Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Review: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Hardback UK book cover of Severed by Frances Larson
This is the book I bought on Christmas Eve and read over the festive period - a non-fiction book about severed heads. What screams 'CHRISTMAS!' more than learning how to remove decaying flesh from a skull for display purposes?

Summary: The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and it connects our inner selves to the outer world more intensely than any other part of the body. Yet there is a dark side to the head's pre-eminence, one that has, in the course of Western history, manifested itself in everything from decapitation to headhunting. Over the centuries, human heads have decorated our churches, festooned our city walls and filled our museums. Long-regarded as objects of fascination and repulsion, they have been props for portrait artists and specimens for laboratory scientists, trophies for soldiers and items of barter. 

From the western collectors whose demand for shrunken heads spurred brutal massacres, to the Second World War soldiers who sent the remains of Japanese opponents home to their girlfriends; from the memento mori in Romantic portraits to Damien Hirst's platinum skull set with diamonds; from grave-robbing phrenologists to skull-obsessed scientists, Larson explores the bizarre, fantastical and confounding history of the severed head, and offers us a new perspective on our macabre preoccupations.

Severed has eight chapters (discounting the introduction and conclusion) all named after a different type of head. These include:

Shrunken Heads
Trophy Heads
Deposed Heads
Framed Heads
Potent Heads
Bone Heads
Dissected Heads
Living Heads

It's easy to guess the topic of some of these 'head'ings (HA), but not so much for others. We'll go through them anyway, as there is a little disparity in quality between the different chapters.

Shrunken Heads interested me an awful lot more than I expected it to. I suppose it's one of those topics that you think you know all about, but actually don't in the slightest. The author works from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which is famous for its selection of shrunken heads, so she's more than familiar with the concept. This chapter touches on the reasons for creating the heads in the first place (and whatever you're thinking, you're wrong), the process and the effects of Western influence.

I'd also expected to have to skim the second chapter, Trophy Heads, which is about heads (or parts thereof) being taken home from war as, you guessed it, trophies. Honestly, war doesn't interest me all that much - or not 20th Century warfare, anyway. This... this was actually fascinating, however. It discusses how (for example) during the Pacific War, American troops were so thoroughly brainwashed to believe that the Japanese soldiers weren't actually people, that they thought nothing of cleaning a newly-killed enemy's skull and sending it home to the family.

Deposed Heads was the chapter I was looking forward to the most, although I admit that I'd expected it to be longer. While the information contained is very interesting, I was hoping for more content on the history and examples of execution. It's the first thing that comes to mind when you think 'severed head,' after all. If I'm honest, it is pretty much the reason I bought it and it felt a little lacking.

The fourth chapter, Framed Heads, bored me a little and I ended up skimming parts of it. Call me a philistine, but I'm just not that interested in Attention Art. I don't care if somebody thought it was a good idea to freeze their blood and sculpt their head out of it - I don't want to look at it, but it doesn't bother me either. Complete apathy. My lack of interest isn't the fault of the book, however - it's written just as accessibly as the rest of it... but eh. Not my thing.

Unfortunately it does start to go a little downhill from here - Potent, Bone and Dissected Heads are remarkably similar and often repeat the same information. I swear I'm a bone (HA - ah, this is fun) a fide expert on the various ways to remove flesh from a skull by now. I'm also very, very aware that corpses used for dissections were almost always from the prison/workhouse and that there was a difficulty in getting hold of non-Anglo corpses. I know. I do. Please stop.

I understand that there are only so many different types of heads to discuss, but I do feel the information could have been separated slightly better to avoid unecessary repetition.

Thankfully, it does pick back up with the final chapter, Living Heads, which is mostly dedicated to cryogenics and other methods of keeping severed heads alive. I now know exactly how much it will cost, should I ever decide I want to be frozen for the indefinite future.

Whatever the specific circumstances, usually the people who take heads see themselves as inherently different from the people whose heads they take. They objectify their target to a certain extent. It is easy to see how cutting off a person's head transforms that person into a particularly potent kind of object - but frequently that process has already begun before the first cut is made.

The book is written very accessibly, which isn't easy considering the amount of medical terminology involved. It has a light, chatty tone that still manages to imbue an aura of authority throughout - it's not a dusty textbook, but Frances Larson still sounds like she knows what she's talking about. I'm definitely impressed with the balanced way it was written.

I really enjoyed Severed, on the whole. I think I was expecting more of a historical work, when it's actually more medical/anthropological. There's a lot more time spent on native tribes and surgical examinations than on the history of the guillotine, for example. Which is absolutely fine, but I think I was swayed by the word 'history' on the cover and the images of Anne Boleyn. It's still absorbing, but not as relevant to my interests as I had expected.     

Visit Frances Larson's website here or find her on Twitter. 

5 comments:

  1. I remember reading about this book and thought it sounded quite interesting, if gruesome. Might give it a go. Emma

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  2. This sounds interesting, but maybe a bit too long. I've visited the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the sunken heads are fascinating!

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  3. Naughty covers and their misleading words! However I think I'm definitely going to read this sometime...I don't know if my morbid interest shoudl disturb me or not!

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