Chapter 5: What Precisely Are the Facts?
The fifth chapter seeks to treat the Gospel exclusively as historical accounts. It deals primarily with the tension between typology and historical validity, between figura and fact, as Kermode puts it. Here is how he lays it forth:
"[T]he discovery of recondite figurations in history-like narrative is a normal activity of secular criticism. By convention we tend to look for them not in narratives presented as having some transparence upon historical fact, but in fictions that reconcile a mimesis of reality with a more or less elaborate internal structure; but this distinction is more arbitrary than it seems, and figurations, usually of an ideological origin whether acknowledged or no, will be found in history as well as in the history-like. And anyway, if God writes the plot, the potential compatibility of narrative and figura is infinite." (105)
This last observation becomes the standard hermeneutic supposition of Christianity for centuries to come. The fulfillment claims of the Gospels upon Hebrew Scriptures is carried into the interpretive approaches of the early church fathers:
"[T]he earlier texts are held to contain, possibly in a disguised or deceptive form, narrative promises that will later be kept, though perhaps in unexpected ways. [paragraph break] The habit of finding such clues was not confined to the evangelists, and the search continued after their narratives were established and canonized. The same use of types and testimonies persisted: as proofs of divine organization, they were also proofs of the historicity of the narratives." (106)
Kermode remarks on how the extreme forms of christologizing the Old Testament leads to a loss of the OT's own historical character, and though modern assumptions might assume that such typology would invalidate the historicity of the narratives, the opposite occurs within the particular hermeneutic approach to the Bible--the typology confirms the narratives' (Old and New) historicity. Acknowledging this particular stance in the early church (and some interpreters today) Kermode takes his own stance a bit later:
"Yet we have seen that literary forces of the kind that operate in fiction certainly affected the design of the gospel narrative. The recognition of such an influence entails consideration of the degree to which the chronicles is shaped into history by other extraneous forces which may be called theological or ideological, depending on where one stands; whatever we call them these forces must, insofar as they affect what is said and the manner of saying it, assume rhetorical forms." (109)
Kermode spends a few pages discussing some of the passages that have been criticized as historical impossibilities or improbabilities. I will not address them here, though it is important to note that historicist approaches to the Gospels are more likely to discover discrepancies than to highlight harmonies. Ever since the Historical-Critical movement that came out of the 19th century German scholars, history (and especially Biblical History) has been viewed as a mass of discontinuities that only achieve continuity in being narrated, poetized, or otherwise written about.
Kermode finishes out the chapter with a return to the question of fiction and history. He provides a brief description of the nature of historical discourse and fictional discourse (specifically the novel):
"In general, history-writing, even more than fiction, relies on third-person narration. Novels quite often have first-person narrators, but their presence in an historical account gives it a different generic feel -- it becomes a memoir. The advantage of third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an illusion, the effect of a rhetorical device. We cannot escape the conclusion that 'the fact can exist only linguistically, as a term in a discourse,' although 'we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something or other on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural "reality"'." (117)
Whether or not such linguistic skepticism is warranted is most likely to vary on the precision one assumes to exist between description and reality, and wherever one lands may hold only in a particular case under examination. What Kermode points out, or actually, what he describes as the attempts of historians to narrativize factual data into readable accounts is that narratives convince by way of their structure and followability and its ability to reassure its reader of the impartially accurate rendering of reality. All of this to get to the final assertion that historians do not write and readers cannot read without prejudice. Welcome to the world of human nature. And under this view what occurs is that, "as Jean Starobinski neatly puts it, to ignore what is written in favor of what it is written about" (118-119). But Kermode says he wants to flip the priority in his book, which appears to me to be where we are now, where the priority of language over reality is reaching rather disturbing proportions, insofar as my observation and intuition are able to decipher.
And Kermode acknowledges Spinoza's separation of meaning and truth as most influential in the shift of priority. And with it came a new hermeneutics which tried to understand how meaning could be separated from truth and to utilize it methodologically to interpret biblical texts. The advent of "history-likeness" apparently led to some rather illogical conclusions, which Kermode quotes from Herder:
"[H]istory can mean 'the kind of consciousness represented by a specific kind of account...To be historical...an account need not be of any specific occurrence that had actually taken place'...What he needed was the right to affirm the factual truth of scripture without having to decide whether its meaning lay in its having happened or merely in its having been written." (120)
Aside from being illogical from a position of epistemological realism (i.e. perception does not determine reality) such conclusions reveal the hermeneutic shift toward a subjective hermeneutics that allows meaning to be made rather than discovered. The Christian should mark well here that if one tosses out the historical validity of the scriptures, one tosses out any objective elements of faith beyond language. The conclusion reduces to the choice of having faith in faith (solipsism) or faith in the words themselves (meaning that is linguistically determinate--"the words mean me") or faith in oneself (meaning that is a subjective creation--"I mean the words"). The separation of truth from meaning leads effectively to the loss of truth; being altogether replaced by whatever meaning is without truth (which to me seems to be nothing at all, or else very little).
Kermode seems to want something more centered than either a logically precise validity or a transient and ephemeral meaning/truth separation. He does recognize the ramifications of the choices:
"All modern interpretation that is not merely an attempt at 're-cognition' involves some effort to divorce meaning and truth. This accounts for both the splendor and the miseries of the art. Insofar as we can treat a text as not referring to what is outside or beyond it, we more easily understand that is has internal relationships independent of the coding procedures by which we may find it transparent upon a known world. We see why it has latent mysteries, intermittent radiances. But in acquiring this privilege, the interpreters lose the possibility of consensus, and of access to a single truth at the heart of the thing. No one, however special his point of vantage, can get past all those doorkeepers into the shrine of the single sense." (123)
But Kermode is certainly of the more modern modes of hermeneutics in the following concluding statement: "The pleasures of interpretation are henceforth linked to loss and disappointment, so that most of us will find the task too hard, or simply repugnant; and then, abandoning meaning, we slip back into the old comfortable fictions of transparency, the single sense, the truth." (123)