Friday, October 5, 2018

Kermode on our endless epoch of transition

The Christian story of the beginning and end becomes damaged, replaced, by scientific discoveries.  Myths turn into literature.  That is how Kermode moves into the literature of his own time.

I mentioned that literary fictions changed in the same way – perpetually recurring crises of the person, and the death of the person, took over from myths which purport to relate one’s experience to grand beginnings and ends.  And I suggested that there have been great changes, especially in recent times when our attitudes to fiction in general have grown so sophisticated  (Ch. II: Fictions, p. 35)

Kermode uses the word “fiction” broadly, including political and legal and religious fictions as well as novels.  My sense is that in 1965, when he gave the lecture, there was enough countercultural activity that he was right.  The established fictions were getting thoroughly worked over, being “seen through,” to use Orwell’s old phrase.

But Kermode is wary, and works on another fiction, the moment of crisis, or the temptation to live in a moment of crisis, a time of transition that is paradoxically unending.  Some moments of crisis are real, as is obvious enough in retrospect.  But:

Crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself.  Transition, like the other apocalyptic phases, is, to repeat Focillon’s phrase, an ‘intertemporal agony’; it is merely the aspect of successiveness to which our attention is given…  Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition.  (Ch. IV: The Modern Apocalypse, 101-2)

This describes the novel in general here, isn’t he?  There is a stable beginning, a satisfying ending, and the writer and I spend all of our time in the transition between them, the novel itself.  I enjoy the transition, am surprised and moved and perhaps learn something, all along the way.

Kermode is skeptical of the uniqueness of the feeling of crisis or transition.  Maybe this is just ordinary psychology.  It is enjoyable how much of his discussion of his contemporary literature can be transferred to our contemporary literature with only a change of authors and titles.  He spends most of the fifth lecture on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) – “This book is doubtless very well known to you” (133) – and plenty of time on Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, and Iris Murdoch, as representatives of the new ideas.  He clearly dislikes the newest of the new ideas, meaning William Burroughs.  “[N]on-communicative triviality” (121).

But it is the skepticism that I find interesting.  How new is the new?  What are today’s avant-gardists doing that the French novelists of the 1950s had not already done?  And then, what did they do that etc., etc.

In a recent interview with Alexandra Schwartz, Rachel Cusk describes her fiction in terms that reminded me of Kermode’s discussion:

I’m trying to see experience in a more lateral sense rather than as in this form of character. Which, as I said, I don’t actually think is how living is being done anymore…

I think this is a moment in culture, generally, where people are suddenly looking again at everything that was accepted, voices that have been ringing in our ears forever, and suddenly thinking, “I’m really sick of this, and I don’t want to read it anymore.”

As I understand Cusk, “character” means something other than the representation of personality.  “How much does character actually operate in a person’s life?”  The word that jumps out is “anymore” (the first instance).  Novels used to represent reality, “living,” when character existed, but not anymore, so new kinds of representation, new kinds of novels, are necessary.

Or things have not changed that much, and one of the most stable things is the useful fiction that things have changed a lot.

Since Sartre’s Nausea was not at all well known to me, I read it, and I will save my hapless flailing on that subject for next week.

Please come back in early December for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.


  1. Peter Stamm in his most recent book, the brilliant La Douce Indifférence du monde, wrote:

    About the end of history I have nothing to say, it's only in books that stories have an end... In reality there is no end except death. And death is rarely happy ..... On my way back, I imagine my own end ... escaping from life without any attachments left, and without leaving any traces...

  2. Stamm is a wise man.

    I enjoy literary apocalypses, but keep them in books, please.

  3. I'm coming here late to say I gave a stab at Sense Of An Ending but found it a frustrating read, for reasons you and commenters discussed in the two earlier posts. Part of the challenge was not being able to understand the point he was making it, and when I occasionally did, feeling like he was clearly wrong. (For example, when he says that the New Testament is a "retelling" of an Old Testament, which strikes me as obviously incorrect from both a historical and a literary perspective. Or his whole thing about the clock's "tick-tock", which seems to argue that the second is a variable amount of time.) Also, for how often he quoted Wallace Stevens in the first few chapters, I felt like none of the quotes elucidated matters much if at all.

    I should have probably skipped a few chapters and started again. I read Nausea in high school but not since, and I've read a ton of Murdoch and a bit of Robbe-Grillet. Maybe I'll pick up Kermode again some other month.

  4. When Kermode died, a number of his former students, in their tributes, mentioned The Sense of an Ending in worshipful tones, but I was not able to find one who said with any specificity what the heck they did with it. I am still puzzled by that.

    The last half of the book, the contemporary half, has a different character than the first. Much of the final chapter, for example, is about Christopher Burney's Solitary Confinement, a wartime prison memoir. It sounds quite good! But the piece is like a separate, thoughtful, book review. The chapter on Nausea is good, and separable.

    A puzzle.