I was thinking about Frank Kermode in the days before I learned, belatedly, from the eulogies printed in the London Review of Books, that he had died. I was trying to reconcile his opinion – oft shared by older college English professors during my undergraduate years – that reading was much more important than writing, with something James Sturm said at SPX: that to be psychologically healthy, you have to create as much media as you take in. Both seem intuitively wise, yet at odds, since nobody who read as much as Kermode could possibly write as much too and yet the breadth and seriousness of Kermode’s reading is surely the kernel of his writing and his contribution to literary study.
Kermode, like most male critics of his generation, tended to articulate a conservative response to the “politicization” of the humanities academy in the 1960s-70s and after. His values, he said, were those of the Enlightenment: disinterestedness, orderly thought, the search for wisdom and perspective. And yet his perspective, and his wisdom, were not all that divergent in their details from the insights of the early- to mid-century philosophy that informs so much of capital-T Theory. He wasn’t particularly conservative politically except in terms of academic politics, and his appreciation for Continental philosophy allowed him to read, and critique, the academic practice of Theory seriously when others of his generation could not. His own writing, especially 1990’s Poetry, Narrative, History deals with issues of narrative structure closely related to those of French narratology. 1965’s The Sense of an Ending prefigures social-science’s notion of a “risk society,” which has been treated frequently by Zizek .
But ever invested in the centrality of reading literature for sense, Kermode somewhat blames the academy’s politicization for society’s loss of sanity:
The history of apocalypse and the developments that it has undergone are very interesting. The craziness that it has engendered is quite important. We perhaps laugh at these sects in America – although not always, as some are very violent and destructive. There is mass attendance, of which we hear nothing about, at these meetings of apocalyptic sects. Absurdities like this business about the faithful being ‘snatched’ from whatever they’re doing, so that aeroplanes might crash because the pilot has been taken to heaven. These people are guilty of a very elementary reading error. They need a good literary critic. They need a commentary on the Book of Revelations that is actually sane – which is of course possible, it’s been done many times.
There was probably never enough power in academic English, even in the days of Leavis and Brooks, to forestall the polemicization of society brought about by mass culture and counterculture. But Kermode’s insistence that literary criticism teaches us to think disinterestedly nonetheless makes us sensitive to some qualities of literary reading that are perhaps overlooked in our hyper-aestheticized, mass culture-saturated society. It is, of course, the same insistence that blinds him, for example, to the similar projects of Terry Eagleton – whom he admired – and Fredric Jameson – whom he did not – but, when taken disinterestedly, it is nonetheless a worthwhile insight that something has been lost in the replacement of literary reading with philosophical reading.
Classical literary training teaches you to read well: to parse sustained sentences and the relational, contingent concepts they represent, to identify metaphors and trace conceits, to recognize allusions – and their transformation into metaphors – to perceive all the things that make literature “complex,” and to perceive those things effortlessly, without the sense that you’re working, so that the experience is pleasurable. But these skills, in the greatest readers, translate to things other than literature: to “disinterestedness and orderly thought.” Philosophical reading, in the continental tradition in particular, is vastly more interested and while orderly, also much more abstract. In the same interview quoted above, Kermode zeroes in on this aspect of theoretical discourse:
when you shift the focus of interest to literary theory, you’re creating a new subject. Someone once said that when you start finding out all the rules (or what I.A. Richards called the philosophy of rhetoric), you get another subject on another level. That level is not higher because it’s more valuable, it’s higher because it’s more abstract. It’s like having a specialist in concrete, a man who is interested in the stresses of the material, but who is no longer interested in the building.
The two passages situate Kermode, the Literary Critic, in the interstices between the two groups he discusses, the academics “no longer interested in the building” and the masses “guilty of an elementary reading error.” Neither is disinterested, and neither can move between the abstract and the concrete. The academics simply inhabit a different society from the masses altogether, each society homogeneous.
Kermode’s teaching philosophy resisted homogeneity, and this commitment to a diversity of perspectives ideally informed some of his most vitriolic opposition to academic Theory:
For it may well happen that students will keenly disapprove of the known politics or religion of a writer, or seek to discover in his or her work hidden senses of which it might be equally proper to disapprove; and such prejudices may well prevent their actually loving what they read. But they need to learn that excellent poetry may — in fact, almost always must — express political, religious, or social convictions they cannot share. If that were not so, we could not read Homer or Dante or T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound without experiencing constant disagreement, tedium, or even disgust. And I must say that it is an enlivening experience to watch a group of intelligent young people habituating themselves to a poet who offers them very little in the way of instant gratification, to see them thinking through a poem for its own sake, without prejudice. Soon their interests may be widened in scope; they may need to find out more about quaint George Herbert, may even want to ask whether and how quaint Emily Dickinson, who is known to have copied out part of one of his poems, was affected by the English poet. Affection and respect for poetry spread by such means. But first must come the recognition of a certain admirable mastery and the perception of some benefit in recognizing it. As to whether students share Herbert’s Anglican piety or deplore Yeats’s flirtation with fascism, these should be secondary considerations; the direct experience of poetry is what will enrich them. For pedagogues to argue, as in various ways they do, that the political bearing of a work of literature is the most important thing about it — or that it ought first to be studied as just another document in some historical power negotiation — is, in my view, a subversion of their calling.
The logic is ironic, since academic theory often fetishizes difference, and Kermode did soften his stance in the years after the above passage was written in 1997. But the commitment to literature as conversation remains true throughout his career.
So does any of this help me reconcile Kermode’s “reading” with Sturm’s “creation”? I think it does, in the sense that reading for Kermode is not really “taking something in.” An encounter with difference is not easily internalized. The experience of the encounter is what’s taken in, with that “disinterested” distance and care. Sturm’s observation is much more wisdom for a media–saturated age, when consumption is passive, where the pleasures of aesthetic immersion are highly valued, and conversation is among members of homogeneous groups. It is a protection against a world where Kermode’s mode of reading is increasingly difficult, where the materiality of writing and drawing and knitting and baking provide anchors against the dehumanization of mass culture. Kermode’s mode of reading – the classic belletristic mode – is creative in the same life-affirming, humanistic sense as any more tangible, externalized act of creation. Although there is no material output from the act of reading, it can’t knock you out of balance. Or perhaps that balance is itself one outcome of the act of critical, disinterested reading. Kermode may claim the Enlightenment but these values are equally Modern: literature does not need to serve a social purpose or advance a political agenda, it does not need to target a demographic or document a historical moment or express authenticity. It is a pleasure for its own sake, but the pleasure of Kermode’s way of reading is both aesthetic and intellectual: “To read well gives you an enormous kick. That, I feel, is the first necessity.”