A Sort of Nobody

Michael Wood

  • Not Entitled: A Memoir by Frank Kermode
    HarperCollins, 263 pp, £18.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 00 255519 0

Criticism for Frank Kermode is the articulation of assumptions, a sort of phenomenology of interpretative need. Its job, as he says in The Sense of an Ending (1967), is ‘making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives’. It involves close reading, discriminations of value, a practised affection for old and new texts, but its chief quarry is the turn of a culture’s mind, one of those trains of thought which Conrad thought could not be false – because even when they look horribly false they are embedded in arguments or entailments we need to believe are true. ‘I thought I could see a new way of looking at certain assumptions,’ Kermode says in Romantic Image (1957). He could; he did; and he has kept doing it. The world, he says at the end of The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), ‘is our beloved codex’:

We may not see it, as Dante did, in perfect order, gathered by love into one volume, but we do, living as reading, like to think of it as a place where we can travel back and forth at will, divining congruences, conjunctions, opposites; extracting secrets from its secrecy, making understood relations, an appropriate algebra.

Living as reading. The assumptions that Kermode likes to look at are always pretty complex, made up of untidy bundles of implication and imagery; historically inflected, but inclined to slip through the hands of straightforward, cause-driven history. We might think of them as the language in which a culture talks to itself, although it doesn’t always seem to be listening. In Not Entitled he describes The Sense of an Ending as a work which ‘showed an interest in Vaihinger and Nietzsche ... and in the psychology and sociology of apocalyptic thinking, but it was recognisable as literary criticism ... It was, in fact, an example of literary theory as it was before it was absorbed into Theory.’ Showing an interest is something Kermode has always done well, and one can always read him, as one reads few other critics, for the pleasure of finding out what he has been reading: what works of theology, for instance, or philosophy, or arcane history, or contemporary fiction. At the age of 26, he tells us, he left the Navy with ‘no idea of what I was going to do, except for the negative certainty that it wouldn’t be seafaring. A little more positively, I was fairly sure that it would involve writing of some sort, and reading, if I could buy the leisure to do it.’

He has certainly done the reading, but buying leisure turned out to mean lecturing in literature. Born on the Isle of Man in 1919, Kermode attended Liverpool University before and after his stint in the Navy during the Second World War. He got lecturing jobs at Newcastle and Reading; then chairs at Manchester, Bristol, London and Cambridge. Never one to miss an irony against himself, he remembers the double meaning lurking in the word ‘professor’: ‘what you have principally done to earn a living has been to teach, or profess to.’ He doesn’t think he was a good teacher, and will not be comforted on this subject. He has worked much in America; lectured everywhere; edited a number of scholarly texts; edited Encounter; and written, and still writes, quantities of elegant and subtle journalism. Apart from the works I have already mentioned, he has published, among others, Puzzles and Epiphanies; Continuities; Shakespeare, Spenser Donne; The Classic; The Art of Telling; History and Value; An Appetite for Poetry and books on D.H. Lawrence and on Wallace Stevens. He retired from his Cambridge chair in 1982; was knighted in 1991.

Not Entitled takes us through a grim but not unhappy childhood in Douglas (‘It as a world in which everybody was more or less ill. Heart, stomach, nerves were the ground bass of conversation, the tune specifying a tumour or a stroke of unprecedented severity, a disaster in what were called the waterworks’), and through the boredom and adventures of Kermode’s war years in the Navy (‘In wartime people are actively prevented from thinking except in headlines, many of them lies’). His early years in the academic trade are evoked with fondness and energy, but after that the book gets a bit scrappy and apologetic. There are odd, loud silences. If he were Rousseau, he says, ‘or perhaps even some quite ordinary autobiographer’, he would think he had to say something about his marriages:

But I don’t intend to. I will say here only that I was twice married. I cannot say much more on this point about the forty years in which I shared my bed with one woman or the other, because I am in absolutely no sense doing so as I write.

This means he is, in some sense, shuffling about the streets of Douglas as he writes, selling newspapers, taking summer jobs; spending much of the war in Iceland, seeing action in the Pacific; teaching at Reading, moving to Manchester and Bristol, enjoying America, working in London, resigning his job at Cambridge. It is not, I take it, that he can’t remember his marriages, only that he will not relive them. Still, ‘one woman or the other’ seems brutal, particularly in a writer with such an ear for idiom. The writing is wonderful throughout: oblique, stealthy, lucid, finely tuned to every little ripple of multiple meaning.

The name of the book seems at first sight too arch, too topical: a simple glance at the time when Sir Frank was just Frank. An epigraph from Coriolanus appears to confirm this reading: ‘He was a kind of nothing, titleless.’ Nice joke, but a trifle self-regarding. But then who else is an autobiographer to regard, and the first sight is wrong anyway. A title can make you another kind of nothing rather than a something, and we shouldn’t rush past the difference between being titled and being entitled. When Kermode accepted the post of King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, he felt he had ‘become a sort of nobody, yet a nobody with a title, with a carnival crown’. A knighthood is not a carnival crown, but the drift of this glancing and complicated book is that no title, even the most exalted, is going to make a determinedly unworthy recipient feel entitled.

Entitlement sounds like a due, a legal or moral debt to be collected. That’s what it is in the Naval ceremony, which Kermode describes wryly and at length, where the sailors collect their weekly pay. They take off their caps, one by one, and into their caps are placed their earnings, minus deductions for whatever fines they have incurred. If the fines are high, the sailor may receive no pay at all, and an officer or clerk then calls out, ‘Not Entitled!’, entered as NE in the ledger. It is significant, though, that even this instance displays the term as a negative category, a cancellation of what you were entitled to before your infractions, and Kermode more often uses entitlement or its absence as a mode of feeling than as a state of affairs. It is the way you legalise your lack, whine about your fate while seeming to accept its justice. Or it’s the way you justify your wishes, make them part of what the world owes you. The young Frank Kermode ‘wasn’t entitled’ to be his father’s boy because he was so unhandy and so unathletic. His sister’s arrival deprives him of ‘the excessive maternal care I had once felt myself entitled to for ever’. When he falls and breaks an arm, he wonders why he was ‘entitled to be rescued’. Manx lads pretending to be English are ‘certainly not entitled’ to the liberties they enjoy with visiting girls. In a rare positive usage, Kermode feels himself, at the outset of World War Two, to be ‘entitled’ to ‘many satisfactions’; and he ends his book with a cautious claim on his present house and garden in Cambridge, where he ‘will belong ... or be as close to belonging as I am entitled to be, for as long as I am entitled to be’. He has, I gather, since sold this house.

More harshly, a boy injured by a cable-car is ‘thereafter entitled to only one leg’, and at moments entitlement literally becomes a destiny. Thinking of a young violinist, who had taught Kermode to play, and who died during a hernia operation, Kermode says he sent some of the dead man’s things to his widow, and adds: ‘I suppose we have to accept that I was no more entitled to the virtuosity I yearned for than he was to live beyond the age of 26, or than she was to her husband.’ Talent, life, marriage: erased like cancelled pay, according to some secret accountancy of penalties.

Retirement abolishes many former ‘pleasures and satisfactions’, but also ‘the old pains, the old sense of being, too painfully, where one is not entitled to be, doing what one is not entitled to do’. This is a persistent feeling in the book, a sense of fraud and damage no honour could ease. It’s not just that Kermode is a ‘transient’, as he says, always moving on, ‘a sort of one-man diaspora’. The book opens with a Times crossword clue that looks like a prophecy: ‘Frank returns to Douglas.’ The answer is ‘man to Man’, but the prophecy has ceased to be true, since Kermode has ceased going back. But the sense of fraud is even stronger than the sense of exile: ‘looking the part while not being quite equal to it seems to be something I do rather well.’ The context of this remark is the Encounter fiasco, where Kermode, as joint editor, was both sued and lied to over the involvement of the CIA in the magazine’s funding. ‘The worst of it was that while I did not know that I was invited to play the part largely because I was thought to be safely inadequate to it, I could wake in the night and suspect that it was so.’

This kind of suspicion goes back a long way. Forging a school report to place himself higher in the class than he was, and thus avert his parents’ anger and disappointment, the boy Kermode finds himself ‘claiming something he’s not entitled to’, and the 60-year-old problems that gave rise to this bit of cheating ‘remain in my mind always’, Kermode says, ‘and figure in any reasonably truthful account of myself I give myself’.

Fibs and distortions, all begetting further fibs and distortions, were for some time a recurring feature of my moral life, continuing, I suppose, until there was no further need of them and I could settle far the greater comfort, the relative intellectual ease, of veracity.

He is selling himself short here. We have only to read the anxious pages about murderous myth in The Sense of an Ending to know that veracity is not simply a matter of comfort for Kermode. But it is possible that this youthful excursion into the territory of real-life fiction lies behind some of the curiously skewed discussions in that brilliant book. Troubled by the fact that both the Third Reich and King Lear are powerful fictions, Kermode wants to solve his problem on the level of belief, as if believing in lies did the harm, and seeing them as lies would keep us safe. ‘Fictions can degenerate into myth whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.’ As many people have pointed out, the first of them probably being Kermode’s fierce friend Graham Hough, evil is not redeemed by scepticism but rather compounded, and we judge it to be evil by criteria which have nothing to do with belief. Yet a decent person bothered by old lies might well see the success of lying as the chief ethical issue, and gullibility might loom for him larger than horror.

There is more. This same person, by his own account, has had exceptional difficulty in seeing others as liars: ‘I have been much too ready to assume in all acquaintances an innocence of motive, as if it were impossible that they should be deceivers, slanderers, cheats, without pity for anybody who made such an absurd assumption.’ Later this becomes ‘an incapacity to mistrust amiable people’, which is slightly different. And the assumption of innocence of motive has already been associated with ‘a habit of deference, acquired to please an insistent mother’, also defined as ‘a tendency to irrational and pre-mature compliance with the expectations of anybody who assumed the right to demand it’. This begins to look like one of the clusters of categories Kermode’s criticism specialises in. There are at least four sets of others in play here, and at least three habits of the diffident self. The others, in descending order of closeness or legitimacy, seem to be: a mother, anyone who assumes the right to demand compliance; amiable people; all acquaintances. The self, in ascending order of abasement, assumes innocence in others (doesn’t know how to mistrust them), defers to them, offers irrational and premature compliance.

The social form of this structure is very familiar. It’s working-class obedience, the sense that there is no use arguing with the authorities, because they know more than we do, because arguing wouldn’t do any good, and because they can probably make us pay for our insubmission. Kermode beautifully tells a chilling story of his mother in hospital, learning of her husband’s death:

On the day she was told of my father’s death, a brilliant cold day in late March with the wind rattling the hospital windows, she understood what we were telling her; her face crumpled and her eyes poured tears. But the matron, passing briskly through the ward, called out, ‘What’s this? What’s this? Tears on Easter morning?’ and she giggled and said: ‘Oh no, matron, that won’t do, will it?’ Authority, ignorant of her real wants, was ordering her to be cheerful, and she obeyed.

But the later deference and compliance Kermode arraigns himself for, also blaming his mother for ‘that early training in politeness and motiveless civility’, is only the trace or the ghost of this obedience. It inhabits another world, and it isn’t really, I think, the terrible weakness he sees it as, nor is it quite as rare as he implies. It’s an inability, shared by most of us some of the time and by some of us a lot of the time, to reconcile our hopes of good will in others with the suspicion that they may be out to get us. What we do is exaggerate our hopes (and thereby, pretty often, exacerbate our disappointment) or devote ourselves to suspicion (and thereby lose whatever good will we might have found). Kermode’s language suggests that he is retroactively animating his innocence and deference out of a deep disappointment with the results of his trust. This doesn’t mean that trusting is wrong, only that trust can be betrayed.

Michael Josselson, of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which funded Encounter, told Kermode that there was no truth at all in what Conor Cruise O’Brien was saying about the magazine: that it was an instrument of covert American operations, that ‘it was not quite an open forum,’ that ‘its political acoustics were a little odd.’ ‘I am old enough to be your father,’ Josselson said, ‘and I would no more lie to you than I would to my son.’ People have thought Kermode was naive to accept this, and he now thinks so himself. But how could he have known that Josselson had been a CIA agent, and would have lied to his whole family if he had to? It’s true that evidence is better than assurances in these matters, but if trust or distrust is all we have to go on, we can only make a choice in the knowledge that it could be wrong. The question, perhaps, concerns not what we believe but what we want to believe, and how far we are prepared to go to accommodate our wants. Speaking in The Sense of an Ending of the consoling forms of fiction, Kermode says: ‘If they ruin our innocence, we have to remember that the innocent eye sees nothing. If they make us guilty, they enable us, in a manner nothing else can duplicate, to submit, as we must, the show of things to the desires of the mind.’ The last phrase is a version of a sentence by Bacon, already quoted by Kermode. Poetry, Bacon says, could ‘give some show of satisfaction to the mind, wherein the nature of things doth seem to deny it’. There is a shift, though. Bacon’s nature becomes Kermode’s show, and Bacon’s show of satisfaction becomes the mind’s desires. Bacon’s poetry is a compensation; Kermode’s fictions are a takeover, the infiltration of a longed-for order of fibs and distortions.

Kermode has expressed surprise that people find him gloomy as a critic, and his surprise is interesting. He is after all the author of sentences like ‘to be alone and poor is, in a sense, everybody’s fate’; and ‘one may be sure of one thing, and that is disappointment.’ The second remark concerns the act of interpretation, but Kermode doesn’t hesitate to generalise it: ‘It has sometimes been thought, and in my opinion rightly, that the world is also like that; or that we are like that in respect of the world.’ In Not Entitled he says: ‘The story of a life must, insofar as it is truthful, be at least in part a story of lots and desertion inflicted and received.’ ‘At least in part’ offers some mitigation, and we could all agree that loss is inevitable. But we are still left with ‘must’ and ‘desertion’. So what is the surprise about?

There is in it something of the surprise we feel when we hear our own voice on tape. If we don’t deny the resemblance altogether, we say: I do sound like that, but I don’t sound only like that. Writing of the ways in which works of literature can ‘please us, even perhaps bless us’, Kermode adds that ‘this does not emerge from the tone of what I have been saying.’ The tone of his interests and his writing runs to disappointment and poverty, but the published works are not the whole person. His pleasures and his blessings don’t have to be part of his literary style. But there is something else.

The rest of the surprise must come from the fact that Kermode is a writer, and a very good one. Writers need to be surprised by the pictures their words produce, if their words are not to be just drooling. They could be surprised that a created world is actually a self-portrait, as we might say of Dickens, and as Borges says of an unnamed writer in a little fable:

A man sets himself the task of sketching a world. Through the years he populates a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and persons. Shortly before dying, he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.

But we could imagine another version of this story. The writer could be surprised that the range of his interests makes up a world – or at least a large insight into the making of worlds. A man sets himself the task of understanding some of the ways in which we understand ourselves. He writes a book, Romantic Image, about a great modern myth, moat fully developed in Yeats, and centring on the figure of the dancer and the ‘immense paradoxical vitality of the dead’. The dancer is an image, is the Image, and she

is to be all movement, yet with a kind of stillness. She lacks separable intellectual content, her meanings, as the intellect receives them, must constantly be changing. She has the impassive, characterless face of Salome, so there is nothing but the dance, and she and the dance are inconceivable apart, indivisible as body and soul, meaning and form, ought to be.

This aesthetic ideal is alluring but dangerous, because it suggests that art is fundamentally mindless, or a sacrifice of mind, and the critical pursuit of this ideal makes bad history because it keeps forgetting how historical it is. It’s odd to think of Eliot as pursuing a version of Salome when he thought he was looking for an ever-receding moment prior to the dissociation of sensibility, but that is what his quest looks like:

It seems to me much less important that there was not, in the sense in which Mr Eliot’s supporters have thought, a particular and far-reaching catastrophe in the 17th century, than that there was, in the 20th, an urgent need to establish the historicity of such a disaster.

To make a fable, in other words, and to call that fable history. Our writer sets out, in another book, The Sense of an Ending, to explore the general form of this error, a kind of cultural forgetting of fictiveness, redeemed occasionally by unexpected acts of remembering. He shows us that ‘when tragedy established itself in England it did so in terms of plots and spectacle that had much more to do with medieval apocalypse than with ... Aristotle,’ and he writes some remarkable pages on these terrible ends and images of ends:

The millennial ending of Macbeth, the broken apocalypse of Lear, are false endings, human periods in an eternal world. They are researches into death in an age too late for apocalypse, too critical for prophecy; an age more aware that its fictions are themselves models of the human design on the world.

‘Design’ as in pattern, but also as in having designs on. Design is driven by an impatience with the raw, unarranged matter of the world, the place that isn’t yet a codex, and our writer turns now, in The Genesis of Secrecy, to what he calls the darkness of narrative, the way in which even stories meant to make sense always add to our confusion.

Why do we labour to reduce fortuity first, before we decide that there is a way of looking which provides a place for it? I have still no satisfying answer; but it does appear that we are programmed to prefer fulfilment to disappointment, the closed to the open.

I don’t think it’s true that we are programmed in this way, or that everyone is. But if we were programmed to prefer fulfilment, it would explain why we are so often disappointed. Our writer suggests that when Eliot said the only method was to be very intelligent, ‘he was both exaggerating and saying too little’: ‘Method, he meant, is secondary, for first there must be divination.’ This sounds as if we were returning to the magical world of the Image, but the dancing figure now is not Salome, but Secrecy; not the vitality of the dead, but the endless longing of the living. What we find in the Gospel of St Mark, as in many narratives, perhaps in all of them if we look hard enough, is ‘something irreducible, therefore perpetually to be interpreted; not secrets to be found out one by one, but Secrecy’.

The writer has written many other books apart from the ones I have evoked, and said many other things. He may be surprised to discover in that patient labyrinth of lines not the image of his own face but the image of the best curiosity and learning of his time, of what it meant to want to know why we pictured the world and the past and our own imagination the way we did.