BY Erik Morse in Profiles | 19 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146


A new translation of Julia Kristeva’s book on the art of beheading

BY Erik Morse in Profiles | 19 MAR 12

Odilon Redon, Salomé, 1910. Courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Bequest of S. Ludington

‘I have given you the face of an old empire of barbarian times.’
Antonin Artaud, from Paule Thévenin’s The Search for a Lost World (1984)

One hundred and fifty years before the French National Assembly‘mechanized’ and ‘democratized’ the death penalty in the form of Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s eponymous invention (‘Gentleman, with my machine, I can make your head roll in the blink of an eye and you do not suffer. The mechanism drops like lightning, the head flies, the blood spurts, the man is no more!’), René Descartes transformed the Western intellectual tradition into a question of cranial consciousness; he ‘separated’ the body (with its secondary capacities of feeling and touching) from the head (with its primary capacities of thinking and seeing), touting the latter as the prima materia of a new, modern epistemology. This rationalist project, broadened in the increasingly secularized academies of the French Enlightenment and buttressed by the sciences of optics and human anatomy, apotheosized the head not only as the ‘thinking’ thing but as the capacitor for an age of republican humanism, motivated by fraternal order and punished by a humane authority. Abandoned only in 1981 by government decree, the guillotine, however, symbolized the monstrous contradiction inherent in French humanism, exhibiting both its propensity for institutional terror and, more disturbingly, the macabre beauty inflicted upon the body when the head suffers the sacrifice of the state.

Since modernity, the method of decapitation and its sanguinary icon, the severed head, has carried with it a uniquely French sensibility – one aimed both at the head as the very centre of rational existence and at ‘the cut’ as the desire for sacrifice at its most transgressive. Writing within the genealogy of 20th-century French authors and theorists – including Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Jean Genet and Raymond Roussel – who often fetishized the image of the brain in the shadow of the guillotine, post-structural feminist Julia Kristeva has now added her own heady exegesis, The Severed Head: Capital Visions (2012, translated from the French by Jody Gladding) – based on a 1998 exhibition that she curated at the Louvre.

A titular pun on the Latin caput (head), The Severed Head chronicles the iconography of the head in the visual arts: from the tumescent vulva-shaped skulls of the Lascaux caves to prehistoric cannibalism, and from the mandylion of Christ at Laon to Warhol’s serial silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout, Kristeva attempts a psychoanalytic reading that redresses what art critic Régis Michel calls the ‘ontological Vichyism’ of visual scholarship. ‘Art history is inadequate to the democracy of meaning,’ Michel writes in the book’s introductory essay. ‘It plays truth against dissemination, genealogy against difference, and painting against the body: the art of representation against the theatre of drives.’ If visual scholarship’s moribund methodology is incapable of interpreting the image in its contemporary context, then it is psychoanalysis, in the persons of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, who, for Kristeva, provide a hermeneutics of energy-driven pictorialism that renders visible the sexual/semiotic inscriptions of the unnamable, the sensorial and the anatomical. In Kristeva’s form of ecstatic Lacanianism, the living head is an image of particular significance, because it shares a symbolic link with the abjection of the ‘primal’ visage – that of the mother – at the time of the child’s separation from the maternal body and his or her entry into the hallucinated world of the head (i.e. languages and images). When the head is decapitated from the body, the resulting skull assumes a sacred logic of ‘the cut’ or, as Kristeva explains it, a primary human desire to inscribe, with a concise stroke of the pen, the ‘border dividing the visible from invisible’ or being from non-being. 

‘If the vision of our intimate thought really is the capital vision that humanity has produced of itself, doesn’t it have to be constructed precisely by passing through an obsession with the head as symbol of the thinking living being?’ Kristeva asks. ‘Through a cult of the dead head, fixing the terror of sex and the beyond? Through a ritual of the skull, of beheading, of decapitation, which might be the preliminary condition for the representation of what allows us to stand up to the void that is none other than the ability to represent the life of the mind, psychological experience as the capacity for multiple representations?’

Kristeva spends the vast majority of this slim volume characterizing the antiquarian images of the head (what she refers to as ‘icons’) and the depictions of heads from the post-classical era (what she refers to as ‘figurations’), a distinction that requires a very difficult – sometimes indecipherable – divagation into the salvation theology of the body transfiguring into spirit. The division of these forms, as with most discourses of religious art, occurs between the ascension of Byzantium and the Renaissance, when the iconoclasts and iconophiles from East and West battled for catechistic supremacy of divine representations of Christ. Kristeva points out that the sixth century mandylion of the Holy Face – considered the first miraculous imprint of Christ’s visage on a shroud – shares a graphic link to the Gorgon head of Medusa, in which both are unviewable, and thus unreproducable, experiences of life unto death, both engendering and killing. When the papacy finally recognized the divinity of the mandylion in the 11th century, the matriarchal and the patriarchal icons were bonded between, on the one hand, images of Medusa, Salome and the Virgin Mary, and, on the other, between God the Father, John the Baptist and Christ the Son. Kristeva writes of the icon that it ‘becomes the terms of a passage of the transfiguration of the invisible and the visible that places the eyes of the flesh in a position to regard the spirit [...] the icon will be able to make this resemblance manifest’.

The ‘art’ of beheading changes drastically with the mechanization of capital punishment during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a zeitgeist in which the French populace suffers, according to Kristeva, ‘a syncope of the sacred’, where one form of religion is replaced by another. Once an expression of transubstantiated divinity, the head became the figure of a new egalitarian ethos consisting of monstrosities or revolutionaries. The resulting proliferation of guillotine images mostly depicted acts of regicide or executions of the ancien régime, as if to herald the device’s use as a just and painless panacea of the new republic. But the 19th and 20th centuries would resurrect the horror of the beheading, reinvesting it with the abjection and ecstasy of mutilation – Théodore Géricault’s Head of a Guillotined Man (1818–19), Odilon Redon’s The Head of Saint John the Baptist (1868), Paul Cézanne’s Pyramid of Skulls (1901) and Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Crying Woman (1937) – leading Artaud to proclaim the modern face to be ‘a void force, a field of death’. It is important to note that Kristeva distinguishes these modern representations by their male and female sensibilities – the former more immediate and often beset with the logical observations of portraiture; the latter woven from the fantastic polyvalences of the text – a description that, more than any other in the book, could betray the kind of feminist essentializing of which Kristeva is often accused by her detractors.

The final chapter, ‘The Face and the Experience of Limits’, follows the popularity of the death mask, a eulogistic device that testified to the traditional portrait’s inability to capture the head’s most elusive embellishment – the face. Affixed shortly after death, the mask’s purpose was to ossify the face at the moment of ‘crossing’, where it gazed in ultimate placidity from outside the realm of human time. ‘The threat or promise of the invisible confers upon the facial expression an ideal beauty for which the death mask constitutes the paralyzed limit,’ writes Kristeva, echoing Bataille. Ironically, the purest vision of the face enjoys an irrational freedom that returns it to the deepest bowels of bodily ecstasy with all of its incumbent fantasies of pleasure, danger and excess. Attaining such a freedom is, however, a dead end, insists Kristeva, as the human menagerie of representation is essential for envisioning the head and fantasizing its decapitation.

The Severed Head is a minor, and sometimes inscrutable, entry in Kristeva’s impressive bibliography, but the élan with which she tackles a figure of such universal morbidity tests the limits of what is utterable and unutterable in contemporary philosophy and art history.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.