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A Severed Head Awakes

(Photo by Leigh Johnson)

Ever since her death by guillotine in 1793, writers have been sticking their hands up inside Marie Antoinette’s bloody stump to use her pretty head as a puppet, shaping her one way or another. For a long time her depictions fell squarely in either the “devil” or “saint” camps, but since Lady Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography in 2001, the overwhelming tendency has been to portray the young queen as an innocent girl caught up in a gilded world and doomed by forces beyond her comprehension or control. And so it is in the glut of new Antoinette idolatries found in bookstores and movie theaters.

Antoinette makes a brief appearance in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s new collection of prose poems, Severance. The inspiration for the book comes from two bits of trivia: (1) that a head removed from its body remains conscious for 90 seconds, and (2) that in a heightened state of emotion a person speaks at a rate of 160 words per minute. Butler did the morbid math and began writing poems exactly 240 words long — the maximum number of words a head could speak once severed — each affiliated with a person from history or myth who was beheaded: Cicero, John the Baptist, Jayne Mansfield, Medusa. Butler has lots of rhapsodic fun with his grisly conceit. His poems soar with ecstatic silliness. For Marie Antoinette, Butler conjures up an image of her as a pretty child in Austria, watching her parents share a loving kiss, in the carefree days before France’s “goose-flock of .?.?. courtiers and ladies-in-waiting” swept her up.

Sofia Coppola, a director who routinely demonstrates an inability to discern between aesthetics and personality, similarly portrays Antoinette as a winsome, vivacious and deeply sympathetic rich girl. But she has nothing on novelist Sena Jeter Naslund, who, in her new book, Abundance, shows a deep and possibly deluded affinity for Antoinette. For more than 500 pages, Naslund uses Antoinette’s first-person perspective to render her life in the most gentle, rose-tinted tones imaginable. In one scene, her reputation in tatters and in desperate need for some Sitrick and Co.–style spin control, Antoinette calls for her favorite artist, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, to paint a portrait of her as a loving mother and humble queen. Antoinette narrates the scene: “Your brush — as it creates me anew on the canvas, I feel almost that I am being licked, cared for, as a kitten would be by the mother cat.” It’s as if Naslund hopes that we, and history, will forget all evidence to the contrary.

Oddly enough, Naslund further strips the lavish royal of her great and well-documented love for fashion, presumably out of fear that it will be viewed as vanity. The grand poufs, yard-high towers of hair bedecked with “monkeys, jeweled flowers, carriages, a herd of cows, a sailing ship” are introduced as the idea of her hairdresser Leonard. When the king, her husband, teases her about a pouf, she simply says, “Headpieces have grown so tall .?.?. It is the style.” According to several historians, Antoinette was instrumental in implementing this bold fashion statement, and it’s a shame for it to be so marginalized here — not merely for historical reasons, but because it deprives her of agency. The novel fancies itself a tragedy, but a tragedy requires something more than passive interest on the part of the heroine.

Naslund’s Antoinette is a graceful, thoughtful, humble, kindhearted and liberal-minded woman, a lover of art and music who prefers Rousseau over diamonds and friendship over the gossip of the court. As she is led to her final prison cell, she insists, “I too have known very rich hours — not of opulence but of the spirit.” When she is offered a bejeweled necklace, she demurs, “I decline again .?.?. I very much want a simple life.” Naslund lets Antoinette have her cake and eat it too: The queen lives a decadent, elite lifestyle, but she has the soul of a poet. The concept of the “noble noble” may be a seductive one, but it’s no less cloying and reductive as that of the “noble savage.”

Camille Paglia has recently written that “the return of Marie Antoinette suggests that there are political forces at work in the world that Western humanism does not fully understand.” In short, Antoinette’s privilege and luxury represent the Western world, and the French mob represents the forces of violence and frustration arrayed against it: Arab extremists, Venezuelan socialists and, in 2005, an actual French mob. If the queen embodies a beleaguered and privileged world, then our insistence on her basic humanity and inculpability is a kind of self-idolization, a nervous caress of our problematic lives. We are supposed to identify with the poor little rich girl, to fear the brutality of the savage masses, and to wish the rarefied dreamworld of Versailles could go on forever. Perhaps. But look where it got Antoinette.

ABUNDANCE | By SENA JETER NASLUND | HarperCollins | 560 pages | $27 hardcover

SEVERANCE | By ROBERT OLEN BUTLER | Chronicle | 264 pages | $23 hardcover


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