In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode offers to “make sense of the ways we make sense of the world” (31). He does so by positing a narrative of apocalyptic narratives, one with that increases in complexity as history moves further away from the medieval period:
In [the Reformation] the End grew harder and harder to think of as an imminent historical event, and so incidentally did the beginning; so that the duration and structure of time less and less supported the figures of apocalypse which blossomed in the glass and the illuminations of the Middle Ages. This was the moment when the terrors of apocalypse were absorbed by tragedy. The Renaissance equivalent of the long Beatus tradition — in sculpture, manuscript, sermon, and church painting — is King Lear. And the process of sophisticating the paradigm continues. Tragedy, we are told, must yield to absurdity; existential tragedy is an impossibility, and King Lear is a terrible farce. (27)
Narratives like King Lear contain, according to Kermode, the “terror” of earlier medieval apocalyptics, but the narrative paradigms are submerged beneath other narrative paradigms and secular themes and anxieties.
Renaissance (and post Renaissance) literature may manifest apocalyptic themes in a complex way, but Kermode’s assessment of both history and narrative is reductive. Kermode tacitly assumes that complex secular texts replace historical sacred narratives after the Reformation, as though the latter cease to show interest in apocalyptic hypotheses entirely. Reformation Europe and England, however, did not universally give up the fear (and hope), that the end was incredibly nigh (the year 1600 was earmarked as a likely date). Clerical scholars including William Tyndale and John Bale similarly persisted in literal historical interpretations of the Bible; these historical narratives existed alongside both secular histories and other narrative forms with their “submerged [apocalyptic] paradigms” (28).
Kermode’s own history of increasing complex narratives is an oversimplification and is so because it possesses the same immanent (inherent and constantly deferring) qualities which post-Reformation secular histories possess.
I’m not sure what to make of that King Lear remark.
2 February 2009 ~ St. Catharines