Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beginning Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending - You remember the golden bird

My imagination was for a time haunted by figures that, muttering “The great systems”, held out to me the sun-dried skeletons of birds, and it seemed to me that this image was meant to turn my thoughts to the living bird.  (William Butler Yeats, A Vision, 1925, from Book II: The Completed Symbol, Chapter XVIII)

Funny, I know – Yeats was an odd fellow, or pretended to be – but true, yes?  Ornithologists truly love the living bird, and they indulge, express, and manifest their love by studying bird skeletons, perhaps prepared with a little more care than letting the sun take care of it.

So we read criticism because we love literature.  Unless – there are layers here – literature is the skeleton and the living bird is something else.  Life, perhaps.  Reality.  What is criticism, then?  A drawing of the skeleton?  A discussion of the skeleton?

The tragedy of the Yeats quotation is the phrase “meant to.”  Yes, of course, but the skeletons themselves are so interesting.  Just a little more time with the skeletons.  By “tragedy,” I mean “comedy.”

Tragedy, we are told, must yield to Absurdity; existential tragedy is an impossibility and King Lear is a terrible farce.  (Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 1967, Ch. I: The End, p. 27)

There is an earlier step, actually.

The end is now a matter of immanence; tragedy assumes the figurations of apocalypse, of death and judgment, heaven and hell; but the world goes forward in the hands of exhausted survivors…  This is the tragedy of sempiternity; apocalypse is translated out of time into the aevum.  (Ch. III: World without Beginning or End, p. 82)

Then comes the collapse into absurdity (or Absurdity), as King Lear and Hamlet collapse into Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  The survivors, they is us.

That’s one story Frank Kermode tells, relatively directly, in The Sense of an Ending, the move in Western literature from apocalypse to tragedy to absurdity, where we still languish, or flourish.  It is a book that sprays ideas in all directions, ideas he cannot possibly follow, a generous book.  Maybe someone in the audience picked them up.  The book collects a series of six lectures at Bryn Mawr.  What the audience possibly understood, I cannot say.  I have wondered the same thing about the lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they were not half as specialized.  “You remember the golden bird in Yeats’s poem” (Ch. I, p. 3) – uh, I can look it up.  “Sailing to Byzantium,” yes, that is a really famous poem.  But I had to look up the bird.  Curiously, it is a bird without a skeleton.

A couple more days on Kermode’s sun-dried bird.  In some ways – e.g., “aevum” – it is a difficult book.  Which is exactly what I wanted.  I had to read it twice.  Some readers might want to skip past the medieval theology to the second half, to Lecture IV or maybe Lecture V: “as soon as the subject is the novel the argument drops into a perfectly familiar context” (Ch. V, 128).  So true.


  1. Finally I have the occasion to read this sacred monster that's been gazing at me for years with its basilisk eyes! Of course, I'm just beginning, while you've read it twice, but I'll try to catch up (at least I remembered the bird right away). Looking forward to the discussion.

  2. There is the question, also, of our growing suspicions of fictions in general.

    In 1965! I just read a similar statement in the latest New York Times Book Review. How long have people been saying that?

  3. Oh good. I will make the knowledge of the audience - the original audience, not me - a recurring theme. And I may make one or two snide comments along the line of yours. "Since the beginning of fiction" is apparently the answer to your question, but at least in the mid-1960s they were getting an especially strong French dose of it.

  4. Plato in the Republic said that most of the fiction of his day should be banned, including the works of Homer. Of course he was looking at the moralistic uses of fiction, but I still claim that as Plato looking at the skeleton of The Iliad. Or maybe the kidneys. God knows that a lot of literary criticism over the centuries has not limited itself to structure and theme.

  5. I guess the response Kermode notes, and I am seeing more of today, is moralistic in the sense that it is a search for Truth. People used to put up with this nonsense, but now we want books that are True, or show us Reality. "We" being, you know, other people, not me. I like art as art.

    Kermode argues that seeing through one fiction just leads to a new fiction, that fictions are a necessary part of making sense of the world. That creating or accepting fictions is also part of finding Truth.

  6. Well, yes, Truth and Reality are imaginary moving targets and all of that. Plato backed up his moral claims about Homer with the suggestion that Achilles would never have been wrathful at Agamemnon, that Homer was not being true to life. So Plato would fit in very comfortably with many of today's readers/critics.

    I think, unsurprisingly, that the arguments are all on Kermode's side, and I suppose all art is probably part of the search for truth, that imaginary moving target. Art is a good tool for that search. I laid aside my copy of SoaE to finish Tolstoy. I should find where I put it and get back to it.

  7. I will warn you that Kermode's book is not as good as War and Peace. Who needs that warning? No one.