The skull. Immortal icon of mortality. Overused, overexposed, overdone—and yet evergreen, everlasting, ever in play.
As an icon, it will never die, not as long as we are flesh and bone. We might one day be cyborgs, but the skull as symbol will morph into something like a drive-in-theater speaker, a metallic encasement with antenna and a mesh mouth. From primate to hominid to homo sapiens to… robo skull. The skull will outlive us.
(clockwise from top left): Victoria's Secret bikini, Threadless romper, Rehabilitated Dishware plate, and New York Times Book Review illustration by Patrick Thomas.
Between you and me, literally, the computer monitor is an exo-skull, more analogous to an insect's exoskeleton: the hardware houses the software. Welcome. The eyes (iEyes?) are the Windows to the soul.
We are not exoskeletal. We will never see our own skulls. And yet our brains reside within this bone house, like our hearts inside our ribcages. We are locked inside this room of perception, never to leave it. We rarely see actual human skulls, but we constantly confront depictions, from the bedazzled skull on a black Victoria's Secret bikini to a graphic rendering on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Empty-eyed on T-shirts and skateboards, grinning on black bandannas, flaming on the fuel tanks of Harleys, the skull is first a warning and then a boast. “Death comes to all,” it warns. And in reply, the boast: “I dare you.”
Death is forever. Skulls are forever. Diamonds are forever. And now, thanks to artist Damien Hirst, $100 million diamond-encrusted death-skulls are forever. “Death comes to all,” says this 8,000-gemmed visage. “And it's shiny, like irony.”
Death comes to all, like a gift you never need to deserve. Montezuma gave to Cortes a skull inlaid with turquoise, jet and seashell: a symbol of death. Cortes, in return, gave death itself.
The symbol depends on the referent—the thing made of bone. And not just the skull but our ability to perceive it, to interpret it, to be conscious of what the skull might shake loose in our minds. The thing we see can't be our own skull: knock knock [dull thuds]. It has to be another's skull, a dead person's skull, the empty melon, the cranial carapace: knock knock [cavernous echo]. We see a symbol of ourselves that asks us to see ourselves. And so to see a real skull, clung with rot and soil, scraped, eroded, hair-clumped, to see this room deserted, it's a shock to the senses, an affront to our existence. No one lives there anymore. No one ever will.
The skull is as common as a penny. It's the designer's coin, so cheap you half expect to turn it over to find… a smiley face.
I will never see my own skull, but my grandfather wanted me to imagine it, vividly. His warnings were so penetrating that they entered my mind when I was first learning to ride a bike and have resounded, thirty years later, out of my own mouth as I teach my son to ride a bike: “Be careful you don't crack your skull open.” Then and now, I see the impact and the aftermath, the descent and the blood blooming across the sidewalk. In the shade of trees are the scattered acorns, the broken concrete, the canyon of cracked bone.
We will never see our own skulls. To be so close and yet so far. To see yourself so alive for so short a time and never to see yourself dead, which you will be for so much longer. “Hi. It's nice to meet you.” Blink. “I'm a skull.”
U.S. Marine Corps insignia on a lighter.
This is what makes the skull so potent a symbol. All this, actually—all the ways we think about life and death, time and consciousness. On crucifixes, a skull-and-crossbones refers to the site of the crucifixion, Golgotha or “Place of a Skull.” Skulls for centuries marked the entrances to Spanish cemeteries. The first Royal Navy vessel to return from the war in Iraq in 2003 flew the Jolly Roger (the National Royal Navy Museum has examples from throughout the years). The 17th Lancers of the British Army adopted the skull-and-crossbones insignia in 1759. The U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance battalions use the emblem. We use the symbol for spiritual reasons and for secular ones, in peacetime and in war. Pacifists use the skull as warning: death is the cost of ignoring reality. Warriors use the skull as boast: death is the cost of ignoring me.
The skull invites meditation on the locus of meditation. Forget Yorick. Picture a Chuck Jones cartoon. Our flesh is a suit out of which steps our skeleton. The suit of flesh sags to the floor, a puddle. But the skeleton somehow… moves. Without muscles, without flesh, it moves and it lives. Beyond that, it dances; all joints and angles and negative spaces, it dances a click-clackety jig. Hahaha. The Day of the Dead. But it's not us, not at all. And it's not our day.
To see consciousness, to make thinking visible, like the eye seeing itself see itself: even our abstractions are not this limber. The skull is the next best thing, a stand-in for the brain, the precious brain! Too see a skull is to see the absence of the brain. Quoth the raven: “Never mind.”
Plastinated corpses: more stand-ins, more substitutes. A nearby museum features the “Body Worlds” show. Plastic-injected cadavers, skinless and as stiff-limbed as dolls, are worked into positions of suspended activity: mid-leap, mid-stride, but verifiably post-life. Still, this is just the bitter meat of our species. It's not me. It's someone else, or the paused rerun of a vivisected someone else. An “it.”
We want to see ourselves stripped to the mechanistic dynamo, the soul in motion, the mind at work. Our desperate desire drives us to derivatives, the skull, the overuse of the skull, slapped across our cultural walls like plastic stars glowing in the dark. We're inured to them. It's too bright out for the skulls to glow, these faded blobs drifting farther and farther from the things they represent. We see skulls and think: poison, danger, pirate, X-ray, “No Diving,” “Wear a Helmet,” “Mid-life Crisis Ahead.”
Wal-Mart's ill-advised T-shirt design compared to the SS Division's use.
For more on “skull, decoration,” see socks, panties, umbrellas, toilet brush. Cf. skull stacks and skull walls: Mayan rituals, American bison, Native Americans, the Holocaust, Cambodia. See also: German soldiers simulating oral sex with a skull plucked from a mass grave near Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006 for a photograph. Also in 2006, Wal-Mart sells T-shirts with the same skull symbol used by the 3rd SS Division, a unit of Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS.
You mean symbols have histories?
The skull is an elastic symbol, but it expresses a frustrated desire: we will never see our own skulls. The impossibility of this self-knowledge maddens and tempts us. So we flatten our skulls, misshape them, adorn and prettify them, wrap them in thorns and set them afire, make them scary, funny, silly, slick, put them everywhere, on everything, for whatever excuse comes to mind. On and on, we are doomed to representations, teasing ourselves with reminders of the limits of our perceptions. We will never see our own skulls. But we will always want to.