At the height of the French Revolution, with a guillotine about to chop off his head, scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier prepared for his final experiment: following the decapitation, he would attempt to blink his eyes. If he were successful, there would be strong evidence that death from beheading was not instantaneous.
The blade fell. Lavoisier blinked. Repeatedly.
This story is a popular legend (discussed in glorious detail in Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), but in 1883 Dr. Dassy D’Estaing offered this observation:
“After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.”
This morbid bit of trivia, in conjunction with another factoid (“In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute”), creates a macabre tableau for author Robert Olen Butler. Each story in his collection Severance imagines the final words—the final 240 words, to be exact—of a freshly severed head.
Many of history’s famously beheaded are here: Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, John the Baptist, and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier himself. Lesser-known figures are also represented, including a man from pre-history who had a bad run-in with a saber-toothed tiger, a Vietnamese guerrilla leader, and an Alabama chicken destined for the dinner table.
The premise behind the book is gruesome, though the stories themselves are not. The final thoughts of the characters are not about death but about life, about memories of family, of food, of work, of lovers. Butler relays these thoughts in his inimitable prose, which is so lovely and lyrical that it stretches the definition of “prose.” I think it’s safe to call it poetry. I can’t describe it, so I’ll let Butler’s words speak for themselves with two excerpts:
“I lick the air and again and one of these I eat is before me just a dashy-run across the way I ask my center if it wants this bit more and I rise and I rush and this one looks not soft but glinty…” (from the final thoughts of a dragon, beheaded by St. George in the year 301)
“I see the evil one as I have never seen him before, complacent in a meadow beneath the sun his scaled body the color of a toad his breath a faint hiss in the air wisps of smoke rising like morning mist about him” (from the final thoughts of St. George, beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303)
Check the WRL catalog for Severance