Kipling's imperialism?

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Kipling's imperialism?

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mar 22, 2010, 6:39pm

Labeling Kipling an imperialist because he wrote honestly about his life and times is as unjust as labeling Twain a racist because he used the "n" word. I teach "The Female of the Species" every year in my freshman English class, and it always incites interesting (if sometimes outraged) discussion. Like him or not, agree with him or not, Kipling was a gifted observer of human nature.

mar 24, 2010, 6:13am

Studying 'Female of the Species'? That sounds like a bold, but very interesting, move on your part!

Personally, I suspect that there were two Kiplings: Kipling the man, and Kipling the author. Obviously, that's putting it crudely, but Kipling himself says that, when he wrote, some other part of his personality kicked in and influenced what he did.

I don't doubt that 'Kipling the man' was very much a man of his own time - and probably a fairly traditionally-minded and conservative one, at that. Yet there are times when 'Kipling the author' puts over some very subversive ideas.

To my mind, a prime example is 'The man who would be king', even though it's a fairly early work. After all, what does the story do if it doesn't pose the question: 'If you go into another country with your superior military technology, take it over, and start running it in your own interests ... well, by what RIGHT do you do it?' So much for imperialism!

Another example would be 'The army of a dream', which is, overtly, highly militaristic. Yet, the last two paragraphs seem to say something very different; suddenly the glamour and excitement associated with military life is replaced by something entirely different, and a lot more realistic.

mar 24, 2010, 8:47am

>1 penelope757: Labeling Kipling an imperialist because he wrote honestly about his life and times is as unjust as labeling Twain a racist because he used the "n" word.

I'm not sure if that comparison really holds. Maybe it would be stronger if you'd said "condemning" rather than "labeling"? Twain lived in a world where it was normal to use language about black people that we would now find objectionable. But Kipling was adopting a political stance that was at least slightly controversial in Britain, especially in the late 90s (when he wrote "The white man's burden") and during and after the South African war. Most intellectuals were on the other side, as were a lot of the working-class people who were paying for the war with their lives and their taxes (plus ça change...). Kipling was an imperialist because his experience led him to conclude that Britain had a responsibility to India, could do a better job of running the country than the Indians, not because imperialism was the default position. Remember too that he was a near-contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, who grew up in fairly similar circumstances (born in India, educated in Britain...) and came to a quite different conclusion.

So I don't think denial works: you have to accept that Kipling believed in empire, but bear in mind that he wasn't an uncritical believer (as willgrstevens points out above) - he also made it pretty clear in "Pagett, M.P." what he thought of metropolitan politicians who didn't know what they were talking about.

mar 25, 2010, 11:39am

Some of his most famous poems, say 'The Widow of Windsor' or 'Recessional' (even with its notorious 'lesser breeds without the law') are only imperialist in a very oblique and back-handed way. They're certainly not the kind of thing which a full-blooded imperialist would want to hear.

He's a very complex writer - witness some of the later, and very 'difficult' stories: 'Mary Postgate' and 'Mrs Bathurst' are prime examples.

mar 25, 2010, 11:58am

PBS ran a movie a few months back depicting the events surrounding the death of Kipling's son in WWI. It touched upon his standing as an imperialist and the complicated reasons the son felt determined to go into the service despite being so near-sighted as to be almost blind, and the impact it had on the entire family. His wife and daughter blamed him for pulling strings to get the son a commission. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) played Kipling's son. I thought it was quite good.

mar 26, 2010, 6:24am

There's a book about John Kipling (not exactly a biography) 'My Boy Jack?' by Tonie and Valmai Holt, which is certainly worth reading if you're interested in Kipling.

The episode seems to me to show Rudyard Kipling at his very worst. John Kipling's eyesight was so bad as to disqualify him from military service - certainly, from any role as a combatant. Yet his father wangled him into the army, and, when he went to the front, he lasted only a few days. What's more, his father certainly understood the dangers, and knew that it was very likely that his son would be killed.

And then he went on to write 'The Gardener', a very moving story about a young man dying in WW1 ...

mar 26, 2010, 7:56am

6: Rudyard Kipling at his very worst

But surely that was mainly because Kipling believed so deeply in patriotism and 'doing the right thing'?

We are all products of our time, much though we may assure ourselves that we are not. It is only with hindsight that we see things that we then took for granted were perhaps not ideal attitudes.

Great to have this group! I'm not that well-read in Kipling (that's my ma's thing - she has pretty much the complete works), but I am a big fan.

mar 26, 2010, 11:52am

#7 'But surely that was mainly because Kipling believed so deeply in patriotism and 'doing the right thing'?'

I would say 'yes' if John Kipling had been in good health i.e. the kind of young man that the army wanted. In that case, a patriotic father might encourage his son to enlist, in spite of the appalling risk that the lad would be killed.

But, according to my reading, John Kipling wasn't the kind of young man that the army wanted. As I understand it, had he tried to enlist in the ordinary way, he would have failed the medical. Which really does make Kipling senior's behaviour look very odd indeed, even by the standards of his day (about which you make a good point).

mar 26, 2010, 12:29pm

I didn't see the play, but as far as I remember it from reading a Kipling biography some years ago, the son wanted to enlist, as most of his contemporaries did, and had already been rejected by the army. By the standards of the time, I think Kipling's sense of guilt after the event might have been more unusual than his desire to help his son get into the army. If you read memoirs by men of John Kipling's class and generation, hardly any of them seem to have had the slightest doubt that it was their duty to serve. They would have been at schools where lists of their older fellow-pupils who had fallen in action were being read out every week. It seems crazy to us now...

Redigerat: mar 26, 2010, 1:51pm

>9 thorold: More details about John Kipling, having looked it up in Andrew Lycett's biography:

As a schoolboy, John Kipling wanted to join the navy. When they turned him down because of his eyesight, he applied to the army in 1913 (when he was still 16). They turned him down. He tried again, unsuccessfully, when the war started (on his 17th birthday, 17 August 1914), and was accepted after string-pulling with Lord Roberts on 14 September 1914. So according to Lycett it was John who insisted on joining up, and in any event it was all long before anyone in England had any idea what the war was going to be like. He spent about a year in barracks in England before being sent to France with a reserve unit in August 1915 (his father was touring the trenches at the same time), and he was reported missing on 2 October 1915.

(edited because I can't spell "Kipling")

mar 26, 2010, 6:01pm

I don't dispute any of those facts - though it's worth pointing out that (I'm also consulting Lycett!) within a day of being sent up to the front, John Kipling became detached from his men and was shot dead. Surely, that supports the army doctors' opinion that his defective eyesight made him unfit to serve - certainly as a front-line combatant.

It seems clear that he would never have got into the armed services at all, but for his father's string-pulling. No matter how much John Kipling himself (who, after all, was only 17 at the time) wanted to serve, I'd still say that, even by the standards of 1914, that's a very odd way for a parent to behave.

mar 26, 2010, 6:08pm

In his introduction to Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and Fantasy, Neil Gaiman notes that "at least one of the stories in this volume revolts me on a hundred levels", but goes on to say that he would have not wanted to miss reading it.

mar 27, 2010, 6:30am

#12 Yes - I know exactly what he means! 'Sea Constables' is a good example of this - in my book.

mar 27, 2010, 11:47am

Unfortunately, Gaiman does not name the story which revolts him so. I expect I'll know it when I see it.

mar 28, 2010, 4:37am

#14 Could you, in due course, tell us which you think it is? I'd, for one, be interested.

mar 28, 2010, 6:55am

>11 willgrstevens: even by the standards of 1914, that's a very odd way for a parent to behave.

1914 was a very odd time, and there was a lot of collective madness, or at least self-deception, about. I doubt if any of Kipling's peers would have found his desire to help his son get into the army as quickly as possible in the least strange. Few people would have had any idea what a modern war was like, and romantic notions about the duty of an English gentleman to lead troops into battle were still taken seriously. On the other hand, Kipling has to take at least some of the blame: after all, he'd spent a lot of time with soldiers in South Africa, so he would have been rather better informed about the likely conditions of a modern war than most civilians. And there's always the question of whether Kipling was motivated, as Roberts certainly was, more by considerations of what having a non-combatant son would mean to his own reputation than by letting John fulfil his destiny in battle. Not to mention that Kipling arguably had at least a share in creating the frame of mind that led to the war in the first place...

Even if John hadn't been allowed in as a volunteer, he'd presumably have been called up two or three years later when they couldn't afford to be fussy about medical requirements any more. But there's at least a chance that the army would have assigned him to duties where his eyesight wasn't quite such a hazard.

mar 28, 2010, 9:59am

#13 Certainly, the nasty interpretation is that, rather than risk his reputation, Kipling was willing to see his son serve in a capacity for which he wasn't suited and which he knew perfectly well would probably result in John Kipling's early death. It can also be asked if Kipling considered the men that his son would be commanding - soldiers in battle should be led by officers with adequate eyesight. And, as you point out, you can't excuse Kipling on the grounds that he didn't understand military matters.

Human motives are always mixed and Kipling had a very complex personality anyway, but I'm afraid that I do think that the nasty interpretation has a lot going for it. But, of course, it's not unusual for very great artists to be very nasty people.

The various biographers (Carrington, Lycett, the Holts) all seem to shy away from this, sadly obvious, interpretation; that is, as I recall, they don't, any of them, meet it head-on or attempt to refute it.

mar 29, 2010, 4:45am

>17 willgrstevens:
In the end, hindsight tells us, as it told Kipling, that he made the wrong decision. We can argue as long as we like about motives, and whether he could have acted differently, but that's an unanswerable question. Which is presumably why it was an interesting thing to write a play about.

While I was flicking through Lycett, I noticed in passing that he suggests that German agents tried to manoeuvre Kipling into doing a lecture tour of the USA in 1914, with the idea that he would (inadvertently) stir up anti-British feelings and thus help keep the USA out of the war. I didn't have time to check up the details, but it sounds implausibly subtle.

mar 29, 2010, 5:31am

Yes. What fascinates me about Kipling is his complexity - amounting to weirdness. Take 'The Army of a Dream', which, ostensibly, is an incredibly Jingo piece - I read somewhere that it was even reprinted for distribution by an extreme right wing organisation.

In it, he imagines Britain as an extremely militarised country: all kids being inducted into military exercises, military service compulsory for all males etc. The whole thing is presented as if it were an enjoyable Boy Scout-style set of games.

Then, right at the end, as the narrator wakes from the dream in which he saw all this, he realises that the officers he saw running the show all died, rather horribly, in the South African War. Thus, the reality of warfare, as opposed to jolly war games, kicks in. And he wrote it in 1904 - about ten years before WW1.

Redigerat: mar 29, 2010, 8:13am

>19 willgrstevens:
Yes, I had trouble with 'The Army of a Dream'. I couldn't work out how much it was meant as a satire of old-fashioned military attitudes and how much a dystopian nightmare. Apparently he originally intended to call it 'The dream of Belligerontius', which doesn't really help. Have you read Wodehouse's spoof of the invasion-scare genre, The Swoop, from 1909? I'm sure the play he makes with newspaper headlines must be referring back to Kipling ("Stop press news," said the paper. "Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.").

mar 29, 2010, 11:29am

It seems to me that 'The Army of a Dream' displays a split mind. For most of the story, I don't think it's dystopian at all, rather, it's utopian - 'Wouldn't this be a good way to get ourselves organised?' Then, something happens on the last page. I toyed with the idea that his meaning was that the whole scheme was impracticable, because all the officers capable of organising it had been slaughtered in South Africa. But, surely, that can't be his meaning, for he must have thought that there were some competent senior officers left - or, indeed, that, in due course, some more might come up through the system!

All I can suppose is that the thought came to him: 'But real war isn't like this'.

I've known about Wodehouse's 'The Swoop' for some time, but I've never read it. You've motivated me to put it on my Amazon wish list - thanks!

mar 29, 2010, 11:43am

>16 thorold:

Thank you, thorold, for your perspective, which chimes very much with discussions I have had with my mother (born 1929 to a very 'upper middle class' , 'play the game', 'empire' family). I must ask her for her thoughts on some of the pieces mentioned, which I have not read. She is about as far from her upbringing as could be, and still thinks very highly of Kipling.

On a slightly different note, has anyone read The Ravi Lancers by John Masters? Masters, though younger than Kipling, had much the same background and attitudes.

mar 29, 2010, 5:23pm

>21 willgrstevens:
The Swoop is available free on Project Gutenberg, if you have means to read it.

mar 30, 2010, 6:13am

>23 thorold: Thanks for the information

mar 31, 2010, 11:36am

Terpsichoreus (forgive the mangled spelling) has a nice long review of the book mentioned in post 12:

apr 6, 2010, 7:41am

Inspired by all this discussion, I re-read Stalky and Co this weekend, for the first time since I was about 12. Still great fun! I don't remember having been aware of the direct, if slightly silly, imperialist message as a child - Kipling takes the "playing fields of Eton" canard a step further by arguing that the frontier skirmishes that kept the Empire together were won by years of practising ever more ingenious ways to torment schoolmasters. Perhaps they missed the last chapter out of the edition I read then?

Something else that struck me, chiming in with the discussion here, was the episode where a slimy politician (Joe Chamberlain??) comes to lecture the boys about patriotism and duty, not realising that most of them were born abroad and have fathers on active service in the colonies. With one accord they all hand in their rifles and leave the school cadet corps the next day, sickened by his purely theoretical imperialism. The same idea as "Paget M.P.", and obviously implausibly sophisticated for schoolboys, but clearly something Kipling felt very strongly about. It was OK for Kipling to believe in Empire and preach it himself, because he knew what it meant, at least to the British people who had to do the work of maintaining it - though possibly not to the indigenous people whowere on the receiving end. But a metropolitan politician talking about Empire was definitely not OK. Rather like the way some modern feminists don't approve of men talking about gender...

apr 6, 2010, 10:10am

>26 thorold: You've certainly picked the most subtle and interesting story in 'Stalky and Co'! (Though, there's at least one other, later, Stalky story, 'Regulus', not in 'Stalky and Co', which is in the same class.)

Why was it that the lecture on 'Patriotism' destroyed the school cadet corps? I see what you mean when you say that the lads were 'sickened by a purely theoretical imperialism', but I don't think it was just that. But what was it? I can't quite put my finger on it ...

apr 7, 2010, 8:44am

>27 willgrstevens:
Yes, I think there must be more to it than that.

Perhaps the key is that they are boys who were already destined for a military career. They've taken the decision (for family reasons, or whatever) and they are now using the opportunity presented by the cadet corps simply to make their lives a bit easier when they get to Sandhurst or wherever, the same way they do extra tuition with the Head to prepare for the army exams. In Kipling's version of the public school code, it seems to be OK to work hard for a specific professional goal, but not to glory in doing so. I think that probably ties in with the English mistrust of any display of enthusiasm. The thing that makes us cringe when we see American schoolchildren made to salute their flag in the mornings.

When the Chamberlain clone praises them for doing their "patriotic duty," they are clearly embarrassed. They don't see what they are doing as particularly praiseworthy. More to the point, they hate the idea that an outsider might get the idea that they are doing it because they are seeking that sort of praise. And they especially dislike it, because many of them have fathers and brothers who are "out there" somewhere getting shot at. (And maybe also because they are teenage boys, who need no better reason to stop doing something than to have an adult tell them it is praiseworthy...)

apr 7, 2010, 11:31am

Yes (I'm hand-waving now!), it's the idea that there are ideals and aspirations which are so sacred that you mustn't ever talk about them; indeed, talking about them somehow devalues them, or indicates that you're not really sincere about them.

The best analogy for modern times which I can think of is telling a group of acquaintances, over dinner, how much you love your wife.

Redigerat: apr 7, 2010, 5:37pm

>28 thorold:,29

Maybe telling a group of acquaintances, over dinner, how much you love your wife, when everyone else in the room except you is aware that your host has spent the last year watching his wife expire from an unpleasant incurable disease.

I think we're getting closer to what he's trying to say. The public school code is difficult enough to make sense of at the best of times, and Kipling doesn't make it any easier...

jun 29, 2011, 10:07am

Oh, I am so pleased to have found this group!

One of my favorite of his poems is "In the Neolithic Age," which is in extraordinary contrast to "White Man's Burden". It's interesting in that, coming out in 1895, it fell between "Gunga Din" (1890) and "WMB" (1899).

It is not irrelevant that the narrator of "ItNA" was always (western) European. Contemporary Anglo-Franco-Germanic anthropological thought held that geographical distance from (western) Europe was directly correlated with cultural distance from (western European) "civilization" along a single cultural-evolutionary line: the most "savage" (which at the time served as a technical term, as did civilization {not to mention moron, imbecile, and idiot for eugenicists...good times, good times}) societies were those on the opposite point of the globe from Europe, and the nearer to Europe one got, the more "evolved" the societies were. (It wasn't so much that civilization was diffusing out of Europe as that all societies started on the same level playing field and evolved, at the same rate, as far up the cultural beanstalk as their people were capable of evolving; thus, non-western European societies weren't going to "advance" any further on their own.)

In that context, acknowledging virtue in the cultures of the narrator's previous lives seems implicitly to acknowledge at least the possibility of virtue in the world's non-European (= barbarous and savage) societies. It's unclear to me whether this is evident in "Gunga Din" (certainly the man had earned a certain respect, but it certainly doesn't seem to have been extended to his people and society), and it's wholly absent from "WMB". So I really don't know what to make of "ItNA", which I'm sure is a large part of the fascination it holds for me.

Redigerat: jun 29, 2011, 5:40pm

>32 thorold:
It occurred to me some years ago that "Soixante-neuf: année néolithique?" would be a great dissertation title, but I never used it when I had the chance...

I think you'd have to look at the references in the poem quite closely in the context of 1890s archaeology to see where Kipling picked them up and how they fit together, if at all. I understand that the breaking ice in the second stanza means it's not neolithic at all but palaeolithic, which is at least a strong hint that Kipling picked the references more for their sound and general flavour than with any ideological purpose. You might well find that there wasn't much being published at that time (at least not in works for the general reader) about stone-age cultures outside western Europe, which would mean Kipling was limited to European references if he wanted to make his readers think "stone-age".

If you'd asked Kipling how he reconciled the three poems, he might well have been puzzled by your response: I shouldn't think he saw any contradiction in acknowledging the merit of an individual or of a culture while at the same time seeing nothing but sloth and heathen folly in the society that individual and culture belong to. We probably do see a contradiction most of the time, even though we still go on doing it ourselves (I can have American friends and enjoy American novels without necessarily approving of US society and its values, for instance).

jun 29, 2011, 8:08pm

>32 thorold: "I think you'd have to look at the references in the poem quite closely in the context of 1890s archaeology to see where Kipling picked them up and how they fit together, if at all."

I have, as it happens. At the time he wrote his poem, thinking about when the Neolithic happened, and what the contemporary environment was like, was substantially different than it is today (lack of absolute dating, for one thing). That said, his use of the word Neolithic strikes me as a nod to metrical considerations: "Paleolithic" doesn't fit well, and yet archaeologists of the time knew quite well that, regardless of the absolute dates, the Solutrean was Paleolithic because the cultural periods were defined by stone-tool assemblages (woolly or two-toed {depending upon the edition} horses, mammoths, and reindeer were likewise known to be Paleolithic food animals because of the stone-tool assemblages found in association with them). Then, too, the "Neolithic" narrator's treatment of his critic comports well with contemporary beliefs about the practices of societies in the earliest, "savage" cultural stage (south Pacific headhunters, red Indians) of the unilineal model. And of course Kipling wasn't writing specifically for archaeologists.

The narrator's next life, as a Bern lake-dweller, comes firmly within the recognized Neolithic of today, but again, his mentions of snow and aurochs hunting is more suggestive of Paleolithic environments. What's more interesting to me is how, in that life, he was given "whiter, weaker flesh".

And then he is graduated to cultured Christianity and the gardens at Kew.

I hadn't noticed this until now but it's interesting that the narrator describes three lives. The last two are poorly developed so I wouldn't suggest the trio intentionally represents Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization any more than they represent the Stone/Bronze/Iron Ages. I do think, however, that the racism of contemporary society (not just anthropology) is present in the poem, and yet....

jun 30, 2011, 4:47am

I'm not sure about the three lives: the way I read it, the "whiter, weaker flesh" is supposed to belong to the "minor poet certified by Traill", i.e. the "singer" of that part of the poem is Kipling's contemporary, comparing the present with his recollection of an XX-lithic previous life in a series of images that establish the idea that a more "advanced" civilisation isn't necessarily more virtuous or efficient. When he uses modern military terms ("messmate", "skirmish") to describe the aurochs hunt, and words we usually use to describe animals ("scuffle, squeak and rage", etc.) for our "cultured Christian age", I don't think he intends anyone to miss the irony.

So my brutal oversimplification of Kipling's argument would be:
(i) force of arms doesn't necessarily make one culture superior to another
(ii) nor does the "advance of civilisation"
(iii) there are a lot of cultures in the world today with different aesthetic and ethical standards
(iv) ...and every single one of them is right

Of course, that doesn't answer the question of what Kipling meant by "right", or how broadly we should interpret "tribal lays" - presumably he doesn't mean us to read it strictly as "poetry", but I don't think you can extend it far beyond the strictly cultural sphere.

One other thought: does anyone else pick up Gilbertian overtones?

Kipling, 1895:

Still we let our business slide—as we dropped the half-dressed hide—
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Gilbert, 1892:

Then we help a fellow-creature on his path
With the Garter or the Thistle or the Bath,
Or we dress and toddle off in semi-state
To a festival, a function, or a fête.

jun 30, 2011, 6:52am

Marking the thread for when I get to Kipling in my current lit course! Looks interesting.

Redigerat: jun 30, 2011, 1:18pm

>34 thorold:

Your take on the "whiter, weaker flesh" had not occurred to me, but I see it now.

And agreed about the irony and the suggestion that civilization isn't necessarily an advance.

But I'm not willing to think of his, or any, poem as an argument in any but the broadest sense (i.e., insofar as having a point of view can be construed as one). I don't think he would have had precise meanings for "right" and "tribal lays" in mind, at least not precise enough to use in an argument.

That said, I didn't mean to give the impression that what I wrote previously about the poem, is what I think he was trying to convey. Rather, in trying to make sense of the poem within his œuvre, I made my own connections between the poem and contemporary ideas about past/present, self/other, and here/there: connections that don't, in fact, help me make sense of it.

And that's why it continues to fascinate me.

To be honest, I would be disappointed to conclude that it's just an expression of a high-minded idealism with no role in the practical world.

jun 30, 2011, 3:58pm

>36 drbubbles:
Yes, definitely: if we could reduce a poem to a simple argument without losing something, or if I read the poem in exactly the same way you did, it wouldn't be a very interesting poem.

Redigerat: aug 2, 2011, 3:34pm

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