The Comedy of Trauma: Confidence, Complicity, and Coercion in Modern Romance
AuthorCrumbo, Daniel Jedediah
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractStories engage a form of virtual play. Though they incorporate language and abstractions, stories engage many of the same biological systems and produce many of the same anatomical responses as simpler games. Like peek-a-boo or tickle play, stories stage dangerous or unpleasant scenarios in a controlled setting. In this way, they help develop cognitive strategies to tolerate, manage, and even enjoy uncertainty. One means is by inspiring confidence in difficult situations by tactical self-distraction. Another is to reframe negative or uncertain situations as learning opportunities, that is, to ascribe meaning to them. While both strategies are useful, each has limitations. In William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a king succumbs to the desire to make meaning where there is none, and nearly ruins himself in a self-composed tragedy. His friend restores his confidence and enables a happy ending—but only by deceiving him. This deception is benign, but the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is nearly ruined by her abductor’s confidence game. Her “happy ending” is made possible only by reframing her rape and death as redemptive transfiguration—which, as many of her readers suggest, is a dubious affair. The hero of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man spends the first half of the novel eliciting his companions’ confidence in order to swindle them, and the second half trying to inspire himself with the same confidence. The novel ends with an ominous impasse: one must trust, but one ought not to. For Samuel Beckett, this impasse is productive. In his middle novels, thought itself emerges from the interplay of spontaneous bouts of irrational confidence and distortive, after-the-fact impositions of spurious meaning. Stories create (illusory) identities, elicit (dubious) hopes, and reinforce (false) assumptions in order to help us cope with the agonies of anticipation and loss, and to transform misfortune, accident, and misery into reward, retribution, and meaning—that is, in a comedy of trauma.
Degree ProgramGraduate College