The Subtleties of Frank Kermode

Michael Wood

Frank Kermode is too multifarious a writer to have anything as dogged as a theme for his critical work; too sane and stealthy to boast of anything as limiting as an obsession. But there are persistences, continuities, as he calls them in the title of one of his books. There is an interest in difficulty, for example, and especially the difficulty of understanding – either oneself or others. This interest is not discouraging, or downhearted. On the contrary. But it never turns difficulty into ease – a mildly surprising conclusion, given the grace and fluency of Kermode’s style.

He is interested, of course, in the difficulty of understanding what is manifestly difficult: some texts, propositions, events, people. It often seems as if there is nothing to which he can’t usefully bring his considerable learning and perhaps even more considerable curiosity. But his deeper and more continuous project involves a more direct (although double) question. Why do we find it so hard to understand apparently simple things, and why are our acts of understanding themselves often so hard to understand?

The notion of understanding occurs in key places in the first and the last but one of the essays in Bury Place Papers, and could be said to run through all of them.[*] In the first, ‘Apocalypse Now and Then’, Kermode comments on the fact that those who believe literally in signs of the end of the world often ‘find it hard to understand why others reject them’, while ‘those who reject them find it hard to do so without expressions of disgust or accusations of fraud.’ ‘There seems to have been no intent to deceive,’ he says. But of course there was (there almost always is) a failure to imagine the possibility of deception, and an even stronger failure to believe in the lack of a deceiving intent. Kermode’s question is in part historical: how could these failures happen and keep happening? But it is more largely interpretative: how are we to understand them when they do happen? It isn’t a matter of building bridges (especially when the rivers and the people are gone) or of finding some absent middle ground; it is a matter of getting what people don’t seem to get, and why they don’t get it.

Similarly, in the later essay, looking at A.E. Housman’s apparently odd commitment to the enduring study of ‘a long, dull and difficult first-century astronomical-astrological poem by Manilius’ rather than any of the livelier classical treasures, Kermode asks ‘how we should understand this life-absorbing passion’. And immediately provides, as if by chance, a brilliant answer in the prolongation of the question itself: ‘this life-absorbing passion for a craft that required not only a virtually unparalleled grasp of ancient languages and cultures but the possession of the exquisite divinatory intelligence required to make proper use of that knowledge’. Nice work if you can do it, as Cole Porter didn’t quite say.

Kermode is not Housman and not a diviner. But he does devote much exquisite intelligence to matters of divination – even and especially of secular affairs. He would like to believe we could do without such obliquities. He is touched and amused by the fact that Housman appears to have thought that both laughing and crying were legitimate critical responses to poetry. He is drawn to the thought of a shared, unpuzzling world even if he sees that world as a now fragmented and perhaps never really tenable historical fantasy. Writing of Tony Tanner’s intricate study of adultery in the novel (‘there is hardly a page that lacks some original and enriching perception’), he worries about whether critical works like this ‘will ever make much contribution to the common wisdom’. ‘We may have here an avant-garde that will never be joined by the main army – happy enough behind the lines and content with its familiar rations.’ Kermode is writing these words in 1980, and reflecting not only on Tanner but more generally on the ‘new transgressive criticism’ produced by Geoffrey Hartmann, J. Hillis Miller, Edward Said and others, not to mention any of their French influences and inspirations. These were relatively early days in the Theory Wars, and Kermode was splitting his vote in a way that was both subtle and rare. He liked transgressions but rather wished that the avant-garde would wait and see if the main army showed any sign of catching up, or at least that the avant-garde would talk the main army’s language now and then. But he knew what to expect from familiar intellectual rations, and we can hear the sceptical, more or less kindly quotation marks slipping into place around the words ‘common wisdom’, or at least around the word ‘wisdom’. Kermode never wrote anything the main army couldn’t understand; but nor did he write anything the main army could have managed on its own.

The discreet ambiguity in the title of Kermode’s book The Sense of an Ending offers a neat emblem of this practice. We could have a sense of an ending when everything is just continuing; and we could make sense or fail to make sense of a given ending at any time. What we can’t have is the unsensed thing, the ending an sich, the final occasion that permits and requires no understanding. This is part of what Wittgenstein meant when he said death is not an event in life. He didn’t mean we don’t die or that we can’t experience the death of others as a grievous event. He meant that our own death is beyond our life, just off the edge of it. Our last moment is not death but dying.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Bury Place Papers: Essays from the ‘London Review of Books’ by Frank Kermode (LRB, 272 pp., £14.99, November, 978 1 873092 04 0). A version of this essay appears as the introduction to the collection.