Column: Worth a life

Published on August 24, 2010.

A change of pace, from the political: Frank Kermode, the finest literary critic of our time, passed away last week, at the age of 90. I discovered him—that is to say, for myself—in the 1980s, when I was haunting the airy rooms of the British Council when it was still based in a converted house in New Manila. Finding him was a fruit of that habit that a reader who has no means of income quickly learns to make his own: inhabiting the spaces between bookshelves for hours on end. It was, in other words, pure accident, the result of one book, one author’s name, leading to another.

At least that is how I remember it, of how I came to fall under his spell. It seems a long way from the common rooms of Cambridge or the Isle of Man to the tragicomic reality of Philippine politics and journalism, but I did learn at least two formative lessons from two decades of reading Kermode. (It should come as no surprise to his devoted readers that he wrote a charming piece on the very notion of “formation,” too.) Bear with me.

Something he wrote on the scholar Frances Yates, in the New Statesman in 1975, struck me deeply when I read it in anthology form in the early 1990s.

“It is not customary to say so, but there is something in common between the lifework of a scholar and that of a creative artist. We should not ordinarily devote to the scholar the peculiar attentions reserved by cultural convention for the oeuvre of a major artist—the passion for occult continuities discoverable under the surface, evidence for abrupt transitions and discrete ‘periods’—but from time to time we are confronted with a body of work in which we intuit precisely this kind of variety and homogeneity. We become aware that we are dealing not with a writer who is to be admired for his labours of correction and accumulation, and not even for his brilliant insights and explanations, but with one who, in the course of time, remained ingeniously and beautifully faithful to some hint of illumination that was worth a life.”

The fundamental idea that the work of the imagination, or creativity itself, is not limited to artists alone—this was the sense I got from reading Kermode over the years, and it was brought home to me in this particular passage (the first paragraph, as it happens, of a generous review). An “illumination that was worth a life” can be discovered, too, in the work of philosophers (Karl Popper) or scholars (I think of Benedict Anderson) or politicians (the name of Claro M. Recto readily suggests itself). Or, yes, even literary critics like Kermode.

* * *

In 2000, when Kermode was 80, he published “Shakespeare’s Language,” a delightful examination of the iconic writer’s deployment of the still evolving resources of the English language. The book was considered unfashionable, because instead of discussing theory it had the temerity to dwell on the uses of rhetoric. Reading it deepened the sense of indebtedness to language that I got from reading Kermode.

Let me cite a passage from his consideration of “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare’s most political play (perhaps excepting “Coriolanus”). “There are famous moments to come: the rival funeral orations in prose and verse (during Antony’s performance even the plebeians use verse), until, moved to destructive action at the end of the scene, they return to prose: “Pluck down forms, windows, any thing” [III.ii.259]. Although Antony speaks at some length, the economy of the scene is extraordinary. It is followed by another brilliant “lighting” scene, recounting the fate of the poet Cinna, beset by prosy rioters: “Tear him for his bad verses” [III.iii.30]; and then we are with Antony and Octavius in the quarrelsome and Machiavellian mood that, alternating with a sort of masculine Roman tenderness, dominates most of the last two acts of the play.”

It is this attentiveness to language that most distinguishes Kermode’s work from the rest.

* * *

The example of “Julius Caesar” above speaks to me, not only because it is perhaps the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, but also because it is the one I understand the most—thanks to “Mr. Pagsi.” Onofre Pagsanghan read “Julius Caesar” to our class in 1977, and like many of my classmates I still remember much of the play, over 30 years later. He read it aloud, during English class and, when we ran out of time, during recess and lunch too. The attention Mr. Pagsi paid to the language Shakespeare used mirrored, or prefigured, Kermode’s discussion, down to the shifts between prose and verse.

The other day, a good friend lent me a copy of a privately published book that contains four of the plays—“Sinta,” “Doon Po Sa Amin,” “Adarna,” “Sa Kaharian ng Araw”—most often associated with Mr. Pagsi’s brand of existentialist Christian drama. Allow me to quote from his introduction to the last play.

“Kaharian aspires to be a modern Morality play. The plotline is fable-simple. Two friends journey in pursuit of worldly splendor in the mythical kingdom of the Sun and, in the process, find out a lot about themselves and each other, and the distance between a life lived for self and a life laid down for others. The characters are symbolic. The two friends, Ponce and Paolo, are two facets of every man: Ponce, the Everyman who is thing-oriented; Paolo, the Everyman who is person-centered. The three kings of Rain, Wind and Darkness are symbolic of the hurdles and the vicissitudes that tantalize, even as they agonize, success-seekers to plod on with greater abandon. The Kaharian ng Araw is symbolic of earthly success that beckons beguilingly and then burns the beguiled.”

In its earnestness, it is less than Shakespeare. But in its illuminating embrace of high themes and elemental conflict, it reminds us of nothing less.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings

One response to “Column: Worth a life

  1. Pingback: Kermode, the sense of an ending « Newsstand

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