Literary Heads: Robotic and Transposed

What’s with all the decapitated literary heads lately? First there was the reappearance of the Philip K. Dick robotic head, something that I’d forgotten had disappeared in the first place. The story is that in 2005, the roboticist David Hanson built what appeared to be a flawless robotic replica of Philip K. Dick’s head. On his way, somewhere…I assume to show off the head, he lost it. It appeared in a few airports and then was sort of swallowed up by the state of Washington. I can’t think of a more fitting and hilarious fate for the authenticity-obsessed author: To be resurrected post-death as a robotic head, only to be lost, or headnapped, or destroyed. Fate unknown. Lucky for us, Hanson has built another head.

And then there’s Julie Taymor. And just in case your wondering, no, the decapitation news that she’s associated with doesn’t have to do with another mishap on her broadway show “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”, which was plagued with injuries. It has to do with her next project, a film adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella The Transposed Heads. In case you’re not familiar with this relatively obscure work (I certainly wasn’t), it’s an Indian fable about two friends who, after beheading themselves, return to life to find that their heads have been transposed on each others bodies. It seems kind of like a super morbid Freaky Friday, only involving more High Modernist speculation on the mind/body divide and stuff like that. In any case, it seems rather ambitious and strange, which is a pretty convincing combo.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find the connection between these two pieces of news, something beyond them both involving disembodied heads, but I’m beginning to wonder if there even needs to be more of a connection for it to be worth talking about. From Medusa to Sleepy Hollow to Highlander, the head’s tenuous relationship with the body it’s connected to is one of those rare things that has real, actual, metaphors living beyond the language used to create it, and existing in our own everyday world. Just imagine the symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine, used to separate the social excess of Nobility and Clergy from the body of the people. A metaphor for the thing it actually does. Not that we need intellectual justification to be interested in headlessness. Philip K. Dick and Julie Taymor are reasons enough. We don’t have to lose our heads over it.

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