Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Sense of an Ending and its great charms - time, apocalypse, crisis

Frank Kermode is thinking about literary fiction, fictions more generally, as representing reality in some way.  They do not have to do so.  But that is the argument for a different book, maybe a response to The Sense of an Ending.  I would enjoy reading that book.

In this book, though, reality is a premise.  Anyone planning to join me with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis next year will find some useful ideas in Kermode.

So, given some interest in reality, one strange thing about fictions as expressed in books is that the books begin and even more strangely, end.

We cannot, of course, be denied an end; it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end. (23)

I am not sure that books do have to end, exactly.  There are readers who clearly find it more of a nuisance that books end, readers for whom the endless fantasy or detective series is the ideal.  The story of Superman has been published continuously for eighty years, and is not ending anytime soon.  Maybe that book arguing with Kermode should be written by some kind of fantasy writer.

Kermode takes the charm and strangeness of endings seriously.  He looks for endings in reality.  There is death, personal death.  There is apocalypse, the end of everything.  Apocalypses are themselves fictions, even literary fictions, particularly the ones based on the 1st century Christian fantasy novel Revelation.  Kermode is interested, in this example, in how the fiction is used in reality, how the expectation of the imminent end of the world is expressed in the world itself, the psychology of apocalypse, so much of it tied into the imagery of Revelation.

The world constantly fails to end.  Geology and cosmology pushes the beginning of things further into the past, but the apocalypticist can just shift his fiction to keep the possibility of apocalypse.  Even if the year 1000 is not imminent, or, apocalypse (not) repeated as farce, Y2K is in the distant past, the psychology of “crisis” takes over.  The disaster is off in the distance, and this, right now, is the moment of crisis.  The moment of crisis is, essentially, perpetual, which is a great part of its attraction: “the stage of transition, like the whole of time in an earlier revolution, has become endless” (101).

Roughly speaking, Kermode begins with the end, the apocalypse.  He discusses the nature of time, from Augustine on through Aquinas in the third lecture.  The third lecture is quite difficult.  Medieval Christian philosophy.  I imagine, with pity, that original lecture audience.  I doubt that Kermode adds anything to Augustine on this subject.  I doubt that anyone ever has.  This is the first half of the book.  In the second half, Kermode turns to modern literature, and to regular old novels, which greatly eases the philosophical burden, even in Exhibit A is Sartre’s Nausea, which gets most of a lecture to itself as a type specimen.

That is something like a summary of The Sense of an Ending.

Tomorrow, I will write a bit about the last half of the book – novels, the crisis, then and now.  How we love the crisis.


  1. I am not sure that books do have to end, exactly. There are readers who clearly find it more of a nuisance that books end, readers for whom the endless fantasy or detective series is the ideal. The story of Superman has been published continuously for eighty years, and is not ending anytime soon.

    But in fact books do have to end. The annoyance of some readers at the fact is neither here nor there, and the regular production of Superman comics is even less here or there. A book is a book, whether it has sequels or not, and there is a last page, unless it is still being written, in which case it is not yet a book. I hate to be Mister Obvious, but it seems to me you're being unfair to Kermode here.

    I'm still on the apocalypse part, and reading on with some bemusement, since I'm not nearly as interested in the apocalypse as he is -- I mean, it's an interesting concept that has been important to some writers, but he seems to me to be greatly exaggerating its importance to literature in general. But perhaps he's laying the groundwork for a line of thought I will come to appreciate later. In any case, it's always enjoyable to witness a fine and well-stocked mind testing itself against life and literature.

  2. No, not unfair. I am wandering in another direction. One interesting things about comics is that the story is fragmented into a huge number of endings, of little books, within the big "book," and even the most diehard fans are often missing pieces of the big story. It is an unusual way to construct fiction. I wonder if there are other ongoing serials as old. These are good topics for The Sense of a Comic Book Ending.

    Lord knows I am happy enough when books end. But for some readers, ends are frustrating rather than charming.

    I can make a pretty good list of high-prestige contemporary apocalyptic writers, but it is just one particular line of literature, isn't it? Maybe a pretty narrow one.

  3. I've gotten to the part where he's going on about Robbe-Grillet, and it strikes me that one reason Auerbach & Co. come off better is that they're not dealing with contemporary literature. Robbe-Grillet was hot stuff in the mid-'60s, but I don't know how many people read him, or even think about him, today, and his "novels which most of us would agree ... to be at least very good" was surely an absurd overstatement even in 1965 unless "us" is defined in so mandarin a way as to render it meaningless -- lots of well-read people couldn't stand Robbe-Grillet even back then -- and it sounds fatuous now. Better to stick to the Bible and Augustine!

  4. Some sections are like opening a time capsule.

  5. Also, you only get to use an "imminent/immanent" pun once per book, and he's done so three times now (I'm only on p. 30). And how do you make that work in a spoken lecture, anyway?

  6. I asked that question several times. References, puns, non-English words.

  7. I just got to this in my reading of The Devils (the speaker is the elder Verkhovensky, in I:1:2):

    Normally in this world things come to nothing, but here there will be an end, definitely, definitely!

    I love it when my reading chimes with my other reading.

  8. And later in The Devils (II:3:4):

    [Stavrogin:] In this world nothing comes to an end.
    [Dasha:] Here there will be an end.

  9. Half to two-thirds of Wuthering Expectations, is just my fortuitous stumbling across stuff like this.

    Great fun.

  10. I've been slogging my way depressedly through this book because I respect Kermode so much (and hell, if you could read it twice I can read it once, dammit), but this pair of passages from p. 119 make me want to throw the book at the wall (and think less of Kermode). On a quote from Emmett Williams:

    (The i, it should be noted, is lowercase. This is an index of much triviality in avant-garde writing. What is it? A pathetic gesture towards a longed-for illiteracy? If so it is a traditional modernism. A rejection of the uppercase egotism of the salauds? It might be worth a thesis.)

    And on one from Allen Ginsberg:
    'Blakeansatanic' is a non-invention of the same order as lower-case i.

    He sounds like a cross between Andy Rooney and Old Man Yells at Clouds, and Kermode was only in his mid-forties then. For shame.

  11. Kermode does a little better arguing with Harold Rosenberg, although that has the time-capsule quality. He needs someone claiming that the lowercase i really matters a lot, that would help his argument. The examples on their own are useless.

    I had a hard time seeing the line between The Sense of an Ending and the much later Kermode I have read, reviews and Shakespeare stuff, which I remember as clear and well-argued.

  12. Exactly! It's because I love the later Kermode so much that I'm feeling so bitter and betrayed. (N.b.: exaggeration for effect.) If I'd been told "These are some occasionally insightful lectures he delivered before he got his act together and became the Kermode we all know and love," fine -- I probably wouldn't have read them, but I wouldn't have been disappointed. But to have them placed on a level with Mimesis... Blurbs, man! Can't trust 'em!