Tuesday, December 18, 2018

'Only an Idiot Will Take a Critic's Word'

Breathlessly, a reader writes to tell me Rudyard Kipling was a racist and that no enlightened person would be caught reading him. I almost envy the simplicity of his understanding. I refer him to Guy Davenport’s comment in “Journal I” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996): “What got Kipling a bad name among Liberals is his intelligence, humor, and affection. These they cannot tolerate in anybody.” I suspect my reader could not have reached the ridiculousness of his conclusion on his own. Few of us could. He most likely learned it from a teacher.  In another essay from the same collection, “On Reading,” Davenport elaborates:

“I tell bright students, in conference, how I had to find certain authors on my own who were ruined for me by bad teachers or inept critics. Scott, Kipling, Wells will do to illustrate that only an idiot will take a critic’s word without seeing for oneself.”

Politics will always undo good sense and pleasure. A reader who fails to enjoy Kim or “Mary Postgate” will find little in life to enjoy.

6 comments:

Pierre said...

Kim is brilliant, that's true. But the criticism from the supposed Liberal wasn't against him being funny or intelligent. It was charging him with being racist. Which he was. Not only was he racist but racist ideology is blatant in his work. True criticism is acknowledging that. Also...not sure if I would position racism as a mere political choice.

rgfrim said...

This reader thanks you for your exaltation of Kipling. Those who stamp him a racist have never read the tender and affection portraits of Punjabi, Sikh, Gujarati and Bengali people in his stories dealing with the region. He lived and worked in India longer than most colonists. And he was not uncritical of the British presence. He highlighted the land and its people more than any simple travel writer.

Tim Guirl said...

I am one of the lucky ones who never had a book or writer ruined for me by another. Another reason to be cheerful.

Faze said...

It was Kipling's short stories set in England that won me over. The man was brilliant and complex.

Robert Chandler said...

I see Kipling as one of the very greatest of English poets, and I have just been writing a short article about him for Granta. Here are a few lines from it:
"Much about Kipling is paradoxical. He has been called – not without reason – a racist. Yet his novel Kim shows a profound love of India and a deeply sympathetic understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. And here is one of Kipling’s two-liners from “Epitaphs of the War (1914-18):

HINDU SEPOY IN FRANCE

This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
We pray them to reward him for his bravery in ours.

Much has been written recently about our shameful failure to remember the many Indian soldiers who killed in the First World War. Kipling knew better. But how many of us would have imagined him declaring his readiness to pray to Hindu gods on behalf of an Indian soldier for whose courage he clearly felt grateful?"

Thank you for writing about Kipling, Patrick!

Bill Peschel said...

Unfortunately, a lot of our beliefs are filtered solely through someone else's opinions, which may not only be wrong, but deliberately so.

Also, a writer wrong or ignorant in some areas should not make them bannable, especially if their errors lie outside their work. Should we not read "Hunger" because the writer supported Nazism? Should we not read Alice Walker because she is an anti-Semite? Should we not read Hemingway because he was a jerk to his family?

That's silly. Not reading Kipling means denying yourself some wonderful poetry and trenchant observations.

"Only an Idiot Will Take a Critic's Word" is a bit harsh, considering how much of our opinions are based on second-hand judgments. Better to add that, before you choose the hill you're willing to dig on, conduct your own reconnaissance first.