Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading Frank Kermode's The End of Days


The gist of Kermode's argument is that while we fear the end of days, we are also titillated by the notion. Dreadful as it may appear at first glance, the idea that we, of all people, are the ones destined to live the final chapter of the human story gives great meaning and nobility to our present time. The more plausible alternative, that we are living somewhere at an unknown point in a very long unfolding story, is actually much more difficult for us to come to terms with.


The biggest problem I had with “The Sense of an Ending” (and it was written in the heyday of Existentialism) is the confusion between text and referent.

Kermode took Norman Cohn’s millenarian thesis and applied it to modern literature. To make it work Kermode quotes from a diverse series of incommensurable texts and critics. Hence he moves too easily from Eliot’s The Wasteland to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The literary texts are chosen for thematic reasons to make a single point and he doesn’t leave open the possibility that those texts could be read differently.

The book is fun to read if you are familiar with the texts he quotes, and it did thrill me when I read it. However, over the years the book didn’t stay with me as did Auerbach’s “Mimesis” or Curtius’s “European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages" among others.


I stated reading Kermode’s The End of Days and am about half way through the first lecture. I find it a little heady and the references way beyond, in the main, what I know and have read. What I was thinking when I looked at it over 40 years ago, I do not know. But proceed I shall; and, regardless, I sense I’m detecting the spine of the beginning of an argument which I’d provisionally paraphrase as follows:

… People want order. That has them wanting to construct patterns. (Kermode uses the phrase “coherent patterns”. But I don’t know what an incoherent pattern is.) Such construction is an act of mind, an act of the imagination, involving wanting to see things whole. By those patterns disclosing endings, how things end, they—the patterns and the endings— allow for a working back to “consonance”—a key word for Kermode, “consonance”—amongst the endings and beginnings and with what comes along, along the way. That internal coherence imports validity. It sustains the truth of the pattern the way a closed system of thought is eternally self validating. But at the same time rational people must take account of reality and give facts their due. So emerges a central tension: the need for order as manifest in patterns accounting for the meaning of things as against the intrusions of a disruptive reality, which must be respected, mitigating against, and indeed threatening and encroaching upon, meaning giving constructions…

But Kermode has a lot more to say and I have a lot more to read.


Basman, your beautifully stated summation of the argument has inspired me to go back and read the damn text again. What stuck with me originally was the argument about the need to give meaning to history by positing an ending toward which all things tend. But the implication of what you've written is that the End of Days theme is really a just a special case, a subset of the larger issue; namely: how can we create explanatory frameworks that give coherence to events without becoming entrapped by those same frameworks? How can we create models of reality that satisfy our need for meaningful order in the universe without shutting out everything that is dissonant? It's intriguing to try to imagine a version of Marxism or Freudianism or Islam that would have its virtues without entrapping its adherents.

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