and the death of God, merging with the superman, reviving the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 197-242)
  12. Index
    (pp. 243-254)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 255-256)