Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode

Source of book: I own this.

It is only February, and I already have a strong candidate for “most difficult book I have read this year.” This book is a series of six lectures given by the author, a former professor of English literature at Cambridge, and it thus contains an entire language and area of study that is largely unfamiliar to me: literary theory. With neither the time nor the resources to make a thorough study, I had to get along as well as I could, and I am sure that I missed a good bit of his theories. However, what I did get was fascinating as an idea, and as an explanation for both the apocalyptic in literature and the strong tendency in that direction within society.

The very first line introduces this intent:

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 attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.

Kermode’s goal is to show how the idea of the apocalypse functions both within society and within literature to help us make sense of our lives and our mortality. 

 The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer (1497)

The basic premise is that we are profoundly uncomfortable with the place of our short lifespans in the whole of history. There is that which existed before us, and the prospect of things continuing after we have died. A beginning and an end. And we are in the middle, living sequentially in time as we experience it. In order to make sense of this, we need to find a way of relating the beginning, middle, and end, in a coherent manner.

The author draws heavily on Christian ideas of the apocalypse, as these have had the most influence on Western thought over the last 2000 or so years. In particular, the apocalyptic ideas of the Middle Ages still influence us today - if anything, they continue to repeat themselves.

As Kermode analyzes it, the essential elements are a former age of glory, perhaps even perfection. A golden age. (One might consider this in any number of ways. Before the Fall, perhaps, or ancient Israel. Any time in the past could do, depending on one’s preferences. Some I know date this to the 1950s, or the 1800s, or even the Middle Ages.)

After that golden age came the present age. The “middle.” This is a time of “decadence,” when what was good has decayed, and is in need of a renovation. The ushering in of a new age.

However, the new age doesn’t happen without pains. Kermode refers to these as the “terrors.” All the bad, awful, painful, horrible stuff that has to occur in order that the decadent current culture and world is purged of what ails it, and the new age of glory is able to shine forth.

Any of us who were raised in the “pre-tribulation” view of the end times - or perhaps any version of dispensationalism - will recognize these elements. 

Along with this comes a sense that the end is very near. This actually isn’t a surprise, in Kermode’s view. Since, in a very real and personal sense, we all face our own apocalypse in our own inevitable death, the “end” is near - for us.

It is this very real sense of the personal which leads to some interesting - and predictable - results.

One that I particularly found fascinating was that specific predictions of the date of the end of the world have been made constantly throughout the last 2000 years. I tend to associate bad predictions with, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the late Harold Camping. But they were neither the first, nor the most prolific, nor the last.

For a bit of fun, read through the (undoubtedly partial) listing of predictions on Wikipedia.

There are some fun names on the list. Did you know that Martin Luther was sure that the world would expire before 1600? Or that even Christopher Columbus got in the game? Or how about Cotton Mather, best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials, less known as an early proponent of vaccinations. He made no less than three predictions. And look, there is John Wesley. And Isaac Newton (who apparently liked big, round numbers, and thus chose 2000 as the year of the end.) 

There are also a bunch of completely unsurprising names. Jim Jones. Warren Jeffs (of polygamist fame). Pat Robertson. Nostradamus. (Assuming that anyone knows how to interpret his predictions.) Oh, and Charles Manson, who has the distinction of basing his predictions, not on counting numbers in the Bible, but by a creative interpretation of a Beatles album.

In any event, Kermode does a good job of analyzing the history of false predictions, and the need to make sense of the failures. At this point, he introduces the idea of “clerkly skepticism,” by those who doubt the ability to predict the end accurately. (If I find myself in any role in this drama, it has to be this one. I was born with a fairly active skeptic gene.)

Another key idea in this book is that of “fictions.” On the one hand, this book is about literature, and the way that fictions work within fiction. The more specific use of this word, however, is one familiar to lawyers. The law uses fictions all the time as a means of making reality and the law function together. A ready example of this, from my own area of practice, is the “fiction” of who passed first in a simultaneous death. (Imagine the married couple who die together in an airplane crash. Who died first? It might matter, say, if it was a second marriage, and they each had children from priors. Should one side get everything?) So we use a legal “fiction” to explain who died first in a way that does justice.

Or another example. Corporate “personhood” has become controversial as of late regarding the question of what “individual” rights should apply to corporations. However, the original question of “personhood” came up in a more mundane issue. Obviously, a corporation isn’t a “person” as most people understand it. That’s why it is a “fiction.” However, if one never treated a corporation as a person, insane results would be the order of the day. Let’s say you eat a tainted McNugget and get sick. Who do you sue? If a corporation lacks “personhood” for purposes of being a defendant, they you would have to track down each and every shareholder in McDonalds. Imagine the cost of that. So we use the “fiction” to reach a just and logical result. (That it isn’t always just or logical isn’t the point. The law will always have flaws for us to correct. That doesn’t prove that fictions are a bad idea.)

So in this sense, Kermode views the apocalyptic as a “fiction.” It is something that we use to make our experience and our fears line up with a logical system. The sense of an ending helps us process and make sense of our own place in time and our own beginnings and endings. It is a useful fiction for us, as it helps us “make sense of our lives.”

The problem, as the author views it, comes when we allow this “fiction” to become more than a fiction, by a myth. (In the literary view, a “myth” is something that is believed to possibly be true, rather than something entirely fictitious, like the Greek myths.)

Now, mind you, Kermode doesn’t see a belief in a literal apocalypse to be a negative. One can certainly believe in an eventual end of the world - and even a detailed version of that end - without becoming unable to separate the fiction from reality. I do certainly believe in the end of the world as a future historical event - although I have grave doubts as to my ability to comprehend or formulate any specific view of how that end will be. (Clerkly skepticism coming out.) And yes, I “understand” the various views within Christianity, and a number outside it as well. And the scientific consensus on the life cycle of stars, and so forth. I think at best, each theory has flaws and sees a tiny fraction of the whole.

[Or, as one of my favorite former pastors put it, he was a “Pan-tribulationalist/millenialist.” Since God was in charge, he believed it would all pan out in the end.]

The views aren’t the issue. The issue arises when one goes beyond the theoretical and tries to make the “fiction” come true.

Obvious examples would be Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite (of Comet Hale-Bopp fame). The belief in the imminent apocalypse led to mass suicide.

Kermode also notes this tendency in fascism.

What is, in this sense, wrong and dangerous is the belief, gratefully learnt by fascism from the innocent pragmatists, that fictions are to be justified or verified by their practical effects. Thus, the world is changed to conform with a fiction, as by the murder of Jews. The effect is to insult reality, and to regress to myth.

Thus much for the most pernicious of the effects of failing to see the fiction as a fiction. But there are lesser effects which one can see readily apparent.

I was startled to read the best explanation I have yet heard of something that I have noted. Because the “end” is really about our own end, our particular “crisis” is always the most important of all time. We are always standing at the crossroads of history, facing decisions more important than anyone ever, in all of history, ever faced.

It seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relationship to it. The time is not free, it is the slave of a mythical end. We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.

Yes! This is everywhere! “The most important election ever!” “This is the most crucial time in history!” It’s perfect for frightening people into buying stuff, donating money, or accepting ludicrous and harmful ideas. Forget sex, what really sells is fear.

And really, it does feel better to believe that our short lives have significance in the grand sweep of history. If we just do things right, we usher in the new age of glory! We are the most important people in all of history! It adds that feeling of meaning, and allows us to relate the beginning, middle, and end.

But this is all a distraction from the real core issue.

The ending isn’t necessarily imminent. But it is absolutely immanent. It is in all of us. Our own ending. Our own significance. How will we relate our own beginning, middle and end?

(Kermode does get bonus points from me for using an “imminent/immanent” comparison.)

This is what I understood as the central idea behind the lectures, and thus this book.

There is more too. Kermode does discuss the ideas in the context of literature. He assumes the reader has read the books in question, which put me at a bit of a disadvantage when he discussed 20th Century literature. That is a definite gap in my reading, although I am slowly remedying it.

Sartre gets a good bit of time. I am not a fan of Sartre. At all. But I did find one issue interesting. Sartre was a determinist, largely believing that free will is an illusion. (One of many reasons I dislike him.) So the question is, if one cannot truly “choose,” how does one make choices?

As Sartre put it, “all ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So we try to change the world; that is, to live as if the relations between things and their potentialities were governed not by deterministic processes but by magic.”

Again, I disagree with Sartre on that basic level, but he makes an interesting point about fictions. We utilize them, not because they are true, but because they allow us to relate to and act upon truth. This is the power behind fiction, fictions, and perhaps all the arts. A novel has power not because it relates true events, but because its fiction relates us to the truths of life.

I do want to touch briefly on how one might see the apocalyptic in literature. There are some abundantly obvious examples. The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the clearest work to view as an apocalypse. Kermode’s elements are all there and plain to see. If one looks, many works are like this. But even in a broader sense, a book must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And these must relate to each other, or the book risks being unable to say anything at all. Whether you buy into Kermode’s theory as applied to literature as a whole - or society as a whole - it is an interesting exercise to look at the stories we tell, obviously fictional or not, as related to the basic concept of reconciling the beginning and end, and making sense of our place in time.

Kermode draws examples from works as diverse as those of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Phillip Larkin. There are pithy and apropos quotes scattered throughout. But the one poet that fascinates Kermode more than any other is Wallace Stevens. I admit that I too enjoy Stevens’ poetry a great deal. (One of my favorite nerdy non-fiction books is The Nothing that Is, which title is drawn from a Stevens poem.)

So, I can’t help but quote one of the passages that Kermode uses. This is from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.


If it should be true that reality exists
In the mind: the tin plate, the loaf of bread on it,
The long-bladed knife, the little to drink and her

Misericordia, it follows that
Real and unreal are two in one: New Haven
Before and after one arrives or, say,

Bergamo on a postcard, Rome after dark,
Sweden described, Salzburg with shaded eyes
Or Paris in conversation at a café.

This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

“4 Tiki of the Apocalypse”, by my friend Craig Fraser
Because I love this painting. 


  1. Great review, Tim. This book sounds really interesting. I did a double take when I saw the title, because there’s a Julian Barnes novel with the same name. I did a quick search and found that Barnes did name his novel after Kermode’s book, but having read neither work I can’t draw any comparisons.
    Once it’s pointed out, the apocalyptic theme in literature and pop culture seems so evident. I was thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while reading your review (It’s true. I’m a fan). I agree with your comment that The Lord of the Rings would also fall into this category.
    On a different note, I want to bring to your attention a book that I got at the end of last year. It’s a single volume, English edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone. I only know you from your writings here, but for some reason, I think you might find it interesting. Maybe it’s because you’re a self-proclaimed autodidact, and Leopardi seems to me the ultimate autodidact.
    One last thing, I was in Bakersfield earlier this week, and one morning I looked out the window and saw a young boy on a scouter. I commented on it to my dad, and said that he thought he was your son (actually, he said, “I think he belongs to the guy with 5 kids”). You ran by a short while later. The world is truly a small place.

    1. Zibaldone looks like a fascinating book. Wow, it's long, though. The only version I can find checks in at 2600 pages. On a "per-pound" basis, it isn't that expensive. I wonder if I could find a used edition. Hmm.

    2. I got mine on amazon for about $46, which is still pretty dear. Eventually someone will be selling it to make space on their shelf. I''ll send you a note if I see a reasonably priced, used copy.
      "having read neither work"...ugh...I really should use the preview feature before I hit publish.