Thre strokes in the nekke he smoot hire tho,
The tormentour, but for no maner chaunce
He myghte noght smyte al hir nekke atwo;
And for ther was that tyme an ordinaunce
That no man sholde doon man swich penaunce
The ferthe strook to smyten, softe or soore,
This tormentour ne dorste do namoore,
But half deed, with hir nekke ycorven there,
He lefte hir lye, and on his wey he went.
(Second Nun’s Tale VIII.526-34)
St. Cecilia’s botched beheading masterfully sculpts the conundrum of life/death liminality into a horrific three-day dilation of the moment of martyrdom, opening the decollative blow that typically coincides with receiving its crown into a series of unfinished neck-cuts. Pinched between the cruelty of the headsman’s impotence, the idiotic inflexibility of the law, and her own sacred durability, Cecilia embodies the paradoxical idea of an unending, asymptotically inconclusive decapitation, an infinite series of beheading blows that never severs the head. Her hacked neck fuses into one form the two principles it figurally evokes: the unbeheadability of the body of God – “illius enim capita membra sumus. Non potest hoc corpus decollari” [We are limbs of that head. This body cannot be decapitated] (Augustine) – and the semi-living nature of fallen humanity, as signified through medieval allegorical interpretation of the traveller who is attacked by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and left “half alive/half dead” [semivivus, emithane] (Luke 10:30). The unity of this form is equivalent to the differential non-difference (half alive = half dead) between the Greek and Latin terms. The three-fold opening intensively multiplies the “zero degree of torture” (Foucault) into a single tertium quid that is indifferently beyond the distinction between life and death. Being half dead, Cecilia is ultimately alive. Being half alive, Cecilia is ultimately dead. Dwelling in the hyper-intimacy of extreme dereliction, Cecilia is a lacerated, ever-dilating theopathic icon of divinity’s absolute indifference to life and death. Her three-day rest from both, during which she simultaneously does nothing and works all the more fervently, exemplifies the “passivity and absence of effort . . . in which divine transcendence is dissolved” (Bataille).