Suffering Unto Death: Subjectivity and Truth in the Passion of Perpetua

Our God is a suffering God. Suffering forms man into the image of God. The suffering man is in the likeness of God.” (1965, p. 182)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s view of Christian suffering, and of God as perpetually suffering with creation, can be taken in isolation from that writer’s own suffering. It can instead be seen as part of a narrative which, together with Adorno’s claim that, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (1981, p. 34), saw humanity enter into a peculiar age of cynicism, or Foucauldian biopolitics. Another, closely related possibility, is that rather than standing at a threshold, Bonhoeffer and Adorno’s accounts of suffering are much older. Perhaps the poet, with her imitation of absolutes, is always the enemy of ideal society, as Plato held. Or perhaps, as per Augustine, those who imitate the absolute ideal will always suffer in the world. Either of these considerations, with their archaic reference to the ideal, are counterintuitive to a postmodern emphasis on power and narrative.

The postmodern has perhaps thrown no category into disrepute more than absolute truth or ideality. Yet as much as suffering may have been transposed from the register of absolute meaning to that of social meaning, a postmodern suffering has, excepting only the caveat of its being socially constructed, been observed to function in much the same way as what sufferings came before. For example, David Morris’ postmodern suffering has morphed from one producing a “multiplicity of narratives” (1991, p. 284) allowing individuals to master their pain, to one which is “necessarily public and social” (2001, p. 62) and embraces “the plot of public victimhood” (2001, p.68). The victim becomes the heuristic devise of postmodern histories of suffering as much as it becomes that of postmodern politics, and it simultaneously to upholds and denounces the false ideality of the social. The trademark of this victim is, paradoxically, its passivity. Agency is left to be ascribed to the critic and the allegedly disbelieved ideal. Both are reinforced by the passive suffering of an other. This is not where we had hoped to arrive in our pursuits. We had hoped to get from an understanding of the sufferer’s role to an understanding of the sufferer. At an earlier time, we may have even hoped to arrive at an understanding of suffering itself.

The Acta Martyrum were texts which, apart from representing sufferers individually and socially, also sought to represent suffering. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity provides perhaps the most unique opportunity to understand this fact. The account of the martyrdom of Vibia Perpetua in early 3rd century Carthage is unique among the Acta in many ways, and thus much emphasis has been placed on the directness of the connection to the martyr which it provides to us. For one thing, the Latin text claims to offer “a complete account of her martyrdom, as she left it, written in her own hand and in accordance with her own understanding” (Passion, § II). In § III through X of the Passion, we are then given Perpetua’s alleged first-person narrative. On the whole, most find the claim to her authorship credible. For one thing, Perpetua’s literacy was guaranteed by her social status (Shaw 1993, p.12). She was “a woman well born, liberally educated, and honorably married” (Passion, § II), and thus reputable by the norms of her society.

Beyond that, per the criterion of embarrassment, the claim is all the more believable, as Perpetua’s account seems to challenge all of the hierarchies of her time, and even of later Christendom. Shaw notes that Perpetua would have had access to exemplary accounts of female resistance found in Greek romances (Shaw 1993, p. 9). However Judith Perkins highlights the ways in which Perpetua’s naming of her suffering constructs a narrative world which “poses an explicit challenge to that of the Greek romances, with their celebration of elite patriarchical society” (1995, p. 104), for in its conclusion is found a permanent reversal of heirarchies. Perpetua is thus empowered as a subject through her suffering, whereas previous models of female resistance merely repeated societal objectification. Does the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity thus, as Perkins holds, represent subjectivity at a threshold, where the suffering of the subject became a source of power? What is the role of the suffering subject in the Passion, and how do we gain historical understanding of this suffering subject?

The Passion: Narrative Representation or Active Participation?

Two theoretical frameworks with two attendant tasks influence Judith Perkins’ analyses of the Passion of Perpetua in her The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (1995) and “The Spectacle of ‘Bare Life’ in Martial’s Liber Spectaculorum and Martyr Discourse” (2013). In The Suffering Self, texts such as the Passion of Perpetua and the Acts of the Martyrs need to be perceived as “key documents in early Christian self-fashioning” (Perkins 1995, p. 104). Then, upon investigating the uniqueness of the “representation of the condemned”, one must allow the texts to “emphasize the agency, energy, and resiliency of condemned martyrs, who are active participants in the process of their executions, welcoming death, enduring great pain, winning a great reward” (Perkins 2013, p. 187). This second task underlines her analysis of Perpetua in 2013. These two tasks are attached to, and represent articulations of the theories of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, respectively.

The Suffering Self (1995) argues that the growth of Christianity in the 2nd century was dependent upon a new notion of subjectivity which began to emerge in the early empire. This new notion of subjectivity differed from earlier Hellenic notions which didactically privileged the mind or the soul over the body, holding instead that the embodied mind or soul possessed of the experiential attributes of pain and suffering was in need of guiding dispensation from without. Perkins sees that Christianity’s suffering subject was such a genuine novelty that it allowed for the naming of society’s sufferers (the sick, the poor, etc.) where before they had been categorically absent in classical consciousness; and for classical consciousness, lacking such a category of perception, these people did not exist.

With the introduction of such a perceptual category, sufferers were consequently “empowered” by it (Perkins 1995, pp. 12, 111-113, 189, 184, 186, 142). Christianity’s triumph is thus described as coinciding with a “representational revolution” (Perkins 1995, pp. 17, 104), or “at least in part, a triumph of representation” (3). Christians were not the only ones in late antiquity participating in a “cultural turn toward the body” (Perkins 1995, pp. 175, 189) creating a “subject as sufferer” (Perkins 1995, pp. 192, 202), as Perkins demonstrates in comparing Ignatius of Antioch to Aelius Aristides. Christianity’s rise did, however, consummate this ‘revolution’: “Christianity formed around this subjectivity of sufferer, not only conceptually, but also actively” (Perkins 1995, p. 202).

Perkins twice briefly locates her framework of ‘narrative representation’ within contemporary “critical theory” (Perkins 1995, pp. 4, 200), although Foucault stands in the foreground of her influences. Foucault differed from his predecessors Saussure and Barthes work on representation in that his interest was primarily in representation qua discourse rather than in meaning (Hall 1997, pp. 41-44). In Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) Foucault described four distinctions between his project of ‘archaeology’ and the ‘history of ideas’. Centering on what his ‘archaeology’ is and isn’t interested in, these distinctions are as follows: 1) defining discourses, not the representations which comprise them, 2) “differential analysis of the modalities of discourse”, not a scientific study of the processes of manifestation and deterioration of opinions, 3) “types of rules for discursive practices”, not in the unit of the work nor the agency of the author , and 4) the “systematic description of a discourse-object”, not in the repetition or re-enactment of a thought (pp. 138-140).

A Foucauldian framework is however haunted by a paradox: On the one hand, ontology is social/political, and thus a posteriori to the social. On the other hand, one is constantly confronted with the ontic resonance of discourse and power, which are a priori to the social. It is here where Foucault leaves us scratching our heads as to the connection between discourse and reality, or ontology and the ontic. The connection which Perkins makes between the two appear to be based upon her study itself. Of discourses, she claims that “although discourses do not represent ‘reality,’ they do have very real effects. In every society, persons come to understand themselves, their roles and their world through their culture’s discursive practices and the ‘reality’ these practices bring into cultural consciousness” (Perkins 1995, p. 3). She thus describes ‘very real effects’ as being still a matter of subjectivity, not quite Christianity’s objective ‘active formation’, or its “collecting funds, acquiring power, administering hospitals and poorhouses to succor various categories of sufferers” (Perkins 1995, p. 202).

One must wonder why this connection, which is a fundamental implication of her conclusion, remains lacking in her theoretical framework. As the production by Christianity of new forms of power in society is mediated through the discourse-object, Perkins is obliged by Foucault to disregard the work and agency of Christianity. Thus, rather than Christianity’s semantic intervention naming the sufferer, bringing about its phenomenological emergence, “cultural discourse ‘produces’ humans in the sense that human subjects come to understand themselves through the categories and representations of ‘being human,’ operating and present in their particular culture. What makes up ‘reality’ for any culture is similarly recognized as a constituted category and liable to change” (Perkins 1995, p. 4). Recognized, that is, by Foucault and a derivative of ‘critical theory’ — not to early Christians, and not in today’s naive lifeworld (to borrow Husserl’s term). But such a naive lifeworld is not only the object for critical analysis in history; it is an object for the historians re-enactment.

Perkins understands that she could be seen as stating the obvious: “After all, the one thing everyone knows about Christianity is that it centers on suffering in the exemplar of the crucified Christ” (Perkins 1995, p. 13). To the contrary of such a claim, what she sees as distinct in her work is precisely its concern with ‘narrative representation’. It is, in other words, her emphasis upon the Christian ‘example’ of suffering, insofar as the signification of exemplification (suffering as signification of a Christian truth-value) and the exampled (the truth-value of Christ’s suffering) is barred, which sets her work apart. In accordance with Foucault’s first distinction of ‘archaeology’, Perkins’ concern is primarily for the discourse, not for its constituent representations. It is especially not for their meanings.

Such meanings are stated to be contingent upon belief, and constitutive of ideology. Thusly, Perkins seeks to ask “why groups of Christians in the Greco-Roman world chose to foreground their own suffering in their early texts and why they picked the suffering in their founder’s life to emulate” (Perkins 1995, p. 13). And it is to the credit of this Foucauldian approach that it is able to capture such “a turn toward the body in the period of the late Republic and early empire”(Perkins 1995, p. 143), as Perkins notes that Foucault observed in his third volume of The History of Sexuality (1988). Foucault’s focusing upon the discourse-object ran contrary to earlier juridical and institutional interpretations of power, and in so doing, provided for a framework to seek a definition of the discourses of early Christianity by its ‘narrative representations’. In Perkins’ appropriation of Foucault, this framework allows for a differential analysis of modalities, an enumeration of the types of rules, and a systematic description of that discourse — all in contrast to earlier juridical and institutional interpretations of Christianity’s rise.

But between such exemplification and that which is exampled, we meet Foucault’s paradox of ontology. As Giorgio Agamben claims, two directives became central to the late Foucault: “the study of the political techniques” and “the examination of the technologies of the self by which processes of subjectivization bring the individual to bind himself to his own identity and consciousness and, at the same time, to an external power (1998, p. 11). The early Church’s exemplification of suffering and the suffering which was exampled for the early Christian, once abstracted from signification, both correspond to political techniques and technologies of self, respectively. Agamben continues: “Yet the point at which these two faces of power converge remains strangely unclear in Foucault’s work, so much so that it has even been claimed that Foucault would have consistently refused to elaborate a unitary theory of power”(1998, p. 11). Per Agamben, Foucault leaves us to ask, what is the point at which the voluntary servitude of individuals comes into contact with objective power?” (1998, p. 11)

In terms of Perkins’ study, the foregrounding of Christians’ suffering in their texts (exemplification) and their emulation of the suffering of their founder (exampled) cannot objectively (via signification) produce their ‘very real effects’ through ‘active formation’. Exemplification cannot occur on the same register as ‘active formation’, nor can the exampled exist on the same register as a ‘very real effect’. Therefore the underlying implication of The Suffering Self can only be implied, and not deduced from within its theoretical framework. Very real effects and active formations thus remain the domain of juridico-institutional histories and theories.

But effects and activities of Christianity have been very real and formative, indeed. Bearing witness to the “the still-unfulfilled messianic impulse fueling early” (Perkins 2013, p. 189), Perkins returned to the problems of The Suffering Self in her contribution to Roman Literature, Gender and Reception (2013). There she adapted Agamben’s homo sacer as a “heuristic” to explore “some of the cultural dynamics enabling the formation of a Christian identity in this new sovereignty of the early imperial period” (Perkins 2013, p. 179). Agamben sees the ontological paradox within Foucault’s biopolitics — politics within a modernity in which bare life (zoe) becomes the domain of sovereign power — as stemming in part from his localizing it within modernity. Biopolitics has rather always been the paradigm of sovereign power, and the production of bare life, represented in the notion of the homo sacer, has always been the fundamental activity of sovereign power (Agamben 1998, p. 72). Perkins follows Agamben, in the process transforming her framework. The triumph of Christianity via the representational revolution of the suffering self becomes the rise of Christianity during the refiguring of sovereignty via “its concomitant shaping of new forms of what Agamben calls ‘bare life'” (Perkins 2013, pp. 179-180).

The ontological paradox is not resolved, however. Agamben perceives a profound connection between the pure Being of ontology and bare life, so much so that “only if we understand the theoretical implications of bare life will we be able to solve the enigma of ontology” (1998, p. 102). Homo sacer is not itself an ontological proposition, but an archetype, without “an origin presupposed in time”, used to make “the inquirer’s present intelligible as much as the past of his or her object(Agamben 2009, p. 32). Agamben does assert, however, a ‘paradigmatic ontology’, wherein a given paradigm’s intelligibility and objective being are co-substantive. Agamben adds that the work of the archetype also “perhaps holds for all historical inquiry” (Agamben 2009, p. 32). If that is so, then the ontological character of history contains its intelligibility. There is little room within this ontology for the historian to discern between claims of intelligibility.

The Subject: Homo Sacer or Imitatio Christi?

As stated before, the Acta Martyrum sought to represent suffering qua suffering. But as Paul D. Hanson notes, “suffering qua suffering is not enough” (1995, p. 141) to explain it. The naming of the suffering is of primary importance to the nature of suffering itself, but not by virtue of the agency naming it, but by virtue of the meaning of the word which names it. The Acta do not seek to name suffering with a word that is a passive adjective wielded by an active sufferer. They seek in some sense to name the suffering inflicted upon the passive sufferer with an active word, one which leaves its mark of signification upon the inflictor.

As the Passion narrator explains, the writing of Perpetua’s suffering has a pneumatic quality: “the Holy Spirit has given permission that the narrative of this contest be written down, and by such permission has willed it” (§ XVI). As Perpetua has suffered, so has the divine pneuma has willed its naming, and by so doing both the martyr and the divine have also willed “the very events it describes into being” (Haffernan 2012, p. 313-314). The public and social characteristics of suffering, central in postmodern readings, are already there. For rather than being a principle or material, as it was from the Pre-Socratics to the Stoics, the Christian pneuma is already subject to the social logos. For Christ, understood as the embodiment of logos, is made manifest by the social (Matthew 18:19-20) in the form of the pneuma (1 Corinthians 5:4), which at the same time resides in the individual (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Thus, as Perpetua suffers, so has the divine pneuma, and consequently both have ‘willed’ the suffering logos. Christian pneumatology works in this way, being occasioned by suffering, but a priori to it in pneuma and logos; the meaning and the word come before their utterance. At the end of her account, Perpetua, certain of her coming martyrdom as a victory, tells us that the writing of the contest itself must be left to whomever wills it. This statement in § X, that the writing of the event (muneris) must be left to the will of an other si quis voluerit, scribat echoes the Passion narrator’s pneumatological conclusions in § XVI: the writing of the event (muneris) is left to the will (volvere)of the Holy Spirit.

Most central to understanding the event of Perpetua’s suffering, then, is not the subjectivity which we perceive emanating from the text. To the contrary, she leaves the final event of suffering unnamed, specifically passing up the opportunity to name it in advance. For her, its name exists independently. To see her as naming it ‘victory’ is to discredit the subjectivity which we are allegedly uncovering. The essential fact of Perpetua’s suffering is not its subjectivization, but its insubjectivization. Perpetua refuses to give it meaning herself, for its meaning is already present in it, and it wills its own expression.

Understanding the role of the suffering subject in Perpetua is impossible without the historical understanding of the experience of suffering which was Perpetua’s. That understanding of suffering was based upon its objective historical manifestation. If, according to Agamben’s ‘paradigmatic ontology’, a given paradigm‘s intelligibility and objective being are co-substantive, then our intelligibility of the suffering subject is constrained within the object of Perpetua’s subjectivity. However a historical understanding of the suffering subject, as in the person of Perpetua, ought to point towards the object of suffering.

John Milbank states that Agamben’s sovereignty is analogous to his Heideggerian ontology, wherein Being excludes the contingency of the beings which comprise it at the same moment as beings exclude the possibility of knowing the form of Being. The subject qua being is thus “abandoned by the Being that discloses them, and in this sense are in a condition like that of homo sacer. […]But in that case, one may well ask, just what is the point of identifying oneself with bare life in order to escape earthly sovereignty, only to fall into the hands of cosmic tyranny?” (Milbank 2003, p. 98).

Thus Agamben, and Perkins following him, do in fact hold a particular view as to “our solidarity with Christ, the God abandoned as homo sacer upon the Cross” (Milbank 2003, p.98), as depicted in the New Testament. If this is not evidenced enough by Perkins’ theoretical framework, it certainly is by her expressed solidarity with Perpetua as homo sacer. This homo sacer, like Christ, asks ‘Eli Eli lama sabachthani?’ (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), but in so doing merely repeats, though the metaphysical projections of Heidegger, Christ’s humanity to the exclusion of his divinity (Milbank 2003, pp. 98-99). The suffering subject of Perkins, following Agamben, is therefore one being among many which in their essence “are abandoned by the Being that discloses them, and in this sense are in a condition like that of homo sacer” (Milbank 2003, pp. 97-98).

Perkins states that “Platonists emulated not Socrates’ death but his rationale for it and his rationality in accepting it” (1995, p. 13). The followers of Socrates, unlike the followers of Jesus, did not represent themselves as sufferers in emulation of Socrates’ suffering, for they in fact emulated the pursuit of truth for which Socrates died. Milbank agrees, seeing the Platonic emulation of Socrates as all too divine, and lacking in the humanity of Jesus’ death. In the irony of the gospels “Jesus did die for truth since he was the truth”, but except by his divine nature, “Jesus did not die […] a divine death. He also died the most sheerly human death — or a kenotic death of utterly emptied-out humanity. For he was not Socrates, dying for the truth: jesting Pilate denied him this dignity.” Nor was Jesus’ death caused by a pursuit of political truth: “No, in the end, he died at what was possibly the whim of a drunken mob” (2003, p. 96).

Nicole Kelley takes Pierre Hadot‘s ‘view from above’ as a ‘technology of the self’ essential to the Acta (Kelley 2006, pp. 730-731). Claiming that the Acta contain a message analogous to Plato’s Phaedo, that philosophizing is a practice of death pursuant of ones orientation towards the logos (Kelley 2006, p. 731). This ‘view from above’ is not, however, an accurate description of the Christian subjectivity, which holds that the logos descends to, or empties itself out into, the subject. Socrates dies in his faithfulness to the logos, but Perpetua dies in so far as she is the logos, along with Christ. If Perpetua’s reversal of hierarchies prompts us to declare “I believe because it is absurd (credo quia absurdum)”, then how much further ought we to extend this declaration, given that such reversals were clearly ontic in her view?

The Suffering: Representational Revolution or Universal Truth?

As already stated, Perpetua’s alleged first-person account ends before her execution, as it of course must. What she gives us before that event are three dream visions punctuated by three waking occurrences, in each of which her father appears. The family scenes bear a clear significance upon the visions which follow them (Mertens 1986; Perkins 1995). In particular, the three contentious waking encounters with her father, which spill over into her dreams, resemble the three temptations of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). In § III her father tries to shake her resolution, and although his argument is not made clear, Perpetua’s subsequent vision of overcoming a fear of mutilation (§ IV) makes it seem entirely possible that this fear of mutilation was one touched upon by her father’s argument. Perpetua’s response is to tell her father that what he asks is impossible, as her suffering depends upon her being a Christian (§ III). We hear echoes here of Satan’s tempting Jesus’ hunger (Matthew 4:2-4; Luke 4:2-4).

Perpetua’s father, a person of high standing with society’s opinions to fear (Haffernan 2012 § II p. 126; § V p. 106; Haffernan 2012 p. 26), is forced by Perpetua’s arrest to step outside the traditional norms for a person of his status (Haffernan, p. 188). As much as Perpetua may be seen as reversing social hierarchies, she nevertheless shares with her father and her society a normative ‘text’. In that way, her second confrontation with her father shows a conflict of exegesis as much as Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12. Her final confrontation and vision, which Perkins holds “brings Perpetua to a full recognition of her power and her rejection of the subordinate female role decreed by the norms of a male-dominated hierarchy” (1995, p. 109), shares in common with Christ’s ultimate ‘kingdoms’ temptation (Matthew 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8) a challenge not of body or interpretation, but of subjectivity’s irreducible consubstantiality with truth.

In Perpetua’s second encounter with her father (§ V) he asks her to abandon her hubris out of pity for him and the family, with specific reference to the danger of his suffering the reproaches of his peers. It is here where Perpetua insists that her father has begun to speak to her as a “dominam, or materfamilias, rather than as his daughter. She refers her father to God’s will (and similarly to that of the “Dominum“, as in § VII), in a way analogous to Christ’s reference to Deuteronomy 6:16 (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12), challenging her father’s interpretation of the domus of society. In the same waking sequence, continued in § VI, Perpetua is tempted by her son and by the abuse/humiliation of her father. Her father consequently refuses her her son, and this retributive severing of her from the domus on both her father’s and the governor’s parts is answered with the Dominum who ends her suckling and comes represented in her second vision, in § VII to VIII. In this vision, in two dreams, she encounters her dead brother suffering, and after having prayed for him she sees his suffering relieved. The Dominum is affirmed over the domus, as Perpetua has justly not presumed upon God’s authority.

Perpetua’s final vision in § X demonstrates her temptations’ relationship to social text most clearly. In that dream, she sees herself fighting an Egyptian in the arena, herself having been transformed into a man. This transformation is for Perkins the highest culmination of Perpetua’s subversive account (1995, p. 109). Yet, tellingly, despite her claim “I became man”, a man announces to the arena what will happen if the Egyptian “‘defeats this woman'” (literally “illam“) (§ X). The final temptation of Perpetua, in § IX, on the day of her execution, has her father tearing out his beard, evidently at a loss to exercise his male authority. If this temptation means anything, it is that beyond Perpetua’s being tempted with the dominas as before, she has been tempted with the more powerful yet still gender-specific dominus by having so thoroughly defied her father in his role as such. Her transformation could hardly be more frought, then, with temptation. Rather than being a victory over male-dominated hierarchy, her transformation is a temptation of it. Thus the presence of the announcer, or trainer, who again refers to her as “filia (§ IX).

All this may be consistent with a peculiar logic of reversal at the heart of Christianity (Perkins 1995, p. 110), but if so, that reversal is not that Perpetua becomes a man qua man, but merely man qua victor. Nor is it that Christ rejects Satan’s “kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4:8; Luke 4:5) qua kingdoms, but that he does so in so much as he belongs to the kingdom of Christian eschatology qua truth (John 18:36-37). The kernel of both of these ultimate challenges is that which all the others depend upon: understanding. For in the first father/vision sequence, Perpetua establishes that her bare life cannot be taken as unqualified by her Christianity, and in the second instance, that the qualifying of her life is dependent upon her bare life and its truth in light of Christianity. What the divergent interpretations of domus in the second sequence hinge upon is not to be found within the narrative of the (social) text alone, but in the power of the logos to signify truth, and the truth of bare life.

Were Jesus’ and Perpetua’s sufferings to be named a pursuit of truth rather than an enactment of it, then subjectivization would be the process by which the event is taken as an argument with meaning in relation to such truth. But as what suffers in the person of the suffering subject of Christian representations is the truth itself, such suffering is devoid of meaning and utterly insubjectivizable. Nevertheless, Milbank sees that Perkins and Agamben’s understanding maintains “consistency with the New Testament itself,” and therefore asks, “What are the main features of the New Testament’s understanding of our solidarity with Christ, the God abandoned as homo sacer upon the Cross?” (2003, p 98) Milbank’s answer is that the notion of ‘life’ within the New Testament resists Agamben’s Aristotle, who makes the distinction between zoe (bare life) and bios (qualified life) which buttresses the sovereignty that creates homo sacer (Agamban 1998, p. 9). Christ was homo sacer, but in so much as he died as both bios and zoe, it was his death as zoe which coincided with his divinity (Milbank 2003, p. 103). “Our new political life in Christ is once more a merely natural life in the sense of created life,” Milbank argues (2003, p. 103). Thus ‘life’ in the New Testament is already deleterious of earthly sovereignty, and not by resisting homo sacer, but by its deification of it.

Perkins is acutely aware of the threshold of which the Passion of Perpetua serves as an illustration. The ‘suffering subject’, however, as it is conceived, evades truest historical understanding. If this subject is made a homo sacer, or zoe, then the impression is that excavating that subject from that objectification is a process of defining it as bios. Whether that resistant bios is the intellectual theoretikos, sensual apolaustikos, or politikos, true historical understanding is missed on two accounts. Firstly, Perpetua the subject was, beyond a suffering subject, an imitatio Christi. Her understanding of her own subjectivity was rooted in her belief in the object the divine sovereignty, or at least if we are to take her word for it. Secondly, Perpetua the sufferer was, before being a subject in the sense of qualified life or bios, a zoe like her object of emulation. If that suffering zoe is also truly aletheia (truth) depends, as much today as it did in Perpetua’s time, upon one’s logos.


In the final chapter of The Suffering Self, Perkins states: “A basic premise of this study has been that it is difficult for us heirs to the representational coup effected by Christianity not to view the texts of the early Christian period with simplifying hindsight, overlooking their radicalism in the light of its centrality in our own tradition” (1995 p. 201). One cannot accuse her, however, of not trying to remove herself from that hindsight. As her influences demonstrate, however, a recent equivocation of truth with power and an ascendency of language as a primary (if not as the sole) criterion for meaning may themselves already be guilty of such a simplifying of hindsight. They are certainly guilty of owing their concern with logos to a tradition which puts it at its center, yet they maintain its difference from life.

If, for all of our desire to let the past speak for itself, we are doing no more than preparing a fairer trial for it, we are nevertheless always already passing judgement upon it. And if, as mentioned before, the victim has become the heuristic device of postmodernity, then it is not without an inherited sense of justitia that we choose our theoretical frameworks in analyzing history. There is, at the core of the work of Foucault or Agamben, the specter of Abrahamic vidalism that becomes all the more poignant for its being disavowed. This is most evident in its insistence upon the will to life of the deceased homo sacer, though as Milbank explains:

The carrying through of ‘will’ involves continuity yet rupture between ‘living’ voice and ‘cultural’ inscription. The very order of sovereign arbitrary power depends upon this. Yet for the New Testament, there is neither ‘natural’ will nor regular conventional performance of will. Instead there is created will which participates in God, wherein life and Logos (Spirit and Son) communicate as one. […] Such a will does not consist sovereignty in itself, and so cannot be betrayed by any executive — instead it only is in its always-already othering as execution: always for furtherance and not termination of life” (2003, p. 102).

If, as Kierkegaard claimed, only the Christian knows what is meant by the sickness unto death” (1980, p. 8), then only in so far as we can share Perpetua’s understanding of imitatio Christi, as suffering and death, do we understand the suffering subject portrayed by such early Christian stories of death. And we come to understand that suffering subject not merely when we contemplate it, but also when we live in a suffering unto death for the furtherance of life, or write history unto the end for the furtherance of history. That was the mystery which no narrative could contain, but which the reader was brought into; we come to understand only when we re-enact that greatest of mysteries for ourselves.


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Icon of Perpetua and Felicity by Robert Lentz


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