Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Painted Head” involves an issue central to Ransom: the separation between reason and sensibility. The head’s separation from the body is described as “dark severance”—a sinister act of violence that makes this head appear ghostlike. The speaker believes this head illustrates the instinct of heads (reason) to cut themselves off from the “body bush” (sensibility), which they consider inferior.
The happiest heads are those remaining “married” to their bodies. In this typical Ransom conceit, these heads represent individuals able to maintain a balance of reason and sensibility (in Ransom’s terms, science and beauty). Having remained unknown, these “housekeeping heads” are not tracked by “historian headhunters” (a typical play on words). More highly developed ironic sense and puckish pleasure in punning are seen as the speaker returns to the painted head. The “capital” irony is that an artist (not comprehending the head’s treasonous ambitions) has “abstracted” this head from its body. The action is “capital” in two senses: It is the height of irony, and the artist has decapitated the portrait’s subject, “unhoused” this head from its body. (For Ransom, abstraction is the worst effect of science’s increasing dominance over art.) The conceit is carried to its logical conclusion: Cut off from its body, the head becomes a skull, sometimes called a death’s head. Separation brings the head, not immortality, but...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Painted Head Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!