When you cut someone's head off, what happens to their brain? Does it shut down instantly, the minute the neck is severed? Or does it go on working for a while (not long, you understand, but maybe a minute or so) feeding off the blood that's still in the head, its last thoughts like the twitching of a squashed cockroach?
And assuming that it does go on, what is passing through it in that last minute? Does it simply flood with a blind, numbing pain so that any last thoughts it might have had are lost in a final orgasm of suffering? Or is there no pain at all, just the acute numbness you feel after you cut your finger with a knife, but before it starts bleeding? Perhaps the brain doesn't even realise what has happened, and simply goes on pretending that the blow is still to come; perhaps the subconscious is smart enough to prevent it from recognising the truth; perhaps the mind simply cannot adjust to this most outrageous of absences, and continues to experience, like an amputee, the sensations of its missing body. (How ironic if the victims last thoughts should be an illusion! And how apt).
Do the organs still work - the eyes, the ears - does the severed head see the stain of its own blood spreading slowly towards it, hear the sudden intake of the crowd's breath and, afterwards, the sound of someone beginning to cry? Does it feel the first fly settling on its cheek? Or, most frightening of all, is the mind truly clear in those last seconds, apprehending the whole truth of its situation? How does the consciousness deal with the reality of its own extinction when it is no longer possible to escape into hope? How does something alive accept that it is already dead?
If we could understand what the severed head is thinking in that last minute, we would, I think, be much closer to understanding the meaning of life.
Disclaimer: This post is inspired by reading brilliant, brilliant Nabokov novel called 'Invitation to a Beheading' (for a review of which see Considerable Speck: http://considerablespeck.blogspot.com/2005/07/off-with-his-head.html). I have not been going around cutting people's heads off.