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After Tragedy: The Romance of the Lowly God


In this dissertation, I argue that romance, as a conceptual mode, refuses the inexorability and the finality of the tragic by uniquely admitting the force of the sacred without banishing the secular or erasing the phenomenal world. By refusing to give tragedy the last word, romance rejects the antinomianism at the heart of both agonistic and liberationist secularization theses of the late modern West. It has been usual, however, to look at romance from the vantage of the classical, Graeco-Roman tradition, seeing in it not a radical mode that supersedes the tragic and subverts the ideal, but a conservative mode that idealizes the aristocratic class, justifies the status quo, and correlates the beautiful with the good. I argue there is a second, often overlooked genealogy of romance, whose basic grammar parallels that of classical romance yet inverts many of its central assumptions. Originating in the Judeo-Christian tradition, scriptural romance dissolves rather than restoring the status quo, highlights the failure of the heroic ideal to account for the error-strewn nature of ordinary life, and exposes the way in which traditional forms of power are wedded to magical orders of meaning. The protagonists of scriptural romance, though often the very idealization of their culture and class, discover themselves to be simultaneously saints and sinners, whose essential inclination to presumption and aspiration—fundamental virtues of the protagonists of classical romance—manifest instead as error and alienation. By tracking the failure of the ideal structures of power and identity, scriptural romance emphasizes the provisional nature of human knowledge and the contingent nature of human experience, exploring the way in which human cognition is inexorably rooted in and distorted by desire. By foregrounding the place of eros in shaping understanding, scriptural romance inverts classical romance’s correlation of the apparent with the actual, instead depicting a world that is available but not immediately intelligible to the human mind. And because the violence and magic of classical romance fail to restore the world in scriptural romance, the protagonists of scriptural romance are inevitably returned to the vicissitudes of history in continual search of a home and order of meaning that have not yet fully appeared.

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