"The Perverse Comedy: Moasochist Play in Gibson's Passion of the Christ"

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a larger work.

In 2004, “born-again” Catholic director Mel Gibson released the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time - The Passion of the Christ - a film referred to by film critic David Edelstein as a “two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie … that thinks it’s an act of faith” (2). In the nation with the highest percentage of professing Christians in the globe, it’s not surprising that a film depicting the last twelve hours of Christ’s life on earth became a tremendous box office success. Although millions flocked to theaters, the movie itself received mixed reviews, the consensus between both film critics and general viewers being one of disgust. Not one to make unjustified statements of exaggeration, popular film critic Roger Ebert dubbed the film the “most violent” movie he had ever seen, while critic Thomas Peyser described the film as “ghoulish” - an adjective usually restricted to the horror genre (1, 1). Fittingly nick-named The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre by Edelstein, the nearly pornographic violence of Gibson’s Passion play seems to have overshadowed whatever message he aimed to convey. Ironically, it is Peter Chattaway from the evangelical magazine Christianity Today who deftly identifies the ideological crux of the matter. Chattaway pointedly queries: “Has Gibson found a way to baptize, as it were, the sadistic or masochistic impulses of his other films? Is it possible he is indulging himself under the cover of religious piety?” Indeed, the seemingly contradictory impulses of sadism and masochism are clearly at work in the film; whether one attributes such perversities to Gibson’s personal character or to the suggested “perverse core” of Christianity, remains a matter for debate.

In terms of literary-critical theory, 20th century Continental philosopher Gilles Deleuze’ “Coldness and Cruelty” stands as one of the preeminent texts on masochism, both as an extension and modification of Freudian theory, and as an exploration of the device’s function within the confines of the novel (namely, Venus in Furs). Deleuze criticizes and debunks the Freud-influenced, traditional pairing of sadism and masochism, differentiating the two impulses in terms of their formal manifestations in literature (and art, in general). Beyond formal divergences, Deleuze also elucidates the structural and thematic differences between the two “disorders,” devoting the majority of his text to an explication of the idiosyncratic nature of the masochistic impulse. Concentrating on the particular composition of the masochistic relationship, Deleuze highlights its contractual nature and its latent fixation on the ego (as opposed to the superego).

Throughout his analysis, the philosopher identifies the formal qualities which best distinguish masochism from sadism. For Deleuze, the two so-called fetishes differ in the following ways: the treatment of the fetish object, the coldness of the punisher (hence, “Coldness and Cruelty”), and the (falsely) competing elements of waiting and suspense. Fetishism, as the pursuit of the fetish object by the fetishist, is “defined by the process of disavowal and suspension of belief” (Deleuze 29). In terms of the masochistic relationship, it is in the ironic “disavowal” of the fetish that the fetishist develops potential violence towards the fetish itself. In related, seemingly paradoxical, covertly Hegelian, fashion, the characteristic coldness of the masochistic ideal functions “to ensure the triumph of ice-cold sentimentality by dint of coldness” (Deleuze 46). Under such Deleuzian conception of the masochistic relationship, overt coldness, blood thirst, and denial only conceal the latent sentimentality, sexuality, and egotism underneath.

Following something akin to the Hegelian structure of the master/slave dialectic, the masochistic contract hinges on the free consent of two parties to the creation of a law between victim and torturer. Deleuze explains the absurdity of such a contract, especially for the masochist (victim), in terms of “not only the necessity of the victim’s consent, but [also] his ability to persuade, and his pedagogical and judicial efforts to train his torturer” (66). The masochistic role is, by its very nature, paradoxical, insofar as the victim must necessarily receive some type of “pleasure” from his punishment. In addition, the socalled victim actively scripts the scene to be played out, and thus, only truly “plays” at the role of victim.

For the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek, such unorthodox reception of pleasure from an un-pleasurable act exemplifies what he terms the “perverse core” of Christianity. In the context of Christ’s Passion, suffering perversely serves as the necessary precondition for the possibility of pleasure. Yet, the transformation of suffering to pleasure cannot be explained in terms of a simple binary switch. The initial impulse consists in “a particular quantity of libidinal energy [being] neutralized, desexualized, displaced, and put at the service of Thanatos [death]” (Deleuze 102). However, in truly circular fashion, such pleasure and libidinal energy is initially renounced only to be reclaimed at a later time – when the desexualized masochist transforms into a sexualized subject.

For Deleuze, the subject’s reclaimed sexuality signifies a liberation of sorts of the ego. One purpose of the spectacle of masochism is thus to disguise the subject’s egotism. Deleuze extrapolates: “Depicting suffering is really a way of feeding a dangerous interest in one’s own self: of gaining pleasure from enduring apparent unpleasure” (153). In his essay “Courtly love, or Woman as Thing,” Zizek argues that when the female takes on the role of “torturer,” and the male the role of “victim,” the lady becomes perceived as a thing “emptied of all real substance” (The Metastases of Enjoyment 89). Rather than embody sublime spirituality a’la Dante’s Beatrice, the lady (as torturer) takes on an attitude of icy aloofness. In terms of the biblical Passion, the courtly lady’s mode of traumatic otherness is replicated in the character of God in Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, during which the disillusioned Christ cries: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). However, since staged servitude is an inherent component of any masochistic contract, the perceptive Zizek is quick to recognize the deceptive function of such a plea.

Thus, it is Christ, as servant, who initiates such a perverse contract with his master (God). As Zizek aptly puts (with phrasing easily applied to Gibson’s film): “it is the servant [Christ], therefore, who writes the screenplay” (Metastases of Enjoyment 92). Working “behind the scenes” to increase the play’s dramatic suspense, the servant/victim secretly extends the punishment to a seemingly indefinite extent. For example, it is certain that Christ could have been killed in a manner more efficient, yet his suffering and suspension on the crucifix is purposefully prolonged so as to deceive His audience. Temporally speaking, Christ is “attainable only … by incessant postponement” (Metastases of Enjoyment 95). The inexplicable impossibility of the execution of such a simple act behaves similarly to the Lacanian Real – an empty actuality continually circled around, yet never fully realized.

The formal element of “delay” thus functions to camouflage the fact that it is the victim, not the master, who ultimately “pulls the strings.” As Zizek explains, the torturer’s blood thirst coincides with the victim’s own death drive, resulting in a simultaneous occurrence: the victim fails to offer signs of resistance, resulting not in the subjectivization of the torturer, but rather in his objectivization. The victim thus renounces physical enjoyment of his punishment in order to gain access to a different source of jouissance, that of “psychotic identification with his love object” (Metastases of Enjoyment 107). In the context of Christ’s Passion, the Hegelian attainment of identity via loss of identity is exemplified in the deceivingly straightforward dynamic between Father and Son. The “courtly” submission of Christ to God’s will conceals the actuality of the “lady’s” domination; ego gratification thus covertly serves as the perverse rationale for the Son’s self-abasing behavior – the means by which He obtains control.

When the formal superstructure is peeled away, the economic underbelly/base is revealed. Christ, situated at such a base, is posited as a “fetish” in a way analogical to the “indestructible spectral presence” of money. Zizek explains the link: “Christ has taken over the excess of Sin of ALL men precisely insofar as he was the Pure one, without excess, simplicity itself” (On Belief 100). As one without “excess” who took on the totalizing excess of mankind, Christ’s “formula is not Man = God, but man = man” (On Belief 131). As the only true “man,” Christ extols others to follow His example, yet to what avail?

Christ’s self-identity (man = man) functions in a way similar to objet petit a, such that the competing drives of desire-provoked and desire-thwarted exist within the same entity. Although imagined as an objective being-towards-death, Christ achieves a kind of perverse subjectivity by gaining control of the “game” (and thus, writing the script for His own torture and death). Zizek problematizes Christ’s “human factor”: “Christ is a ‘ready-made God’ … fully human, inherently indistinguishable from other humans in exactly the same way Judy is indistinguishable from Madeline in Vertigo” (On Belief 90). God’s human incarnation initially provokes desire, yet it is what Zizek terms Christ’s “x” factor - His divinity, which ultimately blocks humans from ever fully identifying with their savior.

At this point, one may query: If Christ functions as a paradoxical objet petit a figure, with whom humans can never fully identify, what was the rationale behind His initial coming? Since by its very definition, objet petit a “has no use value … [and] persists for the mere sake of jouissance,” we humans seem to have been duped (“Objet petit a” 1). Following the psychoanalytic interpretation, staged as a fake spectacle for a receptive audience, Christ’s Passion functioned very much like a traditional play. Zizek identifies the underlying absurdity: “The problem here is … the subjective status of Christ: when he was dying on the Cross, did he know about the Resurrection-to-come? If he did then it was all a game, the supreme divine comedy, since Christ knew his suffering was just a spectacle with a guaranteed good outcome” (The Puppet and the Dwarf 101). In both formal and contractual terms then, Christ’s Passion is, at its core: an act of masochist play.

Such an interpretation, however, is bound to offend most of the Christian population. Numerous believers, particularly those with formal ties to the Church, passionately work to preserve both the purity and integrity of the biblical depiction of Christ’s Passion, and, as a result, also seem heavily invested in a collaborative vindication of Gibson’s film. For instance, associate Religion professor at Duke University, Mark Goodacre, denies the masochistic possibilities inherent in The Passion of the Christ. He writes, in Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels, and the Claims of History: “Of course it is possible that a particular kind of viewer might derive masochistic or sadistic gratification from looking upon this, but if they do so, it is markedly against the grain of the film” (35 emphasis added). For Goodacre, those who levy the charge of sado-masochistic enjoyment against Gibson’s film do so in both a “language [of] hyperbole” and a manner most “polemic” (34). Rather than edify the most significant event in biblical history, such accusations of “viewer perversity” function to sully Christ’s image, turning the Passion into a case of “tainted love.” Goodacre defensively concludes: “the charge of pornography is [simply] not … a rational one” (35).

Goodacre’s argument, however, remains contingent on the “purity” of Christ’s Passion. Yet, as I have argued (following Zizek), the “perverse core” of Christianity is revealed in the masochistic contract between God-the-Father and God-the-Son. Perhaps Goodacre and similar adherents fail to approach the film from a critical and “selfreflective” perspective: one which would separate the biblical assurance of Christ’s resurrection afforded to believers, from the absolute terror experienced by viewers (or even non-believers) unacquainted with the latent promise of redemption in His Passion. In Passion & Excess, cultural critic Steven Shaviro differentiates between the subjects’ two putative phenomenological responses/approaches to an event of “excess of sensation,” such as a filmic depiction of the Passion. He writes: “Either we flee the event in terror; or else we are lulled with assurances that it is something to which we are already ‘appropriated,’ that it is already our own” (Shaviro 33). Shaviro is quick to criticize such a hermeneutic binary however, since what is truly left to overcome is the event’s problematic lack of a “proper ‘truth’ of its own” (33). Hence, when read as “the Real,” the Passion narrative may lead to the postulation of different interpretive possibilities ad infinitum. For literary theorist Maurice Blanchot, this is both a blessing and a curse; Shaviro extrapolates: “Anything is possible, when the event as such, as the Real, is ‘impossible.’ Yet if we never stop making sense, never stop erecting tombstones or aesthetic monuments, we also never succeed in freeing ourselves from the obsession, the madness, what Blanchot calls the fascination … of the event itself (33).

Such a Blanchovian “fascination” with Christ’s Passion is made manifest in the multi-million-dollar grossing filmic phenomenon that is Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. A substantial departure from the graphically-subdued, traditional canon of Passion films, the violence in Gibson’s film approaches the pornographic. Gibson’s own philosophy of film reinforces such a claim: “Film, I think, is visceral. It has the power to draw you in and have you experience something on an emotional level that you may not be able logically to explain” (Jesus and Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" 162). Masochism being “above all formal and dramatic,” the aesthetics of Gibson’s film implicate the viewer in a filmic experience both theoretically perverse and viscerally titillating (Deleuze 95).

The formal elements of suspension and waiting, identified by Deleuze as the duo of forces leading up to the masochistic act, are rendered affectively effective in Gibson’s cinematic choices. Sympathy from the audience is evoked from the myriad scenes of prolonged suffering and torture leading up to the actual crucifixion of Christ. Such suspense as a “putting off” of death functions, as Deleuze would argue, to “place [the audience] on the side of the victim … [forcing audience-members] to identify with” Christ in all scenes prior to His climactic, physical suspension on the cross (31). Gibson also heightens the viewer’s sense of suspense with his repetition of the traumatic, exemplified in the relentless flagellation of Christ by the demonically-gleeful Roman soldiers, as well as the dramatic trio of collapses on His journey to Golgotha. Picking Christ up from yet another fall on the way to Golgotha, the bystander Simon assures Him: “We're almost there! It's almost over!” As a pleasure too much to bear, such repetition reaches the orgasmic in its expression of jouissance: the Lacanian, paradoxical simultaneity of painful enjoyment.

Additionally exhibited in the “frozen” quality of scenes depicting Christ’s suffering, the compulsion to repeat serves as an aesthetic gesture meant to magnify the dueling forces of waiting and suspense. Resembling replicas of works of art, these scenes exhibit the Deleuzian masochistic aesthetic of an “intense preoccupation with arrested movement” (62). The duration of the film hence consists in the reiteration of the painful, while viewers literally wait upon the film’s great act of masochism: the climactic crucifixion of Christ. Paradoxically, for both the subject of Christ, as well as the viewer, what is anxiously anticipated eventually confers pleasure. For Christ, death serves as a means of ego liberation; similarly for the audience, the crucifixion provides a nearly visceral sense of relief and final accomplishment. The film’s twofold anxiety of indefinite awaiting of pleasure paired with intense expectation of pain instances the Passion’s perverse core: “it sustains its official message of inner peace and redemption by a morbid excitation, namely, a fixation on the suffering, mutilated corpse of Christ … as if the only thing that can arouse passion is the sick spectacle of passive suffering” (The Puppet and the Dwarf 97-8).

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