February 19, 2018

Kipling's "Permanent Contradictions"

On this day in 1936 Rudyard Kipling died at the age of seventy-one. Although one of England's most popular writers at the turn of the century, and a Nobel winner in 1907, by the time of his death Kipling was not merely forgotten but scorned and cartooned. To the intellectuals and political Left he was a dinosaur of Empire, a jingoist of pith-helmet patriotism and white-man's-burden racism; to the modernist writers and the literati he was a mere tale-teller, a balladeer, a journalist. Few critics questioned Kim and The Jungle Book as children's classics, but many saw Kipling as a child himself, incapable of moving beyond themes of chin-up resolve, or poems that rhymed:
    Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
    By singing: -- "Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade,
    While better men than we go out and start their working lives
    At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.
    ("The Glory of the Garden")
Too, Kipling's anti-Semitism could reach alarming levels, as in the view that Einstein's relativity theory was part of a larger Jewish conspiracy to destabilize world order. Unsurprisingly, the literary world that had flocked to Thomas Hardy's interment in Westminster Abbey eight years earlier stayed away in droves when Kipling was placed beside him.

The modern view of Kipling, both the man and the writer, is often different. Recent biographies by David Gilmour and Harry Ricketts make a case for Kipling being, if not misjudged, at least not a cartoon. In his review of the Gilmour book, Christopher Hitchens says that Kipling is "a man of permanent contradictions," with evidence available to indicate that he was and was not, "as the smug moderns believe, a racist or an imperialist or a sadist or an anti-Semite or a repressed homosexual." Jorge Luis Borges was a Kipling fan, and thought his work "more complex than the ideas they are supposed to illustrate." Kipling certainly thought that he had given his late stories multiple levels of meaning or "patina."

If Kipling aged into more complex views and writing, one cause may have been personal tragedy. Two of his three children died, a daughter at the age of six, son John killed in action in WWI -- last heard shouting "Come on, boys!" to his command, his grave site that of "AN UNKNOWN LIEUTENANT OF THE IRISH GUARDS," and unknown until identified in 1992. Kipling's sister said these events hardened him and drove him inward -- his autobiography, Something of Myself, is true to its title, giving no mention of either death. Kipling was no pacifist after his son's death, but his late story "The Gardener" adds a counterpoint to the earlier garden poem: here, as in real life, the bereaved parent searches for the grave of a fallen son and for some sort of redemption. But early poems can sound the same note. Borges especially liked "Harp Song of the Dane Women," in which Kipling was surely shaking his head at man and war more than he was nodding agreement:
    . . . Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
    And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
    Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken--

    Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
    You steal away to the lapping waters,
    And look at your ship in her winter-quarters. . . .

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