Headlessness: Literary Decapitations

by Brian Evenson

The most arresting literary decapitation I know comes from Polish writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s 1930 novel, Insatiability. In that novel, “the executioner raised his straight-edged sword and…. Wiuuu! And then Zipcio witnessed the very same spectacle they had seen together with the general some four hours ago: namely a section of some sinister headcheese, which in a second or two was overrun with a torrent of blood….” Witkiewicz goes on to describe the “slight chill around the base of his neck” which the decapitee feels at the actual moment of the separation of the head from the body and how “the world had suddenly made a somersault in his eyes” at the “moment his head began spiraling downward.”

Coming two pages from the end of this long, encrusted, and frenzied futurist novel, this description has stuck with me ever since I first read it a decade and a half ago. The phrase “some sinister headcheese,” besides being exactly the stuff that band names are made of, is absurd and comic and at the same time extremely visceral in a way that the more ordinarily grotesque and gothic image that Witkiewicz gives shortly after — of the head going on, after death, to spit blood and bits of marrow, even as it is being morbidly kissed by the dead man’s lover, Persy — cannot hope to match. Persy is so overcome by the beheading that “She worked herself into such a hysterical frenzy that she began foaming at the mouth and had to be tied up.” Decapitation leads to a cross between religious ecstasy and hydrophobia, and forces the observer completely outside of the social world.

On the other end of the spectrum is decapitation in the work of the great early 19th century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. At the end of Michael Kohlhaas, Kleist’s story of a man seeking justice which prefigures many a Western, Kleist passes quickly over the beheading: “Kohlhaas turned back to the scaffold where his head fell beneath the executioner’s axe. Here the story of Kohlhass ends.” This decapitation is the completion of a circle, a sign that Kohlhaas has received justice for the crimes committed against him and thus can, in turn, be punished for the crimes he has committed. Beheading, for Kleist, is a restoration of the social order.

In Kleist, when people slated to lose their heads manage to escape doing so, terrible things happen. Consider “The Earthquake in Chile.” In that story, Josefa, a woman guilty of adultery and of bearing a child while cloistered in a convent, is sentenced to die by beheading. Her lover, also in prison, is preparing to hang himself — which can be seen as a literalized metaphor for beheading: the stripe the rope leaves across the neck is indicative of a separation of head and body, death coming from the inability of body and head to nourish one another. Because of an earthquake and the chaos following of it, neither the beheading nor the suicide by hanging take place, and the couple is able to escape.

But instead of allowing a happy ending, Kleist delivers mayhem in its place: not only are both the lovers soon killed by having their heads bashed in, one of their friends is also killed, accidentally mistaken for Josefa. Their friends’ child, mistaken for Josefa and Jerónimo’s infant, is seized, whirled about in the air, and killed by being dashed against one of the pillars of the church until he lies at their “feet with his brains oozing out.”

In other words, with Kleist, when a decapitation doesn’t take place, twice as many people are killed. (Perhaps this is why Kleist describes Kohlhaas’s being sentenced to beheading as a “lenient” sentence.) But headlessness restores the social order. In Witkiewicz, when a beheading does take place it leads, after a moment of wondrous description, to frenzy and a rejection of the social order. In other words, headlessness leads to other people losing their heads. From that basic distinction follows nearly everything else about the profound differences between Kleist and Witkiewicz’s aesthetic choices.