This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (Granta) by Frances Larson

The human head stands for what we are; it is where we “live”. Internally it contains our mind, our brain, the essence of our being; externally it bears the stamp of our humanity. Accordingly, to take a head feels counter-human – here lies its appeal, for instance, to terrorists. It is an act that belongs to other cultures, other times. Or so, at any rate, we like to think. Yet in her remarkable and absorbing new book, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, Frances Larson shows that our relationship with the severed head is more complicated and more troubling than we might assume.

The book begins by asking how, if what we think we think about severed heads is true, we can account for the magnetism they appear to exert in Western culture? Videos of beheadings are downloaded by millions of Americans and Europeans; modern soldiers have taken people’s heads as trophies; artists make exhibits out of them; medical students dissect them; pilgrims throughout Europe travel to churches that contain the heads of saints; tourists flock to see shrunken heads in museums; the atmosphere of European history is thick with the stench of severed heads (for 300 years London had an official Keeper of Heads).

Larson’s approach is as historically deep as it is culturally broad (readers will find themselves moving swiftly from Renaissance medicine to modern art), and one of her strengths is that she addresses the questions that arise from her subject in a manner that is probing and thought-provoking without courting a wearying relativism. This is not the kind of work, for example, that suggests there is a moral equivalence between those who violently separate heads from bodies and those who are curious about them. But Larson is sufficiently critical not to turn away from the fact that the Western appetite for severed heads has been such that certain nations would exchange weapons for tsantsas (shrunken heads) with supposedly savage peoples. In this way, “Europeans and Americans helped create the bloodthirsty headhunters they expected to find.”

The author’s good sense prevails throughout the book, at the heart of which lies the disquieting recognition that the the severed head is both repellent and “captivating”, both redolent of atavism and caught up in the story of scientific and medical progress, of what it means to be human. Even when collected by a soldier in battle, as Larson shows in a fascinating chapter on heads as trophies, the severed head could function both as a monument to barbarism and a stimulus to reflection, empathy, edification. In drawing our attention to these apparent contradictions, Severed offers a beguiling exploration of what happens when we indulge in what Thackeray called our “brutal curiosity”, gaze at the human head, and in the process find that we are looking into ourselves.