Larson (Honorary Research Fellow/Univ. of Durham; An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, 2009) explores our morbid preoccupation with the grotesque, as typified by the value we place on severed heads.
Not only do severed heads appear in museums and similar collections, but “[v]ideos of beheadings have been uploaded online by terrorists and murderers in recent years and downloaded by millions of Europeans and Americans to watch in their own homes.” The author explains that this book was an offshoot of her interest in how museum collections are curated, but she was soon drawn to a different reality. A skull, she writes, is the tidied-up end product of “the act of decapitation…the brutality that is required to behead a person, and the varied conditions under which that brutality is unleashed.” She finds evidence that the practice of tribal headhunting was more a business transaction with representatives of collectors than a pagan religious rite; in the late 19th century, there was “a booming international trade in shrunken heads.” Shakespeare expresses the symbolic power of a severed head—now an object but once the seat of our personhood—when Hamlet contemplates the soul of Yorick. Larson examines beyond the horrific instances of terrorist beheadings of hostages, and she delves into the degraded treatment of dead Japanese soldiers by American GIs who desecrated their remains. “All the World War II trophy skulls so far recorded by forensic scientists in America are Japanese,” writes Larson, “and there are no records of trophy heads taken in the European theater.” In the author’s opinion, the savagery expressed by these cases was not only occasioned by the brutality of battle conditions, but also by “the intense racial prejudices that informed these conflicts.” In fact, “soldiers often equated their job to hunting animals in the jungle.” Along with the history, the author supplies complementary photographs and illustrations.
An alternately intriguing and disturbing sidelight on our cultural values that is not for the squeamish.