Sir Frank Kermode once compared novels to angels. At first glance, this seems like an unfortunately saccharine proposition, inconsistent with the dignity and seriousness of a British knight, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and one of the most distinguished men of letters of the 20th century. But like all of Kermode’s ideas, it is based on a set of extraordinarily complex connections and is central to his lifelong investigation into some of the irreducible questions of literature: What is the purpose of fiction? Why do we read it?
These questions nip at the heels of all of Kermode’s books, but the comparison between angels and literature is made specifically in his evergreen study The Sense of an Ending, drawn from a series of lectures he gave at Bryn Mawr College in 1965. The year is important because the threat of nuclear annihilation lent intense clarity to Kermode’s main point: Humans, personally and collectively, are preoccupied with trying to understand their deaths. For life to have meaning, to amount to more than just a sequence of events, that meaning must be projected backwards from an ending that provides the key to interpreting everything that preceded it.
Fiction mirrors this process. A common complaint of a failed novel is that it just portrays one damn thing after another. But a great work of literature endows its actions with a higher order of consequence that transcends mere chronology and, as Kermode puts it, charges the story with meaning. Endings are not terminations but completions.
Now think again about angels. In medieval cosmology, Kermode explains, angels occupied a kind of middle zone between Earth and the heavens. Humans lived inside time; God was eternal.
The angels required their own order of time because they were not pure being, yet were (on most interpretations) immaterial, acting in time yet not of it, any more than they participated in God’s eternity. Immutable, not subject to time, they were nevertheless capable of acts of will and intellect, by which change is produced in time.
Kermode points out that St. Thomas Aquinas designated the medium the angels inhabited the “aevum.” But the label is unimportant; what’s significant is that angels were the intermediary—humankind’s broker—to divine truth.
And so it is, Kermode writes, with fictions. We know that stories are invented, their connections manufactured and their meanings contrived, yet we read them with “conditional assent.” They provide the glancing instants when sluggishly corporeal humans commune with something outside of time—what St. Augustine called the periods of the soul’s attentiveness. They show us eternity, but only for a moment.
St. Thomas and St. Augustine make frequent appearances in Kermode’s criticism, and he read them and bantered with them the way that most people do the sports page. He was himself a nonbeliever, but because he could give conditional assent to concepts like omniscience and immortality he could fluently translate these thinkers into the secular era and therefore mingle their ideas with those of contemporary theorists, even those as radical (at the time) as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Kermode practiced criticism during a phase of intense rupture in the academic world, when most literary scholars had divided into reactionary camps, contentiously alienated from each other, from the precepts of the past, and most of all from the reading public. Kermode’s genius was in traveling freely among these schools of thought, and even among the styles of writing, employing their competing theories but not being defined by them—and also subtly demonstrating their commonalities. He was the age’s great critical syncretist.
Syncretists are necessarily outsiders and Kermode lived, he writes in his charming (if selectively revealing) memoir Not Entitled, as “a sort of one-man diaspora.” He grew up on the Isle of Man—an island off of an island. Throughout his life, by his reckoning, he was subject to a misfit restlessness that was hard to discern from his fastidious manner but would suddenly show itself in precipitous decisions to change teaching jobs or move around the country. He writes that he had little competence with things of the world, and was never comfortable as a husband, father, or even as an editor (he was rather cluelessly in the middle of the debacle at the literary journal Encounter when Conor Cruise O’Brien sued it for libel and exposed its connection with the CIA). Even his books, for all their wisdom and probity, seem born of a fundamental instability, as they are mostly either redactions of lectures or collections of occasional pieces. He has no out-and-out magnum opus.
Nor, consequently, is he tied to one particular argument. “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us make sense of our lives,” he writes at the start of The Sense of an Ending, perhaps the closest thing he has to a defining text. “They are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.”
A fascinating contrast with this seemingly modest definition of the critic’s vocation can be found in the writing and thought of Kermode’s near-contemporary Harold Bloom. Writing in his 2011 “critical self-portrait” The Anatomy of Influence, Bloom attempted not only to distill the main argument that will stand as his legacy but to depict the nature of his entire relationship with literature. He stakes his name on the so-called anxiety of influence, the belief that “the inescapable condition of sublime and high art is agon”—that is, that the inspiration for all great artists comes from their struggle against the work of their forerunners.
Bloom came to this theory, and to a love of literature, by what he describes in explicitly evangelical terms as a born-again experience. The overwhelming effects of reading Hart Crane at age 10, Macbeth at 13, and Northrop Frye at 17 are presented as related road-to-Damascus conversions. “Literature for me is not merely the best art of life,” he writes. “It is itself the form of life, which has no other form.”
Thus the coals of poetry touched Bloom’s lips and he was fated both to subsume himself to the creeds behind his criticism and to wage everlasting battle against his wrong-thinking adversaries. He has consistently denounced his opponent theorists, especially the New Critics and the deconstructionists, with the passion of St. Augustine attacking the heresies of the Pelagians.
Set Bloom’s revelations alongside this formative moment from Not Entitled, which comes after a young Kermode has unsuccessfully dabbled in theology. It amounts to a sort of anti-epiphany:
Now, as the smoke dropped onto Mr. Shave’s church on that evening of newspapers, buckets, and damaged fruit, the street-long cable-slot still gleaming in the shoplights, I ended my career as best philosopher, seer blest, eye among the blind, and so forth. The next step was, as might be foretold, to enter the prison house of my own incommunicable intuitions, and soon to be committed to the long labor of learning how to know something a little better than I did and to know how to say it with apparent clarity to others…. It is an acceptable condition, in which we are able to believe that we communicate, that we may be distincts yet not divided.
Naturally, Bloom considered Kermode an enemy. “He’s not terribly fond of me,” he said of Kermode in an interview, “and I cannot say that I’m enormously fond of him.” But you will find no trace of antagonism in Kermode’s numerous reviews of Bloom’s books, only interest, frequent amusement, punctuations of annoyance, and the slightly awed, slightly incredulous respect that scrupulous agnostics feel for true believers. For Bloom was someone Kermode had no trouble recognizing from his studies—an heir to apocalypse critics, who invested the full meaning of literature into a single belief for which he spent his life proselytizing.
The irony is that it should be the Jew from the South Bronx who followed the footsteps of the Christian apostles while the “solid low Anglican” Manxman modeled his style off, of all things, rabbinical midrash. Allusions to midrashic commentary—the Jewish tradition of reinterpreting the fixed words of God in order to sift their many meanings and discover their applications to changing times—appear constantly in Kermode’s books. It was his lodestone, the great sanction and example for the potentially blasphemous exercise of looking at canonical texts in new and varied ways.
Strict midrashic scholars argue, of course, that there is no parallel to their practice in the secular forum of literary studies. But look at the bounty of sources Kermode introduces, in a review of a work of biblical history, to illuminate how one interpretation of the Adam and Eve story came to dominate all others:
One sees at once that that the biblical tradition rests far more on this augmented version [scripture plus commentary] than on the plain version [scripture alone], and that sixteen hundred or so years later the learned Milton developed it in what might be called, though probably not by the Jerusalem experts, a poem that can be thought of as an enormous midrash…. [Commentators] argued over the concept of what would later be called Original Sin and invented the idea that the transgression in the garden amounted to the Fall of Man. That Satan “took the serpent as a garment” and that through his envy “death entered the world” was now established, though the plain text does not say so. The fault of Eve (“From a woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die”) may have been simply that she was a woman, as Philo supposed; without the stress of desire Adam would have given no offense (a persistent idea, echoed later by Saint Ambrose, and later still by Andrew Marvell, writing about “that happy Garden-state/While man there walked without a Mate”).
Elsewhere he could apply the same variegated, argus-eyed scrutiny to a writer like Don DeLillo, who is about as far from Milton and Marvell as it is possible to be:
Underworld belongs to a category of the Great American Novel, to which all the really big writers aspire. Structurally it has some resemblance to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and that thought prompts the reflection that Pynchon also wrote an exceptionally fine novella, The Crying of Lot 49. If there are two traditions of great American writing it is proper to show up in both of them. One of them may be said to originate with Hawthorne, the other with Melville, one lean and self-absorbed, the other heavy, expansive, determined to contain a world. On the whole the heavyweights have prevailed in recent years; one no longer hears much talk of, say, Glenway Westcott, a lean writer of whom Gertrude Stein remarked that “he has a certain syrup but it does not pour.”
Kermode’s justifications for his borrowing from Judaism’s ancient critical method appears in the lectures compiled for his 1975 book The Classic. Here he asks how, in the secular era, we are supposed to decide which books to regard as classics.
The question is knotty, Kermode writes, because traditionally such literature was known by its revealed grace. Virgil was a classic because, in one of his eclogues, he foreshadowed the birth of Christ. But Virgil also wrote the founding epic of the divinely appointed Roman Empire—and he was preceded by Homer and followed by numerous other poets, from Dante to Milton, whose greatness rested on their prophetic vision of “certain, unchanging truths.”
T.S. Eliot, in a similar set of lectures twenty years earlier, had done his best to uphold this standard for classics, but Kermode recognized that it had lost currency in modern times, in which engraved verities have faded and “truth in art … will have the hesitancy, the instability, of the attitude struck by the New World, provincial and unstable itself, towards the corrupt maturity of the metropolis.” By compelling the classic to adapt with the shifting times, Kermode was inverting its very function. In the past, it was a repository for ultimate answers; now it is determined based on its ability to field the most questions, to enrich the most diverse forms of inquiry.
In essence (though Kermode was suspicious of essences), this is an argument for plurality, for an idea of a classic that does not require any special dispensation in order to understand it. Kermode passionately advocated for the deathless relevance of traditional masterpieces while opposing the tyranny of elect knowledge. It was this combination of conservatism and progressiveness that made him such a unique defender of structuralism, poststructuralism, and the other New Wave schools of literary theory that were cropping up more and more as his career continued.
Kermode’s interest in these theories was real and, as he explains in Not Entitled, he resigned from his prestigious seat at Cambridge after being attacked for speaking out for a poststructuralist professor who had been denied tenure. But he never came close to committing himself to them (indeed, he considered Roland Barthes, who announced the death of the author, to be yet another iteration in the lineage of apocalypse writers). “The new literary theory,” he writes, “was another country in which I went to live without feeling truly at home.”
He puts those ideas to fascinating use in 1985’s Forms of Attention. In the book’s second chapter he analyzes Hamlet through the lens of semiotics, a field that investigates texts purely on the basis of their lexical patterns. Kermode observes that Shakespeare’s key rhetorical device in the play is doubling, meaning he creates dramatic dissonance by joining two not quite compatible words or phrases around the conjunction “and” (you may be sure that Kermode knows and endlessly applies the appropriate technical term, hendiadys). The chapter is a tour de force of postmodernist gibberish, but it is bottomlessly intelligent and draws from Kermode’s virtually eidetic knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays.
Once again Kermode is relying on conditional assent. When he undertakes to study Shakespeare’s rhetorical strategies, he does so in full earnestness. Once the study is complete he steps back and frames the field of semiotics within a larger historical perspective. His point is twofold. He wants to demonstrate that Hamlet’s greatness is such that it is inexhaustible: you can always find new things to say about it through new approaches. As for the worth of the interpretative theory, that can be judged by its fruits: any study is good if it helps to preserve the valued object; it is bad if it leads to its destruction.
“The history of interpretation, the skills by which we keep alive in our minds the light and dark of past literature and past humanity,” he once wrote for the only sermon he ever delivered, “is to an incalculable extent a history of error.” It seems odd to cherish a thinker who constantly distanced himself from his own ideas, who regularly pointed up their insufficiency; it seems that there must be something meek about him. But Kermode’s humility was his strength, and it was born from his private, intensely devotional love of literature. Before writers like St. Augustine, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, and Wallace Stevens it would be ridiculous to be anything other than humble.
Kermode’s willingness to be proved wrong in any opinion is also the reason that, as many people have commented, his book reviews always seemed so serenely incontrovertible. Because he had no ideological agenda, there was no soft underbelly of irrational belief to attack. You had simply to face him on the merits of the arguments on the page. To do that, you had to know as much about literature as he did, which disqualified effectively everyone.
Yet no one understood better than Kermode that there is a difference between an argument being incontrovertible and it being true. Along with the provisionality of his approach—his ability to draw from the well of his passion for books without toppling into it—came the awareness that criticism is, at heart, a performance. Kermode’s writing is always challenging, but it is leavened by a spirit of shared entertainment, a tacit acknowledgment that interpretation is a kind of game—something, he notes, that the rabbis recognized “without for a moment supposing that what they were doing wasn’t serious; the most serious thing in the world, in fact.”
Kermode wrote criticism for no higher purpose than to perpetuate the lives of great works of art, for, as he wrote, “the medium by which all texts survive is commentary.” To that end he joined a nearly unrivalled knowledge of the Western canon with a playful lightness of thought. He could travel across colleges as well as across millennia, trying out ideas and then setting them within their historical contexts. He possessed a mind that could change in time, and that made his criticism as timeless as any we can hope to have.
Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.
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