Arthur Miller: Self and Tragedy

By Palmer, David | The Arthur Miller Journal, Spring-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Arthur Miller: Self and Tragedy


Palmer, David, The Arthur Miller Journal


Editor's Note: At the 2014 Modem Language Association Annual Convention in Chicago, the Arthur Miller Society organized a special round table session, "Arthur Miller: Self and Tragedy," that discussed cognitive approaches to Miller's work. Presided by David Palmer, the session brought together the cognitive literary scholars, Patrick Colm Hogan and Bruce McConachie and the Arthur Miller scholars: Stephen A. Marino and Matthew C. Roudané. The following is an edited transcript of the session.

Palmer: Welcome. This session is the beginning of events leading up to the Society's celebration of the centennial of Miller's birth in October 2015. The core idea for our round-table discussion this evening is quite simple: bring together two scholars who specialize in cognitive approaches to literature and two scholars who specialize in the works of Arthur Miller and let them discuss how cognitive approaches provide insights into Miller's vision of tragedy and how Miller's plays reveal the workings of the human mind, in particular how a person develops a sense of self.

Miller's plays seem especially well-adapted to this discussion because of the way Miller structured his tragedies. As Ben Brantley, the theater critic of The New York Times, noted in a recent issue of The Arthur Miller Journal (Vol. VII, 1 & 2, Fall 2012, 2), "Every one of Miller's plays is steeped in a sense of guilt that taints each of its characters; they all take place 'after the fall.'" The crisis that prompts the collapse of the narrative that constitutes a person's self generally takes place in Miller's plays before the action begins. Miller approaches tragedy not as a depiction of the moment a character confronts his flawed self-narrative but as a depiction of his characters' floundering to find a new psychological equilibrium after the confrontation has occurred, "after the fall." This certainly is true of the Keller family in All My Sons (1947), of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (1949), of John Proctor in The Crucible (1953), and of Quentin in After the Fall (1964). The same pattern is seen in many others of Miller's plays and is what makes these plays such suitable subjects for a cognitive approach to literary interpretation, in particular our understanding of crises in a person's sense of self. This is the general theme our panelists will discuss.

We'll begin the round table with brief opening statements from the two cognitive scholars and follow these with statements from the Miller scholars. There then will be a discussion among the panelists, and we hope to have 25 minutes at the end of the session for an open discussion with the audience.

McConachie: I've entitled my opening remarks "Salesman and Literary Darwinism" to indicate my general endorsement of this approach to literary criticism and my application of it to Miller's Death of a Salesman. I would modify literary Darwinism in a couple of ways, however, which I hope we can talk about during the discussion.

In Graphing Jane Austin: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (2012), authors Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, plus their two co-authors, summarize the results of their web-based survey questioning hundreds of readers about their response to nineteenth-century British novels. The four literary Darwinists draw several conclusions, three of which are particularly relevant to our purposes today. First, following the work of others, they state that story-telling and listening helped small bands of our evolutionary predecessors to survive. Second, these stories endorsed egalitarian norms through an agonistic structure that favored such values over the norms that promoted individual success. Third, the literary Darwinists demonstrate that we are still telling these kinds of stories, which continue to communicate the biocultural norms we learned in our hunter-gatherer past.

Let's look more closely at these conclusions before moving to Salesman. The authors make a strong case that our ancestors adopted altruistic norms around 100,000 years ago to ensure the social cohesion and survivability of their bands. …

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