The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Rudyard Kipling’, by George Orwell

On the essays shelf:

A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell

“I woshipped Kipling at 13, loathed him at 17, enjoyed him at 20, despised him at 25, and now again rather admire him.”
– George Orwell, 1936

I think a lot of people go through such a journey with Kipling. He is representative of some pretty ugly realities, which cannot be denied, and yet his work also has such staying-power. He’s fun. I still have fun reading Kipling. His poems and stories clamor with voices and accents and humor and observations. The fact that he was a shill for empire (in its dying days) makes him more interesting and worthy of study. To dismiss Kipling as “incorrect” in his attitudes is to cut yourself off from the great pleasure there is in his work. I go into my feelings about that here in a post I wrote for Kipling’s birthday. One of my least favorite tendencies in our politically correct universe is to retro-actively judge people who do not line up with our precious 20th/21st century attitudes. This is why Huckleberry Finn, a great American novel filled with a healing vision of a personal egalitarian relationship between a white and a black man, finds itself on the chopping block, because it doesn’t pass muster with how we think it’s appropriate to talk now. It just seems unnecessarily narrow an attitude. Also, you learn a lot about life and politics from reading Kipling. You want to hear about empire from a ground-level propagandist perspective? He’s your guy.

Also, there are lines that just stick in the mind.

To quote my cousin Mike, in his wonderful essay, “Things You Already Know”:

On my desk I have St. Francis’s Prayer for Peace and next to it is a card from my grandmother that has Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Have I memorized them both? No. Should I? Yes. Why? Because.

My grandmother loved that poem.

To refresh your minds:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

A humorous sidenote: when we were in the planning phases for our huge O’Malley Family Jamboree/Weekend in the Mountains, Mike sent out an email letting us know about the accommodations and what we should bring/not bring. One of the line items read as follows:

We have towels and hotelesque soap. Shampoo and products of all other kinds should be brought in. If you use a hair dryer, bring your own. Anyone who is not reading up to this point and asks for a hair dryer will be asked to memorize Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and recite it Sunday Morning.

Rudyard Kipling travels far.

Orwell has a lot to say about Kipling, much of it critical. That element of Kipling can’t be ignored, obviously. You can’t wish it away, his racism, his imperialism. It’s a part of who he was, a part of the world he lived in, the world he propped up and adored. But, as my friend Farran (aka Self-Styled Siren) remarked on Twitter: Orwell also completely understands the pleasure of Kipling. That pleasure is visceral. His poems are perfect rhythmically, they beg to be read aloud. They are rousing and inspirational, often, and other times hilarious portraits of ridiculous individuals. Kipling is also (obviously) great writing about animals. His animal stories captivated me as a kid.

So onto an excerpt from Orwell’s essay (1942) about Kipling. Orwell does not mince words when it comes to his feelings on the “sham” of the middle-class Left.

A Collection of Essays, ‘Rudyard Kipling’, by George Orwell

Much of Kipling’s phraseology is taken from the Bible, and no doubt in the second stanza he had in mind the text from Psalm CXXVII: ‘Except the lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ It is not a text that makes much impression on the post-Hitler mind. No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in. Kipling’s outlook is prefascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and the secret police, or their psychological results.

But in saying this, does not one unsay what I said above about Kipling’s jingoism and brutality? No, one is merely saying that the nineteenth-century imperialist outlook and the modern gangster outlook are two different things. Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902. The Great War and its aftermath embittered him, but he shows little sign of having learned anything from any event later than the Boer War. He was the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase (even more than his poems, his solitary novel, The Light that Failed, gives you the atmosphere of that time) and also the unofficial historian of the British Army, the old mercenary army which began to change its shape in 1914. All his confidence, his bouncing vulgar vitality, sprang out of limitations which no Fascist or near-Fascist shares.

Kipling spent the later part of his life in sulking, and no doubt it was political disappointment rather than literary vanity that account for this. Somehow history had not gone according to plan. After the greatest victory she had ever known, Britain was a lesser world power than before, and Kipling was quite acute enough to see this. The virtue had gone out of the classes he idealized, the young were hedonistic or disaffected, the desire to paint the map red had evaporated. He could not understand what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion. It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed ‘natives’, and then you establish ‘the Law’, which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese. The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing. Both attitudes have their advantages, but Kipling was never able to move forward from one into the other. His outlook, allowing for the fact that after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who despises the ‘box-wallah’ and often lives a lifetime without realizing that the ‘box-wallah’ calls the tune.

But because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

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