Friday, August 27, 2010

Kermode and Suspended Endings

Among the many notices of Frank Kermode's passing, this from AKMA along with this in the Telegraph and this in Slate are memorable. AKMA also put some words of Kermode here - it's a reflection on a time when he gathered an amazing assortment of British readers to spend some time working on the torrent of Continental literary, critical, psychanalytic and philosophical work coming from mainly from France in the 1970s.

What comes through in the last  is Kermode's sense of an ending, a divergence of ways, in 1974. It comes as he evokes a time in which he had everything to do with the realization, for at least a brief moment, of a tolerance to take in, to examine, works written in languages other than English by authors whose thought rested on vastly different theoretical and technical underpinnings from those familiar, safe and sane to the Anglo-American critical community.

If anyone ever was the embodiment of the patient labor of reading, contemplative work with sufficient integrity to not need to enter into academic infighting, buzzword fusillades, or damnation through faint feints of praise, it was Kermode. That he was able to engage a certain insularity of English approaches with the full force of his considerable intelligence -- and to come away enriched by the experience -- is a tribute to his critical scope. I'm reading a couple of his collections these days, and will probably have more to say about him.

Some of the books he'll be remembered for are:


PaulSarasota said...

Kermode is a good place to jump off into what you mean by "interpretation" in sentences like "That's just your interpretation." Are all interpretations equal or can some be better and some worse, some even clearly wrong?

Tom Matrullo said...

Hi Paul - thanks for making use of the comments section - you are the first to do so here in quite some time. Of course, I have to come to the blog in order to realize a comment has been posted, in order to publish it, and for the past week and more, I've not managed to do that.

I'm reading some Kermode these days and would be happy to talk with you about him. I believe your comment regarding my remark about interpretation relates, however, to our discussion a few weeks back of the Book of Job, and I will confine what I say here to trying to clarify what I meant, but failed to say clearly enough.

As we learned through our discussion of Job, there is very little there that can be deemed absolutely reliable. Other than the frame narrative, which many dismissed as a literary device, all else is pretty much a series of speakers who are often speaking in the mode of accusation, lamentation, irritation, or querulous questioning, rather than setting forth statements that could be judged as matters of fact. The text is murky with conflicting values, inferences, conclusions and judgments - in a sense, it dramatizes the very paucity of evidence we have for arriving at authoritative moral judgments. Even God's voice, when it arrives, clarifies little, preferring instead an almost unbroken barrage of rhetorical(?) questions.

We as readers find ourselves much like one who needs to know if a question is real or rhetorical, but finds it difficult to discover a vantage point from which he can decide either way unequivocally. When it comes to judging what happens, the answer may be blowin' in the wind, but finding it is damnably difficult.

Except for one moment: Job's knowledge that he is blameless. He is unwavering on that point, and that's of interest, because it's a mode of knowledge that depends on nothing outside himself. His action is his knowledge, and vice versa. There is no external "objective" reality from which his sense of his own actions could be put in question, and I find no place in the text that offers a way to debunk it -- do you?

So here's what we are looking at: A blameless man is afflicted beyond all "reasonable expectation" and he, his family (wife), and social network are all attempting to make sense of this. What the text foregrounds by how it sets this up is that everything depends upon the act of interpretation that takes place at this moment. To curse God and die is one interpretive path. To blame Job is another. To stand up for yourself even as you can offer no credible reason for what you're experiencing is another.

My point was that here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, characters determine their destinies by how they interpret what they experience. The OT repeatedly makes it clear that everything depends how we read.

So the foregrounding of the necessity of interpretation in this text was what I was trying to get at. That there are better and less good possible interpretations of nearly everything under the sun is something I would not be inclined to dispute.