Frank Kermode was an English literary critic. Born in 1919 on the Isle of Man, he taught at Reading, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, University College London and Cambridge, where he was King Edward VII Professor of English. Knighted in 1991, he died in 2010. While Kermode practiced a distinct form of literary criticism, philosophically and theoretically informed, it is hard to pin this down to a school or single set of ideas. On the one hand, Kermode was a crucial institutional influence in introducing “literary theory” to Britain and to the Anglophone world, through a now famous seminar series he ran in London and as editor of the Modern Masters series which introduced many key theoretical figures in accessible ways: on the other, he was critical of the “excesses” of much French theory. Again, while Kermode's work is critical of highly politicized readings of literature, it is not formalist or overly scholastic. Moreover, Kermode's criticism covers the whole span of English literature, from work on Beowulf and its translations, an early study of Wallace Stevens (whose poetry and thought remained a touchtone for Kermode) to books on and an edition of Shakespeare, to work on contemporary fiction.
However, perhaps what characterizes Kermode's work most of all, and makes it “theoretical” in the largest sense, is a sense of the difficulty involved in reading and understanding literature. Kermode's work does not evade the problems of hermeneutics, that is, the problems raised by the very nature of interpretation. Instead, it explores them not, usually, in the abstract - as some theorists do - but in relation to a very wide selection of literary and nonliterary works (with Robert Alter, for example, he helped pioneer approaching the Christian Bible as a literary text). Influenced by work in theological and philosophical studies of interpretation, Kermode suggests that our readings of texts are much more complex affairs than we usually allow. For example, he argues that in encountering a literary text, we are immediately distracted from literal interpretations by the “inherent proclivity of the mind for metaphor; the pressure exerted by context…; and the pressure of authoritative institutions of interpretation” (Alter 1992: 88). That is to say that our senses of metaphor and ways of finding similarities, which are often quite random in relation to the texts we read but are inextricably part of our interpretative process, influence how we understand texts. How we see “the relation of any given moment in a text to the texts that immediately and proximately surround it” (Alter 1992: 88) also shapes how we understand both that text and the larger text of which is it a part. And, finally, because interpreters “usually belong to an institution, such as a guild” (or, one might add, a university, newspaper, or website) they are led, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, into following received (and authoritative) interpretations of texts. These factors, which are implicit in any act of interpretation, shape how we come to understand literary texts.
Because of this, too, Kermode's work is concerned by the relationship between fictions (in the widest sense, including poetry) and reality. He argued that our understanding of the past, and of the world, are intertwined with the same forces that shape our interpretation of fictions. For Kermode, our making sense of reality is both shaped by and shapes our interpretations of fictions: yet our interpretation of fictions is itself a shaping force. He wrote: “World and book … are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only because of our hermetic tricks” (145).
Kermode's concern with interpretation coincided with his interest in literary value and the canon. While well aware of the nonliterary forces that make texts “canonical,” Kermode was also clear that there is such a thing as literary value, even if it is impossible to define.
These ideas come together in perhaps his most famous book, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, which aims to outline a general theory of fictions, with a central interest in the issue of closure, the way in which fictions end. Beginning by examining fictions and beliefs about eschatology (the end of the world), he suggests that these are our own fears of death writ large, and that - just as we make up stories about the apocalypse - so we use fiction to make sense of our own lives and deaths. We need “fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems” (1966: 7). With this idea in mind, he goes on to distinguish between “chronos,” the mere passing of time, and “kairos,” moments of time that make up decision and are existentially significant. The book then turns to modernism, and argues that it represents a new version of fictionalized apocalyptic time.
Frank Kermode wrote that it is “not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to the attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives” (1966: 3). Although this sounds typically self-abnegating - criticism as the handmaid of literature - on reflection, it can be seen another way: making sense of how we make sense is, after all, the task of reason.
Although Kermode founded no school or theoretical movement, his careful reading and judgment, and his role as a teacher, have been highly influential on a leading generation of British critics. His work is clearly an influence on Jacqueline Rose, and more recently this influence can be seen in critics like Mark Currie.
SEE ALSO: Narratology and Structuralism; Rose, Jacqueline
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