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.

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