Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The Severing Does Not Stop
Hovering somewhere between being an object of unachievable murderous desire and the subject of a confused opinion about miraculous resurrection, the fact of John’s beheading is real precisely through an inability to appear so. The what of John’s beheading is absent, the substance of his passion imprisoned, occluded by the presence of its that, the post-mortem circulation of his head: “And he beheaded him in the prison and brought his head in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother” (Mark 6:28).
Accordingly, the prophet’s head phenomenally anticipates another palpable impossibility that it was later interpreted as figuring, the transubstantiated Eucharist (on a paten, diskos): “Caput johannis in disco: signat corpus Christi: quo pascimur in sancto altari” [The head of John on a dish signifies the body of Christ by which we are fed at the holy altar].[i] Like the Host, impossibly transformed from bread into Christ’s body, John’s severed head becomes a comparable sacred presence precisely through its simultaneously no longer being and yet phenomenally remaining wholly what it is, i.e. his head. The logic of this equation is perfectly unconcealed in Byzantine representations of John (reintegrated with haloed, perfected head) presenting his own severed head on a paten, paralleling the more common image of John presenting the lamb of God within a paten/nimbus, the analogue of his “Ecce agnus Dei . . .” (John 1.:29) respoken during the eucharistic rite.[ii] Like the dish that it inherently transforms into nimbus without alteration, only by being placed on it, John’s head becomes itself by aesthetically staying and being ontologically emptied of what it is, that is, by becoming a severed head, a head without soul that is nevertheless and irreplaceably his, and more abstractly, by being something it cannot be, the individuated self-negation of itself.[iii] This conceptual structure is related to the more general tendency within the iconography of beheading for impossible capital doublings that work to expose decollation’s impossible self-negating logic: haloed headless bodies holding unhaoled heads, unhaloed headless bodies holding haloed heads, haloed headed bodies holding unhaloed heads, and haloed headed bodies holding haloed heads.
The figural equation of John’s head with the Eucharist, grounded in the conceptual medium of the disc, leads us to discern more clearly the presence-producing, deeply factical aesthetics of beheading, the strong sense in which seeing the severed head is seeing that someone is beheaded, a that which occupies a special phenomenal durability or ontic aura through the intimate identification between person and head, as if the severed head itself emanates the psychic immanence of the beheaded person, endlessly bleeding an atmosphere of what it is. “L’horrible tête flamboie, saignant toujours” [the horrible head flames, bleeding constantly], writes Huysmans on Gustave Moreau’s representation of the Baptist’s head in The Apparation.[iv] [thank you Valter for this reference!] So the disc is definable as the materialization of this very that, the enframing form that poetically constitutes the invisible property of individuated actuality, i.e. haecceitas or thisness. Each and every thing is of course present to us in this sense, in disco as it were—that is what it means to see a thing, to be before what is placed and displayed in thingness—but beheading produces or brings into presence the more extreme thingness of a being, the thingy presence of what is not a “thing” at all. The severed head is a fatally displayable object especially proper to that ontological seeing whereby what something is withdraws without diminishment into the fact that it is, into actuality, as exemplified by the similarly extreme example of eucharistic presence, in which the fact that the Host is the body of Christ completely overtakes its breadiness in a manner that not only does not displace but actually perfects it, permitting the paradoxical experience of seeing and tasting God via purely aesthetic, free-floating breadiness. According to Aquinas, this happens as a disjunctive simultaneity of intellectual and corporeal seeing. The intellect or spiritual eye (oculus spiritualis), “cuius obiectum est quod quid est” [whose object is what a thing is], sees the divine substance while the corporeal sees the bready accidents which miraculously “in hoc sacramento manent sine subiecto” [remain in this sacrament without a subject].[v] It is the simultaneity and interplay of these two kinds of seeing that constitute more generally the experience of presence as a witnessing of being. More specifically, the eucharistic doctrine demonstrates the withdrawal of what something is as the ground for the emergence of its actuality. The miraculously remaining subjectless accidents are not peripheral to eucharistic presence but the very means, indeed the miracle proper, the impossible unmaking, whereby seeing the Host is not simply seeing the body of Christ, but seeing that it is the body of Christ, and therefore witnessing that God is or being in the presence of God, which is the content of real presence as a fulfillment of the original deixis of the ritual, “This is my body” (Matt 26.26). In other words, subjectless accidents (breadless breadiness) are the means of divine presence precisely because they signify the absence of substance (bread) and as such provide a place for spiritually omnipresent divine being. In a wholly proportional way, the severed head is a supreme subjectless accident that opens both toward recognition of the decapitated person as immanent transcendent substance, that is, as person in the saintly sense, the universally individuated being who is at once there in the highest divine beyond and here with their body, and toward the opposite twin experience of the decapitated person as radical, omnipresent absence, as a substance that is precisely both nowhere and entirely there, wholly reduced to its objective material remnant.[vi] The heretical experience of the Eucharist is thus analogous to the orthodox experience of the traitor’s severed head, the political heretic. Rather than somehow still containing the person who inhabited it, the severed head holds their instensest and most intimate absence, an absence that is always already filled with the impossible, ongoing fact of their beheading, expressible as the unspeakable conjunction of two statements: 1) the person is beheaded, this is their head, therefore they are; and 2) the person is beheaded, this is their head, therefore they are not. Such shimmering, dialetheic facticity belongs to the severed head in a special degree, more perfectly than to the corpse, because of the way beheading inherently allegorizes or plays back into itself the separative movement of death, its removal of one of the living from the living, as its very form and cause: severing. Grounded in the inevitable and impossible identification of human person and head, beheading is the living allegory or self-symbol of death itself, the sheerest aesthetic spectacle of its unthinkability and therefore a natural space for the living experience of death’s utmost possibilities. The figural identification of John’s head with God’s body thus suggests the necessity for a deeper phenomenal understanding of the relation between decapitation and the martyr’s crown, between the beheaded human and the unbeadable body of God, and ultimately, between losing one’s head and the perfection indicated by the halo, beautifully traced by Agamben (following Aquinas) as the potentiality at the end of possibility: “One can think of the halo . . . as a zone in which possibility and reality, potentiality and actuality, become indistinguishable. The being that has reached its end, that has consumed all of its possibilities thus receives as a gift [in dote] a supplemental possibility. . . . Its beatitude is that of a potentiality that comes only after the act, of matter that does not remain beneath the form, but surrounds it with a halo [la circonda e l’aureola].”[vii]
[i] Breviarum ad usum insignis Eccelsie Eboracensis, ed. S.W. Lawley, 2 vols. (Durham: Andrews & Co., 1880-3), “In festo decollationis sancti johannis baptiste,” Lectio v, 2.817. This and other meanings of the Baptist’s head are surveyed in Janes, Losing Our Heads, 97-138.
[ii] For an example, see see A.A. Barb, “The Round Table and the Holy Grail,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 19 (1956), fig. 9e.
[iii] On the Baptist’s head-dish as paten and the possible intersection of both with the halo, see Barb, “The Round Table and the Holy Grail,” 46-7.
[iv] Joris Karl-Huysmans, A rebours (Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpeniter, 1955), 89.
[v] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Opera Omnia, ed. Roberto Busa (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1980), III.76.7, III.77.1.
[vi] Cf. Peter Brown’s commentary on a devotional moment from the Miracula sancti Stephani (PL 41: 847), which also silently suggests a more precise relation between the experience of such presence and having a head: “‘and she, taking the Kingdom of Heaven by storm, pushed her head inside and laid it on the holy relics resting there, drenching them with her tears.’ The carefully maintained tension between distance and proximity ensured one thing: praesentia, the physical presence of the holy . . . [T]he praesentia on which such heady enthusiasm focused was the presence of an invisible person” (The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 88.
[vii] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 54. Original cited from La communità che viene (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2001). Agamben is following Aquinas’s understanding of the halo as a surplus to perfection, something that adds to it by adding nothing: “beatitudo includit in se omnia bona quae sunt necessaria ad perfectam hominis vitam, quae consistit in perfecta hominis operatione; sed quaedam possunt superaddi non quasi necessaria ad perfectam operationem, ut sine quibus esse non possit, sed quia his additis est beatitudo clarior” (Scriptum super Sententiis, 4.49.5, Opera Omnia).