Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I learn from "Thinking Blue Guitars" (and now also from obituaries such as The Guardian's) that the distinguished British literary critic Frank Kermode is dead.

Years ago, as a student at King's, I wrote a dissertation on "Cambridge English." My aim was to undertake a Bourdieusian analysis of the university's English Faculty, to see the disputes that had marked it in terms of the clash between different forms of capital and prestige.

It was a fun project, and along the way I tried to contact a number of people connected with significant episodes in the Faculty's history. I wrote, for instance, to L. C. Knights, one of the last surviving members of the Scrutiny group, and though he was too ill to travel or correspond at length, he did send me a couple of nice letters written on a mechanical typewriter, with his own somewhat shaky ink corrections.

And I phoned Frank Kermode, who was happy enough to talk to an (over-)eager young undergraduate such as myself, and invited me round to dinner. I drove up from London to Cambridge, to meet him at his house on a leafy lane somewhere out near Homerton.

I don't remember much about that evening, except that dinner was roast chicken followed by port with an apple accompaniment, and that Sir Frank (newly knighted) was extraordinarily generous with his time and his conversation. We talked about the impact of Theory on Cambridge, the so-called Structuralism affair with Colin MacCabe (though Kermode emphasized that MacCabe was never, in fact, fired or, as Wikipedia currently has it, denied tenure), about figures such as Raymond Williams and Christopher Ricks, and in general about the rather turbulent period from the 1970s to the (then) present of the early 1990s. For our chat was right around the time of the campaign, led largely by the more reactionary elements within the English Faculty, to deny Jacques Derrida an honorary doctorate.

What I remember most was a comment towards the end of this long discussion about the various feuds and fights that had occupied the sundry members of the English department almost from its origin. Ultimately, Kermode observed, all of this was of little consequence. Somewhat surprised, I asked what did matter, then? Oh, he replied, as far as the university was concerned the Humanities as a whole were almost irrelevant. We were like paddlers in the shallows. The immense sea of resources and attention belonged to the Sciences.

I don't think that this sense of marginalization concerned Kermode particularly. It was merely a reminder of how little was at stake in academic politics, and an attempt to dampen down my youthful impulse to see all this in terms of heroic narratives involving (pro-Theory) angels battling (anti-Theory) demons.

I also wonder now whether both his sense of perspective and his choice of aquatic metaphor were inspired by his experience in World War Two, when he served in the Navy in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and was on the Hood off Iceland, shortly before it was sunk by the Bismark. Such memories might also have made him regard the shallows as sometimes a rather better place to be than the deep sea.

Meanwhile, if anything characterizes Kermode's own criticism, it is surely its restraint and delicacy but also its astuteness, its almost deceptive modesty as Kermode tenaciously pursues some subtle textual point.

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