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Severed Head Capable of Sin?

Severed Head Capable of Sin?

The power in Anselm Kiefer’s images is rivalled by his writings on nature and history, literature and antiquity, and mysticism and mythology. The first volume of his Notebooks spans the years 1998–1999 and traces the origins and creative process of Kiefer’s visual works during this period. The entries unmask the process by which his artworks are informed by his reading—and vice versa—and track the development of the works he created in the late 1990s. The diaries reveal Kiefer’s strong affinity for language and let readers witness the process of ideas, experiences and adventures slowly transcending the limits of art, achieving meaning in and beyond their medium.

Given below is an excerpt from Notebooks Volume I: 1998-1999 translated by Tess Lewis. This particular section sheds light on Kiefer’s thoughts surrounding revolutions, execution by guillotine and more.

Image on right: Anselm Kiefer at La Ribaute, his property in southern France. Credit:Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times

11.55 A.M. read in the history of great revolutions, especially about those that involved regicide. it’s interesting to see what sophistry was used to decapitate the king. it wasn’t easy, so people had to put in some mental effort to reach the desired conclusion. the intellectual processes are marvellous, like the purely intellectual motions in paul valéry’s monsieur teste. it’s just that these beautiful movements of mind caused blood to be shed. are they even more beautiful for that?

what’s particularly interesting is how things are turned around with effective sophistry: the king’s defendant de sèze pointed to the exceptional status of the king, the immunity guaranteed in the constitution. sacredness of the king.



yet exactly this, the king’s sanctity, is used as an argument for sending him to the guillotine. because when the revolution replaces an absolute king through regicide, it itself becomes an absolute (the highest being).

robespierre: through his inviolability, the king had removed himself from the register of the citizens. he therefore cannot be tried in an ordinary court of law. his very crimes make it impossible for him to be considered an ordinary citizen.

once again robespierre on 3/12/1792. the king denounced the people of france as rebels. but victory and the people of france have determined that the king is the rebel and from this it follows that the king need not be tried, he has already been condemned. for as long as the king was not condemned, the republic could not be absolved. someone must be the rebel and that is the king. it is not necessary to render a verdict for or against a person, but to act in the public’s interest.

all these deliberations can be read as purely intellectual operations, as hair-splitting sophistry. and those are always the most real, the deepest and wisest deliberations. one must simply examine whether or not they are more wonderful when seen in connection with their actual consequences. it’s probably the case that, in absence of the guillotine, this hair-splitting would lose its importance. does the guillotine make these deliberations more beautiful or more ugly? one thing is certain: that no one would have taken any notice of them, they probably wouldn’t have been recorded if they hadn’t had ‘ultimate’ consequences for someone. human blood makes thoughts more permanent. heroes, stars, mythical figures are more easily created when the ultimate ‘finality’ is involved. see evita, diana, james dean . . . if human blood is at risk, the outcome is different. it also has to do with the tradition of sacrifice. in some places, there is still the custom of burying at least a dog or a cat in the foundation of a house when laying the cornerstone. the sacrifice of a living creature is meant to assist the successful building of the house. the jews then replaced such sacrifice, human sacrifice, with intellectualized sacrifice. men initially used an animal then later said that wine represented blood. and so completely intellectualized or not? after all, wars were fought over the meaning of the words ‘represent’ and ‘is’, so here, too, blood is central. just as the great revolution believed blood had to play a central role, even the most purely intellectual constructs are bound to the more primitive, to the full-blooded, despite the fact that the guillotine was meant to introduce a more humane and faster method of execution, one as fast as the speed of thought, if you will.


12.25 P.M. still on the great revolution, the transference of sanctity from the king to the people, to the revolution.

louis XVI: in france, the nation does not constitute a separate body, it is represented only in the person of the king. that is, the phantasmagoric identification of an abstraction with a person. the king not only represents the state symbolically, the king is the state. state and king are identical.



the monarch represents an incarnation of the nation. and this earthly presence makes the monarchical mystery appear intimately related to the eucharist. the execution of the king is meant to annul this.

louis must die because the fatherland must live.

the king’s power was invested with a supernatural legitimization. that in turn legitimized the destruction of his body.

this body attains monstrous dimensions at the moment when the regenerated nation casts it out of its community.

the execution of the king is a ceremonial sacrifice, a baptismal ceremony.

on this republicans and royalists agree.

pope pius VI on 17/6/1793: we are confident that he has exchanged the fragile fleur-de-lis for the lily crown of eternity that the angels have woven for him.


because the king was not put to death by an executioner but by a machine—the guillotine—two things happened: on the one hand, the sanctity of the king was transferred to the machine; on the other, the two polarities were unbound, namely, sovereignty and sentence. for executioners and kings were always associated. the transfer of the terror to a machine enacted the spectacle of reason made law.


the guillotine is a simple device, built out of simple geometric forms: rectangle, triangle, circle. instruments of torture, by contrast, are complicated. execution as enacting the law of gravity and geometry, i.e. symbolizing reason.

French Engraving, “Day of 21 January 1793 the death of Louis Capet on the Place de la Révolution.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

the brothers goncourt: the scientific observer sees the guillotine as a horizontal plane raised several feet above the ground on which have been erected two perpendiculars separated by a right-angled triangle that falls through a circle onto a sphere and gives it a secant.

d.f.: universal application of an abstract law that ensures an ordered and orderly society.

marat: the head of the tyrant has fallen under the sword of the law . . . the people seemed filled with a serene joy: as though they were taking part in a religious ceremony.


as an instrument of mob justice, the guillotine claims the sovereignty it stripped from the king when the blade dropped. this reversal of power (the blade’s fall) is all the more striking in that

it occurs in an instant imperceptible to the eye. the secrecy inherent in the sacred. (pp. 76–7 in daniel arasse: the guillotine and the terror.)

p. 79: report of the execution with exact timing.

See Also

p. 83: the execution of the king gave rise to a new ideology: the body of the people.


the behaviour of the people should therefore determine the theory’s Truth.


p. 84: the assembly and the place de la révolution are two different Planes.

the metaphor: the sword of law and the guillotine are not the same because, in that moment, when the king’s blood not only waters ‘the furrows’ but is actually shed on the place of execution, it changes its nature. as soon as the king’s head has fallen, the crowds push forward, dip their hands, pikes, sabres and bits of cloth in his blood. some even hawk locks of his hair and pieces of his clothing. an englishman sends a handkerchief dipped in the king’s blood to london, where it is hoisted on the tower as a flag. others dip envelopes in his blood and skewer them onto their sabres.

recollection of a lecture on the ‘logical second’ in criminal law: the priest gives the executioner the signal to proceed immediately after absolution has been given, so that the condemned could not sin in the instant between absolution and execution. d.j. a sequence of events that happen so close to one another that there is no question of intervening time, although they do, theoretically, occur one after the other. assuming then that the condemned has an understandable desire for revenge against his executioner, which he doesn’t abandon even in the face of death, the absolution must therefore be granted in the very last moment so that there is no time between the absolution and the fall of the blade. the blade’s fall must also happen in a ‘logical second’


because as the blade falls (after the confessor has given the executioner the signal), there is still enough time, even if only a fraction of a second, to think of revenge. not enough for an entire thought, but the incipient thought could be sufficiently formed in the time it takes for the blade to speed down. the prisoner may not have ended his vengeful thought while the priest grants absolution, but could have sustained it through the sacrament and up until his head was severed. and even a severed head could think of revenge, as the head is apparently still alive for a certain time after it has been cut off. that’s why they had the heads drop into baskets filled with sawdust, to lessen the pain caused by the drop onto the hard surface. whether or not a severed head is still capable of sinning is, therefore, a theological question to be settled.


Published by Seagull Books in July, 2019

ISBN: 9780857427045

Pages: 482

Size: 5″ x 8″

Format: Paperback

*Feature image: Les Reines de France by Anselm Kiefer; Image credit: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Anonymous Gift, 1997

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