Touching an “Authentic” Swastika

[7 minute read]

CW: Nazism, Neo-Nazism, Swastikas

I’m currently writing this blog post from a hotel room in Durham, N.C. I’m here over Spring Break to do some archival research at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers live here, and it is an overwhelming and expansive collection. The collection guide here shows a preview of the breadth and depth of the papers in the archive.

This is my first time doing archival research. It is amazing.

It is hard for me to put into words why I like it so much, but I want to share an experience I had while here at the archive.

(I am still learning about archival research, and I know that all the unpublished material in the collection is under the copyright of Dr. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I won’t be sharing anything too specific here, and of course won’t be sharing any photographs or scans of my work.)

I am looking at Folder 3 of Box 19, described on the finding guide as containing

Officials documents including a Polish citizenship document tracking movement between Germany and Poland; Anmelde-Buch (enrollment book) which lists several of Heschel’s professors at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems zu Berlin including Leo Baeck , Ismar Elbogen, and Julius Güttman; Arbeitsbuch, which lists Heschel’s professional training in Frankfurt am Main; Heschel’s Ausweiskarte (identification card) at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems; and a certificate (Zeugnis) for the Deutches Institut für Ausländer an der Universität Berlin which attests to Heschel’s satisfactory completion of requirement at Realgymnasium in Vilna.[1]

I have earbuds in my ears and am half-listening to a podcast episode I’ve listened to about a hundred times before as I carefully, and nervously, flip through the materials. I feel a bit like an imposter. I wonder if everyone else here has done plenty of archival research before. They probably have lots of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and may even have jobs. They are probably almost done with their dissertations, and even their first books.

I smile as I look through the materials surrounding Heschel’s early academic education in Berlin. I feel almost proud of Heschel for these early academic achievements, as if I knew him personally. I continue flipping through these materials. I flip another page over and look down and – freeze.

There is a small book, it looks about the size of a passport, staring up at me. It is an official document. Arbeitsbuch, it reads. In the center of it is a crest, an eagle perched atop a swastika.


I knew that Heschel fled Nazi Germany. I knew this. I suppose if I had been asked if Heschel had any official documentation from the Reich, I would have shrugged and said, “Well, probably.” But seeing this document – and seeing it nestled in a folder amongst more cheerful documents about Jewish Studies in Berlin made my stomach turn.

When I gingerly touched this document I thought to myself that this was the first “authentic swastika” I had ever touched. The first swastika was on a document made by The Third Reich.


In the days leading up to my trip to Durham, I restarted playing the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In it, the Nazis won WWII. You play a supersoldier with an artificially engineered body trying to start a revolution in the United States, which now operate as a colony of the Reich.

My husband was originally interested in the game after it generated some Internet buzz. Apparently, some White Nationalists were disturbed about a game centering on killing Nazis. Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, published an article entitled “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.”

Robertston writes:

“The saddest thing about Wolfenstein’s YouTube comments isn’t the offended white supremacists. It’s the fact that in 2017 you can write “I can’t wait to kill some Nazis in a video game” as though that’s a meaningful political stance — which is exactly what a lot of the most popular comments are about. The second saddest thing is that you’ll be proven right by someone named “Pepe Von Europa.”[2]

And it’s true that the game is very overt with its message that killing Nazis in order to overthrow their regime is moral. As Kallie Plagge writes in her review of the game:

“Above all else, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes a very hard stance on the righteousness of killing Nazis. It never falters, not once asking whether violent resistance is the wrong way to fight back against oppression – and the game is stronger for it.”[3]

And so, while playing the video game, I “killed” Nazis. A lot of them. And I saw a lot of swastikas. Some were on people I “killed,” others were on buildings I “crept” by, and still others were on “official” materials I “found” and “examined” in the game. Occasionally the swastikas even seem to shout out to you: all bold and startling against a bright white or black backdrop.

This swastika is different than the other swastikas in that game, I thought to myself when I saw the swastika on Heschel’s Arbeitsbuch. It’s more… subdued. The lines are thinner. It looks… ordinary. And it was ordinary, in a horrifying way. It was a piece of official documentation, and even though it had a swastika on it, it still looked like something bureaucratic, ordinary, and everyday.

And in all its ordinariness, in all its slight bizarre delicateness, it was terrifying. Much more terrifying and startling, somewhat paradoxically, that the swastikas that seem to bombard you as you play Wolfenstein II.

After I saw it, I needed to step out of the reading room and get a drink of water.

[1] Description of File 3, Box 19. Guide to the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers, 1880, 1919-1998 and undated.

[2] Robertson, Adi. “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.” The Verge. June 12, 2017. Accessed March 14 2018.

[3] Plagge, Kallie. “Rise: Review of Wolfenstein II: The New Collossus.” Gamespot. October 26, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018.


Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:


Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.


I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.

Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Coda: Converting Art — Literature During Political Repression

I went to the Early Modern Conversions Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library with a hypothesis about the role of conversion in some of my own research. In the process of reading for my qualifying exams, I’ve noticed that Mary Magdalene keeps showing up in Early Modern literature — especially poetry or devotional prose written by men who had experienced some kind of religious conversion in their lives. Before they wrote about Mary Magdalene, some — like Henry Constable — converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, while others — like the Protestant Henry Vaughan and the Catholic Robert Southwell, S.J. — underwent intra-denominational conversion, wherein they reformed their professional and literary aspirations in order to sharpen their focus on the divine.

On the face of things, Mary Magdalene’s recurrence throughout decades of English literature is not an unexpected fact: biblical subjects were popular ones in Early Modern poetry on both sides of the Reformation. What renders this a curious fact is the history of Mary Magdalene’s representation in earlier English literature. Before the English Reformation, Mary Magdalene was the star of the famous and often-produced Digby mystery play fittingly called Mary Magdalene.

As I wrote earlier, Elizabeth banned the production of any religious subjects on stage, let alone mystery plays, which once had been one of the most essential ways of communicating Catholic religious principles and traditions to a mass, generally illiterate, audience. It’s not surprising that Mary Magdalene’s story had been a popular one to stage: in a conflation of a few gospel narratives, Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who extravagantly repented of her sexual sins by washing Christ’s feet with her tears and hair and anointing him with expensive perfume; having transferred her love for sex to love for Christ, she appears as one of the women who remains with Christ at his crucifixion, and she weeps at the tomb when she sees that her beloved’s corpse has gone missing. Her narrative is highly visual, full of erotic tension, and contains just the right amount of inspiration porn to urge a religious audience to convert their hearts like Mary.

Domenico Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598, a painting depicting a half-naked woman praying amid reed mats, a skull, a crucifix, a book, and a bowl. Her brown curls are fabulous.]

“Thank you, God, for a good hair day today.”

Without the legal means to stage truly biblical conversion stories like these, Elizabethan and Jacobean literary artists necessarily had to find other media in which to work. A genre like poetry or devotional prose offered an interesting advantage over the essay or the sermon: they had connotations of intimacy, not publicity. Published collections, if they were published in the author’s lifetime, were often prefaced by long, exaggerated declamations of humility insisting that the author’s friends or a sense of duty had made them publish it against their own great reservations — not because they had designs on exposing the masses to a Catholic aesthetic. Even Southwell (who, as a Jesuit missionary, did have designs on converting the hearts of his audience) declared in the dedication of his devotional prose work “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” that he wished to “alter the object” of men’s “[p]assions … and loves” — a perfectly nondenominational desire to reform (sexual) desire.

Political restrictions on public expression also impacted how writers conceived of their private faith, shifting their attention to the interior experience of spiritual self-reformation over its external manifestation — no sackcloth and ashes here, but rather serious reflection on what it means to have conformed one’s heart to God’s will, a thought process often articulated in literary words. The Mary Magdalene depicted in these converts’ writing is not the same Mary Magdalene of the mystery plays. Yes, she converts herself from sex worker to saint, and her desire for Christ supplants her lust for flesh, but as a convert her personality doesn’t really change: her affection for Christ is still highly eroticized as she longs for his resurrected body, and she still has a predilection for the sensory and sensual. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s conversion is not dramatized precisely because, to these Early Modern converts concerned with what makes a convert, the elements of interest in her story do not reside in the spectacular outward gestures of her conversion — her tears and perfumes and kisses — but rather her interior motivation to make these gestures and to convert her soul.

Titian’s Noli me tangere, c. 1512, a painting depicting a bearded man, trying to hold his shroud on with one hand with a staff in his other, as a woman in red and white crawls toward him, her right hand raised; a village on a hill and farmland are in the background.]

But “Noli me tangere” brings new meaning to “No touch-y.”

Indeed, in contrast to the transfiguration fulfilled in the body of the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene undergoes an internal metamorphosis with no impact on her body. In his poem to her, Vaughan exclaims, “How art thou changed!”, before observing that “thy beauty doth still keep / Bloomy and fresh” (my emphasis). The idea that she can be changed, while still looking exactly the same, speaks to an understanding that profound conversions do not always have visible consequences. Instead, Mary Magdalene’s conversion changes her interiority: marveling at the profound effects that her love for Christ has on her character, Southwell asks, “Can it thus alter sex, change nature, and exceed all art?” — even the art of theatrical representation.

In a complex way, Early Modern political repression of certain artistic genres helped change not only which art was most useful to understanding one’s faith but also how artists used that art to understand their political and spiritual conditions. Elizabethan and Jacobean artists still did not have much choice about how they wrote, as not even poetry was completely safe: the Jesuit Henry Walpole was run out of England for writing a poem celebrating Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr, and the poem’s printer infamously had his ears cut off for publishing it. But even under repression, artists find ways to capture the changing world.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.


Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era

My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the Spaulding family of Buckland, who kept their only son in a cage in the family home. Josiah Spaulding was said to be insane, and remained in the cage for fifty-seven years until his death. The letters were mostly written by his four sisters. I hope to tell some of their stories here.

What are the circumstances that would compel a family to imprison one of its members in an iron cage for the rest of his life? In the case of Josiah Spaulding Junior, born 1787, the answer given by his preacher father, Reverend Josiah Spaulding of Buckland, Massachusetts, was that his son had “lost his reason” and was a danger to the family. Later census records on the Spaulding family state that Josiah was insane. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. I uncovered this story during my time as an archival researcher for a private archive in North Syracuse, where we received one hundred and forty-four letters written by four generations of Spaulding family members. In researching this story, I have been unable to find evidence for violent mental illness, but I have found evidence of many other things. Josiah was kept in a cage by various family members in their homes for fifty-seven years. He was put into it when he was about 23 years old, and it is there that he died.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr., the son of a prominent reverend, was expected to follow a certain life path. He was the only surviving infant of a triplet birth, born to Mary Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts and Reverend Spaulding, originally of Plainfield, Connecticut. Josiah’s sister Mary, the firstborn child, had been born the year before. The two maintained a close friendship for many years. Both of Josiah’s parents were from respected lines of New England families who were among the first white settlers of the region, and their genealogies span to the early seventeenth century in America.

Reverend Spaulding was a staunch Calvinist, and obtained his Doctor of Divinity from Yale in 1778. He was ordained as a minister in 1782 and had gone to Uxbridge, Massachusetts to begin his career as the local minister. He was married there, as well. However, as would occur repeatedly until his arrival in Buckland, the reverend was dismissed from his position in part because of “unpopularity due to his Calvinist theology”, according to the Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, and the fact that he was thought to be eccentric. Hardline Calvinism, which had long been the established religion in New England, was slowly starting to fall out of vogue during this period. According to records, parishioners had a hard time believing that God “foreordained every thought, word and action” of human beings, as Calvinism and the Reverend taught. However, Reverend Spaulding deeply believed in the doctrine and would not renege even a little. As a result, he had to move around a few times until the family settled in Buckland, where he remained minister for twenty-eight years and was widely loved by the townspeople. Josiah was eight years old when the Spauldings arrived in Buckland. Daughters Nancy, Deborah, and Lydia had been added to the family, with Lydia being the youngest, born in 1799.

Letters between Josiah and his older sister, Mary, demonstrate a close relationship between the two. Mary’s 1801 letter to Josiah, written when she was sixteen and he around fourteen and away at a conference in Goshen, spoke heavily of religion and repentance but also of local gossip:

PS I will inform you of the death of Betsy Stinn, she died not long before thanksgiving  & it is expected that Lydia her sister is or will soon be married to the gentleman that courted Betsy. & What do you think of that, it has occasioned considerable talk here…

As a young woman of this era, Mary would not have been groomed for a career in the way that Reverend Spaulding was doing by bringing his son to a religious conference. Unlike her mother and namesake Mary Williams, Mary Spaulding was taught how to write and had beautiful penmanship. She and her sisters attended the local one-room schoolhouse in Buckland where a peer of theirs was Daniel Forbes, famous for his penmanship and friends with the Spaulding family. There is little doubt that the Spaulding children learned penmanship in some measure from Daniel, and in the Spaulding collection there are letters written by him to Mary. However, the Spaulding daughters’ education did not go much beyond their years at the local schoolhouse, as they were expected to excel instead in the domestic arts and get married.

Josiah, also expected to marry and raise a family and continue the Spaulding lineage, could attend college. Neil Perry’s 1966 article on Josiah for the Springfield Morning Union, based on Victorian era articles from one hundred years prior, states that Josiah was violent and rebellious in his youth, and was not accepted to college. These descriptions are from 1866, just before Josiah’s death. However, the language of articles like these is typical to language of the Victorian era when describing or reporting on mental illness, and Josiah is referred to as “deranged.”

The family letters indicate otherwise. Josiah was an articulate and intelligent young man who worked as a teacher, and had the most beautiful penmanship in the family. The story of Josiah will continue in a three part series on this blog. Perhaps he did have some mental illness, and he did seem to be rebellious for the era. It is my estimation that his aversion to Puritan based norms and expectations and his conflicting ideology from his father’s was the real reason that he was caged, along with what does seem to be some kind of possible psychiatric issue. However the description of him as violent and deranged was sensationalized, and is not an accurate description of those with psychiatric disabilities on the whole. There has long been, and continues to be a disparity in power between those who are considered to be able bodied and minded, and those who aren’t. The Spaulding family was absolutely dominated, as most Puritan lines were, by the patriarch. It is not Josiah that should necessarily be looked to as defining derangement, but his Calvinist father, who not only was the patriarch of the family, but of the entire village of Buckland and much of western Massachusetts.

[I will continue my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.


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.