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Regina Janes. Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture.

Regina Janes. Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture. New York: New York UP, 2005. 272 pp. $68.50.

Certainly the most terrifying moment in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is when the playing card "Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed 'Off with her head! Off--:" The only possible reply, of course, in this topsy-turvy world is Alice's, whose head had been expanding and shrinking in the course of the novel: "'Nonsense!' said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent." Would that all of our nightmares would so quickly vanish under our own control.

Regina Janes has provided much to make our dreams uneasy. In what is a profitable if queasy read, the Professor of English at Skidmore College and author of books on Gabriel Garcia Marquez turns to the history of the head. Quite truly to the history of the head: separated from the body, as trophy, political act, social comment, symbol, metaphor. In this book she gives us the history of the body-less head (and has left it to others to write a history of the headless body). Beginning with the archeological finds of hominid and early man's fascination with decapitation, she sees the act of beheading as the first symbolic act, as it represents a means of understanding the notion of the integrated body and its desecration or celebration through the removal and veneration of the head. That human beings have always seen the separated head through the lens of some symbolic reading becomes a mantra in this work.

She catalogues how through the ages the severed head (and the act of severing the head) comes to take on multiple meanings in any given historical moment. Here her strength comes in an odd way from her reliance on chronology rather than on the putative themes of her chapters. For beginning her book unbeknownst with modernity, that excavates (and perhaps creates) the headhunters out of our distant humanoid ancestors, she concludes with contemporary art that deifies the head as a symbol of the repression of modernity. Between these two poles lies much that relies on our present narratives about the past.

As has been clear over the past twenty years with the debate about cannibalism triggered by William Arens of the State University of New York at Stony Brook in his book The Man-Eating Myth (1979): it is always whether we accept or reject the compelling narratives about the past or about those distant and exotic climes that substitute for the past. Was there cannibalism as ritual practice (good) or cannibalism as part of torture and dismemberment (bad)? What happens when the colonial powers forced the "natives" to consume the bread and body of Christ (remembering that these are Catholics--this is not a symbol) while damning them as barbarians because (they charged) they consumed human flesh? What does cannibalism mean when projected into the colonial past or seen, as does Beth Conklin, as Consuming Grief Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001)? Is this separate from colonial condemnation or a response to it?

Janes is confronted with exactly the same set of questions concerning decapitation. And she manages elegantly to evaluate and accept some evidence, relativize others, and seek in the world of High Culture some signs that all of these positions are possible. Thus she begins chapter 1 with a survey of the beheading practices of the Europeans (Greeks to Celts) parallel to the non-European cultures that were and are assumed to "take heads." But here she simply assumes that the construction of the archeological record is mimetic, that it reflects actual practice and that we can refer to the meanings associated with such practices from the extrapolations of the archeologists and classicists who "create" the ancient world. By chapter 2 we have moved to the world that actually created this image, Western Europe from the seventeenth century, early Enlightenment to the age of colonialism. The odd history of decapitation in the "modern" world. We read of the use of the axe on living (Mary, Queen of Scots) or dead (Cromwell) English rulers. We read of the creation at that moment from the pen of John Locke of a notion that underpins most codes of law and conduct today: the inviolable right of every "body" to be defined and protected by law, by "inalienable rights." We read of the history of that most modern of inventions, the guillotine, that was to spare the prisoner the pain of the badly placed blow and which, like most revolutionary and modern approaches to mercy, beheaded its inventor. That the act of beheading (like the act of hanging in the United States) continued long after other, more "modern" forms of execution (such as George Westinghouse's Electric Chair) had been called upon as "humane" substitutes, says much about the power of the very act of beheading. Hanging was abandoned to no little degree in the United States because, like the axe, it sometimes didn't work the first time and sometimes like the guillotine it ripped the head from the torso. Different cultures; different tastes.

In Janes's fourth chapter we read the mottled account of John the Baptist's head from Josephus to Freudian and post Freudian readings. Central here is the visualization of the act of beheading: again we have a fascinating set of implied contrasts. If Salome (or whatever her name is) is rapacious and sexually alluring, Judith's sexuality is used to decapitate Holofernes to rescue the people of Israel (at least in the Western, religious art of the sixteenth to the twentieth century). Yet, when these scenes are untitled, it is truly difficult to tease out whose head is whose.

Chapter 5 returns to the world of the past by examining how cannibalism comes to be replaced by beheading in the Roman world and the world of European colonial expansion. The "primitives" don't just eat one another; they take heads as trophies to show how much they are in need of Western culture. Here Jane evokes the spectre of the heads on the fence in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as the proof text for our "modern" revulsion at the primitive, a primitive nature that Conrad's contemporary Sigmund Freud claimed as the legacy of all human beings. How this theme haunts postcolonial writers of Africa, such as Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, points to the power of beheading as a literary theme in that Western culture which represents Africa as the place of the desecration of the body. And the power of writers such as Conrad to shape the sensibilities of African writers today. This is an engaging book: it makes one think--which, without a head, as Alice well knows, is almost impossible.

Sander L. Gilman

Emory University
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Author:Gilman, Sander
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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