'The Sense of an Ending' by Frank Kermode (1965)


A selection from 'The Sense of an Ending' by Frank Kermode, 1965.

The sense of an ending... is... endemic to what we call modernism... . In general, we seem to combine a sense of decadence in society... with a technological utopianism. In our ways of thinking about the future there are contradictions which, if we were willing to consider them openly, might call for some effort toward complementarity. But they lie, as a rule, to deep.

The early christians "had, as Bultmann puts it, abolished history in favour of eschatology". "Already in St. Paul and St. John there is a tendency to ceonceive of the End as happening at every moment; this is the moment when the modern concept of crisis was born- St. John puns on the Greek word, which means both 'judgement' and 'separation.'"

'In the sacramental church,' says Bultmann, 'eschatology is not abandoned but is neutralized in so far as the powers of the beyond are already working in the present.' ... History and eschatology, as Collingwood observed, are then the same thing. Butterfield calls 'every instant... eschatological'; Bultmann says that 'in every moment slumbers the possiblity of being the eschatological moment. You must awake it.'
Variants of this position are common in modern eschatology.

...the older, sharply predictive apocalypse, with its precise identifications, has been blurred; eschatology is stretched over the whole of history, the End is present at every moment, the types always relevant.
Karl Popper, in a biting phrase, once called historicism the 'substitution of historical prophecy for conscience.' But of modern eschatology one can say that it has done exactly the opposite, and substituted conscience, or something subtler, for historical prophecy. ... in talking about our theological analogue we have reached the position of Jaspers, who remarked that to live is to live in crisis; in a world which may or may not have a temporal end, people see themselves much as St. Paul saw the early Christians, men 'upon whom the ends of the ages are come'; and these ends bear down upon every important moment experienced by men in the middest.

The disconfirmation of the primary eschatological predictions threw the emphasis on personal death as well as on to the sacraments; it has been said that Christianity of all the great religions is the most anxious, is the one which has laid the most emphasis on the terror of death. Reformation theology strengthened this emphasis. In the very period when epic poets were reviving the Sibylline eschatology for imperial purposes, the End grew harder and harder to think of as an imminent historical event... ; so that the duration and structure of time less and less supported the figures of apocalpse which blossomed in the glass and the illuminations of the Middle Ages.

The Joachite 'transition' is the historical ancestor of modern crisis; in so far as we claim to live now in a period of perpetual transition we have merely elevated the interstitial period into an 'age' or saeculum in its own right, and the age of perpetual transition in technological and artistic matters is understandably an age of perpetual crisis in morals and politics. And so, changed by our special pressures, subdued by our scepticism, the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world.

... it may be useful to have some kind of summary account of what I've been saying. The main object is the critical business of making sense of some of the radical ways of making sense of the world. Apocalypse and the related themes are strikingly long-lived; and that is the first thing to say about them, although the second is that they change. The Johannine acquires the characteristics of the Sibylline Apocalypse, and develops other subsidiary fictions which, in the course of time, change the laws we prescribe to nature, and specifically to time. Men of all kinds acts, as well as reflect, as if this apparently random collocation of opinion and predictions were true. When it appears that it cannot be so, they act as if it were true in a different sense. Had it been otherwise, Virgil could not have been altissimo poeta in a Christian tradition.... . And what is far more puzzling, the City of Apocalypse could not have appeared as a modern Babylon, together with the 'shipmen and merchants who were made rich by her' and by the 'inexplicable splendour' of her 'fine linen, and purple and scarlet,' in The Waste Land, where we see all these things, as in Revelation, 'come to nought.' [...] The apocalyptic types- empire, decadence and renovation, progress and catastrophe- are fed by history and underlie our ways of making sense of the world from where we stand, in the middest.
But the more learned the cleric, whether theologian, poet, or novelist, the 'higher' the kind he practices, the more subtly are these types overlaid. That which seemed a straightforward prediction becomes an obscure figure. As the predictions go wrong, it emerges that it is not merely upon the people of a certain moment but upon all men that the ends of the world have come.

In our world the material for an eschatology is more elusive, harder to handle. It may not be true, as the modern poet argues, that we must build it out of 'our loneliness and regret'; the past has left us stronger materials than these for our artifice of eternity. But the artifice of eternity exists only for the dying generations; and since they choose, alter the shape of time, and die, the eternal artifice must change.

'The imagination is always at the end of an era.' [quoting Stevens Adages]

...tragedy may be thought of as the successor of apocalypse, and this is evidently in accord with the notion of an endless world. In King Lear everything tends toward a conclusion that does not occur; even personal death, for Lear, is terribly delayed. Beyond the apparent worst there is a worse suffering, and when the end comes it is not only more appalling than anybody expected, but a mere image of that horror, not the thing itself. The end is now a matter of immanence; tragedy assumes the figurations of apocalypse, of death and judgement, heaven and hell; but the world goes forward in the hands of exhausted surviors. Edgar haplessly assumes the dignity; only the king's natural body is at rest. This is the tragedy of sempiternity; apocalypse is translated out of time into the aevum. The world may, as Gloucester supposes, exhibit all the symptoms of decay and change, all the terrors of an approaching end, but when the end comes it is not an end, and both suffering and the need for patience are perpetual. [note: see 'The New Science of Politics', specifically, on the ontological crises it sees laying behind revolutionary politics]

...the images of tragedy and the hero surely do brood over existentialist thought in general; it has been said that the existentialist choice is an adaptation of Christian eschatology, and we should add to that category the eschatological type of the hero.