Rereading Kermode

Blogger’s Note: My goal in this post is to try and solidify my understanding of Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending. This is an article that really interests me and I want to try and understand what Kermode is saying as well as the implications of his ideas the best that I possibly can. Feedback and constructive criticism are VERY much appreciated.

Kermode suggests that knowledge of the apocalypse is something we all as individuals crave for egotistical reasons. “There is still a need to speak of a humanly of a life’s importance in relation to [the apocalypse]—a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end,” he argues (page 4). The first time I read the article I was skeptical about the leap from the desire to understand one’s own death, to the desire to understand the common death. It seemed one’s own mortality and the apocalypse are, for most sane people two separate obsessions. Most of us devote more time to worrying about our own chances of getting cancer or getting hit by a car than we do to the end of humanity. Our own individual deaths and the common death tend to occupy separate spheres in our minds. But upon rereading this piece, Kermode’s link between human frustration over the mystery of mortality and obsessive apocalyptic predictions became clearer to me.

Kermode’s notion that “Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest’ in medias res, when they are born; they also dies in media rebus,” means that we could live our lives without ever thinking of beginnings or endings. Endings and beginnings can be completely irrelevant if we’re able to overcome our human curiosity. But apparently we can’t. “To make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems,” he continues. Thus we impose “saecula,” which Kermode defines as “fundamentally arbitrary chronicle divisions” to help find our place in time.

This craving for context is the reason why Kermode suggests that we “unreasonably assume” that literature should “connect, diversify, explain, make concords, facilitate extrapolations,” (page 21). It makes sense that we would want literature to offer a chance for escape from our own human limitations. No one would ever open a book if literature couldn’t offer an experience more interesting or enlightening than examining the world through one’s own two eyes. So many of the mysteries of our own lives go unsolved. All good books almost always end by at least alluding to an explanation. “It is one of the great charms of books that they have to end,” Kermode says (page 23).

Because an ending is always given, readers tend to “seek the maximum” of what Kermode describes as peripetreia, the unexpected turn of events occurring in a narrative: “disconfirmation followed by consonance,” (18). According to Kermode this is something we expect from “novels or dramas,” if we want them to be more than just myths. “The darker the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality,” he adds (page 18). With the addition of perpiteia, the list of what we expect from literature now includes: a sense of continuity, an ending that explains how events play out, as well as a plot twist to keep the story from seeming unrealistically simple or boring. Our human understanding of our own lives will never allow us to experience any of these when evaluating the real world.

Thus Kermode offers our human need to understand fictional worlds in a way that we cannot understand our own real world as an explanation for why almost all stories follow this same basic plot structure. When we impose this desire for narrative on our real world, as we are often want to do, we make apocalyptic predictions to satisfy our craving for endings. But what are we to take away from this new understanding of our narratives? Perhaps that fictitious worlds are always a simpler version of our own. Characters are much easier to understand and less dynamic than real humans, but they still reflect many of our flaws and basic human features. In literature, everything, including our concept of time, is simplified to fit the medium.











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One Response to Rereading Kermode

  1. Steph Roman says:

    If you’re into this (which you certainly seem to be), you should definitely hang out with Dr. Fest for a bit during office hours–he’s the real expert, but I’ll definitely do my best to help sort you through this.

    I definitely agree with you in the “in media res” phase. Quite simply, we are incapable of experiencing our births and deaths, so we essentially spend our entire lives in media res. That is why fiction and apocalyptic myth become so indeterminately important. It is the ONLY way to explore these fascinations with death and the common death of humanity.

    Though apocalypse might seem to be a 20-21st century fascination, the fact remains that stories of the end of the world go back a very long time. Kermode cites many examples, the volume of which should convince you that this eschatological conundrum is by no means a new one.

    Films, games, books, tv… Godzilla, The Last of Us, The Road, The Walking Dead…. all of these are outlets for human peripeteia. To continue, movies that came out this summer that would have hypothetically caused billions of dollars in property damage: Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers, X-Men, Edge of Tomorrow, certainly more. There’s a collective, particularly filmgoing crowd, obsessed with the violence and megadeath of apocalypse. I don’t have an answer, but you seem to allude to one: these worlds are necessarily simpler than ours. And they have definite endings. If this is the case, what does that say about us, who go to see these awful movies every summer?


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