Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode

Let us take a very simple example, the ticking of a clock.  We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock.  By this fiction we humanize it, make it talk our language.  Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our word for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end.  We say they differ.  What enables them to be different is a special kind of middle.  We c an perceive a duration only when it is organized.  It can be shown by experiment that subjects who listen to the rhythmic structures such as tick-tock, repeated identically, 'can reproduce the intervals within the structure accurately, but they cannot grasp spontaneously the interval between the rhythmic groups,' that is, between tock and tick, even when this remains constant... The clock's tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organize that humanizes time by giving it form; and the interval between tock and tick represents purely successive time, disorganized time of the sort we need to humanize.

Frank Kermode argues that we are "men in the middest," that is, we find ourselves in the middle of things, at a temporal point that is really of no consequence at all.  The kind of time we experience is "successive"; it passes, without any kind of special meaning or organization.  But being "in the middest" is not so bad if we can convince ourselves that the time we experience has a special relationship to a beginning and an end; if we can define it in terms of the "tick" and the "tock" in the illustration above.  We're always expecting the apocalypse, he notes--think of Y2K, or Heaven's Gate, or the apocalyptic frenzy of 1666 (for obvious numeric reasons), or 2012--and for this reason we convince ourselves that we are living in special times.  But when the date of the apocalypse appears, the compulsion is so strong that true believers merely chalk it up to a mathematical error and calculate a new date.  The danger, he says, comes from when we let what is an obvious fiction become real for us, and he singles out authors like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis for falling for exactly this kind of fiction in the form of mid-century fascism.

But The Sense of an Ending is a set of lectures on literary theory, not cultural theory, and so most of what Kermode writes about is how this need to occupy the space between the "tick" and "tock" appears in fiction.  One of the simplest and strongest claims Kermode makes is that there is a natural relationship between literary fictions and other fictions; the novels we write are not so very different from the way we think about time outside of them.  The most sophisticated novels engage in peripeteia--the falsification of our expectations of plot which make our fictions seem more realistic to us--but still, they satisfy our notions that the beginning, middle, and end progress in a logical, related, and meaningful way.  This is something all literary fiction does:

One remembers the comic account of this antipathy in Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, one of the few truly philosophical novels in English; truth would be found only in a silent poem or a silent novel.  As soon as it speaks, begins to be a novel, it imposes causality and concordance, development, character, a past which matters and a future within certain broad limits determined by the project of the author rather than that of the characters.  They have their choices, but the novel has its end.

I read The Sense of an Ending for my thesis, which was on ideas of time in the work of John Milton, and it really illuminated Milton's work for me.  Milton was a believer in apocalypticism; he really thought that Cromwell's ascent to power would usher in the thousand-year reign of Christ.  Cromwell's failures were intensely disappointing to Milton, and the need to make his own life fit in between the "tick" and the "tock" is everywhere in Milton.  The saddest, most powerful parts of work are about adjusting to the sense of being "in the middest," and the fear that the time which he lives through has no meaning or significance at all.  But Kermode's observations help make sense of all sorts of literature, and they are as incisive today as they were when they were published in 1965.

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