From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Endings (17)—The Sense of an Ending

[a] Sensing ending RF
Ah, endings. There is nothing quite like 'em, and it has been some time since we last saw them on Round and Square. I have not forgotten, though, and in the spirit of stepping gingerly back into the waters of completion, resolution, and general wrap-up, I have chosen to quote from one of the best books on narrative completion ever written, Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending. While it is well known in literary circles, I have often been surprised that it has not had the prominence of other works published in the 1960s, just before the "post-modern turn" in literary studies. Kermode delivered it first as the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College in 1965, and a steady stream of devotees have admired the book ever since.

And, as we get back into the swing of things with our endings, beginnings, and middles posts, let's really mix things up by looking at the opening pages of Professor Kermode's little book on endings.

Frank Kermode
The Sense of an Ending (1966)
[b] Frank RF
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 we try to make sense of our lives. This series of talks is devoted to such an attempt, and I am well aware that neither good books nor good counsel have purged it of ignorance and dull vision; but I take comfort in the conviction that the topic is infallibly interesting, and especially at a moment in history when it may be harder than ever to accept the precedents of sense-making—to believe that any earlier way of satisfying one's need to know the shape of life in relation to the perspective of time will suffice.

You remember the golden bird in Yeats's poem—it sang of what was past and passing and to come, and so interested a drowsy emperor. In order to do that, the bird had to be 'out of nature'; so to speak humanly of becoming and knowing is the task of pure being, and this is humanly represented in the poem by an artificial bird. 'The artifice of eternity' is a striking periphrasis for 'form,' for the shapes which console the dying generations. In this respect it makes little difference—though it makes some—whether you believe the age of the world to be six thousand years or or five thousand million years, whether you think time will have a stop or that the world is eternal; there is still a need to speak humanly of life's importance in relation to it—a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end...

I begin by discussing fiction of the End—about ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world. This, I take it, will provide clues to the ways in which fictions, whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, and their precedents, satisfy our needs. So we begin with Apocalypse, which ends, transforms, and is concordant.[1]

[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 3-5.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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