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New ends for old: Frank Kermode’s

The Sense of an Ending




The Critical Quarterly             

Winter 1974





WHEN DAVID LODGE reviewed The Sense of an Ending in the Critical Quarterly he recognised the ‘wilfully difficult’ style and also ‘the strong streak of intellectual dandyism in Professor Kermode’. He decided, however, that although Kermode ‘delights in exhibiting his brilliance … the brilliance is genuine’. Allen Tate was less qualified in his praise, recording his opinion that The Sense of an Ending ‘gives us further proof of the depth of Kermode’s learning and of his philosophic range. It will be a landmark in twentieth century critical thought’. Such comments typify the almost unanimous acclaim the book received on its publication in 1967.[1] The reputation has survived and in his new book Possibilities Malcolm Bradbury looks back to Kermode’s work as one of a handful of contributions to criticism in the last decade to have ‘the resonance of larger value’.

Recently Professor Kermode was appointed to what is generally agreed to be the senior seat in the establishment of English literary criticism, the King Edward VII Chair of English Literature at Cambridge. With this appointment in mind one suspects that it will not be long before The Sense of an Ending takes up its place alongside such classics of criticism as Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Auerbach’s Mimesis. In view of this it is perhaps time to reconsider some of the ideas which Kermode puts forward in his book and submit them thoroughly to that ‘clerical scepticism’ of whose operations in regard to apocalyptic fantasies he so wholeheartedly approves.


The Sense of an Ending is a book which seeks to establish a connection between fictions, time and apocalyptic modes of thought. , Kermode sees in apocalyptic certain features which, he suggests, provide a useful analogy with the process of reading and writing fiction. He tells us that in imagining an end for the world apocalyptic thinkers are imposing a pattern on history, thus making possible ‘a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle’ (p. 17). But, the argument continues, men’s prediction of the end is continually being falsified and they are forced to adjust their patterns in the interest of reality. Fictions too attempt to impose a pattern on time, but no sophisticated fiction fails to make use of ‘peripeteia’ (a sudden change in the movement of the plot). Since ‘peripeteia’ is, by definition, something we do not expect, in assimilating it we are ‘enacting that readjustment of expectations which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic’ (p. 18).

These observations constitute the central premises on which the whole of the theoretical argument of The Sense of an Ending rests and it should be noted that they are derived not from a consideration of any novel or group of novels but from a general approach to more universal matters such as the way we think about history and the way we ‘impose form on time’. Literary fictions are thus linked with ‘general fictions’ which include scientific hypotheses and which are defined here by the fact that they belong to the category of ‘the consciously false’. According to the argument we are in the habit of imposing such false paradigms on the world; indeed it would seem that our very nature compels us to do so because:


the paradigms will correspond, the more fully as one approaches a condition of absolute simplicity, to some basic human ‘set’, biological or psychological. Right down at the root they must correspond to a basic human need, they must make sense, give comfort … At some very low level we all share certain fictions about time, and they testify to the continuity of what is called human nature … (p. 43-44).


One of the things which is important about literature, then, is that it imposes a consciously false paradigm on time, that it is indeed about time. In a crucial passage of the book this view is given very succinct expression :


The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise. (p. 45).

The argument, expressed so seductively here, is that time in its ‘pure’ state is disorganised and that all our fictions are attempts to overcome this disorganisation by imposing on it a structure which has both a beginning and an ending; our plots, whether they be literary or historical, are, we are led to believe, methods of humanising time.


From this argument we may gather that Professor Kermode’s relationship to the concept of time is an uneasy one. Indeed it would seem that for him time is not a concept at all, for rather than viewing it as an abstraction men have made from experience he envisages it as sensuously real. Our life thus becomes a flight from time in all its fearsomeness and it is by fictions that such a flight is effected.


This uneasy relationship is illuminated by a passage where Professor Kermode discusses the nature of historical plot-making; there is a stage in cultural development, he argues,


marked by an understanding that this play of consciousness over history, this plot-making, may relieve us of time’s burden only by defying our sense of reality. To be really free of time we should have to be totally unconscious or in some other way indifferent to what we normally call real’ (p. 57).


If we read this passage carefully we notice that the word ‘time’ is used when what is actually meant is either ‘contingency’ or even ‘life’. A state of unconsciousness would relieve us of at least the more cumbersome parts of these burdens and one is tempted to ask why the ultimate fruit of unconsciousness should be freedom from time.


One answer which might be given is that since The Sense of an Ending is given over to the problem of time in literature it is essential to establish that there is such a problem, and one of the ways of doing this is subtly to impute to time all manner of sins which time itself has not committed. Thus according to Professor Kermode ‘the interval between ‘tick’ and ‘tock’ must be purged of simple chronicity’, (p. 46) and not only is chronicity unclean but it is also moribund – we are told that when Roquentin, in Sartre’s La Nausée, hears the song ‘Some of These Days’, it ‘destroys the disorder and the dead time of the world’ (p. 147). It is in such a manner as this that Kermode first attributes a character to time and then goes on to blacken it. By this means he attempts to establish our need for a redemption from time, a redemption which, we are told, we will find in fiction.


Professor Kermode goes on to develop his thesis. By repeatedly using such phrases as ‘simple chronicity’ and ‘purely successive, disorganised time’ he implies that there is a more complex and desirable version of time waiting just around the comer for us to make use of; he suggests indeed that novels are the means by which we transubstantiate ordinary time into something which both he and Susanne Langer call ‘virtual time’ (p. 52). In place of the clock, that mere chronometer, we are offered what we must presumably call ‘kairometers’.


In considering these arguments we should remember that although the word ‘time’ is a substantive, one of its essential properties is that it does not refer to a substance – it is a word whose meaning is determined by its context. In different contexts the word ‘time’ may be roughly synonymous with any one or with any combination of the following categories: ‘death’, ‘mutability’, ‘life’, ‘experience’, ‘chronicity’, ‘motion’, ‘speed’, ‘history’, ‘epoch’, ‘period’, ‘season’, ‘hour’ and even ‘elemental erosion’. Kermode not only uses the word indiscriminately in several of these senses but he also attributes substantial existence to it, and time becomes a hostile embodiment of disorder and contingency.

Time, however, can possess no qualities other than those with which we endue it, and to claim that ‘pure time’ is disorganised is rather like saying ‘pure brown’ is disorganised. What we want to know is where this mysterious pure state is to be found. There are light brown hats and dark brown rats and there is also burnt umber, but, try as we may, we cannot hunt down brown in its essential brownness. Similarly there are high times and bad times, there is the time which we save and the time that rushes by us, but time on its own, severed from all relation, is merely a semantic construct. Even to make the statement ‘I live in time’ is to commit oneself to a redundancy of expression the subtlest metaphysic cannot defend; it is after all a matter of convention that the physical universe is a temporal phenomenon and it is thus merely pleonastic to assert the temporality either of life or of fiction. To carry the argument a step further and talk about two kinds of time is but to compound the original error and commit what Whitehead called ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ in duplicate.


The thesis of The Sense of an Ending would have been made far more accessible had Kermode dispensed with his many varieties of time in order to lay bare the core of his argument, which rests on a distinction between order as embodied in fictional paradigms and the disorder which is ascribed both to reality and time. Yet if this argument is inspected closely it too reveals itself to be untenable; as Bergson writes: ‘To speak of an uncoordinated diversity to which order is super-added … is to commit a veritable petitio principii; for in imagining the uncoordinated, we really posit an order, or rather two’.[2] Disorder, in other words, is no less an artificial construct than order. Subjectively speaking, reality does not pre-exist our perception of it, and we have access to the world only by way of the focusing powers of our own consciousness. If we invent the fiction of a noumenal world and hold it to be an embodiment of chaos, we are merely objectifying a subjective disposition; sophistically we attribute orderliness to the creative self and at the same time project our own disorder onto the world. By such a process of projection, we convert ‘reality’ into the replica of our own unknown face.


The primary dimension of those impressively metaphysical sounding words, ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ is, then, in this context at least, a psychological one. The point may be clarified if we remember that in their discussions of realistic fiction, our unsophisticated Victorian forefathers knew nothing of ‘contingency’ and rested content with the earthier term ‘dirt’. Novelists of the city were thus frequently condemned for ‘the incapacity of their own minds to refuse … pollution’, to use a phrase from Ruskin’s ‘Fiction Fair and Foul’ which anticipates the complaints which were later to be made against Ibsen and Zola. It would seem plausible to suggest that although our vocabulary has changed, our concerns have not. The contemporary critic may, with a gentility which Ruskin himself would never have dreamed of, prefer to discuss Sartre’s ‘La Nausée’ in terms of ‘contingency’, yet in the novel itself, one of Roquentin’s central preoccupations is with the putrid, the viscous and the decaying, and it is from these which he attempts to escape. When, in discussing the novel, Professor Kermode tells us that ‘the association of consciousness with nothingness, and of being with a random and agitated meaninglessness, a disgusting evil paste’ is not ‘a necessary intellectual position’ (p. 150), we may notice that, by a subtle shift of metaphor, contingency has indeed been equated with dirt.


Once this equation has been established we may be reminded that we sometimes say of a good novel that it reeks of the real. The phrase calls to our attention that in literary criticism, no less than in everyday speech, there is a deeply ingrained habit of equating not only contingency but reality itself with dirt. The empty concept of ‘reality’ comes to be used, in other words, like that of ‘dirt’, as a receptacle for those aspects of our identity which we attempt to reject. A similar function appears to be played by the term ‘contingency’ in The Sense of an Ending but we will find included in this category some of the deepest springs of our vitality. Indeed if we can only overcome our aversion to the dull wrapping of the word, we will find, parcelled up inside, an unimaginable wealth – love, fear, anger and all those ambiguous states of being which, in our aspiration towards the purity of form, we can come to regard as so many incidentals, come tumbling suddenly out. We can but draw the conclusion that the doctrine of scientific objectivity has taught us so scrupulously to eliminate all trace of emotions that we have come at times to adopt towards them the very attitude of aversion we conventionally adopt towards dirt. The emotional turmoil and moral dilemmas which literature so often depicts can thus be regarded as just so much ‘contingency’, to be sloughed off in the pursuit of form. Form, order, structure, rationality-these alone remain clean.


Yet to our legalistic demands for order literature can return no answer; order after all is something of a dull commodity and can be had cheaply enough on any drill-field. The designs of literature go deeper to shake us out of such complacent categories, categories which serve only to insulate us against the power of art to disturb. When Professor Kermode asserts that literature must ‘make sense, give comfort’, he appears to deny this role to art and to ignore one of the dimensions of literature which we value most. Great literature does not, in any conventional meaning of the phrase, ‘make sense’, and although some literature may leave us with a sense of harmonious integration, integration is not the same as ‘the consolation of form’; consolation is merely a wooden spoon.


Professor Kermode’s contention that our need for form is satisfied by the phrase ‘tick-tock’ is, of course, perfectly acceptable. It might be said that the phrase uses boundaries in order to enclose an emptiness, rather in the same way as a circle does; it serves the purpose so well because short vowels and clicky consonants have the precision we require of boundaries. We frequently use this simple concept of boundary when we think about historical time, and when we talk about ‘the age we live in’ we mark off a section of time which belongs to us-it is a kind of temporal territorial imperative. It is not this kind of form we find in literature though, simply because no work of literature contains elementary boundary concepts. Novelists are not, as Kermode implies, disinterested form-givers who find themselves now and again thrown together with the contingency of an objective world; on the contrary they are themselves the pivot of the world they imagine. When novelists shape experience in their art they do not give it just any old, formally pleasing, geometrical shape, they gives it their shape; they invest the world with the structure of their own identity, their own moral concerns, their own passions, their own psychological complexities. It is from such deeply human origins that what we are accustomed to call literary form ultimately derives, and it is only by virtue of the omphalotomy performed on literature by the New Critics, a form of surgery which succeeded to no small extent in dividing the work of art from the artist who produced it, that it has become respectable to discuss literary form without reference to these human origins.





In The Sense of an Ending Professor Kermode continues the anti- personal, anti-historical thrust of the New Critics; not only does he abstract literature from its social context but he also projects onto literature a metaphysical concern with time which it does not possess. This passion for pure abstraction, in so far as it exercises itself on phenomena rooted deeply in human nature and human history, tends inevitably to wreak the kind of conceptual havoc we find in Kermode’s discussion of time. It is this same impulse towards abstraction which remains much in evidence throughout his discussion of apocalypticism.


Kermode argues that apocalyptic ‘depends on a concord of imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain “in the middest” ’ (p. 8). The import of this argument is obscure but it becomes clear later on that apocalyptic is regarded as a fiction whose purpose is to ‘humanise time’ and provide us with the consolation of form. Its predictions are held to be figurative, although it is admitted that they can be taken literally; with the exact nature of these predictions the argument is not concerned. In spite of the fact that the Revelation of John actually predicts not an end but a new beginning, Kermode appears to view this new beginning as the terminal point of history. He goes on to argue that apocalyptic is a source from which we derive not only our literary fictions but also the notions of historical transition and crisis: ‘changed by our special pressures, subdued by our scepticism, the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world’ (p. 28).


The major problem with this interpretation is that it proceeds from an a priori assumption that the central purpose of apocalyptic is to provide an image of ‘concord’, an assumption which is stated boldly but never defended by argument. The interpretation then goes on to accord prominence to the experiences of disconfirmation suffered by apocalyptic movements and their resemblance to the process of reading a novel. In view of the fact that the frustration of expectations is a universal characteristic of human experience, however, it is unclear why its appearance either in novels or in apocalyptic movements should be in the least remarkable. It may be true that apocalyptic expectations have an ‘extraordinary resilience’ but the same can hardly be said for those of the reader of fiction. The question which is never posed by Kermode is as to why, if apocalyptic is merely a formalist tool for making sense of the world, do men and women not only study its predictions but govern their lives by them? One answer to this question is that apocalyptic is central to the Christian faith, so central that the biblical scholar R. H. Charles has argued that Christianity grew up out of the apocalyptic strain of Judaism and has spoken of apocalyptic as ‘the parent of Christianity’.[3]


Apocalyptic cannot thus reasonably be compared to the bleak doom-mongering we find in some quarters of contemporary society, for although it is invariably written against a background of social dislocation or oppression, what it asserts is the enduring optimism of Christianity. Biblical apocalyptic was traditionally derived from the creation myth as recorded in Genesis; in relocating a state of Edenic bliss it futurises nostalgia and holds out to a minority who are suffering for their faith the promise that the oppressor will be overthrown and a New Jerusalem ushered in, where the faithful live in harmony with God.


No single interpretation can be applied to the way in which this myth has functioned throughout history and in that a structure of oppression is built into the Revelation of John, it lends itself all too readily to the causes of religious or racial intolerance. These features, though, do not by any means characterise all apocalyptic movements. It can be suggested that it is by legitimating and focusing utopian fantasies and imaging them, as does John, in erotic terms, that apocalyptic writings play their most important role in revolutionary social movements. What they provide is a vision of a transfigured future without which no revolutionary movement could retain its idealism, without which it would be psychologically difficult to permanently disengage belief from prevailing cultural orthodoxies. Such a function, we may presume, was played by the Revelation of John among the small persecuted minority of Christians for whom it was written.

In his discussion of ‘The Modern Apocalypse’ Professor Kermode repeatedly commits himself to the view that apocalypticism is not a function of social conditions, writing for instance that ‘our Terrors not distinguish us essentially from other apocalyptists’ (p. 99). This posture of anti-historicism is maintained by disregarding the consensus of sociologists, anthropologists and theologians who have emphasised the social genesis of millenarian sects. Such sects appear to proliferate only in societies which have suffered either local or general dislocation, as in the case of primitive cultures disrupted by imperialism or traditionally rural societies disorientated by rapid industrialisation.


While apocalyptic modes of thought are often central to would-be revolutionary movements which set out to rebuild society and played a significant role. in the rise of British socialism[5], they can also play a more negative analgesic role. In Edmund Gosse’s autobiography Father and Son,  we may read how Gosse’s parents, deeply imbued as they were with a puritanical sense of guilt, drew sustenance from the promise held out by the apocalyptist John of the second coming of Christ. More recently Norman Cohn has suggested that a deviant form of apocalypticism can be made out in the psychedelic orientation of the counter-culture. Yet another manifestation is to be found in the Freudo-Marxist writings of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown who develop and attempt to systematise the explicitly erotic version of millenarianism which was present in some mediaeval sects and was reintroduced by the Victorian socialist Edward Carpenter; a similar apocalyptic note characterises the contemporary ecology movement whose prophecies of doom are joined, sometimes at least, to a revitalistic faith in the possibility of a millennium.


To argue that apocalypticism is a means of imposing form on historical time is to ignore that both apocalyptic writings and the social movements whose energies they mediate are themselves part of the very stuff of history. Before we join Professor Kermode in projecting onto such phenomena a kind of temporal geometry we might remember that Christianity itself, in its early stages at least, can be regarded as just such an apocalyptic sect.


It might be suggested that, in The Sense of an Ending, Professor Kermode created a myth of his own which answered to a need felt deeply by many who had lived through the crisis-laden sixties, and provided us in spite of all with that sense of continuity-within-tradition we so desperately needed. For if we adopted Kermode’s historiography we could lift every schismatic movement out of its immediate social context and fix it in a two thousand year-old tradition of formalistically conceived history. The more desperately the sense of crisis was projected the more speedily would its projector be converted, as if by magic, into another link in the chain of continuity.


When in May 1968 Paris students rose against their government and Hornsey School of Art was taken over by students, when the predictions of ecological catastrophe began to appear, many literary critics must have reached down their copy of The Sense of an Ending in order to read the immensely consoling pronouncement that ‘there is nothing at all distinguishing about eschatological anxieties’.


Having established his interpretation of apocalypticism Kermode goes on to apply his ‘theory of fiction’ to the history of the novel. It would appear that a large part of his scheme of literary history is derived, by a remarkable sleight of hand, from T. S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that any branch of science works with a paradigm of already existing knowledge which is then adjusted in order that it may be brought into a closer relationship with natural phenomena. It is precisely this evolutionary account which Kermode uses in compiling his literary history. The paradigm becomes, in his hands, the human demand for form which needs ‘an irreducible minimum of geometry’(p. 132).

This same geometrical paradigm is apparently inherited by all novelists, who, by testing it against their ‘clerical scepticism’, will adjust it in certain ways in order to make it accommodate more ‘contingency. The progress of literature can thus be compared to the progress of science and, according to Kermode, ‘as Newtonian mechanics is to quantum mechanics, so King Lear is to Endgame (p. 61). On this scheme Kermode is able to interiorise the novel’s history and write about literature as if it moves towards a higher realism without being determined by social conditions. That any sociological account might be given for the concern of some contemporary fiction with its own fictiveness, he never for a moment considers.

By equating reality with the metaphysical abstraction ‘contingency’ and explaining his paradigm by reference to simple images of order, Kermode defines the realist novel not as one which attempts to get to grips with society or human nature, but one which, in providing the consolation of form, makes the occasional concession to contingency. or to use his own more lyrical language, to ‘the shadow of the gable … the discoveries of dissonance, the word set against the word’ (p. 179). Thus it is that, by locating the central tradition of the novel not in its moral or psychological density but in an imaginary paradigm which, since it has never existed, he is forced to derive sophistically from apocalyptic, Professor Kermode manages to put in a plea for contemptus mundi which masquerades as an apology for realism.





It looks very much as though The Sense of an Ending is a book whose central thesis will stand up to neither philosophical nor historical analysis. If this is so then the question might well be asked as to why the book was received so enthusiastically by a large number of literary critics. The question is as monstrously difficult as the work which provokes it, but in the first place it cannot be denied that the book does indeed possess what Malcolm Bradbury calls ‘the resonance of larger value’. The reverberations which are generated by Kermode’s vast allusive range are impressive to say the least. From St. Augustine’s reflections on memory we move rapidly through Gestalt psychology and modern physics into the ‘metaphysical pitch-and-toss’ of Macbeth where we are told that the word ‘time’ is used in a way which has affinities with the terminology of New Testament Greek.

The Alps of artistic achievement are before and behind us and, as we attempt to follow the giddying ravine of meaning, we may be chastened into submission by the sheer sublimity of this Simplon Pass of intellect: all these features surely are but characters in the great Apocalypse! And yet, as we mount ever upward into the rarefied atmosphere of intellectual abstraction, a doubt may come to possess us. Is the brilliance really brilliant, or might it not prove on closer examination to be little more than obscurantist? At one point Kermode quotes Wittgenstein’s aphorism, ‘Back to the rough ground! Look and see!’ Our liveliest expectations are aroused but, as kairos, chronos and aion are ushered across the stage, we too suffer the pangs of disconfirmation.


Some critics who have commented on The Sense of an Ending have obviously been beset by similar worrying experiences, and something like them seems to lie behind David Newton-De Molina’s attempt to dissect Kermode’s theory of fiction in his Critical Quarterly essay.[6] Yet here the worries are never resolved. We are told that the high level of abstraction ‘contributes equally to the richness and inscrutability of the argument’, and if this savours of the true spirit of British com- promise then the impression is confirmed by the somewhat lame conclusion that ‘as with Stevens, so with Kermode, if we are persuaded he is right he carries his point, otherwise we all have the right to disagreement.’ Newton-De Molina is clearly worried by the obscurity of Kermode’s argument, but he repeatedly slides off from confrontation and, seemingly overwhelmed by Kermode’s rhetorical energy, adds to the original obscurities rather than clarifying them.


The intimidating power of Kermode’s formulations may well account for some of the book’s success, but the energy does not arise ex nihilo; behind it there are concealed real and important issues. In the course of his discussion of literary form Kermode refers slightingly to a work of aesthetic theory which takes up a stance diametrically opposed to his own. The work in question is Morse Peckham’s Man’s Rage for Chaos; in it Peckham attempts to turn the whole tradition of aesthetic theory on its head and establish an identification of art not with order but disorder. There are interesting similarities between his argument and that proposed by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his dialogue ‘On the Origin of Beauty’ but his reductive behaviouristic approach to the arts ends by generating absurdities and he too reduces art to geometry.[7]


Although Peckham is successful in demonstrating that man’s rage for order is not unequivocally blessed, his book is interesting not so much for its arguments as for the anxieties that lie behind them, anxieties which may be taken as representative of the disaffection of many modern artists with conventional aesthetic assumptions. This attitude can be traced back to the declaration of the Futurists that against the conception of the immortal and the imperishable they would ‘set up the art of the becoming, the perishable, the transitory and the expendable’. At the same time as Marinetti published his Futurist manifesto, Bergson was exploring his interest in ‘the fluid continuity of the real’ and both figures gained literary followers. While these revolutions have all too frequently been seen to herald a new interest in time, they might better be seen as embodying a more erotic relationship to experience, together with a fundamental rejection of that resistance to process which underlies both Platonic philosophy and Pauline eschatology. Such a view would at least seem to be borne out by the case of Lawrence who was influenced both by Marinetti and Bergson, and who in Women in Love gives positive status to the ‘river of dissolution’ and the ‘flux of corruption’.


The radical questioning of the transcendent powers of art which begins in the nineteenth century is continued in modern literature by such different writers as Sylvia Plath and Samuel Beckett, both of whom affirm process against the petrifactions implicit in Flaubertian theory, both of whom explore the relationship of the suffering artist to Christ, and either reject or seriously question the redemptive claims of art. It is against such a background that the theories of Peckham and Kermode are produced. In as much as he values disorder in art Peckham comes closest to the spirit of this tradition; Kermode’s argument, however, runs the other way and he writes that ‘the critical issue, given the perpetual assumption of crisis, is the justification of ideas of order’ (p. 124).


Ideas of order are allied in The Sense of an Ending to a deep involvement with the notion of art as a means of transcendence, and it is to such an ideal of art that Kermode attempts to assimilate the apparently alien tradition of modern fiction. He does not, of course, deny the modern artist’s interest in ‘flux’ but, by arguing that apocalyptic embodies temporal form, he interposes once again those static concepts of boundary and ending against which all the energies of Bergson’s argument were directed; the work of art which, by virtue of its complex shifting relationships to society and its readers, cannot be delimited, is thus artificially circumscribed and appropriated for the realm of eternity.


In this defence of artistic eternity it is not only ideas of transcendence which are at stake, but a significant portion of the ethos of professional literary criticism. In many of the most influential writings on literary studies a version of religious faith has been displaced onto art, and literature, conceived of as innately good, has been dispensed as a benison for ailing souls. Few critics have questioned deeply the nature of artistic achievement and fewer still have gone beyond that to examine the moral assumptions which lie behind their preference for literature as against other forms of cultural activity. In this respect the profession of literary criticism may be said to lag more than a century behind the literature it studies. There is a passage in one of Keats’s letters, which, as Lionel Trilling has written, ‘when it is read by anyone who has anything to do with literature, should make the earth shake although it does not; which should momently haunt our minds, although it does not. It is the passage in which Keats, having previously said that poetry is not so fine a thing as philosophy, ends with the phrase “an eagle is not so fine a thing as truth”.’[8] The doubts which Keats expresses here about the powers of art are voiced so frequently in modern literature that there is a sense in which any literary critics who wishes to maintain the inherited value-structure of their profession cannot but write in opposition to a good deal of the literature which is produced around them. Just as Leavis wilfully excised Lawrence’s affirmation of corruption, so some contemporary critics read into Beckett’s trilogy niceties of influence and structure which all too neatly transcend the author’s own human concerns.


It might be suggested that it is as just such a work of critical opposition that The Sense of an Ending can best be read. It is a book which examines not literature but an idea of literature, which defends not so much the modern novel as the profession of literary criticism conceived of in anti-psychological and anti-historical terms. What can be called the ‘politics of literature’ also get short shrift; if we read the novels of Dickens or Mrs Gaskell we cannot but come face to face with the novelist’s desire to change the world; if we read Kermode we are assured that the novelist wants only to make sense of it. Kermode projects onto literature an image which converts it into a diluted surrogate for religion, a surrogate which provides both solace and a sense of unity. In skilfully reducing the diversity of literature to a simple monotheism he performs a questionable service for a profession whose unity has always been in doubt. At the same time, against the encroaching disciplines of history and psychoanalysis he asserts the hegemony of his own conception of literary values and performs in this cause a considerable feat of colonisation.


If Kermode’s argument convinced us then we might well be persuaded that only by a ‘theory of fiction’ could the enigmas of the universe be unlocked. History, physics, and even the notion of crisis are all reduced to the status of formally pleasing fictions. Anti-semitism is yet another fiction and so are the ideas of decadence and renovation; myths are distinguished only by the fact that they are degenerate fictions, and if we accept Kermode’s definition, all these phenomena must be subsumed under the category of ‘the consciously false’. The appearance of synthetic power may be seductive and may account for some of the book’s success, but ultimately the argument does not convince.


In The Sense of an Ending the critic may well be introduced as the humble servant of the artist, but he ends up by presiding over the game, a game which is uncannily similar to one described by Hermann Hesse in his novel The Glass Bead Game. The rules and grammar of this game are, according to Hesse, a kind of highly-developed secret language drawing on several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and musicology. This language is capable of expressing and establishing relationships between the conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game ‘is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture’. The players of this game believe passionately in order, in cultural continuity and in the existence of a history of the mind which is not to be confused with ‘real, brutal world history’. They ignore the sacrifices which their country makes in order to feed and clothe them and underwrite their schooling and research. They admit unashamedly that their purpose in life is to cultivate scholarly disciplines for their own sake. When Knecht, the disillusioned Ludi Magister calls to their attention the possibility of political upheaval, one of the initiates replies that to project images of doom is both frivolous and dangerous, and that, worst of all, it threatens the spirit of tranquillity which is the very essence of the Glass Bead Game, whose players consider themselves to be above the base realities of politics or economics.


In affirming the very values which Hesse calls into question Kermode can again be seen in the role of the critic in opposition. If The Sense of an Ending is indeed a covert defence of ‘objective’ critical values against the intrusions of modern literature then it is perhaps not surprising that it was received so well by many of Kermode’s colleagues.


There is, however, one further factor which may help to account for the book’s success; the human need for form on which Professor Kermode discourses at such length is a real one, and the image which he projects onto literature has an undeniable power. Some light may be cast on this problem by considering the universal attraction of mandala symbols. In his analysis of mandalas Jung suggests that in these concentric geometrical figures we express and reinforce a sense of our own boundaries; in them we seal out infinity and represent a purified abstract ideal both of the self and the deity. Mandalas are most common in oriental religions, but in the ancient Christian idea that God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, something of their force is preserved. We can find versions of mandala symbolism in the concentric spheres of Elizabethan cosmology, in some abstract art, or, for that matter, in any town square. In virtually stripping literature of its social, moral and personal concerns, what Kermode creates is a kind of mystical geometry. The seductive potency of his vision of literature may thus be said to derive not from literature at all but from those images of concord which already existed in pre-literate societies.


In pushing literature towards the realm of geometry Professor Kermode follows, of course, a well-beaten path. In his Anatomy of Criticism Northrop Frye attempts to persuade us that there are important similarities between literature and mathematics:


We think of literature at first as a commentary on an external ‘life’ or ‘reality’. But just as in mathematics we have to go from three apples to three, from a square field to a square, so in reading a novel we have to go from literature as a reflection of life to literature as an autonomous language.[9]


We do not have to go where Frye wants us to go at all, indeed without truncating our literature we cannot. What Frye so conveniently forgets is that mathematics starts precisely at that point where the apples stop – it starts where an ordinary symbolic language is converted into an abstract non-referential notation. Literature can never get rid of its apples, because the language of literature is referential. Words have an obstinate habit of asserting their relationship to the concrete, and this they will continue to do whether we want them to or not.


Professor Kermode tells us that we can learn most about fictional paradigms from Piaget and ‘studies of such disorders as déjà vu, eidetic imagery, the Korsakoff syndrome …’ (p. 44). We might also, of course, learn something from literature; we might learn that literature is not about time, order, or contingency, but about love, pride, animality and human identity; about the kind of society in which we live and the kind of society in which we might live. It is more than a little disturbing that such a truism needs to be stated at all.

This essay, originally written as an undergraduate dissertation in 1972, was published in a revised version in the Critical Quarterly, Winter 1974 (Volume 16 no. 4). Some minor editorial changes have been made for this internet version.   



[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, Oxford, paperback edition,1968 (First published in 1967).

[2] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolutio, London. 1911; p. 249.

[3] R. H. Charles, Eschatology, New York, 1963, p. 193; Leon Morris, Apocalyptic, London, 1973, p. 9.

[4] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, London. 1957; Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound, London. 1957; Leon Morris, op. cit. pp. 39-42.

[5] Stanley Pierson. ‘Edward Carpenter: prophet of a Socialist Millennium’, Victorian Studies, XIII 1970, 301ff;  Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism, London. 1973.

[6] David Newton-De Molina, ‘Tempus Edax Rerum’, Critical Quarterly. Vol. 12, No.4. 1970.

[7] Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos, New York, 1965

[8] Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture, London, 1967, p. 202.

 [9] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, 1957; p. 351.


© Richard Webster, 1974, 2003