Frank Kermode, RIP, critic of failed quests.

When I flew home in August for my brother’s wedding, my dad, meeting me at Heathrow, as soon as we were seated on a Piccadilly Line train, pulled from his backpack two newspaper obituaries for the literary critic Frank Kermode. My dad had guessed right: I’ve long been a devoted reader of Kermode, and I am a compulsive recommender of everything of his I’ve read: The Genesis of Secrecy, Romantic Image, and The Sense of an Ending, which cover, respectively, secrecy and confusion in the gospels, the philosophy behind Romanticism, and our desire for endings. Kermode wrote modestly, simply, with enormous intelligence; I hope, if you read him, that you share the feeling he gives me, of new and permanent structures being assembled in your brain. His depiction of W.B. Yeats’ world view, in Romantic Image, is not something one can ever unread, and his quiet destruction of certain dubious but famous dichotomies—that modern life fatally separates “thinking and feeling,” or that modern thought is a battle between “romanticism and classicism”—gives a reader the feeling of listening to a brain thinking at its highest possible temperature.

I have always considered Kermode to be the most modernist person I know. If modernism is a tendency, and not just a movement, and it is meaningful to ask if Plato is a bit modernist, then Kermode’s dates (1919-2010) should not harm this evaluation. I see modernism, at least in literature, as principally the idea that out there, somewhere, is IT, the real thing, the meaning of it all, true reality and worthwhile thought, but for some reason, that IT has become distant, lost, held at the end of a labyrinth. Modernism is interested in the filth and mess of real life because they hide the eternal glow, and it depicts the quest to get at that real reality. DH Lawrence, for instance, begins his oeuvre with the short story Odour of Chrysanthemums, in which already all the themes are present: a man lies dead, and his wife knows she never truly touched him, even with sex, the real him lying far off. This is why, generalising wildly as I am, I think modernist art tends towards the monumental, the Byzantine, the encyclopaedic, The Waste Land, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses: the work of art must represent, in its form, the difficulty of the quest the artist undertakes. The quest can’t be real if it can be easily depicted. I therefore believe that there is a difference in kind, a paradigm shift, between, say, the snippets of foreign languages included in The Waste Land, and the historical parodies in the post-modern The Crying of Lot 49: we are supposed to feel that if we piece all the clues in Eliot’s poem together, something will take shape, whereas Pynchon, when he includes a made up Jacobean drama in his novel, is aiming at a different effect.

If this depiction of modernism is correct, which, incidentally, I think I have lifted whole from Derrida’s Sign, Structure and Play, then Kermode is its critic, not in the sense that he explains it best, but that he is powered by it, that he is its speaker. Kermode is forever describing our desire for a meaning and the structures we create to give ourselves the feeling of one, only to lament that he can tear down those structures in a paragraph, that on serious analysis they disintegrate, and that they fall apart on their own accord given time. In The Sense of an Ending, he wonderfully points out that we hear a clock’s ticking as “tick-tock tick-tock,” when, of course, the clock actually is making a series of identical ticks. There is no “tock” outside our heads: we invent it because we demand that a beginning has an ending. A desire for endings is a human desire, but the desire to check if “tick tock” is really the sound that clocks make is equally a human desire. We have the need for meaning, but also the need for reality, and only in myth do we expect to achieve our ending without some difficulty, without some pollution of normal life’s confines. Serious literature, therefore, plays with these two urges, giving us the “tock” we need to feel that events are not senseless, but delaying it, complicating it, delivering the required ending but never the way the reader expects, bringing a sense of finality that somehow also obeys our sense of how things are. If we believe we have found a final meaning, or have discovered in literature moral lessons to guide our lives, we have simply created a myth, and a good reader of fiction knows better.

Kermode’s unstated goal, in both Romantic Image and The Sense of an Ending, is to end a certain kind of historical analysis in literary criticism: the idea that human (or Western) consciousness was radically different in the past, that this different consciousness was much better (whatever it was) than the one we have now, that the proof of this can be seen in the art the older era has left us, and that we need, somehow, to get back to it. Don’t worry, Kermode promises, either the Elizabethans/Florentines/prehistoric people were just as screwed up and self-divided as we are, or we have misunderstood the nature of the problem. Any attempt to argue otherwise risks the creation of a myth, a justification of evil unto others. Kermode, making his stand against myth, especially in The Sense of an Ending, seems both heroic, in a very English, understated way, and immensely sad, as it is clear he is arguing this way in order to attack Hitler’s claim to myth. It is the mad apocalypse of Nazism that Kermode is trying to prevent reoccurring.

Therefore, Kermode’s attempt to place his criticism somehow above the fashions of history, creating new labels and gestures that no longer rely on epochs and paradigms, seems, in that sense, not completely successful. His argument feels intensely the product of a particular time, of a world trying to comprehend the horror of WWII, a companion to Adorno’s claim that writing poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric, saying instead that believing poetry, not writing it, is the problem. I feel that here, Kermode may simply be creating a new myth, that of plain “everyday life,” forgetting perhaps that while it may have been myth that fueled Hitler’s genocide, it was also myth that fuelled his opponents’ struggles against him, and myth that created and sustained the cultures that fought and endured the Nazis.

One last, much lighter topic: I also feel that reading Kermode shows us why post-modernism happened. I sense, in Kermode’s work, the exhaustion that Modernism brings, the sense of the quester struggling and struggling, never satisfied, desperate to make the lines in the Gospel of Mark make rational and moral sense, and never quite being able to do so, to make sex or Anglicanism or memory the key to unlocking real life, and somehow never quite believing it, the piles of others’ failed attempts to find the same solution growing ever higher each year. It seems totally reasonable, therefore, that eventually people just got sick of it, and ditched the idea of the “origin,” of the forbidden castle at the end of the dark forest, and flipped modernism on its head: in post-modernism, the surface is what’s real. Whatever meaning there is exists right in front of us. Relax, reader, and enjoy the performance. Thomas Pynchon, in The Crying of Lot 49, doesn’t expect his reader to actually believe him, I think, and the few moments when he does seem to expect this are the weakest, the worst thought out in the book. Rather he intends to dazzle, to mash up, to out Jacobean the Jacobeans, to demonstrate a virtuosity that is, to a large extent, its own subject.

I personally am a bit of a mythic guy. I love the myth-making of the serene Northrop Frye and furious Harold Bloom. If a novel could persuade me to tie my shoelaces a different way I would be delighted. But reading Kermode, I understand why such a take on literature grew old.

What do you think?

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