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Radically unchangeable gestures

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.

3 thoughts on “Radically unchangeable gestures

  1. That book was formative for me. Read it first as an undergrad and taught it off and on till more or less the bitter end. I always thought it should be read with Wallace Stevens’s The Necessary Angel. But waspish? I think the book has an old school urbanity and access that is no more. The cruelty is that this book pushed Kermode to the very pinnacle of literary theory at just the moment that the mountain beneath it was about to be swept away by Poststructuralism. After that, yes, he was waspish and a little bitter, I think. No one talked about him anymore. It was all Derrida all the time. Ah well. His work has held up, I think.

  2. I only saw Kermode the once, on a panel with Terry Eagleton, Zadie Smith and James Wood (though, oddly enough, I worked with his son for a while), and what I remember was how funny Kermode and Eagleton were. And right up to the end he was writing superb critical essays for the London Review of Books that were both acute and acerbic, usually both at the same time. It is that quality in his work that I value.

    Oddly enough, I don’t think he was swept away by Poststructuralism, at least not in Britain. In fact he was known for his support of Theory during the Theory Wars of the 60s and 70s, and remained one of the best known and certainly one of the most highly respected academic literary critic throughout his life.

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