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The Insider

The Age of Kipling

edited by John Gross
Simon and Schuster, 178 pp., $12.95

Books on Kipling these days are usually elegant apologia. No one bothers to refute the imperialist assertion—regarded by Kipling as an axiom—that the life of action, of ruling, of imposing political will upon hordes of natives is not so much a noble calling as an inexorable law of nature. Kipling’s imperialism is taken for granted, and his text is then—very properly—combed for all the qualifications and modifications he made of imperialism and for his dire warnings against the folly of hubris. So in this collection of essays which Mr. Gross has edited, Philip Mason points out how ambivalent Kipling was toward the Indian Civil Service; Robert Conquest remarks how Kipling combined romanticism in his verse with colloquial matter-of-fact language; and Eric Stokes reminds us that Kipling’s hatred of white men who exploited natives surpassed his contempt for the inability of the natives to govern themselves.

Kipling was, of course, a curious mixture. In the best essay of the lot, Janet Adam Smith compares what his school days at Westward Ho! were really like with what he turned them into when he wrote Stalky & Co. So much of what he might have been expected to loathe he praised, and the mild aesthetical friend of the family who was his headmaster he transformed into a tremendous swisher and thwacker. Had in fact his own transformation begun there? How did the literary non-games-playing rebel among schoolboys, nurtured in pre-Raphaelite circles, end his last term writing a poem entitled “Ave Imperatrix“? People continue to be puzzled about what he thought.

The puzzlement is not all that surprising. The earliest defenders who attempted to rehabilitate Kipling, like T. S. Eliot in his defense of Kipling’s poetry in 1941, spent much of their time making excuses, and a great many critics remained unconvinced. Lionel Trilling, for instance, lamented that although Toryism is a great tradition honored by Dr. Johnson, Burke, and Walter Scott, “Kipling had none of the mind of the few great Tories.” For years the best-known essay on Kipling, which combined denunciation and praise, was that by Edmund Wilson, who explained how the young writer of such dazzling talent became the repulsive champion of authoritative upper-middle-class rule. According to Wilson, only with the death of his son in the world war that discredited British imperialism and all that Kipling believed in did he rediscover his vocation as an artist and write those compassionate stories—“The Kipling that Nobody Read.”

Unfortunately Wilson’s thesis falls to pieces if you examine the dates of Kipling’s best stories and verse. Those in which he exults in the triumphs of revenge and hatred, and in the impotence and folly of good intentions, are not confined to one period of his life. At all periods they are matched by those that accept the fact that many men are weak, can be over-tried, and need to be healed. Even the most recent criticism, though it is no longer so obsessed with Kipling’s imperialism, still spends time, more so than with any other writer of comparable merit, in shadow-boxing against charges made against a writer who can be so wounding to modern sensibilities. If the heartlessness of the other great short story writer of those times, Guy de Maupassant, disgusts critics, Kipling makes them angry.

Why is this so? Among all the explanations advanced, I think there are two still often forgotten.*

Kipling was a die-hard in politics. He was not a Tory or a right-winger, he was so far to the right by the end of his life that he can almost be said to have had no politics. Anarchists and die-hards in this one respect are alike. Both reject as despicable and immoral any of the stratagems, accommodations, and deals which politics must inevitably be about. The anarchist regards the root of these evils to be government itself: the final obscenity is the claim of any man to rule another, to issue commands to him, or even to persuade him to act in a way contrary to his desires. The notion that each of us has to accept that some of his desires or nonvoluntary actions have to be curbed by the apparatus of the state is violently rejected.

In direct contrast, the die-hard believes that government, and government alone, preserves the decencies of society. His ideal is a society ruled by wise, just, and severe administrators: wise, because their long experience of governing gives them the knowledge of how to deal with the unexpected and the rebellious, who by definition are those who have not got such experience and are either misguided idealists or villains; just, because they know a villain from a trustworthy man and can reconcile as far as it is possible in this world the aspirations of the subjects they rule with the harsh impersonal forces of history constraining them; severe, because…well, because severity is in accordance with the laws of nature.

The die-hard distrusts all politicians. His ideal is the administrator, the prefect or district officer. To him politics is a nonexistent subject. Whate’er is best administered is best. Thus, no less than the anarchist, the die-hard rejects the notion that external forces, such as foreign powers, or internal conflicts of interests between classes and groups create situations which cannot be resolved by the right measures. He differs from the anarchist in believing that these measures are to be found not in debating general ideas for the improvement of society, which he rejects as illusions imposed by interfering busybodies and know-alls upon a gullible public, but in taking certain administrative decisions that would be accepted as just by all men of good will were it not for the pusillanimity and special pleading of politicians and special interest groups. It is the administrator-ruler’s job to curb these people and damp down their public influence.

Kipling did not inherit these opinions from his cultivated parents, still less from his teachers at school. His headmaster Cormell Price was a radical. In the past he had organized with William Morris and Burne-Jones a meeting of working men in London to protest against Disraeli’s policy of intervention in the Turkish-Russian war, and noted with pride that the meeting had “quite refused to cheer the Empress Brown.” The other master at the school to influence him, the prototype for King in Stalky & Co., was a fiery liberal and a pacifist. Boys, however, react more often than not against the views of their teachers even if they admire them, and it was of course India, or more precisely the Anglo-Indian club in Lahore, that stamped its political principles upon Kipling.

As a very young man he had been hissed in that club: not for anything that he had done but because the proprietors of the newspaper on which he worked were held to have let down the English community by withdrawing their opposition to the detested Ilbert bill, which deprived them of their legal privilege to be tried by European judges in special courts, making it possible for an Indian to sit in judgment upon a white man. In the eyes of the Anglo-Indians this was a characteristic “political” intervention engineered by Liberal politicians in England and weakly accepted by a viceroy and his court—men who had their eyes on decorations and preferment.

Such was the judgment of the Platonic guardians of the Indian civil service and army. These were the first people on whom Kipling exercised his uncanny gift of getting inside and identifying with others. His heroes in life were the men who got things done, the men whom the politicians maltreated, let down, exploited, and yet on whom they depended. Orde and Tallantyre, governing provinces with death in the shape of cholera ever at their elbows, deprived of the opportunity to marry when young, and, when married, deprived of their wives in the cruel hot season and of their children sent back to school in England; young subalterns or gray-haired captains, who had to improvise and lead their drink-sodden privates into actions in which they were invariably outnumbered; ship’s captains and engineers, who ran their show—these were the rulers of the world. And the elected MPs, the super-bureaucrats, the staff officers, the cabinet ministers, who gathered together in a conspiracy against the professionals, were objects of contempt, and interlopers in the realm of decision taking.

Any man who knew his craft and did it well had Kipling’s sympathy. He would have sympathized with the horror of Abhorson, the executioner in Measure for Measure, at being asked to take Pompey, the pimp, as his assistant: “Fie upon him; he will discredit our mystery.”

It went without saying that after the Boer War, the proconsul, Milner, was Kipling’s man, and that he put the blame for British humiliations upon the politicians’ neglect of the army, upon upper-class frivolity (“The flannelled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf in the goal”), and upon middle-class failure to see in the Empire Britain’s true mission. After the war his cousin, Stanley Baldwin, was too far to the left for him, and he shared the prejudices of George V without his sovereign’s sense of responsibility. All Conservative ministers either were tainted with the disaster of the casualties of the First World War or had betrayed the cause of Empire and discipline. As for the Labour Party and the trade union movement, what were they but England’s Bandar-log, the monkeys who chattered and did nothing?

Many—indeed most—creative writers dislike, misunderstand, and often reject the value system of politics. Their political prejudices, their deadly insights emerge through the text, but these apprehensions are in a strict sense irrelevant to their vision of life. Most of them recoil from a world which is the counterculture to their own conception of what is valuable and significant. But Kipling is not among the majority. Few artists have ever cared more fiercely than he did about the prestige and power of their own country, few have been so concerned with the process, ramifications, and character of government. If Kipling did not accept any of the conventions of politics, what conception had he formed of the way the world of affairs worked? How did he reconcile the conflicting sets of values in his writing which perplex his critics?

The answer is curious but not surprising. Kipling was a sociologist manqué. His mind was not only quite unlike that of any other English writer but unlike the minds of practically all other Englishmen of his time. He is in fact the analogue in England to the Durkheimians in France.

Admirers of H. Stuart Hughes’s classic Consciousness and Society will remember that, in his account of the transformation at the turn of the century of men’s conception of the nature of society and the relation of the individual to it, not a single English name occurs in the chapter headings. The positivist theory of society which was rooted in Hobbes and Locke was so immensely powerful that in England continental Idealism was virtually ignored. Indeed at the very time when Hegelianism was making at last, in the Eighties and Nineties, an anemic impression in British universities, a new generation of social thinkers was beginning to appear on the continent who not only dismissed positivism in its newer form of social Darwinism but criticized Hegel and Marx for their romantic notions of social causation.

  1. *

    In what follows I draw on some of the arguments I made about Kipling in Victorian Studies, June, 1960.

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