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WIM 6: The Kipling Problem

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I got an e-mail yesterday that made me realize that I had been less than clear.  The example in the post before this one, about how various people read Clifford Pyncheon in The House of the Seven  Gables, is about left wing criticism.  Only the left finds gay people in books from eras whose authors would not have imagined putting them there.  The right, when it indulges in bad reading, tends to complain about moral force.  The big complaint about one of the Judy Blume books, for instance, was that the heroine, who had sex with her boyfriend while they were in high school, walked away unscathed, or at least unpunished.

But both bad readers of the right and bad readers of the left have the same problem:  they’re not looking for fiction, they’re looking for sermons.  They want a controlling idea, cleanly executed, like Jonathan Edwards delivering his Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God, or the Marx and Engels of The Communist Manifesto. 

It’s that very fact, that what they’re looking for is a sermon, that they don’t like art unless it is essentially another way of declaring a moral position, that makes them bad readers.   Literature and sermons are not the same thing.  Neither are literature and political tracts.  If fiction is to work well, it has to do what Trollope asked it to do, to show us The Way We Live Now, and if it is to do that, it has to have at least some stake in ambiguity.  The real world is an ambiguous place.

I said, a couple of posts ago, that literature can lie.  The way in which literature most often lies is in cleaning up the characters so that they seem to be coherent in a way real people never are.  The heroes of novels and epics and plays and didactic poetry are one thing, through and through.  Any attempt to “round out” the character by giving him a few flaws are entirely superficial.  The brave hero of your latest techno thriller, who puts his life on the line to bring a whole kindergarten full of kidnapping victims out of the drug lord’s den,  may be an ex-alcoholic who smokes too much, but he will not be a racist bigot. 

If you want to see this problem in action, read the book A Beautiful Mind, and then watch the movie.  The book, being straight biography and not intended as a narrative, is fairly upfront about John Nash’s somewhat less than pretty private traits.  He was, after all, a Southern white male of his generation.  He may have been a genius, and his struggle and victory over schizophrenia was certainly heroic, but as with most of us, that was only part of the story.  The book hands you John Nash whole and lets you decide for yourself if the struggle with schizophrenia makes up for the rest of it.

The movie, on the other hand, takes no chances.   Anything the audience might not like about John Nash is erased.  Schizophrenia is flaw enough, coupled with maybe a little arrogrance, which isn’t exactly a flaw, because the man is a math genius. We see Nash’s brilliant arc through his profession, his love for his wife, his descent into madness, his incredible strength of mind turned to managing an illness he cannot escape from.   We are meant to admire him, and we do.

The problem with this, however, is that it gives us the impression that our heroes need to be all of a piece.  They must not have flaws beyond the minor and superficial.  In the real world, however, heroes are never like this.  The fireman who rushes in to a burning building and saves five children may cheat on his wife and his taxes.  The civil rights leader who advances the cause of justice for a nation may plagarize his dissertation.

Not to recognize this–not to realize that heroism is just as heroic and a hero is just as much of a hero no matter how foul the rest of his life is–is an incredibly destructive thing.   In the long run, it will destroy your faith in everything on earth, from democratic institutions to the holy stae of matrimony.  Heroism lies in the deed, not the person.  And heroism is hard.   Most of us never rise to that level.   The few of us who do often do so in contradiction to a lot of the rest of our lives.

Bad readers of the ideological variety want a false reality.   They want their literature to reflect how the world should be, not how it is.  Not only must their heroes be all of one piece, but the events of the narrative must be all of one piece, too.  A teen-aged girl who sleeps with her boyfriend must get pregnant and see her life ruined–even though that’s only seldom the case in real life.  The nast bully who torments smaller kids and never studies cannot get straight As and perfect scores on his SATS, even though that kind of thing happens all the time.

Literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it, and bad readers want that universe to have as few kinks–and as little relation to reality–as possible.   The problem is that this kind of writing is almost always incredibly bad.  Think of all those preachy children’s books that were forced down your throat in grade school, or the saccharine “Billy learns a lesson” endings to all those sitcoms.  

Or think, for a minute, about  Rudyard Kipling.

Readers on the right think that “academics” reject Kipling’s work–drum it out of the canon of high art, at any rate–because of what it says, that is, because it is “conservative.”  And that may even be true of some academics.  Getting a PhD, even a good one, does not guarantee that you won’t be a Really Bad Reader, especially these days.

But most “academics,” most literary critics in the scholarly sense, have no problem accepting Henry James, who was definitely a conservative, or T.S. Eliot.  Nathaniel  Hawthorne supported slavery.  Ezra Pound collaborated with Mussolini and only escaped being executed by being declared insane.  There are plenty of conservatives in the canon.  There are even plenty of apologists for Western empire.

The problem with Kipling is not what he says, but the fact that he made up his mind to say it, that he manipulated his material in order to produce work that supported his controlling idea, and it shows.  In fact, it may be that the reason his work is less than that of a James or a Donne or a Dylan Thomas is  precisely that he was successful in keeping that work in ideological line.  The problem with Kipling’s work is the same as the problem with Socialist Realism.   Even when the sentiment is true enough, the exposition is not just wrong, but false.

Note that I haven’t said anything about the content of Kipling’s ideas.  Some of that content is remarkably insightful.  Think of The Gods of the Copybook Headings.  It’s still a remarkably bad poem, as a poem, although maybe not so bad a poem as If.  In neither case is the lack of quality a matter of what Kipling is saying. 

Some readers like Kipling–and want him declared “high art”–for the same reason that some readers like Socialist Realism and want it declared high art:  because they like what the writer says and want that point of view validated by the culture at large.  And it’s certainly true that Kipling, like Lloyd C. Douglas, say, or Edward Bellamy, leaves no space in which confusion can grow.   You know what they’re all thinking.  You know what side they’re on.   You never find yourself–as you do with  Milton, in Paradise Lost–wondering if the writer himself knew what side he was on.  If every writer wrote like Kipling, we would have no Bad Readers, because everything would be entirely clear, all the time.

i like much of what Kipling says.  I don’t much like how he says it. 

And great literature, like all great art, arises organically from the artist’s engagement with the world.  It is not dictated by his political opinions, no matter what they are. 

Which explains why Wilfred Owen was no better a poet than Kipling, in spite of the fact that they would probably disagreed on just about everything political.

Written by janeh

October 17th, 2008 at 5:27 am

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2 Responses to 'WIM 6: The Kipling Problem'

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  1. Indeed the author must be concerned with the real world, and his art must reflect it. In fact, this passage from another writer, in which a character contrasts his knowledge of the real world with commercial caricature would seem to be on point:

    Dick dragged forward a canvas laid face to the wall. ‘Here’s a sample of
    real Art. It’s going to be a facsimile reproduction for a weekly. I called it
    “His Last Shot.” It’s worked up from the little water-colour I made
    outside El Maghrib. Well, I lured my model, a beautiful rifleman, up
    here with drink; I drored him, and I redrored him, and I redrored him,
    and I made him a flushed, dishevelled, bedevilled scallawag, with his
    helmet at the back of his head, and the living fear of death in his eye, and
    the blood oozing out of a cut over his ankle-bone. He wasn’t pretty, but
    he was all soldier and very much man.’

    ‘Once more, modest child!’

    Dick laughed. ‘Well, it’s only to you I’m talking. I did him just as well as
    I knew how, making allowance for the slickness of oils. Then the
    art-manager of that abandoned paper said that his subscribers wouldn’t
    like it. It was brutal and coarse and violent,–man being naturally gentle
    when he’s fighting for his life. They wanted something more restful, with
    a little more colour. I could have said a good deal, but you might as well
    talk to a sheep as an art-manager. I took my “Last Shot” back. Behold
    the result! I put him into a lovely red coat without a speck on it. That is
    Art. I polished his boots,–observe the high light on the toe. That is Art. I
    cleaned his rifle,–rifles are always clean on service,–because that is Art.

    I pipeclayed his helmet,–pipeclay is always used on active service, and is
    indispensable to Art. I shaved his chin, I washed his hands, and gave him
    an air of fatted peace. Result, military tailor’s pattern-plate. Price, thank
    Heaven, twice as much as for the first sketch, which was moderately

    Of course, the passage is from Kipling (THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, Chapter IV.) So it would appear that Kipling was aware of the problem.

    I should have said that the author of “The Post that Fitted” “A Code of Morals” and “Griffen’s Debt” was not unaware that moral qualities come mixed in men. For those without a Kipling’s COMPLETE VERSE handy, the young man in “Post” woos the daughter of an influential man to gain employment, then fakes epilepsy to break the engagement. General Bangs of “Morals” pursues married women in their husbands’ absence, but never takes action against young Jones, who inadvertently broadcasts this fact by heliograph, and Griffen is a drunken dissolute scoundrel who turns out to have something more in him as well. Three narrative poems from almost the last narrative poet: they can be matched easily enough in his adult prose, but the verse was ready to hand.

    All art is selection and omission, as Kipling knew well enough. Perhaps he and some of his critics see the world as having different levels of ambiguity?

    Oh, and that pesky business of the physically brave man—even a hero–who is also a racist bigot? Read “The Mutiny of the Mavericks” and get back to me.


    17 Oct 08 at 11:17 pm

  2. (The other was per request. This was the one that kept me up at night.)

    If you postulate that didactic poetry is bad poetry, than Kipling must be a bad poet. If you believe that poetry is SUPPOSED to be didactic—that’s what the rhyme and meter are for; to help you remember something exactly—then different standards apply. There’s no point in arguing over a postulate, but I would like to point out that that’s what it is. (And yes, I know that my way makes Joe Hill a poet and discards e. e. cummings. I’m shooting for rhyme and meter, not ideological conformity.) For myself, I do not see that the author of “Recessional” and “Hymn of Breaking Strain” need yield place to any poet of his language.

    As a prose writer, I should have said Kipling’s adult prose depicted a much more plausible world—and more realistic people—than, say, Raymond Chandler, who never seems to be criticized in quite the same way. I should also have said that Dick Heldar of THE LIGHT THAT FAILED was as ambiguous a character as a reader might wish for, and Peachie Carnahan and Daniel Dravot (“The Man Who Would Be King”) plausible enough, as are in their way Mulvaney, Learoyd and Ortheris. (“On Greenbow Hill” would be the starting point.)

    I have books which are entertainment pure and simple—my Edgar Rice Buroughs Barsoom novels, and the complete Edward E. Smith “Lensman” series–and polemics as well. My touchstone for more serious work is that when reread after an interval of some years, the story has changed. Kipling’s adult prose passes that test quite handily.

    And I’ve generated pages on the purpose of literature and the nature of realism I’ll save until the topics come up again.


    18 Oct 08 at 2:34 am

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