The Pleasures (and pain) of Imperialism

Rudyard Kipling was undoubtedly an imperialist and a proud one at that. But was he racist? The debate rages on, in part because racism turns out to be a lot like obscenity – at its margins, it defies definition yet it must be grappled with whenever perceived. Has Kipling’s reputation been weighed down by anachronistic expectations? His more progressive works may not be able to “unwrite” other reactionary prose, but should the one be entirely eclipsed by the other? (In an age when a career can be tarnished if not ruined by one careless ‘tweet’, the question begs consideration.)

As a young man in India, Kipling’s “membership of a masonic lodge enabled him to meet men of different religions on an equal footing: his ‘brethren’ there included members of the Islamic, Sikh, Christian and Jewish religions,” David Gilmour notes in his biography of Kipling. (He comments, in a footnote, that it is precisely this spirit of equality and social mixing that drew Kipling to Freemasonry even though he was never a very active member.)

In a thoughtful 2000 essay for the New Criterion, John Derbyshire points to the care Kipling took while serving on the Commonwealth (then Imperial) War Graves Commission to ensure that “the sensibilities of Hindus and Muslims were respected” and argues that Kipling’s sentiments were more paternalistic than bigoted: “There is no doubt that Kipling looked down on the colored races, but ‘racism’ is not the proper word for his attitude. He did not think them biologically inferior, only incapable of self-government at the time he found them.”

At the same time, it’s clear that the two-sided man will (must?), ultimately, be made to add up to one:

The fact of Kipling’s name still being known to the general educated public today rests on two…props. In the first place he was representative of a cast of mind which later generations came to deplore. In the second place he was a great poet. The first is, to a large degree, consequent on the second, for it was through his verse that Kipling’s opinions became widely and generally known.

Midcentury intellectuals seeking to disparage Kipling did not quote “Kim” or “The Jungle Books”; they whacked you over the head with ‘the white man’s burden’ and ‘lesser breeds without the law’. Kipling’s fame, and his infamy too, rests above all on his verse. This is a tribute, and a back-handed one, to the power of that verse.

Kipling’s studied attention to the plight of the common soldier has been overshadowed by his perceived jingoism, a charge that Derbyshire also tackles in his essay:

Kipling’s entire view of the military experience, as lived by common soldiers, can be seen laid out for inspection (so to speak) in “The Young British Soldier.” Here it is, as it undoubtedly was: cholera and foul liquor, sunstroke and the faithless wife, terror under fire and the horrible, utterly inglorious end.

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains …”

Hardly a recruiting poster.

Kipling penned this particular verse in 1895, but he wrote more bluntly patriotic verse later in his career in the lead up to World War I (and paid the price for it).

The scholar and literary critic Edward W. Said analyzed Kim in an essay (titled The Pleasures of Imperialism) included in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. He describes Kim as a “remarkable, complex novel,” that illuminates history even as it represents the limited viewpoint of its author who was a “historical being as well as a major artist.”

More than 100 years later, a British soldier fighting in Afghanistan found the 1895 verse so relevant to his own experience that he adapted them and created the poem,Afghanistan (with apologies to Kipling), an effort that suggests Kipling himself, for better or worse, still speaks to us.

Images: Rudyard Kipling (left) and Edward W. Said


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