Broken Bodies and Viral Stories

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Stairwell in the Amphitheatre of El Djem, Tunisia. Roman amphitheatres were built to host gladiatorial games – both to entertain and to intimidate the provincial populations. Strangely, the amphitheatre at El Djem – the largest in Roman Africa – was never completed.

Over the past few weeks I have been drumming up support for Broken Bodies and Viral Stories, a new Humanities Research Network at Oxford.

The group will address a question that has puzzled writers since Aristotle: Why are narratives involving pain and fear so memorable? What is it about a hero or heroine’s suffering and courage, pain and defiance that makes a reader stop and take notice?

The group will address a wide variety of kinds of stories – many of them unknown to Aristotle – from ancient martyr acts to modern vampire novels. Our intent is to stage a conversation between literary scholars and others – novelists, social scientists, journatlists, psychologists  – to try to understand better how descriptions of pain and violence evoke empathy in the reader or listener, and why they are so ‘sticky’ in memory.

My own work on early Christian martyrdom suggests that early Christian writers were deeply aware of the fascination of pain. Many of the early descriptions of the deaths of Christian martyrs use great care to focus the readers’ attention on the contrast between spiritual courage and physical suffering. And as they face their destiny the martyrs often deliver speeches, which can serve to concentrate the message which the writer wishes the audience to hear and remember.

But I am not so sure it is as simple as that. For some writers, the sensory fireworks triggered in the imagination are not merely a way of underlining the message and making it memorable – the experience actually is the message.

What are the rules of the game? I am not at all sure that writing about pain is a game that has discernable rules. But then again, it may – wish us luck as we make a stab at trying to find out.

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