How can I attest to you, at this point of complete despair, that the light of the world once beckoned to me?
The Beheaded (1744–94)
This is what historians call ‘a decisive moment’, or ‘humanity turning a new page of history’. At present, his head is in my hand, the crowd is cheering, each wave of sound is crashing louder than the last, a sweet smell is spreading through the air, and the noon sun is dazzling peoples’ eyes.
I do as the crowd around the stage desires, once again thrusting the head towards them, and their screams grow more frenzied, pounding against my eardrums. Prior to the execution, I was notified that they had bound his long hair into a ponytail so that once the blade severed his neck I could quickly snatch up his head to show the crowd, bringing the victorious cheers to a climax.
The great weight of unemployment has long since driven these young people to desperation. Now, looking up at this little head, they begin to turn, to sing, to dance, exploding with rare vitality, as if all the unfairness that suppresses this world had vanished into thin air the moment this person’s skull was separated from his spine.
When we drew lots to see who would do it, I didn’t want it to be me; after all, we were still a little afraid of him. But after many years as a professional, I know enough to see it as a job that transcends my individual preferences. The people of this country who love him or hate him all knew that, when this moment came, there would be someone who had to do the job. All disembodied heads lower their eyes and rest in peace in the end, leaving behind us luckless bastards as we rush around the guillotine.
Five minutes ago, I was still arranging his head so that the falling blade would cut his neck cleanly. When his head was resting tractably in my hand, it was hard to believe that it contained thoughts of harming and enslaving people. I was afraid that he would cry out in fear, which would have been awkward. But he remained silent throughout, which may be the greatest show of respect to an executioner. Or was it a show of disdain?
Yet the crowd continues to cheer, their deafening chants magnifying their discontent, their countless heads undulating like grass floating on the surface of a river, rippling against the stage where I stand. The head in my hand seems to shake with the motion of the crowd – or perhaps it is simply my hand that is shaking.
Surely there is some sort of mutually reactive, mutually attractive force between a knife edge and a person’s head. Just in the moment he attempted to lift his head, the blade leapt toward him, and in an instant, his head left his body. I am certain that only a mutual attraction of such strength and speed ensures that the blade causes no pain, and allows no slight hesitation that would freeze the facial expression of the head’s owner in anguish.
Suddenly, I feel an extraordinary sense of emptiness, the way you might feel as you looked at one’s pallid limbs after the blood had stopped flowing. The emptiness joins the increasingly scorching noon heat to sink my mind into chaos and anxiety: perhaps such a joyous crowd will no longer require such consummate beheading skill. As they see it, the moment of his decapitation marked the birth of a new world, and other than that, there’s nothing else that they need.
In order to better satisfy their needs, I fling the head into the air. The solitary head traces a graceful arc through the sky like a meteor before falling into the dense crowd of people. Countless hands reach up to catch it and toss it back into the air. It flies from one corner of the square to another as they toss it back and forth. It rises and falls, as if, prior to smashing this container of so many evil desires, everybody wants to fully enjoy its last moment of completeness. Finally, as the head once again falls towards the earth, the crowd around it coincidentally disperses. It crashes inevitably to the ground with a blunt sound that fills the momentary silence, and blood sprays out from it, just like the creature in Alien, which, on the brink of death, sprays corrosive acid out at the world. Then the world returns to its ordinary rhythms, and nobody in the crowd has any further interest in his remains. As they tread through his brains, they are already hoisting a new leader aloft.
All the muscles of my body tense up as if to warn me against jumping down to join their alluring revelry. I feel glad for my cloak and mask, which make me look like someone who doesn’t exist, someone nobody would want to know or be close to. I turn away and meticulously clean the slightly worn, slanted blade. I store it away to await its next use. I carefully retain the remaining blood for clients who might want it. There will always be plenty of market demand, enough to help me pay some family expenses, help me get back to normal. Although my hands have held countless heads aloft, they can still embrace my wife, feel the warmth and softness of her skin, her head pressed tightly against my chest like God’s greatest gift.
This article first appeared in ArtReview Asia vol 5, no 2