Invitation to a Beheading
A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
by Frances Larson
$27.95 List Price
Humans are easy to decapitate: Our large heads rest on little necks. Most mammals have thick muscles joining the shoulders with the base of the skull; ours are so slender that our spines show through the skin. It is the price tag of standing upright, of casting off the hominid hunch. “Heads,” writes Frances Larson in Severed, are “tempting to remove.” Above the shoulders, our anatomy resembles a teed-up golf ball.
Larson, an English anthropologist, thinks that before turning to the mind-body problem, we might consider the head-neck situation. She wrote the book, a survey of our “traditions of decapitation,” because she believes dead heads can tell us things about our souls: “What can we learn about our common humanity from this, the ultimate image of inhumanity?” The answers she provides to this question are fascinating and unexpected (as well as grisly and paradoxical). Beheading isn’t barbaric, if by that we mean archaic. On the contrary, it is modern, the dark side of the belief that “we are our brains.” Historically, it is the people who wanted to prove something, not those who wanted to hurt somebody, who have cut off the most heads. Science “excused a multitude of sins,” Larson writes, “particularly when the ‘subjects of study’ were impoverished, imprisoned or deemed to be primitive.” She distinguishes between “those people who are labeled” and “those who label people.” The labelers get away with murder (literally). In her story, curiosity opens the door to monsters.
Of course, Larson is curious too, and curious about her curiosity. She knows it’s nasty but assumes