From an essay published in The Paris Review
When I consider the neck, the first things that spring to mind are guillotines, beheadings, executions. Which does seem a little strange, since we live in a country where executions do not take place, there are no guillotines, and beheading is thus an entirely marginal phenomenon in the culture. Nevertheless, if I think neck, I think, chop it off.
This may simply be because the neck leads a hidden existence in the shadow of the face, that it never assumes a place of privilege in our thoughts about ourselves, and only enters the stage in these most extreme situations which, though they no longer occur in our part of the world, still proliferate in our midst, given the numerous decapitations in fiction. But I think it runs deeper than that. The neck is a vulnerable and exposed part of the body, perhaps the most vulnerable and exposed, and our experience of this is fundamental, even without a sword hanging over us. In this sense, it is related to the fear of snakes or crocodiles, which may as well appear in people living on the Finnmarksvidda plateau as in Central Africa, or for that matter, the fear of heights, which can lie dormant in people who have never seen anything other than plains and sand dunes, lowlands and swamps, fields and meadows.
Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive. There are other vulnerable parts of the body, the heart being perhaps the most obvious, but when I think of the heart, I don’t think of it being pierced by a javelin or a spear or a bullet; that would be absurd. No, the heart fills me with thoughts of life and force, and if vulnerability and fear are involved, it is no more than a mild concern that one day it will simply stop beating. This must be because the heart belongs to the front of the body, the front we turn to the world, and always keep in check, since we can see what lies ahead of us, we can see what is coming, and take our precautions. The heart feels safe. That the neck is in fact just as safe, since we live in a world where people no longer carry swords, makes no difference to the feeling of vulnerability, it is archaic and closely linked to the fact that the neck belongs to the reverse side of the body, it is always turned toward what we cannot see and cannot control. The fear of everything we cannot see converges on the neck, and if in earlier times it used to be associated with physical violence, the most pressing association now is its figurative sense, which lives on in the social realm, in expressions like being attacked from the rear, getting it in the neck, watch your back, having eyes in the back of your head, being spoken about behind your back.
But the symbolic language that radiates from or the associations that converge on the neck, are not only about being struck, that is, being a passive victim of a surprise attack, or having something taken away from you, but also the opposite, where vulnerability is something that is offered. When we wish to show someone respect or to be polite, we bow to them, in other words, we expose our neck. It is a way of showing trust, and of giving something of yourself to the other, in an ancient system of differentiation where, in face of the supreme, you not only make a deep and sweeping bow, as to a king or other dignitaries, but kneel and lower your head to the ground, as you would before an altar or on a prayer mat. The gesture is humble, self-surrendering, it means laying your life in the hands of others. [Read More]
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