Sunday, August 05, 2007

K is for Kipling

At about the same time I was an undergraduate enthusiastically reading Lewis, I was also enthusiastically reading all of Haldane’s little essays that I could find. I was a little bit surprised to discover that Haldane couldn’t stand Lewis. I can’t find his essay ‘British Anti-Lewisite’ on the web, so perhaps I have misremembered what it was called.

I was going to go on from this beginning to talk about discovering how neither Lewis nor Chesterton had much time for Kipling: but I thought I should go and reread what they wrote first. I found that Lewis’ essay on ‘Kipling’s World’ in ‘They Asked for a Paper’ had much more praise of Kipling than I remembered, and the stark criticism of Kipling I remembered is more a manifestation of Lewis’ terrible angelic charity.1 Again, I can’t find ‘Kipling’s World’ out there in cyberspace, but this is the core of it:

"The pleasure of confederacy against wicked Baboons, or even of confederacy simpliciter, is the cardinal fact about the Kipling world. To belong, to be inside, to be in the know, to be snugly together against the outsiders- that is what really matters; it is almost an accident who are cast for the role of outsiders (wicked Baboons) on any great occasion. And no one before Kipling had fully celebrated the potency of that snugness- the esoteric comedies andtragedies the mutual understanding, the highly specialized smile, or shrug, or nod, or shake of the head, which passes between fellow-professionals: the exquisite pleasure of being approved, the unassuaged mortification of being despised, within that charmed circle, compared with which public fame and infamy are a mere idle breath."

I knew already that my grip on sanity was becoming more tenuous recently, so I was not surprised when I was not in whole-hearted agreement with Chesterton. I think he strains too much to make Kipling a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ who ‘lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically.’ For instance, Chesterton builds a main pillar of his argument on the foundation of the scrap of verse:

If England was what England seems/How quick we’d chuck ‘er! But she ain’t.’

Even if this does mean, as Chesterton asserts, ‘if England really was weak and inefficient, instead of powerful and practical’, it is still just something said by a character. It is irresponsible to go around making pronouncements on what authors think based on what their characters say. In any novel or short story or poem, there will be characters, usually more than one, with different points of view. If it is a bad novel or whatever, it will be obvious which points of view the author approves of; but if it is a good one, you won’t.

Chesterton’s essay was written when he and Kipling had only recently been on opposite sides in the bitter debate over the ‘war of choice’ in South Africa: and I can well imagine how large that difference would loom. It was written long before ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, long before Kipling’s poems about Sussex, and long before Kipling was broken by the First World War. I think, perhaps, if Chesterton had written thirty years later he would have agreed that Kipling had in the end attached himself finally and tragically to Sussex, and was not a cosmopolitan in his bones, but a man who had been seeking a place to belong.

As a migrant whose family has been in motion for many generations, I know how envious I am to meet people who really belong to one spot: who are living in the house their grandfather was born in, who are part of a place. It is great fun to play at being a rootless cosmopolitan, sometimes; it is all very fine to be able to tell anecdotes about adventures in distant places. But we know, deep down, that we want to belong somewhere, and that all the truly great adventures can be had in one place. Like Chesterton says:
"The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men ... The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all, but he is thinking of the things that unite men- hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky."

I think Kipling like Chesterton was in essence a defender of ordinary people and ordinary things. The book of his I most prize is a collected poems, 1885-1926, which I picked up from a huge barricade of uncatalogued books that materialised one day outside the library when I was an undergraduate.2 It must have been one of the last books in the English-speaking world to have swastikas cheerfully printed on the cover to lend it an exotic Hindu flavour. From it I got the quote to put at the very end of my thesis:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken any way you please, is bad,
And strands them in forsaken guts and creeks
No decent soul would think of visiting.

1: ‘…it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all: no least lingering memory of it even at ten million years’ distance, no germ from which it could spring in any future, however remote. Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity’ (Perelandra)

2: Other lootz: Sale’s ‘Koran’, complete Gilbert and Sullivan, and ‘Teach Yourself Cebuano’.

1 comment:

Dr. Clam said...

If you gave up reading this post in disgust becuase of the rogue apostrophe, I have removed the vile thing. X(