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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blink

Monsieur le Docteur Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not invent that instrument which bears his name. Such devices had been in use in Europe for two centuries. But the times being what they were, some such mechanized expedient was called for. Or perhaps the contraption's excellence cried out for use -- a better mousetrap and all that.

There would be much to recommend such a device. Avoid a reprise of the Mary, Queen of Scots debacle, whose neck took three great whacks and still she didn't lose her head -- the discomfited headsman had to saw through the last bits of integument with his hip knife before the job was quite done. How embarrassing for him. During the interim between the first and the second chops, the poor former queen loosed such a wrenching and protracted groan that the crowd, usually intoxicated in such festive circumstances with blood lust, gaped in horrified silence. So, then -- live and learn, eh?

But what about these heads? Does consciousness survive for some brief moments within the disembodied -- or would it be disbodied -- head? Anecdotal evidence abounds. The heads of two National Assembly rivals were placed into a sack -- when later removed, one had bitten into the cheek of the other so deeply it could not be pried off. The executioner of Charlotte Corday -- who murdered Jean-Paul Marat -- held up her severed head and slapped its cheek; witnesses claimed the face blushed and looked indignant. A soldier who witnessed the decapitation of a friend in a 1989 auto accident relates how the head opened and closed its mouth several times, taking on an expression of shock or confusion, then of terror or grief; its eyes moved from the soldier, to its separated body, then back to the soldier -- direct eye contact, then hazy, then absent and dead.

Which brings to mind the report of Dr. Beaurieux, who, staid man of science that he was, resolved one early summer morning in 1905 to settle once and for all the question of whether a severed head retains for any appreciable time some measure of consciousness, and if so, for how long.

Observe, then, condemned murderer Henri Languille, who mounts with notable sangfroid the scaffold to kneel beneath the blade. Next, consider his severed head, which fortuitously lands stump-down on the neck, thus perfectly oriented for observation. The doctor notes the eyelids working in irregular contractions for five seconds or so, then they are still and half-closed, the face relaxed. The doctor calls out sharply, "Languille!" The eyelids lift slowly and smoothly, as an awakening, and the eyes focus very definitely upon the doctor's -- clearly, undeniably living. A pause of several seconds, and then the eyes close again. One might almost hear a sigh. Again the doctor cries out, "Languille!" -- and again, smoothly, slowly, the eyelids lift and the eyes fix on the doctor's, with perhaps even more intelligence than the first time. Then a drooping of lids, a fading, a third calling of the name, Languille! but there is no response, and the eyes are glazed, empty, gone. Thirty seconds have passed.

The issue is murky, though. No fewer than three physicians attended the 1879 beheading of one Theotime Prunier, amenable to their end if not his own. The triumverate of medicos immediately snatched up the head and shouted in the face, stuck it with pins, placed ammonia under the nose and candle flames in the eyeballs. No response but a look of astonishment on Prunier's visage, which need have no special significance -- slack jaw and gawking eyes would be expected.

All of it need mean nothing. Two severed heads in a bag need not have been snarling and snapping at each other; one might have been placed sometime after the other, but immediately after its own severing -- and the bite a mere spasmodic reflex. A severed head's cheek might well blush, because blushing is certainly dependent upon capillary blood, but not necessarily upon vascular bloodflow: slaps cause redness. Expressions of shock or of horror are instinctive and universal to the human condition -- perhaps they have no more meaning than the galvanic twitching of frog legs. Eyes widen at a loud sound -- as it happens in this case, the loud calling of a name. Yes. It may all be true, and at the same time meaningless.

The very idea is absurd, that a severed head should be alive. It takes eight seconds to choke a man into unconsciousness -- as I, the third most dangerous middle-aged man west of the Mississippi, ought to know. A severed head can have no blood pressure whatsoever, so one might think that unconsciousness, if not death, must be instantaneous.

But upon deeper reflection, the oxygen that is present, remains present -- it doesn't just remove itself along with the body. Capillaries do not drain themselves in a great Niagara of gore. So we might expect something like eight seconds of consciousness. Further, what effect does having one's entire body mass instantly reduced to some 10 pounds have on the metabolic rate of oxygen usage? Perhaps when the brain doesn't have to think about running the body, it uses less oxygen. And it may be that the concept of consciousness and unconsciousness -- lucidity and dreaming -- takes on an almost incomprehensible meaning, upon the shocking loss of one's bodily appendage. We know the spirit lingers -- heart stoppage isn't death, anymore.

Ah well. It's all speculation. That is, the speculation is speculation. The observations are what they are: phenomena translated into neural impulses within the brain, to manifest eventually as expressions of opinion.

So? Do I have a point? No. I could drag the islamists into it, what with their holy sacrament of beheading infidels and insufficiently subservient women. I could make some bitter correlation between aborted fetuses and still-conscious but not-legally-human-anymore severed heads. I could make it a metaphor for loss and mourning. I could try to blame God for it all. But sometime I just like to chat, share a little of the odd things that have collected in my brain. You know -- the way buddies just talk to each other, sometimes. Let's call this one of those times. Okay? Pal? Because we have voices. We can communicate with each other, in complex ways, with more than just blinking. So that we can know for sure that we're alive.


J

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

so when are you going to write your first novel?

Jack H said...

Perhaps you've heard of me by my *other* name? A certain ... Harold Robbins? I had myself declared legally dead a decade ago, for tax purposes -- but I'm still kicking. Tell me -- you're obviously a person of exquisite taste -- which of my many fabulous opi have you most enjoyed? "Never Love a Stranger" will always hold a special place in my heart -- it was so personal -- but in terms of an expression of the sheer narrative power of my style, I think "The Betsy" best represents my genius.

:-)

But thanks.

J

Anonymous said...

That's like asking who's my favorite composer.

Jack H said...

Someone Baroque, surely. With some atonalist as runner up.


J

Anonymous said...

Atonalist? No, perish the thought.

But seriously. Why not?

Jack H said...

Why not ... publish?

Know any agents?

As for "atonal" -- just kidding. I needed the dissonance.

J

Anonymous said...

I'll ask around. I might know someone who can be of assistance.

Jack H said...

I hardly know what to say. Of course, "Thank you" is often appropriate.

Thanks for your kind thoughts.

J