Head to head: Wilkinson with Cromwell's skull
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Barbarism begins at home: a macabre history of severed heads

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires.

Severed: a History of Heads Lost and Heads Found 
Frances Larson
Granta Books, 336pp, £20

When did you last see an image of a freshly severed human head? It used to be possible to get though life without ever encountering one. Now this most horrific represen­tation of human degradation – in which the victim’s suffering advertises the killer’s pride in his own depravity – is likely to jump out at you without warning from your social media feeds.

It happened to me earlier this year when I found myself browsing through Kurdish solidarity campaigns on Facebook. Here’s a petition, here’s a meeting, here’s some new piece of information – and then an image I saw for maybe a quarter of a second before reflexively closing the browser window: the head of a Kurdish woman, drenched in her own blood, held aloft by the hair.

Alongside this was another that purportedly showed the woman when alive, smiling and making a V sign in her olive peshmerga fatigues: the female fighter known as Rehana. Although it later emerged that the beheading photograph showed a different woman entirely, that seemed beside the point. Somewhere near Kobane, a brave, beautiful woman had still been reduced to an object and a bloody trophy to be used for political ends by – let’s call him what he is – a degenerate barbarian.

I can’t get the picture out of my mind, which, of course, is what both the poster on Facebook and the perpetrator want. Here, “Witness what is being done to us” and “Witness what we will do to you” come together in a single image. What was truly horrible, though, was that the murdered woman remained beautiful, her eyes closed, her brutalised face at peace. If a dead countenance, disconnected from its human passions, represents some form of truth, can that truth still be beautiful?

These are some but by no means all of the themes explored in the impressive Severed by the Durham University research fellow Frances Larson, biographer of Henry Wellcome and historian of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. On almost any other subject you would applaud the author’s foresight – well done for reading the zeitgeist, Sunday Times bestseller guaranteed – except that in the climate of horror brought on by the seemingly endless YouTube beheadings, readers could be forgiven for reaching in panic for the new Robert Galbraith instead. This would be an injustice because Severed is an eloquent and provocative exploration of what the detached head means, one that reaches beyond today’s desert atrocities into the core of human culture.

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires. Larson’s first step is to describe in intricate detail a peculiar behavioural feedback loop wherein western explorers’ fascination with shrunken heads and other Amazonian fetishes led the “savages” – who were exceptionally canny – to increase production of the said heads by means of war and kidnapping. (Bad news for Paddington Bear: market forces operate in darkest Peru, too.) These supposedly authentic tsantsas, or shrunken heads, freighted with confirmations of cultural superiority as well as unknowable talismanic energy, were in reality just so much grisly tourist tat: I Went Up the Jungle and All I Got Was This Shrunken Head.

If you think we liberal moderns are beyond all that, consider the reliquaries in Larson’s beloved Pitt Rivers Museum. “Visitors may . . . think of them as gruesome trophies of an untouched savage people,” she writes, “when what they are actually seeing are the gruesome trophies of a western fascination with the idea of an untouched savage people.”

Severed does not consist solely of mea culpas for imperialist perfidy. It is worth emphasising Larson’s range, her splendidly ironic detachment and her incorrigible fas­cination with the bizarre and illuminating anecdote. We learn how Oliver Cromwell’s detached head was paraded from dinner party to dinner party atop a spike for hundreds of years after his execution; we see Canon Horace Wilkinson, a Suffolk vicar, brandishing it like an ecclesiastical Bez as late as 1949. (It was finally buried in 1960.)

In the Frankenstein horrors of the French artist Théodore Géricault – who painted severed limbs and heads that he had borrowed from morgues – and early transplant medicine, we find that art and science share grotesque, death-fixated roots. We read how, in 1488, the Hamburg executioner Claus Flügge despatched 79 pirates in a single day and remarked: “I am feeling so well that I could easily go on and do away with the entire wise and honourable Senate.” Its humourless members put Flügge to the chop instead.

Severed is as enthralling and entertaining as a book on such a subject could ever be. Time and again, Larson reminds us how much better medical writers are at this stuff – how much calmer and more penetrating – than the imprecise generalist could ever be. Evidently cutting up human bodies as a student teaches you a certain forensic stoicism. Her book deserves a wide audience but I fear it won’t get one. The subject matter is too close to home and it is coming closer.

Andrew Harrison is the editor of Esquire Weekly

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era