Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIP: Frank Kermode

Found this in the Times obit, a necessarily abbreviated summary of a life's work:

...despite the variety of his work, he almost invariably tied what he wrote to a recurring central concern of his: what the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey, writing in the London newspaper The Independent, described as “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”

For instance, in his best-known book, “The Sense of an Ending,” Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe. Between the tick and the tock of the clock, as he put it, we want a connection as well as the suggestion of an arrow shooting eschatologically toward some final judgment.

Yet, as he pointed out in “The Genesis of Secrecy,” narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation, like the Man in the Mackintosh who keeps showing up in Joyce’s “Ulysses” or the young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane in the Gospel according to Mark.

Details, seems to me, anchor a narrative otherwise at risk of drift, especially if the world's appalling contingency, the inadequacy of causation and teleology, leave it otherwise adrift. A lesser writer whom I love dearly though not blindly, Isaac Asimov, made his imagined futures more believable by including gratuitous details of human behavior; if he'd done that, too, for his characters...oh, well; you won't find gold in a coal mine...

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