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The Comic Mode

As I think about the Decameron this week, I've discovered a wonderful book written in the 1990s by Caroline Walker Bynum about gender and the human body in Medieval religion.  In the introduction, she writes about the way scholars like to identify little conclusions in their analysis, as if the moments in history they write about lead to an ending of some kind like a Shakespeare play.  She permits scholars to do this, so long as they recognize that their conclusions are contrived like the sudden occurrence of four simultaneous weddings at the end of any number of happy plays and stories.  They're not real, but they can serve a purpose nonetheless.  

She calls this tendency to invent conclusions the "comic mode."  It is uncomfortable to live in the tragic or historic mode all of the time, and the comic allows for a certain lightheartedness and chorality - we can try on different voices and allow for the fact that other people will disagree with us and see things from a totally different point of view.  Comedy permits this.

“The answer is that the comic is not necessarily the pleasant, or at least it is the pleasant snatched from the horrible by artifice and with acute self-consciousness and humility. In comedy, the happy ending is contrived. Thus, a comic stance knows there is, in actuality, no ending (happy or otherwise) – that doing history is, for the historian, telling a story that could be told in another way. For this reason, a comic stance welcomes voices hithertofore left outside, not to absorb or mute them but to allow them to object and contradict. Its goal is the pluralistic, not the total.”[1]

[1] Bynum, Caroline Walker. “History in the Comic Mode.” Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. 25.


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