A brief return to Kermode.

I’m in the midst of my apocalypse paper (the end, quite apocalyptically, being ever deferred), and keep finding myself returning to Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending.  Though my own paper does not directly respond to any one lecture in this collection, the book has been useful in raising questions about the way narrative (history, apocalypse, and literature are all narratives for Kermode) and temporal structures interact with each other.

The book is also interesting the way it appears at a transitional moment in literary criticism.  Kermode’s approaches are often reflective of  postmodernist theory (he particularly draws on Jameson) when diagnosing apocalyptic assumptions of narrative origins and unity, and in his rejection of Frye’s literalising of narratives into myth (narratives are assumed to be historically true).  Kermode also draws heavily on Sartre, abandoning, however, Jameson’s  interrogative response to existentialist thought.

Kermode’s means of addressing the relationship between reality-fiction is also staunchly modernist: drawing on Wallace Stevens, Kermode proposes that fictions are ways of combating the “real” world (though, less optimistically than Stevens, Kermode also suggests that if words can make sense of the agony of living, such relief is temporary).

There is also an odd moment where Kermode sidesteps the fascist, anti-feminist, and anti-Semitic politics of modernist writings: specifically in the works of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis.  The moment occurs in a chapter titled “The Modern Apocalypse,” and after briefly identifying these problems, Kermode demurs:

[Lewis] changed these opinions, and in any case it isn’t my business to condemn them.  It is sufficient to say that the radical thinking of the early modernists about the arts implied, in other spheres, opinions of a sort not normally associated with the word radical. (110)

It may not be Kermode’s business, in a piece of literary criticism, to make moral judgments of these writers’ personal beliefs.  Given, however, that Kermode elsewhere identifies these anti-feminist and anti-Semitic politics as a part of modernist writing, and that he reads these writings as a response to the “Sex, time, and liberal thought” in the culture of the modernist period, which threaten the “paradigmatic reality” (110) of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and Lewis’s apocalyptic narratives, the observation seems rather important to the subject of Kermode’s writing.  I wonder, if the book had appeared at a later date in the theoretical timeline, whether Kermode would have been more willing to address these problems.

23 April 2009 ~ St. Catharines


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