by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian
Kristeva’s purpose in this short but dense meditation is to consider the way in which the severed head pops up in art, literature and real life. In doing so she builds on her earlier work on the corpse, a subject she assigns to a category called “the abject” – a holding pen for objects that disturb categories (is this body actually still a person?) and consequently exert a queasy pull.
The head refines this puzzle of being and not-being even further. Part of its fascination lies in the way it seems to offer a physical location for where our true self resides. Our face is what makes us knowable in the social world, our brain is what tells us who we are, and our speaking mouth is the conduit between the two. Lose our heads and we have lost everything, which is why the fact that we can come apart so easily is terrifying. It also explains a certain morbid fascination with how long a head can go on living after it has been severed.
Kristeva is not too grand to indulge her readers’ desire for a bit of body horror. She retells the story about Charlotte Corday, victim of the revolutionary guillotine, whose face registered disgust when the executioner pinched her cheek post-mortem. From there she proceeds to the cherished anecdote about how a much-reduced Mary Queen of Scots went on mouthing a hopeless prayer minutes after the fatal axe had fallen. And she even indulges us with the well-I-never business of how decapitated cockroaches are able to go on surviving for several weeks after they’ve parted company with their bodies.
Kristeva’s interests, though, range far beyond pest control. She starts her account in pre-history, travelling back to years with so many noughts that your brain starts to whirr. In the Lower Paleolithic age people liked to make sure that everyone in the family pulled their weight: when someone died, it was only being thrifty, and respectful, to turn them into a drinking cup or a musical instrument. You might, if you were Neolithic and especially fond of the departed, scoop out the soft bits of their scalp and put shells where their eyes used to be, turning them into a bony charm to protect the living.
From this proto-art, halfway between home entertainment and cult worship, Kristeva moves into the more familiar terrain of the modern museum, coming to rest on a few key motifs. There is sticky-eyed, snake-haired Medusa, whose decapitation by the valiant Perseus appears in work by everyone from Leonardo to Rubens by way of Bellini. From there we go to multiple representations of the “capital act” as performed by Judith on Holofernes, and Salome, by proxy, on John the Baptist. Decapitation, in the Judeo-Christian tradition at least, turns out to be a surprisingly female way of proceeding, turning on its head the usual platitudes about women preferring to use poison. Kristeva draws particular attention to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, which shows the beautiful murderess and her servant going about their bloody business with the calm rigour of practised butchers subduing a frisky pig.
It isn’t always easy to follow Kristeva’s train of thought. The crisp, clean swipe is not her way – or at least not as rendered in this translation from the French by Jody Gladding. Instead, what Kristeva offers is a sinewy meditation that works its way through historical periods and modes of representation, from those early Neolithic skull goblets to the strangely melted faces of Francis Bacon. You don’t need to know your Freud-by-way-of-Lacan to get a great deal of Kristeva’s text, but it would be a good idea to have a laptop to hand to Google the images to which she refers (the eight pages of mono illustrations are woefully inadequate).
Finally, be prepared to keep your inner philistine on a tight leash. Kristeva is fond of declamations such as “decapitation is a privileged space”, to which surely only a very “mediocre and infantile” person would reply: “Not if you’re the one waiting for the axe to fall.”