The Sense of an Ending

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been preparing this today as a first post, so I could jump in straight away…


I read the wonderful, and recently deceased literary critic Frank Kermode’s most famous critical book The Sense of an Ending (1967).

In the largely uninteresting epilogue to the 2000 OUP edition that I read, Kermode says that some of his ideas were followed up by Paul Ricouer and Wolfgang Iser, for example, and that critics engaged with his really arresting (and rightly famous) tick-tock idea. But he expresses sadness that there was a critical lacuna over some of his other ideas (his idea of the aevum for example, of a third time that is neither the time of God or men, but is of the angels, who are above materiality but take part in historical experience like humans, and are therefore a good way of thinking about fictional characters). It is all revealed in his revealing last words in the epilogue:

‘But it would be ungrateful for me to end by expressing disappointment about such matters. It cannot be other than gratifying that the book seems to have continued readers for thirty-odd years, and it would be highly presumptuous in any critic to ask for more attention than that.’

What I see as most important here is the telling reader vs. critic distinction he implicitly makes, which I think is a real way into seeing why, perhaps, reading it now, today, this book is read, rather than critically engaged with (you don’t have Kermodians like you have Derrideans, or even Greenblattians), but also why it is important, interesting, vital still to read it, where other criticism of the time may not be read anymore. For me, this comes to be to do with the book’s status as existing, fascinatingly, on a boundary-line, both historically and generically, in a way that marks its every word.

The time and place Kermode writes out of is one where lit. crit as it existed at the time was passing over, lit. crit. as a kind of thing that had roots (and I mean that very literally, in the sense that this is not to say that it grown out into other places) in a kind of prose criticism, perhaps more associated with high-brow newspaper criticism, for example, prose criticism rather than scholarship. This style perhaps has no superabundance of quotation; other critics are only glanced at, used as a support, or brought down to suit a purpose, rather than engaged with or built upon; it has a tendency towards big, often generalising statements. One thing that, perhaps ultimately, and certainly in Britain, it was passing over into was perhaps something more on the scholarship side of things, something resembling the academic literary scholarship that we see today, very rooted in universities, and less related to any real idea of a broader reading public (or beyond that all sorts of other things like destinies of nations and so on, which were not entirely absent from, say, Leavis and co.), either for the criticism itself or the literature it treats. And against the standards set by such new norms, The Sense of an Ending falls down, or perhaps better, falls through a hole, as a relic, an anachronism, because of its family relation to this older school of lit. crit. that I’m sure more modern literary scholarship is still to some extent haunted by, or has a difficult, even traumatic relation to still.

But interestingly, I get the sense that at the time, Kermode knew (or was facilitating) the decline in this trad. lit. crit., and he expected this aspect of his study to fall through a hole. And consequently therefore, he sets up another emerging language to catch his study, that of Theory (specifically its French manifestations), which Kermode was certainly tracking at the time. Theory at this time, it seems for Kermode, becomes a new place for the generalisations and the big-sweeping All-Encompassing. It becomes the new call to thought within the literary-critical enclave, a new way to set up theories and use them as tools, to institute that old clash between literature and a critical language where the two meet, and come out different for their meeting. And it is an altered scenario, in the sense that theory as such has its own games to play with its investments and aims, its own view of the world, as well as, perhaps, a certain deconstructive awareness (even before Derrida), as seeing its own bounds and limits more, of being aware of its own hypocrisies, its status as an offshoot of the literature it is supposed to be outside of, as something necessarily trapped inside the same linguistic prison as its subject, the language to which it purports to be metalanguage.

So in this sense, there are certainly Levi-Straussian aspects of Kermode’s study – the possibility of thinking in a broad historical sweep (an entire Christian era, and beyond that, a Judaic-then-Christian era), of there being wider structural “fictions” to which narratives (of plays, novels) can be reconciled – and I guess at times he engages too with the emerging narratology (as well as its major family relation, the theory and practice of the nouveaux romanciers – the classic Robbe-Grillet/Sarraute/Butor argument that all progressive fiction is realism, in that it finds new forms of literature to reflect new forms of reality is gestured towards, tacitly, again and again, beginning to end) as well as with more blandly definable “structuralist” elements, especially the distrust of the idea of complete novelty, and an invigorated belief that there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is quotation, things recycled, renewed, renovated.

This becomes relevant reading it today, because this language, that Kermode sets up to stop his study falling through a hole, has also itself, passed over. It as much haunts literary studies as the Leavisian-etc. language, but it too has been in a small way absorbed, and then, mostly, discarded, so the fall may have been broken, but Kermode’s study continues to fall after that when reading it now, which is perhaps why it is more read than engaged with.

But why is it still so interesting to read? I think it’s because The Sense of an Ending is not just a historical curio, it exceeds that.

I was trying to come up, therefore, with a way of conceptualising this sense I have, and what came to mind initially was the idea of hybridity, of otherness, which I think is important. From there I thought of these aspects as of something that exceeds certain bounds (whether positive or negative) that you set for it. But I thought that this doesn’t quite grasp the fact that so much of what Kermode’s thought rests on, or is built up out of, or is the progeny of (and I haven’t mentioned other currents feeding into his work: an interest in a Christian element to the work of the critic, for example, and how theology, or biblical exegesis, past and present, could inform literary criticism, or at least be brought out as part of its genealogy; as well as the general fluency in certain modernist authors and texts (the nouveaux romanciers, Lawrence, Yeats, even Stevens) that has to some extent receded in the critical mainstream today), has receded, fallen away.

And so what came to mind instead was the idea that – in the sense that we can trace this amalgam of now-extinct languages and currents in Kermode’s work, and trace it as amalgam as well as distinguishable strands, therefore appreciating it in its hybridity – The Sense of an Ending stands for, reading it today, a kind of residue, a thing left behind as all of the broader things from which it has derived have more definitively passed away.

And residue (or residuum?) is an interesting concept, I think, for describing the status of something you read that seems deeply out of keeping with your current time, but still somehow as if it has something to say to you outside of its historical box. Some old texts can still be critically fashionable today, while others are not: both of these have perhaps a more secure status in the present moment as to their worth and their place. But when you get a wonderfully and originally hybrid text like Kermode’s, there is a remaining, indefinable residue of all these things that went into it, and the fact of their having passed over; and in this sense, it is rich and fascinating, in that it retains so much residua, and allows the reader perhaps to recover it more than in a text that is more easily swept away, sent to the archive, because it was more clearly invested in one particular, now-deceased, language, or indeed a text that seems very relevant to today’s fashions.

I guess residua are thrown away, eventually as waste, perhaps after the good stuff has been filtered off. And perhaps, as I’ve tried to draw out here, this filtration can happen in two directions, invoking two different kinds of retention: on the one hand, certain elements will be retained, kept in the present current of thought, while on the other, those things that are distinct in their identity and are clearly not relevant anymore, will be archived, put away as a defined element of what has passed, what is past. And so, between these two, we have the odd things, the residua, that perhaps will often be discarded as waste, but to catch them, as I’ve tried to catch Kermode’s book, as residua, is a useful gesture, I think, one that seeks to understand something post-retention or post-archive, but pre-waste?

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