There will be disagreement about which is [Frank] Kermode’s best book. His most Kermodian is The Classic, first delivered as the Eliot lectures at Kent in 1975. Kermode’s starting point is, dutifully enough, TS Eliot’s lecture entitled “What Is a Classic?” given as an address to the Virgil Society in 1944. While accepting Eliot’s main contention that a classic is the mature cultural product of a mature civilisation, Kermode adds a typically complicating spin. If Shakespeare (to take the least disputable example) is a classic, why does every age interpret Shakespeare differently? Is Dr Johnson’s interpretation less right than Coleridge’s, or Coleridge’s than William Empson’s, or Empson’s than Stephen Greenblatt’s? If one interpretation is more right than the others, why do we still equally revere all those Shakespearians? Put another way, why – with the passage of centuries – don’t we get cleverer at making sense of our classic texts?
In a brilliant critical move Kermode argues that it is the very pliability of the classic, its unfixed quality, that is its essence. It “accommodates” – makes itself at home – wherever and whenever it finds itself. It is the classic’s ability to be both antique, yet modern, its infinite – but never anarchic – plurality that categorises it as classic. A work such as King Lear, Kermode argues, “subsists in change, by being patient of interpretation”. The word is beautifully chosen. Every generation will read, or understand, King Lear differently insofar as every generation is different from its predecessors. No final version, or interpretation, of the play can be achieved. But every generation will find its own satisfactory interpretation. And the classic is tolerant of each and every different explanation of itself.