Having read Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism earlier this year (see discussions here, here, and here – more to come), I’ve now started reading Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending. I think I incline more to the Kermode than the Frye, partly because I like Kermode’s waspishness but also because his views seem to coincide rather more with my own instinctive feelings on literature and criticism.
But I’ve just come to a passage which suddenly makes me think that Kermode’s book is, at least in part, a response to Frye. It is not explicit, Frye’s name is not mentioned either in the text or anywhere in the endnotes, but …
Kermode is talking about myth and fiction. Frye is very careful to see these as part of the same project, one feeding into the other, serious literature partaking of the sense of myth. Kermode takes a determinedly opposite view:
We have to distinguish between myths and fictions. … Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus. It may be that treating literary fictions as myths sounds good just now, but as Marianne Moore so rightly said of poems, ‘these things are important not because a / high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are / useful.’
It is that sense of myths as radically unchanging, as doing something that fiction is not designed to do, that I was reaching towards in my review of Gregory Feeley’s Kentauros at Requited. But I wrote that before I had read the Kermode. I might have found the task slightly easier if I’d come to the review now.