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August 16, 2013

Steady the Buffs: I Love Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling. The few of his poems featured in the Norton reminded me that I had an old copy (1899) of Plain Tales from the Hill that has a swastika embossed on the front. In India in 1899, the swastika was a revered symbol, however between the swastika on the book and what we today would call the racism of Kipling’s language I at first I felt guilty that I enjoyed him. In fact I could not put down Plain Tales from the Hills. I found the stories wise, readable and funny, and was fascinated by the way the narrator quietly inserts himself into the pieces as though he has been there observing and listening.

Then I read the novel The Light That Failed and had a flash of memory of a scene from an old movie with James Mason that as a girl I saw on TV. It’s the story of a talented painter who has become wealthy by squandering his talent painting simplistic pictures that would sell to an unsophisticated public. He sets out to compete with another painter to paint a portrait of melancholia. As he works on the face, he is unable to find melancholy in the facial expression until he begins to experience his own rapid onset of blindness.

Kipling (1865-1936) was phenomenally popular in his time. After reading half a dozen poems and plain tales from the hills, I can see why. He’s a kind of Garrison Keillor of the late Victorian period. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. He declined knighthood (several times) and the poet laureateship.

Here’s the second stanza from a poem that got me thinking about racism and patriarchy and what I believe is thought of as post-colonial literary criticism. It’s called “The Ladies:”

Now I aren’t no ‘and with the ladies,
For, takin’ ’em all along,
You never can say till you’ve tried ’em,
An’ then you are like to be wrong.
There’s times when you’ll think that you mightn’t,
There’s times when you’ll know that you might;
But the things you will learn from the Yellow an’ Brown,
They’ll ‘elp you a lot with the White!

Now that’s quite candid. It’s certainly the statement of a man who has gone native all over the world. Did I mention that Kipling lived for five years in Brattleboro, Vermont?
Then there’s the water-carrier “Gunga Din:”

An’ for all his dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire.

I find that more offensive than the idea that Kipling apparently slept –apparently cavalierly–with women all over the world, including in Brattleboro, Vermont. But when I examine my unreflected opinions about life, and my own racism and prudishness, I think that my only objection to Kipling sleeping with yellow, brown and white women all over the world is that women of that period had not the freedom to do the same. Or maybe they did, but they weren’t going to write about it and then be chased by officials flapping the poet laureateship.

I’m much touchier about negative stereotypes of women than any other kind of misanthropy, but someone else might take huge offense from the language of “Gunga Din” and from the political and social structure that produced the situation.  I can understand someone’s visceral repulsion when I remember what happened to me when I tried to read Montaigne’s Essays. First paragraph of “It is Folly to Measure the True and False by Our Own Capacity:”

“The more a mind is empty and without counterpoise, the more easily it gives beneath the weight of the first persuasive argument. That is why children, common people, women, and sick people are most subject to being led by the ears.”

This enraged me. I put the book in the recycle bin. I don’t care how great or seminal Montaigne is, I can’t read him. Literature is full of both implicit and explicit digs at women and I have learned to filter them. Some writers are worth reading in spite of their cultural misogyny. Others go too far and rip open the filter.

I get the feeling that Kipling loved humanity: Male and female loved he them, and all the colors of the rainbow. But he was a man writing at a time when The Male sat atop the glorious British Empire. He wrote the world he knew. It’s ironic that his own candidness makes his literary reputation unsettled.

The following are bits from Plain Tales from the Hills that made me smile as well as some of the many famous lines from other works:

*Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool. (“Three and an Extra”)

*Good work does not matter, because a man is judged by his worst output and another man takes all the credit of his best as a rule. (“Thrown Away”)

*One of these days, Strickland is going to write a little book on his experiences. That book will be worth buying; and even more worth suppressing. (“Miss Youghal’s Kiss”)

*Miss Hauksbee was sometimes nice to her own sex. Here is a story to prove this; and you can believe just as much as ever you please.

There was nothing good about Mrs. Reiver, unless it was her dress. She was bad from her hair—which started life on a Brittany girl’s head—to her boot-heels, which were two and three quarter inches high. She was not honestly mischievous like Mrs. Hauksbee; she was wicked in a business-like way. . . There was never any scandal—she had not generous impulses enough for that.

He had not many ideas at the best of times, and the few he possessed made him conceited. (“The Rescue of Pluffles”)

*Many religious people are deeply suspicious. They seem—for purely religious reasons, of course—to know more about inequity than the unregenerate. (”Watches of the Night”)

*. . .Dick delivered himself of the saga of his own doings, with all the arrogance of a young man speaking to a woman. From the beginning the he told the tale, the I—I—I’s flashing through the record as telegraph poles fly past the traveler.

Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.

. . .he lodged himself in one room where the sheets on the bed were almost audibly marked in case of theft. . . (The Light that Failed)

*Oh, East is East, and West is West,
And never the two shall meet. . . (“The Ballad of East and West”)

*They’ve taken of his buttons off and
An’ cut his stripes away;
And they’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.’ (“Danny Deever”)

*Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the living Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am,
Gunga Din. (“Gunga Din”)

*On the road to Mandalay
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder
Outer China crost the Bay! (“Mandalay”)

*Steady the Buffs. (“Soldier’s Three”)

*To the legion of the lost ones to the cohort of the damned.

We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way,
Baa! baa! baa!
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray,
Baa-aa-aa!
Gentlemen rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Baa! (“Gentleman Rankers”)

*The female of the species is more deadly than the male. (“The Female of the Species”)

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