Winter 2001–2002

Two Postcards

Head to head

Aris Fioretos

A postcard from the Indian colonies. In May 1783, a boy was bor­n in the village of Mundul Gait in Bengal. His parents were poor farmers who needed every male offspring the Creator was good enough to provide for the arduous work in the fields. Immediately after the birth, however, the mother let out a terrifying scream and threw the lon­ged-for son into the fire. Once the boy had been saved from the flames, it was discovered not only that one of his eyes and one of his ears had been hurt, but also that he had been born with two heads. Perched at an angle on top of the head that graced his neck was an upside-down double that quietly and detachedly gazed at the sky. Both faces proved to be fully developed, with black curls on the forehead, with ears, eyes­, nose and mouth, but it was only in the main head’s mouth that a tongue moved, slippery and wet. Other than that, the only difference between the two heads was the neck-like stump with which the upper one ended. According to an observer, it was reminiscent of “a small peach.” Despite sharing the frontal lobe, and therefore communicating with each other, the two craniums were separate vessels. If the former face shut its eyes, the latter could keep its open; if one sniffed at an object, the other could turn its nose up; and when face no. 1 was suckled at the mother’s breast, face no. 2 could make a grimace which was benevolently interpreted as a smile. The parents quickly realized that they could earn more money showing their son in public than having him watch the field back home. Pale and thin, marked by illness, and swaddled in sheets, “the two-headed boy from Bengal” spent four years as an anthropological freak at his parents’ service. Accompanied by his father or mother, he visited families of the privileged classes, arousing the masters’ pity and the servants’ terror—as the piles of money in his parents’ outstretched palms grew higher and higher. During one of these visits, the mother left the son alone for a moment. She wanted to fetch some water and would only be gone a few minutes. When she returned the boy was dead, bitten by a cobra. The religious parents believed in fate and refused to let British representatives of scientific enlightenment perform an autopsy on the boy. Instead they made use of their savings and gave their son a decent burial outside the town of Tamluk. But a certain Mr. Dent, agent for the East India Company, plundered the grave one night, dissected the decomposing corpse and gave the head to a colleague who was about to sail for Europe. After arriving in England, the skull eventually ended up at the Hunterian Museum, whose curators lamented that “men of observation” had not had the opportunity to study the case. Through examination, it was established that the boy had possessed two complete brains, which most likely would have had some bearing on his “intellectual abilities.” A latter-day colleague has commented that if the child had been living in Bengal today, it would have been simple to separate the two heads and enable him to live a relatively normal life—“at least if the legal status of the parasitical head, which seems to have given some signs of independent life, could have been established.” Anyone who has ever paused at the exhibit in the Hunterian Museum that contains this misbegotten younger brother of Athena will have been visited by the same sad thought: Was the extra head ever asked what it felt and thought for i­tself—this co-pilot with his gaze fixed faithfully on the stars in the heavens? With what right is a navigational instrument of that order denied soul and independence? Does it really suffice to point out the obvious: that its body ends below the neck? A being need not lack dreams about life just because its feet are not planted firmly on the ground. Who can say what synergies two communicating craniums are capable of?

Skull of the two-headed boy from Bengal. Courtesy The Hunterian Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons of England.

A postcard from the Empire. Perhaps Edward Mordake drew the logical conclusion of a life one can never look clearly enough in the eye. He was of aristocratic stock, had a handsome appearance, akin to that of Antinous, and a considerable musical talent. Moreover, his parents possessed a large fortune and had, at least initially, a sizeable social circle. Just about everything was in young Mordake’s favor. Perhaps too much, for a century after the two-headed boy was bitten by a snake in one of the colonies, Mordake was born in the cradle of the British Empire—with two faces turned away from each other. It is said that on the back of his head was another face, that of a beautiful girl, “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil.” Independently of what the frontal face was doing, the extra pair of eyes in the back of his head could stare malevolently and mouth no. 2 would often sneer, even if Mordake was just whispering something to himself or remaining silent, hidden behind shee­t music or absorbed in some general’s memoirs. His “devil twin,” as he called the extra face, “never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in hell.” For some reason—whether of hereditary wickedness or intergenerational conceit—his forefathers had knit him “to this fiend—for a fiend it surely is. I beg and beseech you,” Mordake implored his two physicians, Messrs Manvers and Readwell, “to crush it of human semblance, even if I die for it.” In the end, this latter-day Janus became so self-conscious about his dual nature that he locked himself away and refused to meet even members of his own family. The accounts differ as to how he ended his life. According to one source, Mordake managed to escape the watchful eyes of his physicians and procure poison, whereof he died, leaving a letter requesting that his “demon face” be destroyed before his burial, “lest it continues its dreadful whisperings in my grave.” According to another, the 23-year-old simply took his own life with a bullet in the back of his head—right between the eyes…

Translated by Tomas Tranæus

Aris Fioretos has published several books of fiction and essays in his native Sweden. The translator of Paul Auster, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Vladimir Nabokov, his last book to appear in English was The Gray Book (Stanford University Press, 1999). He is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

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