accuracy

The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the past that exceeds questions of accuracy, and allows them to know (or to attempt to know) the past in a way that exceeds language and disrupts the discipline imposed by traditional historical discourse.

In the post-war period, and increasingly in our own, the epic has sought out religious subjects in its articulation of what the antiquity looked like and how it worked. In the historical world produced in the epic film, religion is  intricately tied to the body and sexual desire. Conversion is a key site for this intersection between bodies, sex, and religion. The act of conversion takes many forms: moving from pagan to Christian; or, in the case of pre-Christian figures such as Samson, from sexual desire to union with God; from the world of the flesh to that of the transcendent spirit. These transcendent conversions are paradoxically predicated on leaving behind one form of sexual desire while inhabiting another: for example, as men are led to abandon the licentious women of Rome for the allegedly chaster women of Christianity. Such a transition, however, carries with it its own danger:  the process of conversion involves a measure of jouissance, a perilous pleasure that reminds us of the body even as it seeks to transcend it. Indeed, the very essence of religious conversion often manifests in these films as a form of excess, often of emotion, as in the case of Richard Burton’s almost hysterical performance as a converted centurion in The Robe, or as in the excesses of fleshly, sublime agony of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  Religion intersects with history here to allow us to encounter the terrifying too-muchness of the past, to confront a world terrifying in its overwhelming scale.

In the epic, spectacle always bears with it a double valence. On the one hand, epic spectacle inundates us with the pleasures of the visual:  Nero’s Technicolor robe in Quo Vadis, the digitized Colosseum of Gladiator, the truly breathtaking long shots of Exodus. On the other hand, epic spectacle challenges us by asking to suspend our attention to narrative and to fixate ourselves on the pleasures of the visual.  These objects call to us, ask us to encounter a world that provides a means by which we can escape the poverty and the banality of our everyday lived experience through the history’s epic visuality and sensuousness. What is more, they also ask us to abandon our current subjectivity, to inhabit that previous, precious moment–if only for the time that we watch the text. Again, these are elements of the past that cannot be contained within words or within narrative, either in the films themselves or in the academic study of history. That extra-linguistic, extra-narrative element of the epic is the source of the power they have and the experience they provide of a past-ness (even if, again, the politics associated with that past-ness are not to our liking).

For all that narrative attempts to control the excess it utilizes to bring the world of antiquity to life, it also creates for modern spectators a sense of the past as a place just beyond the realm of linguistic representation. Epic film proposes a different way of engaging with the world of antiquity, one that does not rely upon words or closure to bring us an experience of that world. As Robert Rosenstone so memorably puts it, historical film “forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world—a world in which we cannot control or contain our past with words; cannot tame its full meanings within the discipline of a discourse because the meanings themselves—encoded as images as well as words—ultimately elude words.” What he refers to as the unruly meanings of the past trouble us even as they excite and pleasure us.

At the same time, this world of plenitude and excess, this past that holds so much visual/visceral appeal to the contemporary modern spectator, must also eventually be disavowed for us to enable to function as modern subjects. This simultaneous attraction and rejection produces what historian Frank Ankersmit has termed a sublime historical experience. In order to know that world, in order to make sense of the impossibly distant and fragmented world of antiquity, we must return it to the realm of language, to our historical understandings that underpin so much of our relationship to the past. And yet, paradoxically, some measure of that excess always remains, haunting our collective imagination, a perpetual reminder of what has been given up in order for us to become who we are today.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.