Thursday, August 19, 2010

Frank Kermode: a remembrance

Frank Kermode was a gentle, kindly, slightly sad mentor-figure for me and other grad students at Columbia in the early 1980s. By then he was already turning against theory, at a moment when post-structuralism was beginning to flower into what became cultural studies. He was averse to intellectual hurlyburly. In a seminar attended, if memory serves me right, by (among lots of other really smart people) Max Rudin (now the publisher of Library of America) and future documentary-maker Ric Burns, Kermode appeared taken aback to hear the argument made by one of us that Heidegger's Origin of the Work of Art, assigned for the class, was deeply compromised by Nazism, as Meyer Schapiro had shown. But he was a true, pure man of letters. I remember walking through campus with him on the way to class. I told him I was writing an article on the great nineteenth-century French critic Sainte-Beuve, and Kermode said, with an air of ineffable pathos, he had memorized a line from one of Sainte-Beuve's diaries:"De jour en jour je suis devenu de plus en plus triste." A real smoothie, he also taught me a big lesson at what might have been my first panel presentation, something cooked up at Columbia. I had slaved over my five minute talk, of course. Kermode was to speak second, before me, and he had his paper folded in his hand. When it was his turn to speak he moved to the lectern, unfolded the paper, and spoke eloquently, about what I cannot recall. How am I going to follow that, I thought despairingly. As Kermode sat down, I glanced over at the pages he had been reading from. They were blank.

1 comment:

Neil Verma said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing this, Larry.