Kermode, Norton Lecturer, Decries Secrecy in Literature

Literary interpretation employs secrecy and trickery in its attempt to comprehend an unfollowable world, Frank Kermode told a crowd of approximately 200 in his final Charles Eliot Norton Lecture for 1977-78.

"Once a text is taken seriously, it is studied with high intensity and acquires secrecy. This contradicts with a belief that a text can be understood by all. Perhaps secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into text," Kermode said.

Kermode used examples from the New Testament to illustrate his thesis. In particular, he stressed the importance of stories intercollated in other stories in the books of Mark and Matthew.

Kermode said that traditional commentary has explained the story of Herod and Salomi as merely filler between the departure of the 12 apostles in Mark's verse eight and their return in verse 30. "This shows a great lack of understanding by commentators: they just want to save they task from its complexity," he said.

Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Messiah is the climax of the book of Mark, Kermode said, but it is obscured in a "core of secrecy. We are unwilling to accept mystery and leave it at that, and yet our literary interpretations are concerned with finding a large abstract secrecy."

Kermode said he was advancing an attitude toward interpretation rather than a method, but added that interpretation is not complete until it has discovered the truth and not merely the author's interpretation.