Rudyard Kipling and His World
Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow and the Fire
What would Kipling have “done” in one of the insoluble local crises of our time, like that of Palestine or in Lebanon or in Northern Ireland? A story called “As Easy as ABC,” written in 1912, imagines a kind of super United Nations peace-keeping force, which is called out by a report of “rioting and crowd-making” in Northern Illinois. Crowd-making constitutes “invasion of privacy,” the worst possible crime in the society of the future—2065 AD—which Kipling is inventing. Invasion of privacy was what Kipling chiefly complained of in American life—that and casual violence. He had tried to sue his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier for threatening violence when he was living in Vermont. Edmund Wilson made much of that episode in The Wound and the Bow, and it is certainly true that Kipling follows the classic pattern of revenging himself in fantasy for the hurt committed in life.
However the upshot of the story is a peaceful one, for the Aerial Authority can control without killing or injuring, by means of the shock effects of light and sound. A not unsubtle aspect of its plot is that the rioters want to lynch a body of protesters who are proclaiming a new Gospel—it might be Women’s Lib or Trotskyite anarcho-syndicalism—and the crowd is chanting the song of Pat McDonough, a putative Irishman who had enough of Holy Wars and Holy People, and so ordered slaughter in the name of nonsectarianism and antifanaticism. The story suggests that “order the guns and kill” is a counsel sometimes used by the worst people for the best reasons.
This is an example of the unexpectedness that lurks in Kipling as an artist. Like most artists he had a theory about his art and was characteristically voluble about it. He saw himself as possessed by a daemon, who took charge of the pen. In Something of Myself he tells of his first experience of sleeplessness, about the age of puberty, when “the night got into my head” and he wandered about London in the gray time before dawn, when a breeze comes up which he came to associate with the daemon’s visitation. Nonetheless this daemon did not have things all its own way: the requirements of craft took over, and Kipling has a lot to say about how to overlay tints and textures, and discourses on all the paraphernalia of the builder and shipwright. In his later years he used to speak of putting a tale “to drain”—taking it up months or even years later and wiping out sentences with brush and India ink—never using a pen in case he should be tempted to put something else in.
None of this seems in fact particularly relevant to what he produced, though it suggests something about both the exotic nature of his genius and the way he could put on a turn to mislead criticism and inquiry. The very unprivate artist held privacy to be the first of virtues in …