It is not expected as 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.I call this a lie because Kermode is in fact doing what most (if not all) art critics do: he is lecturing the reader about his view of the world, not about art. Possibly I'm always surprised when art criticism reveals itself to be a version of the personal essay; I picked up The Sense of an Ending because I thought Kermode was going to write about narrative form, about a writer's structural concerns with a well-shaped story that reinforce or defeat the impression of closure and finality at the end of a book. Kermode glances in that direction once or twice, but his concern is mostly with man's conception of time, and how we rely upon end-driven fiction (that is, stories where the action--the beginning and the middle--is explained and resolved by the ending) to placate ourselves as we live through disconnected eventful lives which will end in our personal deaths, meaningless random time ending in a meaningless nonexistence.
We tell organized stories with explanatory final acts so that we can tell ourselves that our lives are such stories, with meaning and internal connectedness and significance, which can all be charted and understood when we are no more. What is more, we tell ourselves these tales the whole lengths of our lives, rewriting the metastory as our personal events unfold; wherever we are now, it has been prefigured and determined by wherever we have been, and this now--the present, that is, at whatever point along our timeline you pick--becomes the endpoint (because we know of nothing beyond it, the future being impenetrable except through actual experience) by which our life must be explained. We are the authors of our personal narratives, and we are constantly rewriting those narratives to explain not the past, but the present.
Kermode sees, in the Apocalypse of John the Divine's Revelation, a story of the world, of mankind's complete history, that is end-directed and explains every moment of elapsed time, and claims the Apocalypse as a sort of backdrop to human thought (at least Western thought) from, I don't know, the Middle Ages to the present. Kermode seems to claim the Apocalypse as the form which "the modern novel" uses as a pattern, the beginning-middle-explanatory end of all stories, of all human awareness of the self existing in time. The organizing of our lives done by death, to the tick-tock of our clocks.
I'm not sure if Kermode really sees the Revelation as preceding the way we think about narrative, and the way he thinks writers are breaking away from a sort of predictable story structure. One of his ideas is that, because the End of All Things has been predicted over and over and over for centuries, and this prediction is always falsified (after all, here we still are and the world did not end in 1000, or 1033, or 1600, or 1666, or 1700, or etc up to the last time a millenial cult thought the aliens or God were coming to rapture them up), humanity no longer trusts the idea of a tidy end to a story, no longer believes that the end will explain and impose order upon the middle. We no longer believe life itself has a meaning at all, because we no longer believe in the orderly ending of things where God will come along and tie up all the loose ends for us. And so fiction has changed to reflect the indeterminate nature of resolution, of endings, and hence of middles and beginnings and all experience.
These are interesting arguments, and I find them more compelling as I write this than I did as I read Kermode's book. Kermode puts out a lot of moonshine as well, though, and as I read over my marginalia I see that I was having a running argument with old Frank. I do not believe, for example, that the Apocalypse precedes mankind's obsession with personal death (and I strongly doubt the universality of death fixation). Nor do I believe that it is an ur-form of the end-determined story: look at folktales, for example, look at all the stories written and told before the Revelation began to be widely known. For my part, I think John the Divine's Revelation is a metaphor for the life of a single man, the Christian life of temptation, battles against sin, and final redemption with life everlasting, a pre-Pilgrim's Progress that has been misunderstood as an end-of-times prophecy because the inner battle against evil followed by a promise of paradise rings true with many people, or at least it would be a beautiful story if it were true. And people tend to project upon the universe their dearly-held views of themselves, so the personal story becomes the story of the whole world. Somehow John's dream got stuck at the end of the New Testament and appears to bookend the story of humanity as told in the Bible, Genesis and Apocalypse bracketing all of time, giving a fixed shape to everything.
I also do not believe, as I said above, that obsession with death is as universal as Kermode seems to believe it is (I of course disagree here with Freud as well). I wondered how old Kermode was when he wrote The Sense of an Ending, and after I did a little math I saw that he was in his early 40s. He had, then, lived through the second World War, the origins of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War, and all sorts of rising crises. Kermode's concern, or at least one of his larger concerns in the mid-1960s when he was writing the lectures that became this book, was that he lived in "an age of crisis," where every moment was pre-apocalyptic, where the End could come at any time and nobody believed that the End had any meaning. Kermode was writing about his own existential angst, and using literary fiction as a stand in for his own way of thinking. I haven't really gotten into the details of how Kermode, like all critics, lies when he says he's talking about art rather than talking about himself and how he views the world. I guess I no longer see that fight as worth having. This is not the post I thought I was writing, but I think this is a better post, so well done me.
Last year, I think, I read The Classic, Kermode's book about why some art seems to resist the forces of time and cultural change that push other art into irrelevance. The Classic is much easier to understand than The Sense of an Ending, which is my way of saying that The Sense of an Ending is hard going sometimes, and I may be misunderstanding (and therefore misstating) Kermode's meaning.
This post, by the way, is part of Tom's Literary Criticism Readalong. Tom wrote at greater length about the Kermode, three or four posts plus bonus Sartre. Having not quite finished the book, I may have more to say in a few days. Maybe.