Yet on probing one finds in liminality both positive and active qualities, especially where that “threshold” is protracted and becomes a “tunnel”, when the “liminal” becomes the “cuni- cular” [tunnel like]; this is particularly the case in initiation…
~ Victor Turner, “Process, Performance, and Pilgrimage”
To briefly summarize what I have argued in part 1 of this essay: the disembodied head is often the result of the cognitive process called pareidolia- that is the making of a group of elements into a recognizable pattern, which reconstitutes the new whole into a perceivable object. Humans anthropomorphize and analogize and the head is a potent representation of the human and an obvious analogue for head-like things. If anthropomorphism and analogy are the mental processes that give rise to disembodied heads and faces in human cultures, than the question remains, to what meaningful uses are these heads put? In this section I offer examples of the head as portal and passageway, the disembodied head is a spectacular object made from a common one. It thus acts as a bridge from the known to the unknown.
The biological experience of interior/exterior is most pronounced in the head, which contains the openings through which information is received. Despite the fact that the brain is not the mind per se, the experience of sound, scent, taste and sight all pertain to the head. Known in Latin as the portas sensorum (gates of senses), these holes are the entry points between self and not-self according to the eighteenth century Greek monk St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain:
“The body is likened to a royal palace built by the superb architectural skill of a Creator… This palace includes the “upper room” which is the head… the messengers are the thoughts… and the doors of this palace are the five senses… [these] serve as so many openings to the world around us. I am talking about the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth and the common sense of touch…”
The head is the site of passage from outer to inner. In this section we explore the disembodied head as an object that does the work of a doorway between oppositional worlds, realms of experience that play on and magnify the dyad of inner/outer.
A house as a head
In her sentimental poem”A Memory” (1888), Katharine Hardenbergh Johnson imagines approaching a house that has not been seen since childhood. It becomes the countenance of an old friend, who though marked by age, is still recognizable.
But those years are such a gulf, dear;
And a house, like a face, may change;
If you look at this one intently,
It will seem half-new and strange.
And the house has stood in its silence
So long, apart from the strife,
Like a dim, sweet sanctuary,
Full of an unseen life.
To cross the threshold of the house is a nostos (homecoming), a return to the world of the past through physical passage to an interior. The face of the house, though weather-beaten, conceals the rooms and the objects which activate the memories of childhood- like the head itself where the memories of the visitor reside. The house/head marks the place where we pass from the time-bound to the timeless. It is also the divider between public and private. As our faces do the work of public masks through the control of expressions, the front of the house also shields the interior of private truth from the collective social space.
The facial fortress reverses the trajectory of the nostos; entrance becomes forbiddance. When we say “she gave me a stony look”, “he steeled himself”, “a wall went up”, “he closed himself off from the world,” “she just won’t let me in”, the house of the head becomes a castellated countenance. If eyelids can be shutters covering the “windows of the soul”, then an iron lattice, the portcullis, is a fierce set of teeth. Shakespeare makes this connection in Richard II:
“Within my lips you have engaoled my tongue,
doubley portcullis’d with my teeth and lips.”
Just as quickly as this medieval “sliding gate” comes crashing down, so too can our change of mood, our inability to speak- here represented by the gritting of teeth, the closing of lips.
The American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) had an uncanny ability to paint scenes that manifested the deep analogical connections between domain and personality, house and head. His inspiration came in part from lines in Sherwood Anderson’s novel “Winesberg Ohio” (1919)
The houses have faces. The windows are eyes. Some houses smile at you; others frown. There are some houses that are always dark. People in them crawl off early to bed. You hear no laughter from such houses; no one sings.
In his most famous painting”The Night Wind”, the aural connection between the house and the listener-within-the-house is amplified through the rippling sound waves that connect interior and exterior. The house is the face of fear or wonderment, wide-eyed with touseled hair. We shiver and thrill to the roaring sound as we move from inside (where all is warm and safe) to outside (the realm of cold and danger). The eye-windows become entry points for this experiential back-and-forth. If the door is barred , it is incorporeal light that allows us to cross over or pass out of the access point of the staring window-eyes.
Being swallowed by a giant or a sea-monster is a common motif in folklore and literature. Jonah, Baron Munchausen and Pinnocchio spend time in a whale’s belly, the Steadfast Tin Soldier in a fish, the Valiant Little Taylor in a giant. Otto Rank, following in Freud’s footsteps, argued for a reading of the hero’s rescue from the maw of the beast as the triumph of the individual over parental tyranny. Visually resembling a cavern and tunnel, the scene set in a giant’s mouth is the start of the journey down into the underworld (or belly). Following the traditional cycle, once eaten by the giant, the protagonist is either vomited back up or saved by being pulled from a slit in the stomach of the slain monster. This is the “second birth” or moment of enlightenment, echoing the first birth, although this time the newborn human emerges fully matured. The visual representations of these stories always emphasize the monster’s head, rising up out of the waves or looming over the hero like a cannibalistic planet: the hair-raising prelude to transmogrifying ingestion.
The giant’s mouth as cave entrance is nowhere more aptly illustrated than in Bomarzo, Italy. In the mid 16th C. the Duke of Orsini built himself a park of stone monsters. Leonardo Da Vinci was so taken by Orco, the giant head, that he wrote:
“two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire, fear of the threatening grotto, desire to see if their were any marvelous thing within.”
Leonardo’s response to the fierce face at the threshold is an apt illustration of Victor Turner’s idea that the real power of the liminal emanates from its ambiguity, by its ability to seduce through the frisson of fear as we approach.
Orco’s most prominent historic ancestor is a wooden stage device called the hell-mouth featured in many medieval mystery plays. These popular religious dramas were enacted on moveable wheeled stages. The hell-mouth was a grotesque, disembodied head through which devils dragged the damned. This image found its way into the margins of medieval manuscripts and eventually Reformation religious tracts. During the European wars of religion between Catholics and Protestant in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the hell-mouth and the anthropomorphic landscape merged.
Marcus Gheeraerts’ elaborate allegorical representation of Catholicism as a monstrous head was created as anti-papal propaganda. His print shows a hill in the shape of a dead monk’s rotting head swarming with figures. The pope sits enthroned at the top of the head-hill, while in the foreground Protestants attack the selling of indulgences, statues of saints and other Catholic paraphernalia. Here the disembodied head stands for moral decay and spiritual death. Beyond the disgust that maggots may arouse in the viewer, their cleansing agency as dissolvers of rot conveys the message of the iconoclastic believer. The corpse of Catholicism is ripe and, in Gheeraert’s representation, it is about to be stripped clean by the zealous hunger of reformers. The head marks a turning or hinge-moment in sacred time from this artist’s point of view , an apocalyptic event- the melting away of the past with all of its theological error.
Guardian as/of the Gate
If the head is a gate it is also the guardian of that gate. The Surrealists rediscovered Bomarzo in the 1930’s, by then unkempt and overgrown. Salvador Dali declared it “the greatest realization of solidified desire.” With their emphasis on the irrational and Freudian psychology, the Surrealists led the modern era back to the place signaled by Orsini’s monstrous head: an oral doorway leading down the dark throat of mystery. Dali’s painting “Destino” utilizes the head as gate motif, but in reverse. The face appears out of the elements of landscape, a holographic version of an Arcimboldo portrait as it were. The whole of an individual’s destiny is made up of the peculiar particulars of a life. This implicate order (to use David Bohm’s phrase) is unfurled through the process of living in the world- with all of its crossings of thresholds. Dali’s image of Destiny as a portrait-head and as another world glimpsed through a gate echos Jorge Luis Borges summation of the dying man who takes stock of his voyage through experience:
“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
In the novella “A Christmas Carol”, the knocker on Scrooge’s door becomes the face of his dead partner Jacob Marley. The first of many supernatural visitations that lead the skinflint through time past, present and future before inaugurating his redemption, the knocker-head warns and beckons the anti-hero. The disembodied head lets the reader know that she is at the threshold of the otherworld where time, physics and consciousness become fluid and flow in the direction the adventure’s angle. Shane McCorristine has commented on the Marley-knocker experience as a door:
“This illusion, a mistaken perception of objects in the visual field, vanished rapidly yet forms a psychological gateway to the more serious hallucinations which will afflict Scrooge later in the story.”
“Facing” the stage
Looking exceptionally like hell-mouths various proscenia from the Renaissance up to the Age of Enlightenment were created in the shape of giant heads. Delighted audiences watched as intrepid explorers and doomed lovers moved in and out of great teeth or leaped forth from jaws issuing floods and flames. The giant disembodied head is the transparent threshold between the realm of the receptive watchers and the kingdom of dramatic activity. The monstrous proscenium swallows the audience down into the plot even as it disgorges the narrative flow.
One especially interesting theatrical use of giant heads was a “Masque of Nations” given at the royal christening of a German prince in 1616. Made of papier-mâché, these gape-mouthed Gargantuas were personifications of the four cardinal directions. Out of their mouths proceeded acrobats dressed in costumes designating specific nationalities. Here the head becomes the door through which strange travelers arrive, fulfilling the viewers expectations, not about the underworld, but about the world beyond the borders of a provincial, early modern European kingdom.
This emphasis on voyages to strange lands, the discovery of new worlds was satirized by Rabelais, who related a vast world teeming with life inside the giant Pantagruel’s mouth (see chapter 11 in Auerbach’s masterpiece “Mimesis”). This use of the giant’s head as a container of hidden worlds reflects not only the new discourses of exploration in the early modern period, but according to scholar Michael Chemers a rising awareness that the aristocracy had become a sort of giant, unaware of the daily trials and tribulations of a teeming underclass whose needs were no longer being served by the ancien régime.
Lead us to laughter (and terror)
The amusement park gate as head is most certainly a descendent of the proscenium head of the Renaissance. Found more frequently in the fun houses and thrill rides of the early 20th century it makes a contemporary appearance now and again. One of the largest current gate-heads is found at Luna, Park in Sydney Australia. Passing under the illuminated gaze and through the shining teeth of the giant the thrill-seeker arrived in another world. As in the mythic swallowing of hero, the passage through the head offers a similar alteration in perception: one has left the quotidian for the extraordinary or to cite the early German psychologist Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) the Tagesansicht (Day-Face) gives way to the Nachtansicht (Night-Face).
Passing from day to night through the monstrous head is not all fun and games however. The giant skull as gate, island and mountain found in so many adventure films, distorts the fun-house face, accentuating its terrorizing capabilities. The giant skull portends what it contains: terrifying apparitions, life-threatening adventures, monstrous beings that inhabit primordial dimensions, antediluvian landscapes- as in the case of “Skull Mountain” in the various film versions of “King Kong”. This is a giant head at its most iconic (in the semiotic sense): death (and the world we dream of coming after death) await those approaching the grinning skull. This is physical death amplified into the demise of an anchored sense of self.
To be continued in…
A History of the Disembodied Head III.): Oracles and Omens