Her hair is perfectly styled, pinned up behind her with a huge flower. She wears a blazer, rests her chin on her left hand while her right hand holds a poised pen. In a perfectly proportioned composition, her head and right hand make two points of a triangle; the third, connected by the diagonal of her left arm, sits on the table in front of her: a human skull. The photograph by Ralph Crane from the May 22, 1944 edition of LIFE magazine explains itself in the caption:
“When he said goodbye two years ago to Natalie Nickerson…a big, handsome, Navy lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week Natalie received a human skull autographed by the lieutenant and 13 of his friends and inscribed: “This is a good Jap—a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo. The armed forces disapprove strongly of this sort of thing.”
The photograph seems to offer yet one more instance of man’s inhumanity to man from a war notable for its unparalleled destruction and brutality. The underlying rhetoric of racism that determined World War II is well known on all sides, including the differing American attitudes toward the Japanese and the Germans. As one marine told journalist John Hersey in 1943, “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are humans like us…But the Japs are animals.”
The collection of Japanese war trophies—which included various body parts, including skulls—was, by all accounts, endemic and uncontrollable. Charles Lindbergh noted numerous such instances in the diaries of his travels to the Pacific theatre: “It is the same everywhere I go,” he wrote. The problem was so widespread that when Lindbergh returned to the States, he was asked by customs officers—almost as a matter of course—if he was carrying any “human bones” in his luggage. Crane’s photo, appearing in one of the most popular magazines of the day, was only the most visible instance of a much deeper problem, one that was rooted in a long-standing program of propaganda that stretched back over a decade.
But the photograph from LIFE magazine stands out in its composition, which evokes the tableau of the memento mori, particularly Georges de La Tour’s Penitent Magdalen. De La Tour painted this subject at least four times, each painting composed slightly differently, but always the silent, contemplative woman gazing at a human skull.
Mary Magdalene was a popular image in Renaissance art, and, along with saints Jerome and Francis, was most commonly depicted with a human skull. The common story at the time was that Magdalene had been a prostitute before meeting Christ—a powerful narrative moment, as Magdalene is shown in De La Tour’s paintings contemplating her mortal, earthly ways. As she holds the skull, she repents, turns her back on this life with its inevitable death in favor of an immortal life with Christ.
Crane’s echo of De La Tour says a great deal about our relationship with death. In the Renaissance tradition of memento mori, the skull is that sudden and uncanny disruption, an alien presence that infects its surroundings with the taint of mortality. By nature anonymous, it is an abstract figure of death, not any particular individual’s remains. The tradition of memento mori is self-reflexive: one is meant to meditate not on the death of the skull’s owner but on one’s own death—the skull before the viewer is always and only the viewer’s skull.
But soldiers scalping their enemies’ bodies are not often thinking of their own deaths. In his novel The Thin Red Line, James Jones wrote of an “imagination problem,” the problem being that American soldiers were unable to imagine their own deaths. One critic describes a scene in which the soldiers of Charlie Company are confronted with a report of the desecration of a fellow soldier’s corpse, describing how “every soldier could imagine—but could not endure imagining—himself as that abject figure. And so each resorts to some mental strategy to magically forestall undergoing such a ritualized physical humiliation.” Most avoid the fear of death by resorting to an ever-increasing brutality. “Obviously,” one character remarks, “the only way really to survive in this world of humans called culture we had made and were so proud of, was to be more vicious, meaner and more cruel than those one met.” It is precisely in acts of savage brutality that these American soldiers avoid facing their own mortality, as if, by becoming themselves inhuman, they can avoid the fate awaiting all humanity. The war trophy—the skull collected by a loving boyfriend—no longer reminds the American sailor that he will die. It now assures him instead that it is the Japanese soldiers who have died and will continue to die.
The Renaissance tradition offered up one skull that was not anonymous, that had an identity, that most famous of skulls, poor Yorick’s. Hamlet’s soliloquy on the former court jester is an act of reclamation, rescuing Yorick’s skull from a pile of anonymous bones and giving it a name and a history. In the process, Hamlet transforms it from an abstract memento mori into the trace of a specific person.
The most famous line in the soliloquy—“I knew him well!”—would find its way into a literary work that tackled the problem of war trophies in World War II. Winfield Townley Scott’s poem “The U. S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull” details the process by which a head becomes a skull.
written by Colin Dickey for Lapham’s Quarterly