Monday, July 28, 2008

Judith beheads Holofernes, praying mantis version

by J J Cohen

From artist Judith G. Klausner, a series of miniatures created using praying mantises, focused upon women who chop off men's heads. No, really. I'm not kidding. Here is Judith and Holofernes, from everyone's favorite deuterocanonical text. I never realized its entomological possibilities, though.

Did I ever mention that the Old English version of the story is one of my favorite pieces of poetry? I've always thought that Wallace Stevens, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson would have been better poets if a head would fly off every now and again in their stanzas. Wandering daffodils? Emperors of ice cream? The narrow fellow in the grass? Yawn. Rolling noggins? Now that's the stuff of lyric.


Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I have the perfect book for you from one of my favorite all-time writers, Robert Olen Butler:

Severance: Stories [Chronicle Books, 2008]

Here is the Publisher's Weekly blurb:

"Lively writing and a catchy conceit make this collection from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain a thought-provoking, if morbid, read. Sixty-two entries, each in the voice of a beheaded historical, mythical, animal or modern figure, make up the collection. Each is exactly 240 words, Butler's estimate of the number of words that could be spoken by a decapitated head before oxygen runs out. Among the post-mortem monologues Butler imagines are John the Baptist, Medusa, Cicero, a chicken, Nicole Brown Simpson, Maximilien Robespierre, Valeria Messalina and himself, "decapitated on the job" in 2008. Though clever in arrangement (Butler convincingly constructs the mind of a dragon, then puts his killer, St. George, on the next page) and complex in its considerations (religious faith is an ongoing theme, from the apostle Matthew's recollection of conversion to a Yemeni executioner's discovery that "the mercy of God seeks sinful love before righteous hatred"), the collection's darting attentions and fractured narratives may frustrate readers. Several entries take a light tone, but what lingers is an unsettling sense of the absurdity—and prevalence—of violence."

It's a great book; I've read it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Well, Eileen, what can I say besides "!" You've left me speechless with that reference!

i said...

This is wonderful, and I have to agree on the OE Judith. Of course, the real key aspects are the golden fly net with the panoptic qualities, and of course, Judith's ambiguously phrased attempt at getting Holofernes' head into position.

Oh, and Holofernes' men wondering how their "standard-lord" had fared -- a pretty great sexual pun if you ask me. And! And their embarrassed coughing to let him know of their presence.

A friend of mine named Judith collects Judith & Hol. pictures and reproductions. We've talked about having a decapitation-themed bellydance troupe. (I was supposed to be Salome.)

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Like the concept, but I need more time to understand why.

Always been fascinated with decapitation. My first paper in grad school was about decapitation in Gawain and the Green Knight, and it also says something about Judith, and I did another on John the Baptist. For your entertainment and my embarrassment I am emailing them to you forthwith.

When thou seest in the pathway a severed head,
Which is rolling towards our field,
Ask of it, ask of it, the secrets of the heart:
For of it thou wilt learn of our hidden mystery--Rumi, Arberry trans.

Lose your head!

Rachel Roberts said...

Somebody should write a science fiction novel about headless people, I say.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Yes, nonfictional heedlessness is insufficient! Brings to mind Munchausen's (post-human) Lunarians: "When they grow old they do not die, but turn into air, and dissolve like smoke! As for their drink, they need none; the only evacuations they
have are insensible, and by their breath. They have but one finger upon each hand, with which they perform everything in as perfect a manner as we do who have four besides the thumb. Their heads are placed under their right arm, and when are going to travel, or about any violent exercise, they generally leave them at home, for they can consult them at any distance; this is a very common practice; and when those of rank
or quality among the Lunarians have an inclination to see what's going forward among the common people, they stay at home, _i.e._, the body stays at home, and sends the head only, which is suffered to be present _incog._, and return at pleasure with an account of what has passed" (

Karl Steel said...

Nicola and Eileen, wonderful, wonderful (and, knowing Robert Olen Butler only from ALK's winning a prize with his name on it and from his being mocked on Gawker, it's good to hear of this). And Irina and Jeffrey, I read the OE Judith, forthwith. I've taught the Biblical one and know the not very exciting ME version. Irina, for your friend's collection, here's a link to picture of my own painting of the Judith story, done during a very boring summer in NYC 2000 (back when I was capable of boredom...).

Finally, combining two things I like--death metal and animal art--I present for your delectation: Hatebeak, a death metal band with a parrot for a lead singer. Warning on link: loud.

Alphée Ilinx said...

On the relation between the praying mantis and Judith: the surrealists made this connection. Michel Leiris, for example, alludes to it in his autobiographical text L'Age d'homme, in which he writes of castrating female figures. He uses the portrait of Judith by Cranach as illustrative.