Kermode’s Changing Times

P.N. Furbank

  • The Uses of Error by Frank Kermode
    Collins, 432 pp, £18.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 00 215465 X

Frank Kermode having now become ‘Sir Frank’, it seems a good moment to take a look back over his remarkable career: though by no means because that career is at an end, for he is producing at such a rate just now that it is quite a job to keep up with him. Very broadly, one can think of his career so far as falling into four stages. The first stage, from Romantic Image (1957) to Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962), was very much imbued with Symboliste theory, and Kermode was ready to go along with the notions of the autonomy and organic unity of the work of art (and with the word ‘art’ itself) and with the identity of form and meaning. Merely – though of course it was not a small ‘merely’ – he argued against the hermetic tendencies of Symboliste aesthetics. He praised Yeats for insisting that poetry was made for ordinary human beings and for ignoring the forbidding notice ‘No through road to action’, and he contested the idea, implicit in Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, that to embrace Donne you had to give up Milton. It was a stage in which, not for the last time, Kermode offered himself as a reconciler and peacemaker. Romantic Image, moreover, in the way it pursued a certain figure, that of the Dancer, through innumerable avatars, anticipated the long vistas of his later work.

The second stage is represented by The Sense of an Ending (1967) and the collection Continuities (1968), and is deeply concerned with narratology, and especially with the idea that human beings, readers and writers alike, are incorrigible chiliasts and find they can only make sense of their existence by interpreting it through paradigms like ‘crisis’, ‘apocalypse’, ‘decadence’ and ‘renewal’. The habit of resorting to these comforting fictions, so the argument runs, is inescapable, and a writer’s duty lies, not in trying to eschew them, but in constantly checking and regulating them against his or her sense of reality. One notices how much capital and rhetorical effect Kermode gets out of that propitiatory pronoun ‘we’, by which he offers himself as a scapegoat or lightning-conductor on our behalf.

Then, just about the year of The Sense of an Ending, the French invaded our shores, and his new book, according to his own rueful account, ‘became antediluvian almost on publication’. His reaction was wholly admirable. He founded a seminar at University College London to explore ‘Structuralism’ and kindred imported theories. It lasted from 1967 to 1976, attracting what for us now are some very familiar names – Jonathan Culler, Christopher Norris, Annette Lavers, Stephen Heath etc – and under his guidance, we gather, they all got on extremely well, ‘preserving a tone of good humour in the midst of the most serious, even the most fierce, exchanges’.

Kermode remained, as he declared in Continuities, ‘more in favour of continuities than of schisms’, and he became more interested (or interested in a different way) in the long vista of continuity represented by ‘the classics’. Interest in the apocalypse was joined, under the influence of Frances Yates, by an interest in the ‘Imperial theme’, the theme of timeless empire continually renewing itself over huge tracts of history by means of ‘translations’ and ‘renovations’. This imperium sine fine was seen by Kermode as a paradigm of the ‘classic’ – that is to say, of that notion of a literary model or measure binding on all European cultures. In his T.S. Eliot Lectures of 1973 (published as The Classic) he widened Eliot’s own discussion in What is a classic? by relating it to current controversies about ‘intention’, about whether it matters what the author of an ancient work actually meant by it himself. Which should a literary critic model himself or herself on, asked Kermode: the hermeneutically-minded archaeologist or philologist who tries to project himself into dead ways of thinking and feeling, or the Medieval commentator who ‘accommodates’ awkward texts by allegorising them? His answer, it emerged, after some vigorous re-interpretations of modern classics, was a typically Kermodian and irenic one: that ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘accommodation’ come to much the same in the end. ‘Imperial concord’ seemed about to descend, olive-crowned, and everything appeared in danger of fitting almost too well.

These were golden days and were not to last. ‘Deconstruction’ arrived and gave a new and fearful jolt to literary minds. Kermode went to Cambridge, and this was not perhaps altogether a happy move, for soon afterwards the place was ravaged by the McCabe affair. Kermode could have no doubt, he reflected disconsolately in Essays on Fiction (1983), that his own inadequacy as a mediator had been demonstrated. There was a war on, ‘and he who ventures into no-man’s-land brandishing cigarettes and singing carols must expect to be shot at.’ It was altogether a turning-point for him. Like St Jerome in Bethlehem, he retired to his study and applied himself to his Bible (the evenings in Cambridge, he has written recently, seemed very long).

The outcome was The Genesis of Secrecy, which addressed the ‘hermeneutic problem’ and the paradoxes of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ in more depth: a book which offered ‘an interpretation of interpretation’. Of the alternative approaches, hermeneutics and accommodation, he was by temperament more attuned to the second, and he now sought a justification for the activities of literary critics in those rabbinic commentators and New Testament gospel-authors who bridged the gap between the first readers of a sacred text and later ones by rewriting and augmenting the text, thereby explaining it in a more comfortable sense. Kermode is still concerned with narrative, and with two problems about narratives – what kind of thing they are, and how they are produced – which, by an ingenious manoeuvre, he argues to be one and the same problem. It is not merely commentators – rabbinic, Christian or Princeton professor-type – who ‘interpret’, it is what any storyteller does. The Evangelist, for whom what makes a story true is that it interprets and fulfils an Old Testament testimony or prophecy, is in no very different situation from a novelist, with whom the later pages of his novel are the interpretation of its earlier ones. This is how narratives are generated, and it need not surprise us if literary critics continue the same interpretative process after the book has been printed.

Kermode’s Biblical studies continued for some ten years, but when he was invited to deliver the Clarendon and Northcliffe lectures for 1987 he thought it a good occasion to make ‘a clean break’ with them. In these lectures, published together in 1988 as History and Value, and in two succeeding books, An Appetite for Poetry (1989) and Poetry, Narrative, History (1990), he took for his subject the question of value in literature. It is an issue which, he said, had tended to be lazily or discreetly edged aside over the last few decades and had subsequently returned in a new form: concerning ‘canon’-formation and institutional control of the ‘canon’. My periodisation becomes a little shaky here, for his cunning polemic Forms of Attention (1985) was already all about canons: nevertheless we may regard this as the fourth, which is to say the current, stage in his development.

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[*] In 1960 Mr Symons published The Thirties and reissued it with minor changes in 1975. He has now re-reissued it, with a postscript: The Thirties and the Nineties (Carcanet, 184 pp.. £14.95, October 1990, 0 85635 902 2).