Commentary Magazine


Puzzles and Epiphanies, by Frank Kermode

Taste and Sympathy

Puzzles and Epiphanies.
by Frank Kermode.
Chilmark Press. 234 pp. $4.95.

Back in the early 20’s, when I was a small boy on holiday from boarding school, my parents took me to the London Coliseum, the English theater that had made music halls respectable for the middle-class family. My father’s purpose was for me to see Harry Tate before that great Edwardian comedian died. My mother, who thought all laughter in public somewhat vulgar, was delighted to find that there would also be a “spectacle” of a more artistic kind. The “spectacle” amazed me for it consisted of a number of ladies creating patterns out of colored lighting on draperies. My father said that it was all cock; my mother announced in tones partly shocked, partly reverent that it was “something to do with Loie Fuller.” From what Professor Kermode says of that famous dancer in his first essay in this collected volume, I believe now that I may then have seen the great Loie Fuller herself. I was, later in the 20’s and 30’s, to see many feeble imitations of this spectacle in reviews and cabarets, but those dances at the Coliseum remained in my memory as the most complete and instant realization (although of course only to the naïve imagination of a ten-year-old boy) of what shape and color could combine to suggest. This, I realized then and have remembered ever since, was the summit of all the imaginary beauty that as a child I tried to create, when I woke in the morning, from chance folds in the curtain or odd patterns cast by shadows on the wall.

My imagination, however, in spite of many richnesses, is very conventionally ordered, and consequently my experience of this rather tawdry music hall act and the experience I received from pure imagist poetry, say Mallarmé, had remained in quite separate categories. It has taken Professor Kermode’s exciting essay on Loie Fuller, the dance, and the symbolist movement to bring them together not only historically—this is less remarkable, for Mallarmé’s and Valéry’s interest in the dance is merely a matter of knowledge and, therefore, of research—but far more importantly, in emotional conviction. I can feel now the click that my categorization of the “second-rate” and the “great” had never allowed me to make. This complete openness to all influences, this willingness to allow coherences to grow without the censorship of educated prejudice is one of the many refreshing aspects of Professor Kermode’s thought, which is doing so much to bring life back to the body of English criticism after the necessary but so nearly fatal operations of F. R. Leavis and his followers.

This concern with the imperfect or popular sources of art shows Professor Kermode at his best. It has nothing to do with the patronizing sociology masquerading as literary criticism so common today, as misshapen progeny of Orwell’s famous essays on Frank Richards and Donald McGill; nor, on the other hand, does it seek to inflate the importance of the source in order to justify attention to it. The balance is well shown in Professor Kermode’s essay on William Golding, the only postwar English novelist for whom he unreservedly demands the highest honors. Here he describes the connection between Ballantyne’s Coral Island and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and again between Wells’s Outline of History and Golding’s The Inheritors, and yet does so with no sociological excursions, either pretentiously inflated or facetiously patronizing; the essay is a literary critical one, and the popular sources are examined in their literary relationship.

In this way Professor Kermode constantly recalls Edmund Wilson, whose praises he sings in a review of the reprint of Axel’s Castle which cleverly connects the first essays in this book on the symbolist roots of “modern” literature with the later individual appreciations of what may be called the “post-modern” authors. It is Wilson’s greatest glory that no snobbery can ever shame him out of his sympathetic curiosity; does his path lead him to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or to Jurgenland, then Mrs. Stowe or Mr. Cabell will receive his full attention as though no word of contempt or dismissal had ever been uttered about them. Professor Kermode, I’m afraid, is not as free from the right opinion as this. He has, after all, ascended the modern academic ladder; one would not expect him nor even wish him to be as impervious to all the past New Criticism climate as Wilson in his splendid Johnsonian arrogance can afford to be. Professor Kermode, perhaps in consequence, does not quite achieve the easy lucidity of Wilson’s language; he is touched here and there by the sort of metaphysical-psychological jargon that has for so long reigned supreme in American criticism (though not enough to satisfy William Phillips, who, in his introduction, draws attention to the price of excessive fluency); he is also not always without that gnarled, sour note that is required to show moral health in English criticism since Dr. Leavis’s The Great Tradition. Nevertheless Professor Kermode has most of the Wilsonian freedom from contemporary cant, and a good deal of the cunning sweetness which generally disappeared with Bloomsbury (the essay on Leonard Woolf is a masterpiece of detached affection, that on E.M. Forster a masterpiece of critical love).

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At a time when the labels “provincial,” “academic,” and “working-class” are worn in English intellectual circles either singly or combined as a sort of boy scout proficiency badge, Frank Kermode declares his allegiance to all three states without suggesting for a moment that they are enough in themselves to justify. Yet if this seems to say that he gives any allegiance to the sort of slipshod bellelettrism that has brought shame in England upon the words “metropolitan,” “civilized,” and “Sunday newspaper,” the reader has only to look up the files of The Spectator to see the violent trouncing he gave to John Raymond’s collected pieces—a trouncing which included a footnote dismissal of Raymond Mortimer’s lifework more deadly than most Scrutiny footnotes. If it be old-fashioned of Professor Kermode not to have included this violent trouncing in Puzzles and Epiphanies, then I must say that I like his refusal of a mode that mistakes cruelty for solid principles. He is, in fact, seldom cruel, though often (as in his pieces on Beckett, Salinger, and Henry Miller) most effectively severe. He has no mercy on those he suspects of misusing or fooling with their creative gifts, for if he seems to care less than many modern critics for the moral integrity of the great writers, he has an old-fashioned stern concern for aesthetic rectitude (he says in an essay on my novels that I give the word “common” a new smartness; I must retort that he does something of the same sort for the concept of “aesthetic”). Thus Salinger, he tells us, is not like Joyce, who rightly “did not seek his readers in the walks of the bestia trionfante,” nor like Forster, who rightly “stood by his aristocracy”; “since few men will write for nobody, this fine artist [Salinger] writes for the sharp-common reader.” What may well be argued, however, is that Professor Kermode is not always severe when he should be and not always severe soon enough.

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These defects are in part an inevitable result of the relativism which otherwise makes him so much more rewarding an appreciator than the contemporary Calvinistic Cerberuses whose growls warn us away from so many aesthetically rich if morally fallen angels of literature; but the defects are also in some part a result of the changes of opinion, the over-quick appreciation demanded by weekly journalism. It is the gravest defect of Puzzles and Epiphanies that Professor Kermode (out of a mistaken sincerity?) has left so much evidence of these journalistic vagaries. It is reasonable that his pride should persuade him to include three essays on Dr. Zhivago, the first of which shows that his instant reactions at the time of the English publication demanded less revision than most of Pasternak’s crush of admirers. Yet a merging of the three papers in one matured consideration would have been more satisfactory. More justifiable is the inclusion of three pieces on Lawrence Durrell which show a distaste of Justine changing to an admiration for Mountolive and a disappointment at Clea; but even here these changes are an ordinary enough pattern to have been reordered in a new appreciation. More damaging perhaps to the tone of the book as a whole is the retention of review pieces that were sparked off (as any good journalistic essay will be) by strong reactions only relevant to the moment. Thus to have offset Beckett’s defects by Snow’s pedestrian virtues may have seemed at that moment an effective juxtaposition; now, however, the praise of Snow seems out of all proportion to his slender merits and unsupported by anything else in Professor Kermode’s essays. Indeed another piece assessing the value of the postwar English novel is directly sparked off by hostility to the high claims made by Pamela Hansford Johnson (Lady Snow) on behalf of her husband’s work; the reaction is understandable but it gives the assessment too temporary a feeling.

Perhaps these opposite reactions to Snow are only part of the defect arising from Professor Kermode’s general, otherwise welcome, relativism. His general view of 20th century literature is based on his study of Mallarmé as the foundation of “modern” literature. On the whole his allegiance remains with this world of Valéry and Eliot, yet many of its consequences—Henry Miller, for example, and even at times Joyce—irk and repel him. He is attracted by neo-traditionalists like Graham Hough, or critics of Eliot like Yvor Winters. Yet the purely social surface of much neo-traditional novel writing seems to him an inadequate response to the great “moderns”—Joyce or Proust (this is apparent in his mixed response to Anthony Powell and to Christopher Isherwood). A figure like C. P. Snow, therefore, seen against Miller or Beckett seems to him respectable, yet seen against the giants, Joyce or Pasternak (both of whom Snow has treated dismissively), Snow’s return to tradition seems contemptible. This basic contest in postwar literature Professor Kermode, in fact, prefers to evade, because although he recognizes its force, he cannot see any seriousness in its actual waging. For this reason his best essays are those on Loie Fuller, Valéry, and all that was “modern” before anyone began to question Eliot, or again in his wonderful appreciations of Waugh, Graham Greene, and William Golding—novelists who are neither experimental in the old “modern” sense of the word nor sociological in the neo-traditional Snow sense, novelists who would still be what they are if neither Joyce nor Snow had existed. For the rest, for all that concerns the dominance of myth in modern literature and its supposed postwar decline, he is always exciting to read, but sometimes a little irritating in his refusal to step beyond sympathetic identification with protagonists of each side into some declared personal judgment.

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