R.I.P. Frank Kermode

August 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest and most influential critics ever to grace the stage of English Literature, Frank Kermode has died at the age of 90. From the Guardian:

Prominent in literary criticism since the 1950s, Kermode held “virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles,” according to his former colleague John Sutherland, from King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge to Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London and professor of poetry at Harvard, along with honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was knighted in 1991.

A renowned Shakespearean, publishing Shakespeare’s Language in 2001, Kermode’s books range from works on Spenser and Donne and the memoir Not Entitled to last year’s Concerning E.M. Forster.

Equally conversant with the work of Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens, Kermode’s 2006 book The Sense of an Ending has become an essential text for students of literary criticism, and literature itself.

It is the constant presence of more or less subtle varieties of apocalyptism that makes possible the repetitive claims for uniqueness and privilege in modernist theorising about the arts. So far as I can see these claims are unjustified. The price to be paid for old-style talk about “evolving sensibility” is new-style talk about “mutation.” It is only rarely that one can say there is nothing to worry about, but in this limited respect there appears not to be. Mr. Fiedler professes alarm at the prospect of being a stranded humanist, wandering among unreadable books in a totally new world. But when sensibility had evolved that far there will be no language and no concept of form, so no books. Its possessors will all be idiots. However, it will take more than jokes, dice, random shuffling, and smoking pot to achieve this, and in fact very few people seem to be trying. Neo-modernists have examined in many ways (many more than I have talked about), various implications of traditional modernism. As a consequence, we have, not unusually, some good things, many trivial things, many jokes, much nonsense. Among other things they enable us to see more clearly that certain aspects of earlier modernism really were so revolutionary that we ought not to expect – even with everything so speeded up – to have the pains and pleasures of another comparable movement quite so soon. And by exaggerating and drawing, the neo-modernist does help us to understand rather better what the Modern now is, and has been during this century.

– “Objects, Jokes, and Art,” 1966