Tuesday, November 24, 2009

`Intelligence, Humor, and Affection'

A reader in England, knowing my fondness for the essays and stories of V.S. Pritchett, wrote some time ago asking for help locating a travel essay Pritchett published in a magazine, The Hindu, in 1961. He and his family lived for many years in India and his sister found a portion of Pritchett’s article, “A Glimpse of India,” among their mother’s possessions. The rest of the clipping had vanished. I checked the books and libraries I have access to but that was no help at all. One becomes spoiled by the ease of access to almost everything afforded by the internet, so I felt nearly as disappointed as my reader. On Monday this note arrived:

“I thought you might like to know that a correspondent (in New Zealand!), who saw my enquiry posted on the India-British-Raj list, has managed to provide most of the text of the essay by finding it in a Google digitised book (and extracting text from a number of Google's 'snippet views'). As well as also appearing in Harper's Bazaar (March 1961), the essay was anthologized in Essays Today: No. 5. Ed. Richard. M. Ludwig. (N. Y.: Harcourt Brace, 1962).”

This global anecdote, rooted in bookish love, family devotion and perhaps post-colonial solidarity, would have sounded like science fiction a few years ago. Such miracles have grown commonplace. It’s reassuring to know technology can perform tasks as humble as solving minor maternal mysteries, and connecting readers and writers separated in time and space. Here’s a Dickensian/Kiplingesque sample from “A Glimpse of India”:

“A long burning red band of light seared my eyes. It was the vermilion band of sunrise in mid-air over the brown floor of India. From that moment, I time my total entry into unreality that was to last fourteen days. `So this is your first visit to India. What is your impression please?’

“One hears the brisk Welsh twitter of Indian English. Peter Sellers, the Kipling of `The Man Who Would Be King,’ boys' books about Orientals and New Yorker jokes about turbans, first of all. E.M. Forster comes later, when someone says: You must remember our self-pity. Asia and Europe are ridiculous in each other's eyes. Which are more farcical - my trousers or his bare arms or legs sticking out of a whirl of bedclothes?”

One of Pritchett’s (and Kipling’s) gifts was for vivid, colorful, comic distillation. A magazine travel piece for Pritchett was easy money; for his reader’s, a delight. Alex also passed along a story from Saturday’s Daily Telegraph about attacks (read: displays of moral exhibitionism) on Neil Gaiman after he expressed admiration for Kipling’s work. Gaiman, a writer unknown to me, is quoted as saying:

“I started getting – not exactly hate mail – it was more disappointed mail.

“People would tell me, `How could a writer like you – that we like – like a fascist, an imperialist dog?’”

Alex also scanned for me a letter to the editor in the Telegraph from David Horsley of Moldgreen, West Yorkshire, who responds to the Gaiman donnybrook:

“Kipling’s greatest character, Kim, is the orphaned, mixed-race son of an Irishman who had died in the British Army, and lives as a vagrant in colonial India.

“To compare a late 19th-century British imperialist with the gangsters of 20th-century European fascism is to redefine ignorance.”

Guy Davenport considered Kipling the premier English short story writer. In “Journal I,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996), he writes:

“What got Kipling a bad name among liberals is his intelligence, humor, and affection. These they cannot tolerate in anybody.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I prefer to think about how Davenport marveled at Kipling’s ability to “insert the marvelous into the everyday” than why so-called liberals disdain him, but here goes:

As John Berger, who left the place, said, “London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn't changed since the time of Dickens.” The code in such a place is a certain fight or be killed “manliness” that is placed at the highest of the virtues. This trait, when exported in the peculiar British way and used to trespass upon others lands, can come off, in Kipling as in others, as an unselfconscious defense of home and pride, the battle a heroic struggle against the dark nature of man instead of the inevitable consequences of one's own actions. This coward posing as bully hypocrisy rankles liberals in the same way the Kennedy and Roosevelt families being rich riles conservatives. But liberals who laugh off Kipling as the literary fall guy for the decline of the British empire miss the tolerance that only a late Victorian like Kipling can muster:

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
‘Till Earth and Sky stand present at God’s great Judgment Seat.
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

Indeed, the man comes off like Walt Whitman at times:

“And Amorite or Eremite or General Averagee,
The people, Lord, Thy people, are good enough for me!
And when they bore me over-much, I will not shake mine ears;
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears.
And when they labor to impress, I will not doubt nor scoff;
Since I myself have done no less and—sometimes pulled it off.
Yea, as we are and we are not and we pretend to be,
Thy people, Lord, Thy people are good enough for me!”

I like what V.S. Pritchett said about Kipling: “Like many of the colonizing kind he became more gaudily English than the English in the sense that Englishness became an extra conscience and a personal cause. That cause was Kim's, whose passionate cry 'Who is Kim?' indicates Kipling's similar search for an identity within a caste.”

For this reason, I think that Kipling will appeal to future generations, who will understand what is now seen as a conquest with a heart of violence is actually part of a larger and continuous diaspora.

I also like what George Orwell had to say about Kipling:

“He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you *do*?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions… This warped his political judgment, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.”

As an encore I’ll leave Orwell, an expert on the use of words if ever there was one, on stage for his take on Fascism:

"It would seem that, as used, the word 'Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless…I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else."