The Severed Head
Capital Visions
Julia Kristeva
Jody Gladding, Translator

(Columbia University Press)
There has been much back-and-forth recently about those states --- thirty-two of them --- still addicted to capital punishment. There are the usual suspects (Mississippi, Alabama, Utah, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma) but there are those who definitely should know better (California, Colorado, New Hampshire!, Washington!! and Oregon!!!)

The problem many of them now is to dig up appropriate poisons to dispatch those that have committed certain crimes against the state.

If we are doing death, I'd personally like to put in a vote for Sodium Pentothal. It was once the drug of choice for extracting teeth and I can recall with great pleasure a wonderful day back in 1966 when, in order to pull my wisdom teeth I was injected with Sodium Pentothal. Within a few seconds I was a goner, and when I finally awoke, I was happy as a clam.

In fact, I was delirious for the next twenty-four hours, chortling with the nurses, bounding out of my chair to return home in a taxi (forgetting I had parked my car below the dentist's office), and once at home, joyfully recalling that I had left my car downtown at which time I went out into the street and flagged down a random passing driver, me in the middle of the street telling him he had to to take me to the medical building downtown because I had lost my car. He bemusedly gave me a ride without question; a kind fellow.

Once downtown, I found not only my car but my friend Ben who had stayed behind in the carpark to drive me home in case I needed it. That day I found that the main advantage of SP is if the victim is accidently underdosed, he or she will awaken in high spirits, perhaps even looking forward to the next injection with love and charity for all, even his executioners.

§   §   §

Outside of drugs, I have always been interested in the magic image of the electric chair. As the inventor asserted, it is neat and clean ... at the beginning, anyway. Alternatives seem a bit garish, if not messier. Burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, bullets directly to the heart. They've, apparently, lost their charm.

Now we have an ever-changing list of approved tortures that can make you feel as if you're on your way out: boiling, flaying, hamstringing, keelhauling, pitchcapping and the new and most popular of them all, done in a vat of water.

There are reasons, I suspect, that we have abandoned the older faves. Hangings can go awry, leaving the subject complaining noisily but still sentient under the head bag. Crushing, cutting, denailing and disfigurement are still out there, but the chance of home videos peeking in makes the powers-to-be more careful.

There's always garroting, but it has fallen into disfavor because of its great popularity in Germany between 1933 and 1945. The best alternative will probably always be waterboarding: it leaves no permanent marks. Except on the psyche. And it doesn't kill, it just makes you wish you were dead, according to Christopher Hitchens. Who was allowed to try it out on his own by a couple of rogue government operatives on vacation.

§   §   §

It was during "the War of Currents" --- AC vs DC --- that Thomas Alva Edison, wanting to extend the reach of his system for electric distribution introduced the electric chair, citing the cost-effectiveness of sending electricity directly into the body. The chair was duly presented to the public with his imprimature and was later dubbed "Old Sparky" because of its constant misfiring. Various underground photographs of the occupants at the moment of The Big Jolt made it less of a favorite over time.

Years ago many of us in the media in Texas demanded that we be allowed to present live broadcasts of the almost daily executions in that state --- capital punishment being a much favored method there to punish the guilty (and sometimes merely the possibly guilty). Our theory was that since the taxpayers of the state were paying for this relatively expensive procedure, we could present it as a diverting, you-are-there reality program, "The Execution of the Week" --- the fruits of our tax dollars at work. With live coverage, we could be assured that our taxes were being spent effectively, parsimoniously, and well. The authorities refused to budge.

Some states are more caring than others. Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia allow you a choice of the method of dispatch. If you choose to fry, so be it; but they will also permit injections. There is a third choice that, for some unknown reason, has been lost in the mists of time. It was the one that was supposed to be the most kindly of them all: the Guillotine.

According to Kristeva, Dr. Louis Guillotin declared that it was a benign, almost serendipitous way to depart this vale of tears. As the French Assembly was debating its use, he addressed them and stated: "With my machine, I can make your head roll in the wink of an eye and you do not suffer. The mechanism drops like lightning, the head flies, the blood spurts, the man is no more."

At most, he said, the condemned will get "the impression of a fresh breeze on the neck." It certainly beat the rack ... and it was to Dr. Guillotin's "great sorrow" that he could not meet his own end "in the arms of his goddaughter."

Because states like Oklahoma, Mississisppi and Texas are still having trouble coming up with a fatal drug for those they are to punish, let us suggest that they simply order up an old-fashioned guillotine. There is the problem of where to find one. Rumors that it is still manufactured by The Cie. Guillotine in Rouen have proven to be false. Thus we are in a less enviable position that the leaders of the French Revolution were.

According to Kristeva, they had trouble finding a craftsman to make the fatal cleaver. "The government's official carpenter, Guidon, prepared an exorbitant estimate: and didn't 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 some-time musician. The beheading machine had to be made by the rules of art: heads woud be cut with a harpsichord's precision!

§   §   §

In this volume, Kristeva treats with every possible means of separation of head from body ... discussing shrunken heads in Borneo, mummies of Egypt, even to the point of examining the rich language of decapitation. We speak of losing our heads but apparently not "giving head." That seems to be another matter entirely.

Not long ago, in San Francisco there were the "deadheads," and in our own folklore, we have the headless horseman of Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow ... a Prussian soldier who managed to lose it in the revolutionary war. In the dark of night he roams about on his horse, searching for the missing member. Which he evidently wants to bring back home.

This all reminds me of a woeful song of my youth:

    In the Tower of London, large as life
    the ghost of Anne Boleyn walks, they declare
    For Anne Boleyn was once King Henry's wife
    until he had the axe-man bob her hair
    Ah yes, he done her wrong long years ago
    And she comes back each night to tell him so


    With her head tucked underneath her arm
              she walks the bloody tower.
    With her head tucked underneath her arm
              at the midnight hour.

The author spends a fair amount of time on the beheading of Louis XVI, even dwelling on a gory engraving: "The portrait of the guillotine victim is engraved without any narrative context, for the voyeuristic pleasure of 'sacred vengeance,' giving way to the 'serene joy' of the people contemplating 'the head of the tyrant [that] had just fallen under the word of the law.'"

In later executions,

    the executioner was not unaware of the blood that flowed and collected between the beams under the guillotine, lapped up by the dogs, nor the hysterical crowd throwing stones, the mud and excrement on the carts filled with ravishing young women, the insolence of the prisoners new indifferent to death turned trivial, who, like the commander Montjourdain, hurried to be done with it, joking about that "liberty" in which, "by the order of the fatherland, a crowd loses its head."
--- Pamela Wylie
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH