Sunday, April 02, 2017


We all remember this smiley image from the online news feeds and the blogophere.

Frances Larson, in her book --

-- describes the image of a warrior holding the enemy's severed head aloft as "an assertion of control in the chaos of battle" (pg. 75 of the hardcover edition).  She goes on to say, "The same could be said of the executioner who holds up a traitor's head on the scaffold: order is declared anew."  

Now, seriously, does this make sense?  The author spends a great deal of time in this book talking about the 13-month Reign of Terror during the French Revolution -- I looked up the body count out of curiosity, and was astounded to learn they offed about 40,000 royalist sympathizers in that short time.  They certainly cleared the royalist sympathizers out of France, but is it really possible to gaze into a basketful of severed heads and see ORDER there?   She also gives the example of a Japanese soldier's skull mailed from Guadalcanal to someone's girlfriend back home in the States and affectionately named "Tojo."  Far from imposing ORDER on their lives, this act infuriated the Japanese, and made the American military look pretty terrible in the eyes of the nation and the world.  On both sides there were cries of protest over this CHAOTIC behavior.  The point at which ORDER was restored was the moment the unlucky soldier's skull was repatriated -- and, I hope, properly identified somehow. 

Earlier in the book, Larson goes into some detail explaining how the Amazon Basin tradition of occasionally hijacking spiritual power from enemies by shrinking their heads caught the attention of souvenir-hunters from Europe and the USA.  These tourists, who wanted souvenir heads of their own to put in the den, transformed the local custom and turned it inside-out, changing headhunting from an act with spiritual significance in a single local tribe to a fairly grisly way all over the rainforest of getting money and guns out of 'whitey.' 

Does any of this sound like "ORDER" to you?

It doesn't to me.  It seems to me that Larson, like most people, is unthinkingly saying 'THINGS THAT MAKE ME SHUDDER' = CHAOS.  But most of her examples have zero to do with the sublime state of confusion and discord under discussion in this column.  

To be sure, war is pretty chaotic, and Guadalcanal was an outstanding example of how brutal and terrifying war can get.  Never forget that Eris, the Goddess of Discord, is the twin sister of Ares, God of War. But to me, holding an enemy's severed head aloft is ANYTHING BUT a statement that things are IN ORDER.  All it really says is LOOKIT ME, GUYS, I CUT THIS GUY'S HEAD OFF!  The terrorist shown above, having just decapitated poor Nick Berg (an engineer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time), would be hard pressed to say he is making any sort of statement about imposing ORDER on CHAOS.  He isn't even imposing Islam on other belief systems in this photo.  All he's saying is LOOKIT, GUYS, HOW SCARY AM I?

If anything, terrorist acts are about imposing CHAOS on ORDER.  Because ORDER usually isn't very scary.

But here's the catch:  as soon as you start imposing this particular kind of CHAOS on any sort of ORDER, your point is lost.  If I could collar that terrorist at that instant and ask him what he'd just accomplished, he might not have anything to say at all.  Cutting some poor guy's head off doesn't say anything, good or bad, about Islam.  It just says he believes cutting people's heads off makes him look like a badbutt.  Maybe he hasn't even thought it through enough to be able to tell me that much.  Maybe he just did it WITHOUT any point in mind.  

And is that not the very essence of CHAOS and CONFUSION, right there?  Is it not the opposite of ORDER?

Larson's book was a thought-provoking read but I wish she'd gone farther.  Why not talk about the caves full of severed heads in The 13th Warrior or Dr. Carl Hill in Re-Animator, or even Jan in the Pan from The Brain That Wouldn't Die?    

I also wish she -- or her text editor -- understood English well enough to eschew the odious phrase "decapitated head."  C'mon, peeps, "decapitate" means "cut the head off of."  How exactly do you cut off a head's head?

THERE's your dose of ORDER for the day.  The Grammar Nazi strikes again!  


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