Sunday, January 25, 2015

turning history on its head: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson

Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014
317 pp


Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back.  The idea that someone would write about the severed head's significance in the history of  "the civilized West" appealed to my fascination with the strange so I knew I had to read it.  After finishing the prologue about the history and fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, I knew I'd found something deliciously different here -- and that I had to finish this book in one go.

Sadly, the spectacle of  beheadings has come back into our lives full force with the public executions by radical terrorists in the Middle East after 9/11.  In her chapter titled "Deposed Heads," the author notes that only a month after the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the video made by his captors started circulating on the internet, and four months later the Boston Phoenix published a link on their website. When in May, 2004, engineer Nick Berg met the same fate, it only took days for the "unedited" video to be made available -- this time by Reuters, then picked up by US news networks. The online footage of the actual beheading
"remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week, and the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to 'American Idol.' "   
Even worse, the Dallas Morning News printed a photo of one of the terrorists holding Berg's severed head (although thankfully with face not visible),  saying that their decision followed "interest generated in the blogosphere," and that "not one of the 87 letters"  they'd received about it "called for these images not to be printed."

And now with the advent of ISIS,  beheadings are once again in the public sphere, "a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear" with "maximum visibility, maximum resonance" as well as its power to encourage "maximum fear."   The author notes that
"by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play."
As someone who didn't follow that herd, while it's hard for me to believe that in this day and age there are people who freely choose to watch someone's murder online, it is a known fact that audiences have been  drawn to executions for centuries, "ready to enjoy the spectacle."

But even outside the sphere of public beheadings and executions, the author uses her book to draw the reader's attention to the very human fascination with human heads.  Over the course of several chapters, she chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.

Ms. Larson writes very well and immerses the reader right away. Sometimes it's obvious that she's adopting a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny attitude toward her subject, but most of the time she's quite serious. The book is easily accessible, very reader friendly and each chapter includes not just facts, but strong analysis as well.  I think a chapter on "decapitations in literature" to go with her chapter about art would have been a strong addition.  My only complaint is that the first time she made a statement and I went to look for endnotes, there weren't any.  I'm one of those readers who enjoy noting down sources as they appear -- and even though she has a sizable bibliography at the end of the book, it was incredibly frustrating not to know an exact source of information as it was given in the text.  I was also a little disappointed at her disclaimer at the beginning of her section on sources where she writes that she intended the book as a "popular account" so did not cite names in the text.  She also notes that "detailed notes" are available at her website, but jeez -- stopping my reading to go look online (even with Ipad next to me) is a lot to ask a person to do. Other than that  not-so-minor quibble,  it's definitely a book worth reading on what is to me a fascinating and sadly relevant topic.

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