Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Having Kippled

Just a short post in some vain attempt to exorcise Kipling from my mind. I know that there are good reasons why this author has a hold on me (memorable phrases, vivid diction, intense narrative, and oh yes, all that time in India and all of that other time wondering about Afghanistan), but I don't know why I can't shake him. (I think that this is related to my fascination with Jean de Meun: language whose meaning relies upon the reader's tone and setting (subjectivity) as much as upon its own words, and therefore language that provokes wildly opposing interpretations). I was up at 4:30 this morning thinking about his short story "The Man Who Would be King" which I'd read before seeing the (incredible, wonderful) film by John Huston from 1975 with friends last night - the story is from 1888, shortly before the people in the Hindu Kush of which he writes about were "explored" by George Scott Robertson in 1890-91 and converted to Islam by the Emir of Afghanistan in 1896, and writhes within the recollections of Peachey Carnehan as he tells of his and Daniel Dravot's adventures in Kafiristan to a stunned narrator, a journalist who must have walked in Kipling's shoes. Kipling is so difficult because interpretations (and emotions, people tend to feel strongly about Kipling) oscillate wildly between a triumphalist strain of colonialism (in which the colonized's wildness brings on the colonizer's own) and an unnerving critique of colonialism's operations on the mind (Kipling's characters tend to unravel when they start believing the ideology of the colonialism that, in saner situations, is but a pretense for the exploitation of the colonized - which is itself nuts, of course). When Orwell dubbed him the "prophet of imperialism" was that to spell out its triumph or its doom? I sit uncomfortably in the latter camp, unable to read anything but dripping, sometimes caustic but then world-weary, irony in Kipling's slightest phrase. Tone is everything with Kipling: how do you read "The White Man's Burden" from 1899? Does knowing that it was written in response to / as a critique of the American invasion of the Phillipines help determine the tone? Read it earnestly, with the fervor of hope and change. Read it ironically, with the world-weariness of fundamental misconceptions and wrongs. Try reading "The Young British Soldier" and see how you feel about wars far away. My position (or what I think I understand about Kipling) is best taken up by a line from his poem "If-": "If you can dream, and not make dreams your master." Dravot's dreams of being a king, indeed the descendant of Alexander the Great himself, master him and all falls away into madness and it's poor Peachey who is cruelly left to live to tell the tale. But it was actually Billy Fish who had me up this morning. He is full of Homi Bhabha's "sly civility" (which I understand best through Jeffrey Cohen's use of the term in considering the grass-eating Welshman in his Postcolonial Middle Ages essay), a Kafiristani who had served in the British Army and translates for Danny and Peachey throughout their exploits to become king. But then his end is so unnerving: he refuses to mount a horse to escape, as Danny and Peachey are attempting to do, because, you see, he was a foot soldier in her Majesty's army - and rushes into the crowd of vengeful Kafiristanis with the joy, almost glee, of someone fulfilling a lifelong promise: that he would be true to the impossible identity put upon him by the British Army, thereby somehow making it true and not impossible after all? The mind reels.

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