Julia Kristeva: Two Severed Heads from The Severed Head

Julia Kristeva, Severed Head  Julia Kristeva, Severed Head

In the following passage from The Severed Head: Capital Visions, Julia Kristeva explores the iconography and symbolism of beheadings during the French Revolution:

More Roman, Marat takes great pleasure in what he believes to be the “serene joy” of the people contemplating “the head of the tyrant [that] had just fallen under the sword of the law” and salutes “a religious holiday.” In effect, we are witnessing a “syncope of the sacred,” which only suspends one religion with the ambition of immediately founding another.But this new religiosity is lacking in imagination and rudimentary in symbolism: the passage to the act itself takes the place of culture and justice.

The jubilation of the masses before this spectacle has been compared to prehistoric skull rituals and the totemic meal. This comparison does not flatter modernity, to say the least. The gritty rhetoric, the repression or denial of death often takes the mediocre, infantile aspect of the bawdy story. A few engravings tragically emphasize the “caustic forms” of this Dantean era. Less numerous, it seems, than the royalist images, most of the figurations are republican caricatures representing the head of Louis XVI. The most widespread and widely imitated engraving in France and abroad is signed with two pseudonyms, “Fious,” for the draftsman, and “Sarcifu,” for the engraver. Redundant imagery characterizes these productions, which are limited to representing three essential subjects: the severed head is displayed on the Place de la Révolution, like a Medusa head, as some present-day historians note; the portrait of the guillotine victim is engraved without any narrative context, for the voyeuristic pleasure of “sacred” vengeance; the king is accompanied on his descent into Hell.

Sometimes weak efforts are made to connect the exhibition of “social power” to the biblical tradition. Thus, Louis XVI le traître lis ta sentence (the traitor reads his sentence) alludes to the feast of Balthazar in the inscription displayed on the wall, by virtue of a “revolutionary” interpretation of the prophet’s words, MENE and TEKEL. The hand that breaks through the wall announces the monarchy’s ruin, and the pen translates the biblical prophecy by proclaiming: “God numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting . . . ” Ecce Custine goes after the count who participated in the States General and was given command of the revolutionary army of the Rhine, then of the North, before getting mixed up with the Committee of Public Safety and being condemned for treason. Like the king, the popular hero would be punished by having his head cut off and offered “to the souls of our brothers sacrificed by the traitor.” The allusion to the Passion of Christ, Ecce homo, was already present in engravings showing the abolition of royalty in the form of the king’s beheading and bearing the title Ecce veto: the engraving’s creator seems to establish a comparison, if not an equivalence, between “this ban” (on the monarchy) and “this man” (eternal and divine). A similar implication, ambiguous, to say the least, exposes a sacrilegious fascination and, more than heroizing the monarch, unconsciously mythicizes the sang impur (“impure blood”) that abreuve nos sillons (“waters our ploughed fields”).

Verbal excitement accompanies the maniacal cover-up of horror; semantic farce embellishes the progress of technology: the sainte guillotine (saint guillotine), the monte-à-regret (climb-to-regret), the rasoir national (national razor), the raccourcissement patriotique (patriotic shortening), the vasistas (fanlight), the veuve (widow), the cravate à Capet (Capet tie), the lucarne (skylight), the bécane (bike), the massicot (massicot), the machine à raccourcir (shortening machine), as well as Louison or Louisette and even Mirabelle since Mirabeau had supported the project. In the end, as a requisite homage to Guillotin, it had to be the called the guillotine for good.

Some resistance, however weak, could be glimpsed here and there. It was hard to find a craftsman to make the fatal cleaver. The government’s official carpenter, Guidon, prepared an exorbitant estimate: and didn’t the tradition of the carpenters’ guild forbid them from working on instruments of torture? In the end, a German from Strasbourg was recruited, Tobias Schmidt, harpsichord maker and sometime musician. The beheading machine had to be made by the rules of art: heads would be cut with a harpsichord’s precision!

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