July 31, 2012

Auden on Detective Stories and Comedy


The only Auden essays I have read in their entirety are his lectures on Shakespeare, and that was years ago, and I disagreed with his thoughts on one of my favorite plays (Much Ado, perhaps; I don't remember), so I promptly forgot it all.  But I clearly need to read more Auden. Look! Here he talks about my two favorite things: comedy and mystery.

Auden on Mystery, from "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on Detective Stories from an Addict" published in Harper's, May 1948:
The interest in the thriller is the ethical and eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them. The interest in the study of a murderer is the observation, by the innocent many, of the sufferings of the guilty one. The interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt.

As in the Aristotelian description of tragedy, there is Concealment (the innocent seem guilty and the guilty seem innocent) and Manifestation (the real guilt is brought to consciousness). There is also peripeteia, in this case not a reversal of fortune but a double reversal from apparent guilt to innocence and from apparent innocence to guilt. The formula may be diagrammed as follows.

Auden on Comedy, from "The Globe," via Mockingbird:
[Comedy] is not only possible within a Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because classical comedy is based upon a division of mankind into two classes, those who have arete [excellence] and those who do not, and only the second class, the fools, shameless rascals, slaves, are fit subjects for comedy.

But Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge others and that it is our duty to forgive each other.

In the classical comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together” (Dyer’s 177).

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