The Anatomical Theater: Head And Face

Certainly one of the most famous severed heads belonged to Louis XVI as depicted in Georg Heinrich Sieveking’s copper plate engraving from 1793. Simon Schama in Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution narrates the final moments of this most unfortunate king.

The steps to the scaffold were so steep that Louis had to lean on the priest for support as he mounted.  His hair was cut with the professional briskness for which the Sanson family had become famous, and Louis attempted finally to address the great sea of twenty thousand faces packed into the square.  “I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged.  I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France . . .”  At that moment Santerre ordered a roll of drums, drowning out whatever else the King might have had to say.  Louis was strapped onto a plank which when pushed forward thrust his head into the enclosing brace.  Sanson pulled on the cord and the twelve-inch blade fell, hissing through its grooves to its mark.  In accordance with custom, the executioner pulled the head form the basket and showed it, dripping to the people.  (669)

Spectacle reigns in this scene.  A king of France dies underneath the blade of the guillotine, a tool of revolution sending many a royal to their death. But this is not only Louis XVI’s head, more importantly this head is a monarchy reigning for centuries which now quickly ends in terror.  The body of royalty has multiple meanings, consider Queen Elizabeth’s words to her troops before they battle the Spanish Armada in 1588.


I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I understands parts of her body have meaning through political and social definitions.  Her body belongs to England, as Louis’ head belongs to the France that kills him.  Consider the words of an eye-witness to the regicide, Louis Mercier.

His blood flowed and cries of joy from eighty thousand armed men struck my ears . . . I saw the schoolboys of the Quatre-Nations throw their hats in the air; his blood flowed and some dipped their fingers in it, or a pen or a piece of paper; one tasted it and said Il est bourgrement salé [It is well-salted–alluding to the kind of livestock that was fattened on the salt marches (pré-salé)].  An executioner on the boards of the scaffold sold and distributed little packets of hair and the ribbon that bound them; each piece carried a little fragment of his clothes to some bloody vestige of that tragic scene.  I saw people pass by, arm in arm, laughing, chatting familiarly as if they were at a fete. (670)

A horror scene for sure with the cavalier way citizens interact with the king’s severed head.  Comedy and tragedy play together at this execution, and what we may understand as taboo becomes transgressed.  Think of how specific parts of the head figure into tales of terror, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s famous “eye” in The Tell-Tale Heart.


It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Poe’s words and Michelle Mashon’s monoprint convey an obsessive fixation on an eye perceived far past its physical importance.  Besides horror, we also have the absurdity of a part of our head detaching and living a life of its own as in Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose.

He bit his lips with vexation, left the confectioner’s, and resolved, quite contrary to his habit, neither to look nor smile at anyone on the street. Suddenly he halted as if rooted to the spot before a door, where something extraordinary happened. A carriage drew up at the entrance; the carriage door was opened, and a gentleman in uniform came out and hurried up the steps. How great was Kovaloff’s terror and astonishment when he saw that it was his own nose!

We are so connected to our parts adding up to us, that to imagine something missing is to imagine a change to our identity.  At other times, what we do to our own head and body may be taken as a sign of an inner world or dilemma.  Consider Vincent Van Gogh’s ear, or missing ear in Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, 1889.


A legend surrounds this painting and Van Gogh’s ear emphasizing his difficult relationships (such as Paul Gaugin), bouts of severe depression, mental illness and suicidal tendencies (he eventually committed suicide in 1890).  What certainly presents itself in the story of this portrait, is that a part stands for the whole.  We focus on what is absent, and what is absent must have an explanation revealing our psychology.  To cut off an ear is to be mad.  The mouth may also become a symbol of an overall mental state, as in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.


Munch writes of inspiration for this painting in a diary entry in 1892.

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

Again, a part of our head stands for an overall psychological state, and further, for a state of the world.  Given that we appear to be anthropocentric by nature, it’s not surprising that a way we view the world around us appears out of our own emotions, and then when we give this view voice, it’s represented by a mouth.  Of course, an open mouth may scream, and it may sing.

One way to understand the human head is as a box for producing sound. How does singing work?  In his Journey of the Voice, Eric Armstrong details how we produce a “voice.” In part, he focuses on vocal resonators, a number of which reside in the head.

The following is a list of Resonators and the pitches or vocal qualities that most easily activate them

  • Chest and Lower Body – low pitches and open sounds (“AW”)
  • Throat – mid-range, easy speaking tone
  • Mouth – upper mid-range, mid-vowels
  • Nasal – close, front vowels, especially when followed by a nasal consonant
  • Facial – high range, front vowels
  • Sinus – given that there are so many sinuses, many different quality sounds activate them
  • Bones of the skull – falsetto, very high range, closed vowels.

Yet besides being activated by breath moving through our lungs and into our head, to emit a voice, especially to sing marks us as a particular type of human being, one with a definite identity, who speaks a certain way, who sings a certain way.  What do we really know about this vocalization?  What do we know of how voice and identity come together? And how much is primal, far underneath our identity?  Claron McFadden sings an answer.

How much of who we believe we are concerns our head and face?  How much of our identity is physical?  In Reasons and Persons, the British philosopher Derek Parfit pursues personal identity as a claim, not an obvious fact of the world.  He offers the following questions.

(1) What is the nature of a person?

(2) What makes a person at two different times one and the same person? What is necessarily involved in the continued existence of each person over time?

(3.) What is in fact involved in the continued existence of each person over time?  (202)

How does a person’s nature reveal itself through the body, through our head and face? As we age, as our face wrinkles, as our hair turns white are we the same person we once were years ago?  How much does our physical existence overtime shape our identity?  One way to think about answer is to use the face, and the face as it is portrayed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil first published in 1837.

THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday’s garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, good Mr. Hooper walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat, and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.

“I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piece of crape,” said the sexton.

“I don’t like it,” muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meeting-house. “He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face.”

“Our parson has gone mad!” cried Goodman Gray, following him across the threshold.

If we cannot see someone’s face, we view them a different, as changed.  As our imagination takes hold of this aberration we begin to believe they are not who they appear to be.  Maybe a fear underneath our assumption of “face value” is that really we have no idea who is under the mask, we are not sure the personality or the emotions moving across the face truly represent the person.  In terms of the body, what and who are we? Bon Appétit!


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