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The Revelations of Frank Kermode

1.

The most versatile and the most distinguished of English literary critics since William Empson, Frank Kermode, died on August 17 of last year. Coming not from the English mainland but from the Isle of Man, he always felt somewhat alien in Britain even after he held prestigious positions at the universities of London and Cambridge. He was knighted, but did not display the Sir on his books: his autobiography was entitled Not Entitled. After six years in the navy during World War II, he was trained as a scholar of the English Renaissance, which remained his basic field, but an early book was on modernism and William Butler Yeats, and he also showed an interest in general literary theory, where he was able at times to demonstrate an amiable talent of treating with sympathy and understanding even those critical positions and schools with which he fundamentally disagreed.

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Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
‘The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero’; engraving of a scene from The Tempest by Jean Pierre Simon after a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1797

Kermode worked as an adviser for several publishing houses, and I can testify to his extraordinary tact and judgment, as he supervised a short book I wrote on Schoenberg for a series that he administered called Modern Masters. He disliked the end of one of my chapters and made me rewrite it, and it became in my opinion the best thing in the book. His activity as a journalist produced many hundreds of reviews on a wide variety of subjects ranging from classical antiquity to the proletarian novels of the twentieth century. Bury Place Papers, a selection of articles for the London Review of Books, for which he wrote more than two hundred reviews, has been issued posthumously. This partially overlaps with a previous selection of essays, The Uses of Error, published in 1991, which remains on the whole more satisfactory and impressive, although the new volume contains some valuable reminiscences and reviews of William Empson—who was much admired by Kermode—this side of idolatry. (He wrote some seventy pieces for these pages.)

Entering the last decade of his life, Kermode made a grand return to the literature of the English Renaissance (in which he had worked only intermittently over the years) with a brilliant major study of the major aspect of the major figure of the period, Shakespeare’s Language, published in 2000, to which we must turn later. Of all his books, however, the one that sheds the fullest light on his critical ideals and philosophy, and was also the most ambitious and controversial, came twenty years before and arose from his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1977–1978: The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Here, Kermode’s initial concern is with the interpretation of the gospels, above all the Gospel according to Saint Mark, but his central interest is to reveal the nature of the interpretation of narrative in general.

Mark is generally agreed to be the oldest gospel, and much of Matthew that follows can be seen as an interpretation or rewriting of Mark. Examining the notebooks of Henry James, Kermode observed that the development of a novel like The Portrait of a Lady was a successive series of interpretations of an initially small idea as it becomes more elaborate and filled with a greater sense of life, just as Matthew and Luke elaborated on Mark to create new versions more convincing and of a more satisfactory dogmatic nature. Kermode’s insight was that interpretation is always a way of telling a new story. The comparison of secular and sacred interpretation of narrative was shocking to many.1

The Genesis of Secrecy is dedicated “To Those Outside.” Interpreters are insiders and outsiders. The insiders belong to an elite, generally protected by an institution like a church or an academy, or by a consensus of scholarly opinion, which gives them authority, and they are presumed to possess the art of divination. The elite have privileges and constraints. “Perhaps the most important of these,” Kermode says, “are the right to affirm, and the obligation to accept, the superiority of latent over manifest sense.”

The manifest sense is the literal one we all grasp; the latent sense is the spiritual meaning, the secret that must be revealed by interpretation. This is true on the simplest level; there is naturally no point to an interpretation that tells us only what we all know already, what inescapably and instantly strikes the eye. An interpretation must either uncover or create a secret. For Kermode, the very existence of a text inspires interpretation, and therefore engenders secrecy.

Does the text of Huckleberry Finn reveal a homosexual relationship with the slave Jim? Do the plays of Shakespeare demonstrate that he was secretly a recusant Catholic? Does a reading of Paradise Lost convince us that Milton was really of the Devil’s party? Does The Turn of the Screw betray that the ghostly apparitions are hysterical hallucinations induced by the repressed sexuality of the governess? We can all supply many examples of notorious interpretations that have suggested something hidden from the lay reader.

The differences between the stories told in the four gospels have provoked debate and interpretation for many centuries. Even the apparent refusal of interpretation can become an interpretation. One can add to Kermode’s analysis, for example, that in the 1550s, John Calvin wrote The Harmony of the Evangels, an attempt to resolve the contradictions of the different versions. The Gospel according to Luke opens by addressing Theophilus, and since that name means “lover of God,” this was interpreted by the Catholic Church as signifying that the gospel was directly written for anyone who loves God. Like a good Protestant, Calvin will have nothing to do with this and wants to abolish all the traditional symbolic interpretations, and return to a literal sense. For Calvin, Theophilus was not a symbol of any lover of God, but must have been a real man. However, this return to the surface or manifest significance after centuries of allegorical readings became the revelation of a new intepretation.

Nevertheless, Kermode remarks that

texts upon which a high value has been placed become especially susceptible to the transformations wrought by those who seek spiritual senses behind the carnal [i.e., behind the evident or manifest meanings], senses that may in their turn be treated as if they were carnal.

With a sacred or canonic text, it is difficult to get rid of a traditional interpretation. That is why the Freudian view of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex adheres permanently to our reading of the drama, as it is now historically built into the text. That, too, is why so many millions of Americans think that the Second Amendment of the Constitution means that our founding fathers were asserting the right of every citizen of the United States to own a machine gun, Kalashnikov, or other assault weapon. The secret meanings harden and become fixed over time.

The Genesis of Secrecy is Kermode’s most complex and difficult book. Like Spinoza (quoted by Kermode), who insisted in his pathbreaking work on the interpretation of the Bible that “it is one thing to understand the meaning of Scripture, and quite another to understand the actual truth” (this must have been instrumental in getting Spinoza ostracized from the Jewish community in Amsterdam), Kermode maintains the separation of meaning and truth. In his meditation on criticism, he does not think that the professional insider reaches truth with any greater certainty than the outsider; both are doomed to disappointment, although the insider may produce more interesting or astonishing meanings.

We might add that even when we discover something latent or implicit in a text, our interpretation is always a rewriting of the original that at least partially deforms it—a secret meaning, no matter how essential and convincing, will always fit uneasily and uncomfortably in the original text. We hope, of course, that the newly discovered meaning will turn out to be true, but Kermode remarks that the hope is almost always disappointed. I should think that even if truth is almost never certain, we might be satisfied by relevance, or a provisional enrichment of our understanding. In another book commenting on some famous lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Kermode remarks:

Often what we find to say amounts to no more than an expression of astonishment, which is of little use unless it induces an equivalent submission in our hearers; dull though they may be, they can do this, become part of the conversation that prevents such lines from becoming rubbish in the end.2

Properly practiced, in short, interpretation protects the works of the past from becoming disposable junk by astonishing the readers, making them take a second look. It keeps the past alive.

The importance of The Genesis of Secrecy is that it expresses Kermode’s profound distrust of any system of reading that is coercive. Even his distrust is hedged with qualifications as, with a few exceptions, he has an uneasy sympathy for different critical procedures. Toward the end of the book, he presents a rapid summary of critical approaches:

Some suppose that it is right to inquire strictly into the question of what the text originally meant…. Some seek to liberate texts from all historical constraint by a process of “deconstruction,” others speak of foregoing [sic] the banal pleasures of continuity with the original sense for the sake of a joy more acute, if more dismaying, a jouissance that goes beyond the pleasure principle and arises from a quasi-sexual experience of loss and perversity.
Yet all practice divination, however intermittently, erroneously, or disappointedly; most of all, disappointedly. For whether one thinks that one’s purpose is to re-cognize [sic] the original meaning, or to fall headlong into a text that is a treacherous network rather than a continuous and systematic sequence, one may be sure of one thing, and that is disappointment. It has sometimes been thought, and in my opinion rightly, that the world is also like that…. In any case, a sense of mystery is a different thing from an ability to interpret it, and the largest consolation is that without interpretation there would be no mystery. What must not be looked for is some obvious public success. To see, even to perceive, to hear, even to understand, is not the same thing as to explain or even the same thing as to have access. The desires of interpreters are good because without them the world and the text are tacitly declared to be impossible; perhaps they are, but we must live as if the case were otherwise.

In his book on Shakespeare, Kermode makes use undogmatically of some of these systems. Accompanying them all, he observes in The Genesis of Secrecy, is the belief, unprovable but held by faith, that an interpretation of a work will fit the whole, that things hang together and make coherent sense.

2.

Shakespeare’s Language describes in rich detail the changes in Shakespeare’s style, above all the gradual development of a new, idiosyncratic, and complex manner that must surely have become almost as difficult for a contemporary public to understand as for one today. Kermode reveals an author who developed an approach to words more personal and radically original than any other dramatist of his time. Shakespeare’s Language is best read along with a copy of the plays, since, in spite of the lavish quotations, it inspires a new appreciation and rethinking of the whole body of work.

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    The next Norton lecturer on literature two years later, Dame Helen Gardner, mounted a virulent campaign against Kermode in her lectures couched as a defense of humanistic values, and Kermode published an answer, called “On Being an Enemy of Humanity,” with a polemical indignation that one finds nowhere else in his works. It is included in The Uses of Error

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    Frank Kermode, Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, edited by Robert Alter (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 48–49. 

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