Shelves: myth-theory , apocalyptic , culture-theory Three Faces of the End of the World: Empire, Decadence, and Crisis I am currently reading The Sense of an Endingby Frank Kermode, a little piece of literary criticism examining the relationship between theological apocalypses and fictional narratives as means of making sense of reality. Originally a series of lectures written in , the ideas that Kermode draws together are perhaps even more important for today — in an age where the world ends every imaginable way in our entertainments, where the deepest thinkers debate the viability of end dates, and where certain age-old signs of apocalypse haunt our political and environmental systems. Instead, narratives of apocalypse — as well as fictional narratives in general — serve another purpose, which is to allow us to make a greater sense of the reality we are living in. Stories of the end of the world can not only help us make sense of reality and our own lives in general, but offer ways of responding to the crises and uncertainty of the historical moment we are actually living in which might attest to the fact that such stories are currently in vogue. In particular, Kermode suggests that there are three doctrines or modes through which we respond to apocalypse: empire, decadence, and crisis. The first apocalyptic mode is empire, the doctrine in which apocalypses have most often found their expression.
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III The Alps of artistic achievement are before and behind us and, as we attempt to follow the giddying ravine of meaning, we may be chastened into submission by the sheer sublimity of this Simplon Pass of intellect: all these features surely are but characters in the great Apocalypse!
And yet, as we mount ever upward into the rarefied atmosphere of intellectual abstraction, a doubt may come to possess us. Is the brilliance really brilliant, or might it not prove on closer examination to be little more than obscurantist? Look and see! In the course of his discussion of literary form Kermode refers slightingly to a work of aesthetic theory which takes up a stance diametrically opposed to his own.
While these revolutions have all too frequently been seen to herald a new interest in time, they might better be seen as embodying a more erotic relationship to experience, together with a fundamental rejection of that resistance to process which underlies both Platonic philosophy and Pauline eschatology. The radical questioning of the transcendent powers of art which begins in the nineteenth century is continued in modern literature by such different writers as Sylvia Plath and Samuel Beckett, both of whom affirm process against the petrifactions implicit in Flaubertian theory, both of whom explore the relationship of the suffering artist to Christ, and either reject or seriously question the redemptive claims of art.
It is against such a background that the theories of Peckham and Kermode are produced. Ideas of order are allied in The Sense of an Ending to a deep involvement with the notion of art as a means of transcendence, and it is to such an ideal of art that Kermode attempts to assimilate the apparently alien tradition of modern fiction. In this defence of artistic eternity it is not only ideas of transcendence which are at stake, but a significant portion of the ethos of professional literary criticism.
In many of the most influential writings on literary studies a version of religious faith has been displaced onto art, and literature, conceived of as innately good, has been dispensed as a benison for ailing souls.
Few critics have questioned deeply the nature of artistic achievement and fewer still have gone beyond that to examine the moral assumptions which lie behind their preference for literature as against other forms of cultural activity.
In this respect the profession of literary criticism may be said to lag more than a century behind the literature it studies. It might be suggested that it is as just such a work of critical opposition that The Sense of an Ending can best be read. It is a book which examines not literature but an idea of literature, which defends not so much the modern novel as the profession of literary criticism conceived of in anti-psychological and anti-historical terms.
Kermode projects onto literature an image which converts it into a diluted surrogate for religion, a surrogate which provides both solace and a sense of unity. In skilfully reducing the diversity of literature to a simple monotheism he performs a questionable service for a profession whose unity has always been in doubt.
At the same time, against the encroaching disciplines of history and psychoanalysis he asserts the hegemony of his own conception of literary values and performs in this cause a considerable feat of colonisation.
History, physics, and even the notion of crisis are all reduced to the status of formally pleasing fictions. In The Sense of an Ending the critic may well be introduced as the humble servant of the artist, but he ends up by presiding over the game, a game which is uncannily similar to one described by Hermann Hesse in his novel The Glass Bead Game. The rules and grammar of this game are, according to Hesse, a kind of highly-developed secret language drawing on several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and musicology.
This language is capable of expressing and establishing relationships between the conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. They ignore the sacrifices which their country makes in order to feed and clothe them and underwrite their schooling and research. They admit unashamedly that their purpose in life is to cultivate scholarly disciplines for their own sake. When Knecht, the disillusioned Ludi Magister calls to their attention the possibility of political upheaval, one of the initiates replies that to project images of doom is both frivolous and dangerous, and that, worst of all, it threatens the spirit of tranquillity which is the very essence of the Glass Bead Game, whose players consider themselves to be above the base realities of politics or economics.
In affirming the very values which Hesse calls into question Kermode can again be seen in the role of the critic in opposition. Some light may be cast on this problem by considering the universal attraction of mandala symbols. In his analysis of mandalas Jung suggests that in these concentric geometrical figures we express and reinforce a sense of our own boundaries; in them we seal out infinity and represent a purified abstract ideal both of the self and the deity.
Mandalas are most common in oriental religions, but in the ancient Christian idea that God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, something of their force is preserved. We can find versions of mandala symbolism in the concentric spheres of Elizabethan cosmology, in some abstract art, or, for that matter, in any town square. In virtually stripping literature of its social, moral and personal concerns, what Kermode creates is a kind of mystical geometry.
The seductive potency of his vision of literature may thus be said to derive not from literature at all but from those images of concord which already existed in pre-literate societies.
In pushing literature towards the realm of geometry Professor Kermode follows, of course, a well-beaten path. But just as in mathematics we have to go from three apples to three, from a square field to a square, so in reading a novel we have to go from literature as a reflection of life to literature as an autonomous language.
What Frye so conveniently forgets is that mathematics starts precisely at that point where the apples stop — it starts where an ordinary symbolic language is converted into an abstract non-referential notation. Literature can never get rid of its apples, because the language of literature is referential.
Words have an obstinate habit of asserting their relationship to the concrete, and this they will continue to do whether we want them to or not.
Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell review – how to survive the End
It was first published in by Oxford University Press. Summary[ edit ] After epigraphs from William Blake and Peter Porter , Kermode begins: "It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives. Kermode claims that humans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that our lives form only a short period in the history of the world. So much has gone before us and so much will come after us. Stemming from a long tradition of Christian apocalyptic thought , we now have the idea that the beginning was a golden age.
The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction