Judith/Holofernes (2016). Text, published online by Montez Press Interjection Calendar
Your neck is like an ivory tower
-Song of Solomon, 7:4
Folds of cotton emerge from fall into pools of blood, their edges already starting to brown where the blood is drying. In the corner of the bed, where it all took place, a nameless scrap of flesh, unidentifiable as exterior or interior, skin or inner matter, sitting limply on the sheet. Pink, grotty scrap, what could be described as a chunk, with a ratty tail laced with fat and sinew.
A pool of blood so deep it cannot yet begin to dry. There is a meniscus of fat that floats atop it, a membrane starting to coagulate, as the sheet emerges in a deep fold the pool thins and the blood is drying here, crusting into a rusted scab fused into cotton. A slow drip, drip, that is becoming more langorous as the blood begins to thicken. It will be syrupy now, thick globs of oozing liquid slowly creeping down the sheet and onto the floor.
Pain is transmitted from the body to the head. The wounded body does not feel pain until the head tells the body it feels pain. The twanging nerves are taut and elastic.
The bloody topography of the wound. Directly below the chin, the skin extends lower, it hangs in a curtain of meat like some ridiculous, fleshy beard. At the base of the skull, the line becomes more hacked still, and the hair is now matted with drying blood. The limp weight of the swollen tongue protrudes from the mouth like a slab of steak. Pupils have become milky. They are thickened, jellied globes of water. Milky, bluing, as though dipped in a greying pus. Still shiny, but horribly so, a sheen of stagnation, of the beginning of decay.
Ear lobes are so soft, so warm, little pendants of flesh, sweet little pads you want to press and squeeze and cherish. Gobbets of skin, a soft downiness like a peach. Now cold, and hardened as though frozen from within.
Your neck is like an ivory tower. A shaft of veins and arteries and tendons and ligaments and thorax and sinew and muscle and bone. Your neck is like an ivory tower, necking atop a doric column, a solid structure for supporting the head, the neck must never waiver.
The necks and clod is a tough cut, it requires simmering over time in order to tenderise. The muscles and tendons are thick and well developed to support the weight of the head. The problem, as Margaret Atwood says, is not the head or the body, the problem is the neck, which implies an inherent separation between the two.
We leave the body, pathetic truncated trunk, frills of meat around a sawn off spinal column. Protruding knob of bone. The rubbery walls of the arteries have a texture like calamari. Everything is red, puddles of blood with slugs of flesh floating in them. The body is pathetic, shuddering, the neck is severed, flagging, half attached to the body and half to the head. Puddles of red are gathering on the floor and you are drenched in it.
The bloodied sheets are drying, but the wound is still wet, you wonder if it will ever dry out. A crusty load of scab is formed when fibrogen is converted to fibrin, a mesh is knitted over the wound, and particulate matter, dead cells and platelets, become trapped. Will this wound become crust, or will it remain raw, a cold, wet slab of meat.
You set up the camera at the foot of the bed. A cheap divan, blue brocade stretched over its thin wood skeleton, and topped with a sagging mattress. No headboard, which has proved a blessing, for you’re able to get a clear shot. Still, it’s a pathetic setting, with none of the sumptuousness required, so you set to work transforming it into the resting place of a victorious king.
He lies, in the painting, on what appears to be a stack of mattresses, each one sheathed in an excess of gauzy cotton. It would seem that for royalty, one mattress is never enough: think of the Princess and the pea, a body falling into piles and piles of cushiony warmth, luxuriant pillowiness, sinking heavily into infinite softness. You look again at the springed mattress, with its dip in the centre from age and use. You test it again, sit on its edge and bounce up and down. Creak, creak, creak. It may sink under the weight of a body, but it does so with a groan, an exhale of stale breath under the pressure. No matter, you say to yourself. I can create the illusion of luxury: all that matters is appearance.
You have, happily, a number of bed sheets that are of similar hue. And so you apportion two sheets to the head of the mattress, three to the divan itself. You gather the fabric in folds and pleats, then staple it secure on the mattress at a point where it would not be seen from the camera’s angle. The same is then done on the base below. What is key, is creating the sense of rolls of fabric far exceeding that which is required for the mattress(es), sheets twice the size–no, three times, why not?–because he is ROYAL, he is a VICTOR, with no need of trifling economies. You cannot afford to buy the required red velvet blanket, but no matter, for there are deep burgundy velvet curtains in the local charity shop. He on the other hand rolls around in acres of soft lawn cotton, swathes himself in red velvet. He must die.
You are concerned, you say, that this becomes a two dimensional gesture. Gentileschi was reclaimed as a feminist icon, and this painting her most renowned. Why? Perhaps there is the connection to her earlier rape at the hands of Tassi, and the fact that she painted the first version almost directly afterwards. Many people claim this to be a reactionary gesture. Anger at her powerlessness! A desire to reclaim power over a man in the space of a bedroom! What a simplified, two dimensional reading. As xxx says, little is made of the fact that Caravaggio had just killed a man before he painted his version of the scene: little is made of what his personal stake in the depiction could be. But for Gentileschi, a woman, her treatment of a subject could of course only be related to–and read through–the prism of the personal. And so the myth becomes a cartoon of misandry, a caricatured feminist who is simply wishing a violent death to all men. The feminist becomes a parody, a clichéd tool to be deployed by the hands of patriarchy.
But no, it is not for this reason that you are drawn to her.
It is her hands, you mutter to yourself, as you throw the curtain onto the bed, folding the plastic hooks underneath to conceal them. Not the plump, puddingy little hands of other Renaissance women, with pudgy little sausage fingers tapering to fine needle points. No, not those fat little hands painted by a man who fetishized idleness. Gentileschi knew the effort it would take to cleave off a head. Those hands, those white-knuckled fists, not clenched in anger but in dogged determination.
And more than her hands, there is nothing fey or retiring about her. She’s a large woman, thickset but not doughy or soft. Muscular arms and a goiterous neck. The solidity of her neck is in contrast to that of Holofernes, now cleaved open, with thin spurts of blood that limply spray the room. He may be massive, but she is equally a match for him. You wonder if Abra even need be there. Judith could have done this alone.
As for yourself, the difficulty encountered when trying to hit a nail with a hammer is a perfect example of your present issue: that you have always found the combination of speed and precision to be impossible to master. Two swings, is what it says in the Book of Judith. Two swift blows to the neck, decisive, precise. You have always found the combination of speed and precision impossible to master, but this neck must be severed.
Necking: a short plain concave section between the capital and the shaft of a classical Doric or Tuscan column. The neck is a column, your neck is an ivory tower says the Song of Solomon. A shaft of vessels, tendons and bone, a thick, ringed thorax at its front and a knobbed spine to the rear.
You press the sword against his neck. No distance, no swing, the blade is right next to the flesh when you begin. The blade edge is smooth, and indents the skin without gaining purchase. You take it away, a thin line of depression where it was sitting, but no blood has drawn. Can you swing from a distance and hit this point? Smooth blade pressed against smooth skin, indenting without gaining purchase. Surely you will have to swing it, requiring, alas, precision and speed.
You think about cutting bread: a serrated blade would be better. Each tooth bites into an entry point, creates a tiny wound: a serrated blade makes a line of needle points in the surface of this fat neck. Then as you would drag the blade across the skin, each point would be ripped open into a gash. But the sword edge is all there is. The sword edge and a fat, cartiligenous thorax.
You press your hands into his skin. The necks and clod is a tough cut, it requires slow simmering in order to tenderise. The muscles and tendons are thick and well-developed from need to support the head, so the meat is rich with flavour. The problem, as Margaret Atwood says, is not the head, or the body. The problem is the neck, which implies an inherent separation between the two.
The role of the biological, the role of the body, assigned to the woman. Alberti: man is head of the household, woman is the body. Irigiray wrote that ‘while man has a spiritual and natural reference as he becomes a man, woman no longer belongs except biologically.’ Man is the head: woman is the body. Man is the parapet, woman is the foundation, and the neck is the column that separates the two. There must be a way out of this architecture created by the neck.
As you look up at the camera, an internal question: what kind of knife is used to carve meat? A carving-knife is, in fact, a razor-sharp blade with no serrations: so the sword should be perfect for the job. You press the sword against his neck, again. A thin line of red drops appears, like a paper cut. This can only be carried out through a slicing motion, sawing through flesh and bone and sinew and cartilage and the sharp twang of nerve endings.
So you push the blade away from you, and it goes in deep, about an inch. You have read that when cutting flesh, the knife goes in like butter. Yet this is not the case at all. The rubbery yet fibrous texture of flesh holds slightly more resistance, more elasticity and rebound, than the smoothness of butter. You pull the blade back towards you whilst pressing down and it goes in deeper, but the wound does not continue quite in a straight line. There is a small snag where the cuts do not quite line up, a little tail of flayed skin like dog-eared wrapping paper.
The painting shows this point at the beginning, when he is still conscious, and so you look to the camera and pause your movements. Your elbows have been bent, so you straighten them and try to match her stance. It doesn’t matter that you do not have an Abra in this case, you tell yourself. After all, you repeat, Judith could have done it alone.
Soon, the cotton bed linen matches the deep red of the velvet curtain. The thin spits of blood in the painting were a lie: blood gushes out in pulsing waves, spraying everywhere. Puddles are gathering on the floor, and you are drenched in it. Judith has a few dignified spots across her sumptuous gown: she holds him at arms length to keep her deportment intact. You have not managed such a dignified execution.
Pain is transmitted from the body to the head. Cut through the twanging threads of neurons and cut through the pain, remove the pain. The wriggling body yearns to be separate. The nerves are elastic, taut, the sharp tension of a violin string.
A wounded body is not a body in pain until the head tells the body that it is in pain. Still, as Jean-Luc Nancy says, ‘it makes no sense to talk about body and thought apart from each other, as if they could somehow subsist on their own: they are only their touching each other, the touch of their breaking down, and into each other.’ It is not simply that the body needs the head, the head needs the body: the body is the head and the head is the body. As though the two could ever be separate, apart.
You have started not at the front of the neck, but at a slight angle. When you hit the thorax he emits a hideous sound of gargling blood, a deep-seated animal shudder of pain. It is not a scream, it is too low for a scream. There is not the piercing desperation of a scream, no sense of a call that asks help me! In fact this noise does not seem to ask anything at all, as though he has accepted his fate, he has relinquished to this drawn-out end.
You do not imagine he experiences the pain locally or discretely. Which is to say, you cannot imagine it feels like a searing line of pain that matches with the cut of the blade. You push it away from you again, but it does not travel as deeply, for now you are reaching the thickest part of the neck. No, probably not a line of pain but instead an overwhelming wash, a wave of hot anguish in the general area of the neck–perhaps across the whole body–as nerves are cut and start firing wildly, pain that completely engulfs and overwhelms. That is what it sounds like, this guttural choking noise, a body that cannot do anything except experience and endure this pain. You continue sawing, and at some point, the cries stop.
Until this point you have been moving back and forth in broad strokes. You pause, so that the camera can get a clear shot. Then go back to slicing in broad strokes; once you hit the spine, it becomes more frantic, you move the blade faster and suddenly you are out the other side, resistance has stopped, and you almost keep going through to the bed.
Little desire to show the pathetic body left on the bed. The head is all that matters, we sever the head, we take the head, we leave the body, pathetic truncated trunk, frills of meat around the sawn-off spinal column. A knob of bone, blade marks testament to the difficulty of cutting through it.
They are both redundant, now. The red of the velvet is hidden now, everything is red, puddles of blood with slugs of flesh floating in them. The body is pathetic, shuddering, a quivering mass of flesh with no purpose, sprawled on the bed, leaking fluids quietly. The neck is severed, flagging: half attached to the body, and half to the neck. Will this wound become crust, or will it remain raw, a cold, wet slab of meat, oozing into the bed.