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Sanitation Department
Severed Heads and Sensibility

Caravaggio, not Iraq

In Book Eight of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations,” we come across this line: “Have you ever seen a hand or a foot cut off, or a head sliced off, lying anywhere apart from the rest of the body?” The question is answered interestingly enough: “Such does a man make himself,as far as he can, who is not content with what happens, and separates himself from others, or does anything unsocial,” and so on. The point Aurelius makes is a fine one, but what interests me just now is the imagery he is using rather than the point he’s making. I can’t imagine a modern philosopher (or their pseudo equivalents in blogs and on newspaper editorial pages) making any analogy using severed limbs, let alone severed heads, as rhetorical props. Why does Aurelius? I’m not asking the question critically but historically: the imagery, in Aurelius’s historical context, has something of the archeological in it. It reveals sensibilities and assumptions of Aurelius’s time, when severed limbs must have been neither uncommon nor inherently taboo to discuss in open society, as they are now.

When is the last time a severed limb was shown in any mainstream media image, or discussed more than in passing in actual reporting, or, more to the point, used to make a point? The notion alone is off limits. Our sensibilities are such that severed limbs and heads, being among the most revolting possibility any of us could suffer, shouldn’t even be talked about except in the restricted — and, ironically, detached — context of absolute fact, as in reporting about a beheading. The images themselves, should they be available, must never be shown (remember Daniel Perl?). Those who show them or reflect on them too suspiciously much, let alone use them as literary allusions, flirt with being judged as harshly as those who inflicted the severing.

Yet here’s Marcus Aurelius, great philosopher, starting off a thought on man’s sociability and unsociability by urging us to picture a decapitated head. Could it be that Marcus Aurelius had a tabloid streak? That he was the philosopher’s paparazzi? That he would have been a Fox News consultant in a different day and age? That he was, Cicero forbid, in bad taste? Obviously not. Roman society was notoriously violent, we are often told. Aurelius himself, emperor for two decades, must’ve had more than a valley’s worth of decapitated heads to his account between his wars in Parthia, Gaul, whatever they called Germany at the time and his Straussian swordplay down the Danube. Violence, brutality, war, premature death—it was all like pollen in the air. Gladiator shows were blood sports for the masses, to whom severed heads were today’s equivalent of NASCAR crashes: that’s what the bread-and-circuses crowd turned out for. The severed head and limbs Marcus Aurelius alluded to could have been an attempt at the kind of pop culture reference hip columnists à-la-Dowd try to make all the time to sound “in” and connected with the youngish crowd. Those literary instincts haven’t changed over time. But to rationalize Aurelius this way is to let us off the hook, and to reduce Aurelius to a cool dude going for the quick one-liner. There were bigger points to Aurelius’s allusion than mere stylistic effect (I’ll get to those in a moment), as there is a bigger point to its “squeamish” counterpoint today.

How truly different was the violence of the Roman empire from our own day, our present day in particular, when brutality is institutionalized (I’m thinking of the common and submissive acceptance of police force as a norm), when war is perpetual, and when severed limbs and heads are very much part of those wars, but, like so much else about those wars, not part of the daily discussions and allusions that attach to the wars? Aurelius’s throw-away allusion is revealing of a willingness to see life’s blights head on—a classic stoic act—and even use them to artistic, stylistic, philosophical effects. Aurelius’s allusion, or lack of such allusions in our own day (despite the pervasive violence those allusions describe), is equally revealing of something opposite the stoic and the honest. Not squeamishness exactly. That can be excused. But a kind of self-deception that sanitizes reality to the point of changing it. We don’t want to see severed heads and limbs on the evening news. Or less dramatically, we don’t even want to see our wounded soldiers, hear them scream (we’re not allowed to see them so), because it’s the easiest way to pretend that what’s happening out there is not nearly as dire as it is, and because it’s the easiest way to continue living our lives of compulsive consumption without worrying too much about the dissonance. We not only reject violent images in our “family” newspapers and on television news, we not only call the network’s switchboard the moment it dares show dead men hanging from lampposts or the image of an American soldier bleeding. We recoil at the thought of such images being used, stylistically or rhetorically, as means of making points about something else. Something else entirely unrelated to the violence of the imagery, as in Aurelius’s case.

What would Aurelius say? He would return us to the very image he uses at the opening of that passage. He would say that, like a severed head or a severed limb, we have detached ourselves from reality. And in this case, we have held the knife to our own heads, to our own limbs: we have decapitated ourselves, and called ourselves civilized for taking what’s left of our heads and burying them in the gentle sands of self-indulgence: By not seeing what violence we ought to see, courageously and honestly, we make believe it no longer exists, and of course ensure that the violence will go on that much more. We have severed our own collective heads of responsibility so that other heads may be severed literally and endlessly. Our impulse to sanitize becomes the act that enables the violence to flourish. We are the opposite of stoics. We are, in our plush chairs, in our Saturday strolls at the mall, in our fanciful discussions about good and evil from the comfort of our suburban homes, proxy murderers. That may be taking it a limb too far. I’d be happy to be brought back. But on what evidence?

The force of Marcus Aurelius’s allusion wouldn’t be so powerful if it wasn’t the set-up for a more constructive end. A reattachment, in fact. He startles you, a few lines into that same paragraph, with this line about the beheadings and the severed limbs: “The beauty of the thing,” he starts to say. The beauty? Absolutely: the beauty of the thing, of human beings’ severing of themselves from society (or in our case from reality), is that, unlike severed hands and heads, they can reattach themselves to society, to reality, to their conscience. And of course there is beauty in this, in the fact that redemption is as perpetually within man’s grasp as his immense capacity for brutality (to self and others), and for self-delusion. “God has allowed this to no other part, after it has been separated and cut asunder, to come together again,” Aurelius writes, accurately enough whether one believes in god or not. “But consider the kindness by which he has distinguished man, for he has put it in his power not to be separated at all from the universal; and when he has been separated, he has allowed him to return and to be united and to resume his place as a part.”

We tend to forget that about our self-beheadings, because there’s comforting self-delusion in eternal pessimism, too: it’s the option of least courage. But there’s always a way out, or rather a way back in, always a means of reattachment, or reconnecting with responsibility, with the collective conscience, with reality. It begins, Aurelius would say, and I would agree, with facing those real severed heads and hands head on, literally. Truth as a means of progress begins with a refusal to sanitize. And with an allowance for literary allusions to decapitated heads, hands and feet, when the purpose is neither gratuitous nor NASCAR-related.

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