The field of literary criticism today is beset with various anxieties. On the one hand, the system of rewards that has supported the field in academic institutions is barely functioning. Jobs, promotions, and fellowships are scarce. There is a whiff of litigation in the air that dries up all "subjective" judgments, and judgments of quality are always subjective. And on the other hand, the literate public is no longer convinced that criticism is a vital part of the literary diet. The critic as an autocrat of the coffee table has disappeared.
"That's no great loss," do I hear you murmur? Perhaps not, perhaps not. It would be no great loss, at any rate, if we were all able critics and interpreters ourselves - but there is every reason to fear that we are not.Most readers - no matter how well educated - are in fact unaware of their own interpretive processes and continually mistake for natural what is in fact dominated by culture, by institutions, by ideology.
Frank Kermode's latest book - his previous work includes The Sense of an Ending and The Classic - is about the processes of interpretation. In approach it deliberately locates itself in the middle ground among the hyperbolic excesses of radical French criticism, the hermeneutic mysticism of the Germans and the platitudinous banalities of the Anglo-American tradition. It is anything but a manifesto, this book, being too cautious, too balanced, too civilized to push an argument to the point of no return: a lesson learned from the French here, no doubt, who push all arguments to and beyond the point of their own absurdity, often managing to discredit their considerable value in the process. But, despite its urbanity and elegance, this is a strong and important book.
The Genesis of Secrecy is important partly because of its method and partly because of its subject matter. The texts Kermode uses to illustrate "the interpretation of narrative" are the most familiar and important in Western civilization: the Gospels, according to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. And the method is a disarming and delicate blend of the best work done recently in narrative theory by semiotic and post-structuralist critics, fortified by an impressive but unobtrusive acquaintance with biblical scholarship and hermeneutics.
What Kermode does, finally, is to suggest, through discussion of certain problems in biblical interpretation, that there is no such thing as a literal reading, that, in fact, the letter of a text (as opposed to its spirit) is available only to those who are not, in fact reading it because they already "know" or believe they know, its meaning. Beyond this Kermode allows us to see, in his gentle and uninsistent way, that interpretation has entered into the writing as well as the reading of the Gospels. In the beginning was not the word in the mouth nor on the page, but rather the need to interpret, which has itself called the rods of the text into being.
Mark, the first of the chroniclers of Jesus's life, was himself an interpreter, an artist. So runs the gist of Kermode's test (in my interpretation), though to call it an argument would be to present it as more insistent that it is. The other evangelists were also in their turns interpreters, as were their readers, including Augustine and Spinoza, and as we must be. All history is first interpretation, and the more narrative it is, the more secrecy, requiring further interpretation, it will generate. In the telling of stories lies the "genesis of secrecy."