Losing Our Heads Over Decapitation

Beheadings seem to be all the rage these days so I started to think about  the famous Viennese composer Joseph Haydn, who was decapitated – after he died, of course – by his long time friend and associate, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum. This particularly heady act was done with the help of one Johann Nepomuk Peter and Rosenbaum’s female significant other, the famous Viennese Soprano Therese Gassmann. Lest we judge these high browed  perpetrators too harshly, decapitation back then was a vital research need for phrenology, the study of the relationship of cranial anatomy to mental acuity. As Haydn was a genius, it was hoped that his cranium would push the field of phrenology research, let us say, ahead.

Sixteen years later another group of nineteenth century wannabe neurobiologists tried the same stunt with Ludwig Van Beethoven. Although Beethoven never saw it coming, the attempt failed all the same; it seems that saner heads had, at the end of the day, prevailed.

Joseph Haydn, as well as his henchman and friend, Joesph Carl Rosenbaum, were sponsored by the eminent Esterhazy family, a major supporter of the famous Habsurg dynasty. An infamous heir to the Esterhay clan was Major Count Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, a French officer who in 1894 had offered highly classified military secrets to the Germans.  While this dubious French traitor was certainly a cad, he was no fool. The French Secret Police, upon learning of the transferred secrets, placed the blame on the hapless Alfred Dreyfus, causing the famous anti-Semitic divide in French society that had only several generations before rocked the world with a new sense of government and class justice during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is famous for many things, not the least of which is the perfection of the guillotine, a head severing device that was promoted for humane reasons by a pacifist medical doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The good doctor was actually a strong opponent of the death penalty, and had even argued as such before the French National Assembly. Being a pragmatist, however, he understood that in order to not lose his own scalp, it would be prudent to go with the flow but at the very least to make the punishment more, shall we say, amenable to the immediate ending of grey and white matter activity and thus all pain. Interestingly enough, Dr. Guillotine (I presume) – had the prescience to recruit for this task the German engineer Tobias Schmidt. Schmidt was an accomplished harpsichord craftsman as well and it is presumed his work enabled him to deliver the precise mechanism and action of the head losing blues machine.

Which brings us back to Haydn, whose early career was devoted to musical work for the harpsichord, as the newly created piano-forte was at the time just an amusing new quirk, a form of late eighteenth century avant-garde. Haydn’s burial place in Eisenstadt actually contains two skulls, Haydn’s and another that was placed in the composer’s decomposing state before Haydn’s real skull had been properly studied and logged and finally, returned. (It seems the pressures of publish or perish were even greater than today).  Readers that take the time to study the entire fantastical ruse of the Haydn skull hoax will no doubt surmise that the perpetrators should have had their heads examined as well.

Before being returned to its rightful owner, the real skull of Joseph Haydn was hidden in the straw mattress of his favorite Soprano, Therese Gassmann, Rosenbaum’s wife. Gassmann was also a favorite of Mozart’s nemesis, Saliere, a student of her father, Florian Leopold Gassmann. The elder Gassmann was a Bohemian opera composer whose claim to fame is the development of the operatic genre known as Dramma Gioco, whereby all things come to a dramatic and final climax, much as happens with a guillotine or a primitive beheading.

What is the moral of all of this? Beheadings have a long and fascinating history, of which I have only had the nerve to describe a short component; sometimes, no matter how misplaced, its intentions were noble, as in the case of the guillotine. Beheadings of live people, despite being gruesome, despicable, barbaric and awful, can often cause far less suffering than a bullet, a collapsed building, a crucifixion, being hit by bludgeoning shrapnel, torture or poison. Usually, decapitation provides for a far quicker and painless death.

Decapitation, with all its fearful and grotesque qualities, is simply not the worst evil in our world. In my humble opinion, the rape, torture and forced killings of one’s own population, as opposed to one’s enemies, is a far worse crime.  And yet, the world loses its collective mind over the Islamic State decapitations and finds common purpose with and sympathy for Hamas, a terrorist organization that places bombs and other weapons amongst its own women and children and holds them captive in a war zone under the threat of death. The Islamic State kills its enemies in a fashion that, truth be told, is not one of the most cruel forms of killing; Hamas kills  its very own under conditions of extreme and long lasting pain, fear and cruelty. It kills its enemies as well, in any fashion that suits. So, who is worse? Granted that the Islamic State is evil, but surely Hamas is the grand devil of all evil.

It must, therefore, be asked: why has the world correctly turned its fangs against the Islamic State while having hypocritically shown compassion and sympathy for Hamas? Personally, I just cannot get my head around it, but In the final analysis it seems to be all about advertising. Beheadings stir fear in the masses. Massacred children and women cause sympathy, a picture that creates emotional identification worldwide. Hamas is not only far more cruel and despicable than the Islamic State, it is far more shrewd. The Hamas kingpins are marketing geniuses. As such, it is my proposal to recruit the heads of Hamas (yes, double entendre intended) for a revival study of phrenology. For strictly academic purposes, of course…………………

About the Author
Asher Keren writes about science and philosophy, is an author and religious settler who has lived in Israel for over thirty years.
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