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Critical Discussion The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, by Frank Kermode; xii & 169 pp. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1979, $10.00 hardbound, $3.95 paper. Discussed by Alfred Louch <<¦ TNTERPRETATiON is necessary, and nearly impossible." This senJLtence sums up Frank Kermode's comments on the interpretation of narrative in his 1977—78 Norton Lectures, now published under the title The Genesis of Secrecy. Perhaps similar needs and obstacles plague our reading of legal briefs, scientific papers, gossip, recipes, or tax returns . Kermode does not say. But it is clear that for him stories are in special ways vulnerable to distorting and transforming readings, just because they are stories. Interpreting narratives is in fact as easy, and inevitable, as rolling off a log, and just as hard to do correctly, with aplomb. Kermode gives two accounts. One is a story about critics, the other a story about stories. Critics operate on what may be called the assumption of total sense. This means that no word in a text, no episode, is to be treated as accidental. There may be many places in literature that puzzle, that stick out, so to speak, from the flow of the story, that fail to do anything to move the story ahead or illuminate character or action. Kermode describes a number of such cases, and does so in such a way as to convince us that his sample narratives "have to mean more, or other, than they manifestly say." At the moment (on p. 7), he has tried this on, rather deliberately, with a minor work, Henry Green's Party Going, in which the manifest content is "trivial and vacuous," and the conclusion marked by the sudden and inexplicable entry of one Embassy Richard, "a wantonly empty gesture." How do we know that Party Going is more than empty and trivial, or means to be? Kermode's answer is instructive. "First because we know that many insiders think well of Henry Green, [a] prejudice . . . supported by many signs that the writing, 226 Alfred Louch227 however odd, is not incompetent." And a sentence or two later: ". . . the initiate assumes that the absence of some satisfactions, the disappointment of conventional expectations, connote the existence of other satisfactions, deeper and more difficult, inaccessible to those who see without perceiving and hear without understanding." The real story is latent, but available. But must all stories require the effort of deep reading? Apparently not. One is cued to one's reading obligations by the judgment of one's fellows that the book repays the effort and by the style. This may be more obvious in further examples. Kermode spends much time (in Chapter III) over the mysterious appearance of the man in the macintosh in Ulysses. Here one has the confidence of confirmed canonicity, and a sense, if one knows anything about Joyce, of hidden meaning, hints, keys, elaborate construction. So this inexplicable and fugitive appearance must not put us off, we must not lay the burden of interpretation down. It is the definition of the critic's function not to. Now I wish to raise, perhaps prematurely, a question about criticism —whether it can fail in either of two senses. One way of failing is getting it (the text) wrong. This presupposes a correct reading, and raises the usual flurry of debate about an author's intentions. Kermode turns such a question aside by affirming the test of satisfaction, which comes with a deeper reading. The other way is a larger, and more embarrassing , error. This is the mistake in supposing that a given text has more to it than meets the eye. When we speak of the critical function, we cannot assume that every story is subject to its operation. This is brought home by Kermode's insistence on literary value and reputation . We need that authority to begin the process. Otherwise we might engage in a ponderous and elaborate analysis of the trivial, and, like sociological theorists, make fools of ourselves. And that brings me to the second story, the story about stories. Aren't some stories wholly manifest? Well, since all this is about stories, let me tell one. And in doing so, let me make available beforehand a pair of terms that Kermode uses to describe the art of story reading. In place of manifest he speaks of "carnal" readings, the sort of thing, I suppose, that you might find in potted synopses of Shakespeare's plays for nonreading high school students. The reading that repays the labor of closer scrutiny and the application of critical tools he calls "spiritual." But the test of spirituality, I take it, is not merely that different, or even a consistently different, set of words replaces all or parts of the original text—a process that sounds strangely like fossilization—but that the new language gives a more deeply satisfying reading of the original. Now for the story. In the delivery waiting room of a Catholic hospital, a father-soon-to- 228Philosophy and Literature be is calmly reading the newspaper. "My, you are calm," a passing nun observes, to which the man replies, "This is my seventh." "Ah, what a fine Catholic family," the nun exclaims. "No, sister," he says, "I'm a Presbyterian." Whereupon the nun hurries over to an aide and whispers , "Watch out for that sex maniac over there." Now suppose you say: Why Presbyterian? Why not Methodist? Or simply "I'm not a Catholic "? Of course, raising the question would rather diminish the impact of the joke. I should most likely and rather testily respond, "It doesn't matter if he's Presbyterian or Methodist. He simply has to be something other than Catholic." If you accept that, which I rather expected you would have done from the start, you will listen at the level of a carnal hearing. Stubborn carnalists will never treat particular references as having more than abstract significance—Presbyterian as a token for non-Catholic. The choice of token will be seen as accidental—that is, as an element in the tale not to be questioned, not worth explaining. If you get the joke, you will not ask such perverse questions. Of course, the auditors might not get thejoke. For some inexplicable reason, I may have chosen to tell it to Mohammedan villagers from the jungles of Sumatra, and find that only a heavy dose of religious history and sociology will make its sense clear. I may in that way succeed in explaining to them why it is ajoke, without, alas, making it funny. Still, explications like these are sometimes useful with audiences —undergraduates, perhaps—who simply lack the intellectual background to understand a text, even carnally. If we assume a knowing audience, however, the carnal sense is transparent by definition. It is just what we understand, or agree that we understand, before we raise questions about what we do not understand. A joke like mine resists spiritualization. After all, it is only ajoke. Ulysses may be ajoke too, but it is Joyce's joke, so one must assume that every word, every episode, has a point. Joyce is canonical. We know this because it is the consensus that he is canonical. To say that he is canonical is to say that we must assume, in his case, the postulate of total sense. We generate the discipline of criticism by sanctifying its objects. In the development of this theme, Kermode makes much of scriptural texts. It is easy to see why. The pull toward spiritual reading in such cases is reinforced by faith and its supporting institutions. "The Holy Ghost," Kermode reminds us, "does not give details merely to please or re-assure; in all his works every word and every figure is charged with sense" (p. 35). So under the imperative of total sense Irenaeus is able to gloss the Good Samaritan parable to the last detail—the meaning of the road to Jericho, the inn, the promised return of the Samaritan (p. 34). Speaking under the same imperative, Kermode resists the temptation to say that the end of the Mark gospel is merely Alfred Louch229 clumsy, or the effect of a corrupt or incompleted text. That Mark begins "with a trumpet call" and "ends with the faint whisper of timid women" (p. 68) calls for spiritual reading. A gospel cannot be clumsy or incomplete; it must make sense. But the imperative itself makes sense only on the assumption that the gospel is scripture. That, among other things, amounts to the denial that it should be viewed as literature. To say it is scripture is to say that it reports the facts, or the theological truth, not that it is an imaginative work of art. If the compulsion to interpret flows from scriptural assumptions , it is misleading to use scripture as a paradigm for (literary) interpretation. Irenaeus has the best of it both ways. His audience agrees on what counts as scripture and also on what counts as a correct interpretation. It is a reading that conforms to theological orthodoxy. At the same time there is just enough elbow room this side of heresy to make variant readings possible. So Irenaeus could be said to be enriching , spiritualizing, the parable; he steers his course between mere carnality and creative license. And so for him the process of interpretation is almost algorithmic. "The fate of the traveler represents the fall of the human race into the hands of demons; [the traveler] is Adam, who has left Jerusalem, the heavenly city, for Jericho, the world. The Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the Church, the promise to return, the Second Coming" (pp. 35-36). If, moreover, Irenaeus should rather unexpectedly feel a twinge of doubt, he could take comfort in just those passages of scripture cited by Kermode at the very beginning of his lectures that let the reader know that interpretation is necessary. Kermode, almost at the outset (p. 2), calls our attention to Mark 4:11-12: "To you have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." Perhaps, Kermode says, the Revised Standard Version's "parable" should be rendered "riddles." Anyway, the point is (or is it?) clear. The disciples are told stories in such a way as to conceal their real meaning. They have the effect of double entendres, a sense that anyone who is master of Hebrew or Aramaic can get, and another to which only the twelve have the key. The text we receive is thus a cryptogram, which those of us in possession of the secret—the Messiahship—can unlock. Here it is easy to see what will count as spiritual: the reading that reveals the message of salvation and the life of the spirit. Are we meant to see literary interpretation by analogy to scriptural exegesis? Kermode's preoccupation with scripture suggests as much. But the perspicacity of that account tells against the analogy. In the first place, in the ordinary business of reading and understanding plays 230Philosophy and Literature and poems and novels, we simply cannot find a place for secrecy. It would implicate us in a vast and mind-boggling conception of literary conspiracy to suppose that literature deliberately does not mean what it says. The extravagancies of the Baconian readers of Shakespeare, and of all Renaissance literature, or the capricious Straussian readings of much of political thought, should warn us off such textual paranoia, even if we thought that Kermode were suggesting such a thing. But of course he is not. In the second place, and more damaging for the analogy, literature does not comprise a canon in the requisite sense. I do not mean that we are unable to speak of the great works. But if we suppose there is a relatively undisputed collection of works in that category, it lacks the cohesion of interest and belief, and the authorial authority to justify the maxim of total sense. Homer, unlike the Holy Ghost, can nod, forget , lose his way, or be tempted by an attractive caprice. But, more important, canonical writers do not share a faith, among themselves or with their readers, that would make possible the acceptable, and unacceptable , ways of rolling off the log. I am powerfully impressed, let us say, by Kafka's The Trial. What I read has for me a political sense, the tragic depth of the gulf between the state's authority and the life of the individual, represented in the book by the inability of K to fathom the nature of the accusation against him, or the purpose of his accusers. But I find that I should read it as a theological allegory, and the hopeless inability of the individual to understand the true burden of his guilt. That reading, let us suppose, I find disappointing, but haunted by it, put the book down, and abandon it. Which reading is—at first I was going to say "right," but what I should say instead is—"spiritual"? The second is more allegorical because further removed from the surface of the text. It is, however, at least for the reader in question, less deeply satisfying. One answer is to say something about Kafka, what he intended. But we have agreed to set that answer aside. It limits interpretation to cases where we can dig out biographical information which, besides, is not related to the quest for deeper satisfaction . So spirituality turns on the imagination of the reading, the distance from the carnal surface, or perhaps the closeness to formed conceptions, or preoccupations, of readers. It is in this last sense that we find a motive for the critic's flirtation with extraneous theories —psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism. These importations provide the kind of confidence in spiritual readings enjoyed by Irenaeus. But, except for purposes of academic advancement, there is no assurance that they meet the test of deeper satisfaction. Our specious orthodoxies , by which we dig to deeper levels of meaning, and satisfy ourselves that we have done it, are not widely shared. And so we chart Alfred Louch231 an uncertain course between the fears of carnality and license, the prosaic but validated, and the imaginative; but that, I take it, is what makes criticism impossible. One never knows, quite, when one has done it. This is perhaps what Kermode is after: a description of the habits of critical reading, and a diagnosis of its perils. But somehow these lectures suggest something more, or something different. This further theme calls back to mind the second of my two alternative accounts. I said that Kermode offers an account of criticism in answer to the question , "Why must we interpret?", but that he also tells a story about stories . Once again his leading example is taken from scripture. In any story common to the gospels, it is possible to trace the process of elaboration and embellishment, change of emphasis, and character development . (I shall take for granted here, as Kermode does, the chronology of the gospels.) The Passion Story as it changes from Mark through Matthew and Luke to John illustrates the dynamics of story telling, the irresistible tendency to fill in, to particularize, what is left abstract in the earlier account. This is a law of story repetition; it is also, following Kermode, a tradition which the Jews call midrash. This process is illustrated by the way in which the gospellers one by one fill in the episode of the betrayer, one of the sub-plots of the Passion story. Onto the bare bones of Mark, Matthew adds the blood money and Judas' suicide. "Nothing," Kermode says, "but an interest in character can account for these narrative additions. Narrative begot character, and character begot new narrative." John in turn adds the query as to the betrayer at the Last Supper. Of this Kermode says, "This is a beautiful transformation ... of the testimony cited by Mark and Matthew [the identity of the betrayer]. As Judas eats the morsel he receives Satan into him, so that the eucharistie bread appears in a demonic inversion, and Satan, the Opponent/Helper, is incorporated into the human agent" (p. 92). The entire passage begins by describing the mechanics of narrative elaboration, the impulse to fill in detail, round out character and action, in the story. (Compare the move from "I'm not Catholic" to "I'm Presbyterian.") It ends, however, not with the evidence of this transformation, but with a new and different kind of interpretation of the passage in John. The transition is so smooth that one is not conscious of the shift. And if one remains unconscious of it, one must draw the conclusion that Kermode's interpretation is itself offered as a midrash, a further post-Johanine telling of the story. Criticism on this view is midrash: it is more and more and more elaborate storytelling. Well, why not? One small nagging doubt concerns the historical status of the texts, and the mode of their authorship. We must assume that John wrote entirely from earlier texts, and not from independent 232Philosophy and Literature evidence. The consequence of this narrowed conception of the writing of the texts is that they are detached, abstracted from their context, treated as if their structure is all that is needed to explain their progressive elaboration. This narrowing of focus creates the independent discipline of criticism, but I am not aware of any argument that makes it plausible. A larger doubt arises when one compares John or the other gospellers to Kermode. I find myself quite unable to accept Kermode's reading as itself a narrative, a midrash. His account is not a further fleshing out of the character of Judas, or of the episode in which the betrayer is revealed. Instead, it forces the elements of < ie story into abstract categories, vaguely structuralist, whose relevance to the story is not made clear. Certainly its bearing on the reader's deeper satisfaction is missing. If we read it not as a further exercise in the creation of narrative but as a way of affirming the scientific status of criticism, the creaking apparatus and pliantjargon of structuralism will hardly do the job. That is not the way to roll off the log with grace. If not, we must look at Kermode's account as midrash. But then it hardly compares to John. Claremont Graduate School ...


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