Dualism, Zombies, and Persistently Conscious Heads
St. Denis Holding His Head - Master of Sir John Fastolf, English or French, ca. 1430-1440
This week I bought Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler, and found myself so taken in that I read the entire collection in one night. It's a collection of sixty-two short stories, each 240 words in length, narrated by the characters' heads after decapitation. Many of the heads belong to well-known people (St. Paul, Thomas More, Walter Raleigh, Marie Antoinette), while others are imagined (Medusa, a chicken, and the author himself). Beautifully written and adeptly executed (ha!), the book reads like a collection of haiku: each little story begs frequent reading and meditation, each is complete in its compactness, each containing a fully-developed microcosm.
At turns bitingly defiant ("Marcus Tullius Cicero: orator and politician, beheaded on orders of Marc Antony, 43 B.C."), erotic ("Walter Raleigh: courtier and explorer, beheaded by King James I, 1618"), tender and wistful ("Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, guillotined by order of the French Revolutionary Tribunal, 1793"), it somehow avoids descending into mere gimmickry. I do not know what Butler's religious sensibilities are, but I was particularly struck with the hope and joy conveyed by the Christian characters in comparison to the others. Sts. Paul and Matthew recall their conversions, Sts. George and Thomas More speak of the Real Presence.
Amidst the macabre are moments of laughter: "Chicken: Americauna pullet, beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958", in which The Question is poetically answered; "Robert Kornbluth: senior partner in advertising firm, decapitated by elevator, 1984" is filled with slogans and ends with a Burma Shave slogan: "DON'T LOSE, YOUR HEAD, TO GAIN A MINUTE, YOU NEED YOUR HEAD, YOUR BRAINS ARE IN IT."
The book made me recall one of those questions that's fascinated me since around the time I read "A Tale of Two Cities" in eighth grade English class and learned of the French Revolution and its emblematic and grim machine of death, the guillotine: do severed heads persist in consciousness?
When I studied philosophy in college, I recall discussion of Brains in Vats, in which all reality is in fact a series of stimuli administered by an evil scientist keeping my brain in a vat of life-sustaining liquid. This problem was well exemplified in popular culture in the movie "The Matrix".
The brain-in-a-vat problem, however, was of less interest to me than was Dualism, especially as articulated by Descartes. My Gnostic-Manichean tendencies (in which the physical is placed in moral opposition to the spiritual, especially with respect to sexuality) throughout my life have frequently led me to take a dualistic view of myself, in which the "real" me is the mental or spiritual me, while my body is the shell in which "I" reside. At most, I tended to view "myself" as being confined to my head, with the rest of the body acting as a sort of mechanical apparatus for transporting me around and dogging me with persistent appetites.
I tried to envision what life would be like as a mind, unconstrained by a body. At this time, I was not practicing my faith, nor did I have any knowledge of the teachings of the Church or her early Doctors on such matters; my public university, as many such places are, was notably anti-Christian, and any discussions of the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were notably confined to areas that the faculty considered "non-religious." I didn't realize then, as I have started to see now, that the Church has always sought to remind us that we are incarnate beings, that our bodies are as much ourselves as our minds are.
It is interesting to note, then, that the icon of St. Denis (pictured above) depicts halos around both his severed head and over the stump on his body where the head was formerly attached, as if to reiterate the theological truth that the Bishop-Martyr of Paris was not only holy in mind and spirit, but in body as well. It is this particularly Catholic reference back to the body that might lead others to think of us as having a taste for the macabre, with our relics (e.g. St. Catherine of Siena's head) and our Crucifixes, which starkly depict the Man who gave himself over to death for the forgiveness of sins. We need constant reminders that our humanity entails being embodied, that our bodies are ourselves, and not merely our possessions to do with as we please.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die, 1962
My favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 features the 1962 B-movie "The Brain That Wouldn't Die", in which a mad-scientist medical doctor keeps his girlfriend's head, which has been severed in an auto accident, alive in a pan of liquid until he can find a new body to which he can attach the head. Mike Nelson and his robot friends, Tom Servo and Crow, wisecrack throughout, as always, referring to the head in question as "Jan-in-the-Pan."
In the midst of the silliness of the premise and the comedic commentary by Mike and the 'bots, I noticed that the story contains the very assumption I've made throughout my life, that the woman's identity is contained within her head, not the rest of her. In the film, the mad scientist goes out to seek a victim to attach his girlfriend's head to, thinking that she will be the same as before.
This error is exploited to comedic effect in my favorite TV series, "Futurama", the cartoon set 1000 years in the future. Among the many developments that have taken place is the advent of technology for keeping human heads alive in jars; the show uses this as a way of incorporating 20th century celebrities such as Al Gore, Pamela Anderson, Lucy Liu, and the cast of "Star Trek" into the story. The sustained-in-a-jar head of Richard Nixon is the President of Earth throughout the series; at one point, he acquires a robot body to run in an election to appeal to the robot voter.
"It's a life of quiet dignity," the head of Leonard Nimoy says, before rising to the surface of its jar to feed on the flakes that are sprinkled into the liquid, as in a fish tank.
Futurama: Earth President Richard Nixon
The persistently conscious severed head is of interest to me, I realized, in that it is the corollary to my favorite horror-movie theme, the zombie (here I mean the "living dead" of the George Romero genre, rather than the Haitian voodoo zombie). Where the zombie is unthinking, unfeeling, and purely irrational, moving about and feeding upon the living, the persistently conscious head is all thought and emotion.
The zombies of the Romero movies and their imitators, become a sort of force of nature, like the weather. Romero uses them to metaphorical effect to point out the perils of racism (as in "Night of the Living Dead") and consumerism ("Dawn of the Dead"). His recent "Land of the Dead" struck me as an indictment of decadence in general; a "clash of civilizations" interpretation might be made of the zombie horde representing militant Islam and the residents of "Fiddler's Green" as a depraved and decadent West. I don't know what Romero's intent was, but that thought crossed my mind when I saw the film. As in all horror movies, it's not so much the ghouls that are interesting as it is the reaction of the humans.
I suspect that my fascination with zombies stems from my Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body; I wonder if one must be from a Judeo-Christian background to appreciate both the horror and the farce of reanimated, soulless, corruptible flesh. The movie "Shaun of the Dead" fully displayed the comedic potential of combining romantic comedy with zombie horror, which is what made it such a fresh take on the genre. Likewise, in "Land of the Dead", I couldn't help but laugh uproariously when one of the characters is attacked by a zombie clown: zombies are scary, clowns are scary, but clown zombies are just plain funny.
In contrast to the unthinking forces of zombie hordes, the persistently conscious head resorts to narrative, mind-control, and manipulation. As Crow T. Robot remarked near the end of "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" when the head says to the doctor, "You must be stopped!", "How? Is Super-Skull gonna jump up and bite me?" The problem, we see, is that the head still requires something else to achieve its evil goals.
"The Brain that Wouldn't Die" fails to be scary for this reason, but the writers of "Futurama" understood the absurdity of the head and play it to comedic advantage. The amazement that I had in reading Butler's book was that of recognizing the middle ground, which he estimates to be 240 words, in which joy, pain, heartbreak, sex, laughter, love, revenge, and faith are expressed with urgency before the silence and darkness of death.
It's not that we're nothing without our bodies, it's only that we're not much at all, and then we die.
UPDATE 6:10 PM 6/7/08: Welcome Eve Tushnet readers! I'm honored she found this sufficiently bizarre and/or interesting to link to.
FURTHER UPDATE 10:13 AM 6/8/08: The Wonky-Bat submits the following website dedicated to educating the public about the imminent zombie apocalypse. NSFW (Not Safe for Work).
UPDATE 11:36 PM 6/11/08: Thanks, Dawn Eden, for the link. It's always a pleasure to share with Dawn Patrol readers, and I hope they enjoy this post.
UPDATE 5/1/2012: It is a great honor to me that Dawn Eden has quoted from this post in her new book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints.