Genesis of Secrecy 
by Frank Kermode.
Harvard, 169 pp., £5.50, June 1979, 0 674 34525 8
Show More
Show More

Frank Kermode’s new book contains a great deal of graceful and dignified prose, especially in the last chapter, and many of the examples are of great interest. It seems to argue that no history or biography can be believed, but must be regarded as a kind of novel. Any narrative is necessarily incomplete, and the details left out may for some readers be the important ones – what is taken for granted may become the crucial question. Such is the justification for the title. The chief theme of the book, or source for its examples, is the Gospel of St Mark, and it attends to many recent works on this subject, mostly in French or German. A tone of yearning sorrow is often present, but Kermode’s theory must be applied to his own work: this tone should be part of his novelistic technique.

He has long been keeping abreast of the latest ideas from the Continent, and I have certainly no business to jeer at him for that; I ought to feel ashamed of not having done the same. But I do not feel so in this case. We know that Oscar Wilde is much revered on the mainland, and it looks as if Kermode has merely been getting the aesthetic Nineties echoed back at him. No doubt Imagism comes in too. He looks at a landscape with half-closed eyes through a mist, or in a Claude-glass, or upside down from between his legs; and this is not a good way to read a novel, which is usually better read as if it were a history. Also it is rather unfair to take the chief examples from the Gospels, because there many readers have an extra difficulty about the miracles. A brief paragraph about Sir Philip Sidney, thrown in as an extra, does more to make the position clear.

Lying wounded on a battlefield, the aristocratic young officer was brought a cup of water, but handed it on to a wounded trooper, saying: ‘Thy need is greater than mine.’ Kermode makes it ‘thy necessity’, quite spoiling the tone of the thing; he always wants to insert a long fussy word which is a bit off the point. He then says: ‘The story was first told by Sidney’s friend Fulke Greville, in a biography written 25 years after the poet’s death, and first published 40 years after that. We know from what he says of Sidney’s own writings that Greville approved of characters in books only when their conduct might serve as an example to the reader … There were no surviving eyewitnesses to his dying act, for which we have only Greville’s word, and it has been pointed out that Greville seems to have been remembering a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.’

I would agree that the story is a bit unpleasant, because it is aggressively holy: many a trooper would resent having gratitude and admiration dragged out of him at such a time. The OK thing would be to drink some of the cup himself and pass it on, leaving most of it to the other man if that seemed fit; then the noble sentiment might actually be pronounced, and not appear self-regarding. I do not mind the evident craving of Kermode to assault the story, only his conception of evidence. When were there no surviving eyewitnesses, pray? The man who brought the cup must have been one, at the time. As to Plutarch, surely Sidney had read him as much as Greville, and was more concerned to present himself as a hero. Kermode feels that the man making a document at a desk, by copying bits from previous documents – he is real, but any man on a battlefield is a kind of puppet. Even Sidney, though a writer himself, could not have done any copying on a battlefield, when he was a puppet. ‘The story was first told’ 25 years later – how on earth can Kermode claim to know this? Greville was a clumsy writer, prone to the labours of the file, but he was the same age as Sidney, and a close friend, and had been in the Low Countries, taking notes, just around the time when Sidney died there. Kermode would be credible if he said: ‘The story was first written down … ’ But even this is very unlikely. Greville would write notes as soon as he got reports, and write them up at his leisure for a formal memoir. And what can we make of the phrase ‘characters in books’, implying that Sidney became a mere figment in a novel as soon as he stopped writing his novel?

Kermode used to be very decisive about ‘genres’, insisting that every writer around 1600 was always tied down to one convention or another. If true of anybody, this was true of Greville, who would be very indignant to hear that he thought it proper to invent lies in a memoir, merely because he liked a romance to be allegorical. As to the lateness of the publication, the one thing it does prove is that the story was not a cooked-up piece of propaganda, for use while the death was hot news. Of course, somebody else may have invented the story at the time, and told it to Greville, but none of the confident arguments of Kermode affect the probability.

Coming now to the Gospel, the first and most impressive example given by Kermode is Mark iv, 11-12, which has long been recognised as a crux. The disciples ask Jesus why he uses parables, and he assures them that they will be told the mystery of the Kingdom, but outsiders will only get parables: ‘that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them’. Kermode drives home that this means he is ‘telling stories in order to ensure that they will miss the point.’ The disciples ask about the parable of the Sower, and Jesus indignantly explains: ‘the sower soweth the word.’ But this is an unusually pointless allegory. Does it mean that the seeds which fell on stony ground are doomed to eternal torture? It suggests that God is a casual and wasteful type of farmer: not an intolerable view, but then he ought not to put the blame on us.

Kermode reports shock and bewilderment among certain commentators, and then describes the rescue operation of Matthew: ‘The whole passage about seeing and hearing comes from Isaiah (9-10), though Mark, in paraphrasing it, does not say so. What Matthew does is to quote Isaiah directly and with acknowledgment, so that the lines retain a trace of their original tone of slightly disgusted irony.’ This assumes that the sordid Mark, who of course was lying when he pretended to report the words of Jesus, was meanwhile stealing, though he also garbled, a passage from a long-dead author. But the disciples were pious Jews, quite certain to recognise one of the most famous passages in Isaiah, which Jesus again recalls in Mark 13. Matthew is merely explaining the reference for the benefit of Greeks, though he does make possible a softer view: that the hearers make themselves stupid, to avoid having to understand. But it is quite false to suggest that Isaiah was speaking with mild humour. He saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and the Lord said, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and Isaiah said, ‘Send me’; and the Lord said: ‘Make the heart of this people fat … lest they see with their eyes … and be healed.’ The Jews are driving themselves pigheadedly into some disastrous international situation, and Isaiah warns them that they will no longer be God’s chosen people unless they stop.

Jesus quotes him to show that it is all happening again: in all four Gospels he gives a warning that bad times will soon come. Modern commentators often assume that these bits can only have been written into the text after AD 70, but all sensible men were expecting the disaster beforehand. Jesus was not too unpolitical to care about that, because he weeps over Jerusalem, which had rejected his help. The saying becomes very bad if Jesus speaks as God, saying, ‘I will harden their hearts,’ as God had hardened the heart of Pharoah (Exodus 7). But a quotation from an ancient vision does not give that effect – he is saying: ‘I can’t help it.’ Here, and nowhere else, he says, ‘From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath,’ and surely no one supposes that he boasts of arranging this himself, on purpose. He is saying: ‘life is hard.’ Kermode here, just as, with Philip Sidney, gets into nonsense because he refuses to read the passage as part of a novel; he will not imagine a ‘character’ who makes a literary quotation on purpose, and hearers who know he is doing it.

I agree that the passage gives a striking example of a painful mystery. How could he combine turning the other cheek with cursing the barren fig tree, though it was not the season for figs? Bertrand Russell, in Why I am not a Christian, remarked:

In the Gospels, Christ said: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ That was said to people who did not like his preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone.

Surely it must be agreed that Jesus miscalculated: it would be torture for him to have to watch what has been done in his name since his death. But if you grant that he was presenting himself as a Messiah, of a special kind but fulfilling the Scriptures, it was part of his programme to recall the prophets; and scolding had been their regular custom. You may feel that Jesus was all too human here, but not, like Kermode, that he is unintelligible.

There has been immense discussion about the ‘testimonies’, the points where the Gospels say Jesus did something the prophets had foretold. Kermode regards them as an unconscious confession: each detail recommended like this has plainly been cooked up by some deskworker. C.H. Dodd has been prominent in arguing that Jesus himself is much the most likely person to have invented this unique procedure, and Kermode mentions him quite often but never lets the reader know what he maintains, except on one point where he can fit in a retort. Dodd had said that you would expect many more, if all the writers were inventing them, and Kermode has fun with this argument, calling it ‘desperate’. It was perhaps carelessly phrased: the point is that the doctrinal ones are all about the Suffering Servant, as described by various prophets, and not, for example, about the war-lord Messiah who would have been more widely welcome. Of course there are some details, such as those about the Crucifixion, which the writers claimed as fitting in. Robert Graves has made splendid use of this line of explanation in The Nazarene Gospel Restored, deducing an entirely credible character.

According to Mark and Matthew, the last words of Jesus were ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, though the other two Gospels give two different sayings, less likely to excite doubt. This is the start of Psalm 22, which goes on to express absolute personal despair and ends, by a considerable jump, with a nation in triumph. Thus Jesus might have said it to let off steam without any risk of betraying his cause, even if he did fall into doubt at the end. After saying it, he gave a loud cry and died; he had been under torture for several hours. It may seem improbable that anyone would make a literary quotation at such a moment, but it is believable in so strange a case, whereas the Gospel-writers were very unlikely to invent it, as two of them found it embarrassing. Robert Graves thinks he felt a quite practical despair, having been sure that this procedure would force God to take immediate action, and after his recovery felt intensely guilty, realising that one must never force the hand of God: that was why he appeared seldom and briefly. If you compare him with Graves, Kermode shows a remarkable inability to appreciate the literary effect of these literary quotations.

His other main example is about the dance of Salome, which he considers an ‘intercalation’, an intrusion allowed by Mark into his narrative. He feels that, as it has no rational explanation, it probably has some aesthetic explanation, to be found by structural analysis perhaps; and probably a sexy one, as the story of Salome has always been found kinky. But all his long technical words are simply wrong: there is no break in the narrative.

The story of Jesus inherently involves a great early popular triumph which causes a gradual build-up of official hatred and suspicion, leading to an execution which he chooses not to escape. Matthew puts the Salome incident only three chapters later, when the story moves to Jerusalem, but there it seems a bit clumsy, a hark-back. In Mark, it comes immediately after Jesus has first sent out his disciples, in pairs, as trained men with detailed instructions and a delegated authority to cast out devils. This makes him an organised power, and of course the established government pay attention. We hear that the Herodians are working against Jesus, and from now on Jesus tries to avoid trouble until he is ready for his sacrifice. Herod has murdered john as a reward for Salome, and now believes Jesus to be a reincarnation of him: this makes Herod more dangerous. Surely, any dramatist would agree that an early report of how the previous prophet John has died helps to alert to the build-up. Mere competence of presentation does not give you any reason to disbelieve the story. The account of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingley is a wonderful bit of writing because it deploys all the forces at work in the different capitals, with an entire change of scene each time, so that you are made to realise how the result was inevitable. I suppose an expert on the anti-novel would deduce that it was totally bogus.

There is another intercalation at this point. A great crowd has come to Jesus on the borders of the lake, and he preaches to them, and by miracle gives them all something to eat, but they must be induced to go away, so he takes a boat across the lake to a foreign country, and meets an immensely strong madman, living among the tombs. He expels the devil, who is a legion of devils (they lack distinction), and the devils beg him not to deport them: may they not go into the nearby pigs? Jesus kindly allows it, the pigs stampede into the lake, and the villagers beg him to go back again. Jesus forbids the man to come back with him, but tells him to tell everybody about his cure, and so far as I can find he never says this to anybody else. Kermode glimpses a great mystery about secrecy and publicity and the clean and the unclean: Lévi-Strauss perhaps. But there are two very plain reasons.

This ex-lunatic must rapidly become acecpted in his village as sane again, or he will be miserable and probably return to madness: also, he is out of Herod’s jurisdiction and probably knowledge – he can say what he likes, so long as he does not cross the lake. When Jesus gets back, a leading man in the nearby synagogue wants him to save the life of his daughter, and on the way to his house, jostling through the crowd, he feels that virtue has been taken from him, and orders the person to speak up. The woman with an issue of blood confesses, and he gives his blessing, without which she might have fell guilty; he does not order her to be silent, which in the crowd would be absurd. He then goes on to the daughter, refusing to admit that she is already dead, and after raising her tells the family curtly to give her food. He does not want to be known as a miracle-worker, both because it may cost his life and because it isn’t really his business. As to the ‘intercalated’ incident, the healing touch in the crowd, it makes the scene vivid, as it would in a film: why does it need to be talked about in language that vetoes any direct response? There is no need to insinuate that Jesus had a devil: one of his opponents said he did, but that all devils recognise him as the Son of God is not further evidence, because all angels do as well (Mark, i, 13). Kermode says: ‘One cure is from an excess of maleness, the other of related effects of femaleness. The lake divides the two like a slash, and the cured demoniac is forbidden to cross it.’ But the lake is a frontier; and why must we ignore the story, while Kermode looks at it upside down? There is no problem about whether we may read St Mark as a novel, but there really is a problem about whether kermode and the rest of his school are allowed to read a novel properly. However, I am sure that his last chapter about the mystery of the Gospel, its incessant glimmering of the unapprehensible, is a fine piece. This is the way Whistler contrived to look across the Thames.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980

SIR: One thing about Sir William’s very peculiar piece (LRB, 24 January): unless he has access to Greville’s notes, he cannot know that Sidney said ‘need’, for Greville in his book says ‘necessity’; he, not I, preferred the long fussy word.

Frank Kermode
King’s College, Cambridge

William Empson writes: I am sure Kermode is right. If I had checked, I would have ascribed the mistake to Greville. Everyone who recalls the legend says ‘thy need’, and that is what Sidney would have said.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences