Back of the head

In the days before Christmas, I was walking around the streets of San Telmo in the search for an interesting present. I’d already visited my favorite bookshops, and was ambling without fixed purpose. A number of interesting objects had caught my eye — a catalogue of marvelous invented creatures, a miniature statue of a greyhound — but none was quite unusual enough to purchase. I was about to return home when a man across the street called my name. He’d set up an easel with large pages clipped up, in the manner of those who sell caricatures. But these faces were like none I’d ever seen before. Hair covered the flesh and holes on the oval where eyes and mouth should be. The heads, I realized, were in reverse.

“What’s this?” I asked. I recognized him now; he was one of the bourgeois homini novi that roamed our streets in the new political age, lucid and entrepreneurial. And yet there was something restless and unsettled about him which I found compelling. “I draw the back of my clients’ heads instead of the front,” he explained. “The idea is to give them a sense of the uncanny. Everyone is used to seeing their own face in the mirror and whatever is in their field of vision, which for the average human being encompasses an angle of about 70 degrees. But the back of the head holds the curious status of being a part of oneself not often thought about. Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t have one of those mirrors you can hold up to examine that part of the body, it remains invisible. Yes, imagining the back of your own head is a highly unsettling activity — try it.”

I didn’t have to. Once I lived in an apartment with a mirror in the elevator that reflected the back of my head, not once but multiple times. It was so strange I took to looking at the ground or ceiling as I rose through the floors. Now that I had heard his spiel I began to move off; it was a warm day and a stall selling cool lime juice attracted me. But he stopped me with a strange insistence. “Wait. Hear me out. I want you to understand.”

“When I became aware of the unsettling quality of the back of the head, I began to attend crowded public places such as football stadiums and cinemas. Soon, however, I realized it was not the phenomenon en vivo that interested me, but its representation. This has to do with my theory of the universe. No, don’t go please! Just one minute more. History appears to be in a process of transition from the period of magic, when people were interested in mythical beasts and enchanting rites, to a purely rational reality. In the meantime the symbolic remains present, but does so in a way that is at times detached, at times hidden, at times ironic.”

“The strangeness that results from examination of the back of the head moves one to a certain reverential attitude toward all that lies beyond the visible, opening another spatial perspective that gives a clue to the unseen. The moment we become conscious it’s there, we’re able to reflect on another dimension of existence and access something distinct from everyday reality. Its study allows us to fill the represented world once more with gods, through the radicality of aesthetic presence transmitted through vision. The problem of the back of the head is the negative of the problem of irony, and is located at the very location where any such debate might take place (the head enclosing the mind). In this period on the threshold of pure logos, I see the examination of the back of the head as an antidote to the plague of the posturing, detached way in which moderns use their symbols.”

I wasn’t sure if the man was mad or brilliant. Although I was tempted to show him the back of my own head and just leave, something retained me. He continued: “I knew I must not be the first one in history to realize this, so I began to systematically track the history of images of the back of the head, which appear in painting, cinema, photography, theater. The recurring image of the cabeza en verso, which nearly always has a startling effect, appears in the work of all cultures and there is something beautiful about this non-specificity. People may differ in whether they choose to wear dashiki or three-piece-suits, eat pani puri or croissants. But they all share this same strange part of the body. Developing this iconology of the back of the head has occupied my time for the past three years. To make a living I dedicate myself to creating the image of the back of the head for others, as portents. There’s only one problem. I’ve never had the courage to look at an image of the back of my own head. The very thought frightens me to an absurd degree. It’s probably no more than a few wisps of hair surrounding a bald spot, and yet I keep wondering — what secrets might it be hiding? What will I feel when I see it?”

I edged away slowly. He watched me go, his eyes thoughtful and melancholy. On the way toward the subway entrance I saw a table full of interesting round hats, soft, floppy, and colorful, but for some reason it made me feel a little queasy to see them all there piled up in a heap.

Image by Varsha Singh.

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.

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