Julia Kristeva on The Severed Head

Julia Kristeva, The Severed Head“That is how the guillotine of history falls, sparing neither men nor works.”—Julia Kristeva

This week we will be featuring The Severed Head: Capital Visions by Julia Kristeva.

In her newest book, Kristeva explores 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 horror—and the potential for the face to provide an experience of the sacred. The following is an excerpt from the book:

One drawing remains etched in my memory, given to me without ceremony but as a sign of favor, in the way that only gifted beings and mothers know how. It was one of those cold, white winters that freeze the Balkans and bring families together around their coal stoves. Hunched over the glowing grate, I warmed my icy cheeks and numb fingers as I listened absentmindedly to a children’s radio show: “What is the quickest means of transportation in the world? Send us your answer, with a drawing to match, on a postcard, to the following address . . . ” “I know, it’s an airplane,” my little sister piped up. “No, it’s a rocket,” I countered, pleased at having the last word. “I’d say instead that it’s thought,” Mama proposed. I could only concede, but not without my usual smart remark: “Maybe, but you can’t draw a thought, it’s invisible.” “You’ll see.” I can still picture the card that she drew with my name on it, which won me first prize in the radio contest. To the left, a big snowman in the process of melting, his head falling off, as though severed by the invisible guillotine of the sun. To the right, the planet earth in its interstellar orbit, offering its imaginary expanses for armchair travels

In fact, there was nothing special about that drawing. Certainly, the spareness of the sketch, the vacuousness of the melting body, the severed head all merged with an ingenious idea: only the speed of thought exceeds the speed of bodies, whether cosmic, human, or products of human technology. But, to my young eyes, it subtly demonstrated that quickness of thought I so admired in the answer my mother had proposed. The drawing let it be seen, as much in the concision of its concept (a perishable body transcends itself and conveys itself through the power of reason) as in the cheerful quickness of the line (without collapsing into caricature, the nervous, spirited line betrayed the melancholy of our mortal condition as well as the triumphant irony of deep reflection).

This drawing, which my mother hardly remembers anymore, comes to mind occasionally; just recently, I thought I recognized myself in the story of a decapitated woman.I recognize my fears of death in its lines: my body is fleeting as that snowman who begins by losing his head before dissolving into a puddle of water. And one of those certitudes that mothers sometimes pass on to us: might not the only credible incarnation be that of thought, which knows how to draw beings because it is able to grasp the vectors of its own speed? To grasp them in the perceptible, beyond the perceptible, by slicing into the perceptible

It is to that poor drawing I return today as I resolve to bring together a few capital visions and to make apparent the power of drawing, on the border dividing the visible from the invisible….

I can’t take my eyes off that severed head. Much as I want to, this is my symptom. Depression, obsession with death, admission of feminine and human distress, castrating drive? I accept all these human, too human, hypotheses. I move on from them to imagine a capital moment in the history of the visible. A moment when human beings were not content to copy the surrounding world, but when, through a new, intimate vision of their own visionary capacity, through an additional return on their ability to represent and to think, they wanted to make visible that subjective intimacy itself: that inner sensibility, that spirituality, that reflective affection, that economy of anguish and pleasure, the soul. That palpation of the invisible surely had confronted them with the fundamental invisible that is death: the disappearance of our carnal form and its most salient parts, which are the head, the limbs, and the sex organs, prototypes of vitality. To represent the invisible (the anguish of death as well as the jouissance of thought’s triumph over it), wasn’t it necessary to begin by representing the loss of the visible (the loss of the bodily frame, the vigilant head, the ensconced genitals)? 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? 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?

The journey on which I am inviting you is, as you have probably guessed, largely imaginary. Headsmen no longer haunt our regions, except in the Balkans and in times of grave crises, but that is another story. The only decapitated bodies we come across are those of statues beheaded by time, that another time offers for our admiration in museums. Dione and Aphrodite, Phidias’s lovers, may well have lost their heads, but it was in leaving the pediment of the Parthenon to seek shelter in a cavernous hall of the British Museum. As for the Victory of Samothrace, another decapitatee, she will never take wing from the Louvre; how could she fly without a head? To them I prefer this Head of a Knight: massive, but delicate and gentle; with sealed lips, salient cheekbones, broken nose. This ideal recumbent statue might be of one Jean de Seignelay, lord of Beaumont, who died in 1296 or 1298. It left the hands of the masters in the Burgundy workshop at Mussy-sur-Seine, was interred in the abbey of Prémontrés de Saint-Marien, and was mutilated by the Calvinists in 1567.

That is how the guillotine of history falls, sparing neither men nor works.

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