I tend never to forget the fact that I speak and write English, and I recognize in my fondness for the language by the shapes which it forms in my thinking, but also in my regard for the British and their way with the world and the word. I wonder if they were not an Empire would Henry V not be so stirring and I must conclude it would. But the matter of Rudyard Kipling is a bit more difficult, for he is the inevitable sort of 'English' one only gets from immersion in the business of Empire. So he is therefore a controversial figure amongst those who were instructing me towards the ideals of equality. I know looking at them today one needs to challenge the imagination but the British once ruled this planet, and the consensus of my elders say they did a rather cruel, if efficient job of it.
I'm fully prepared to take the wonders of my native tongue at face value, which I thought I was going to be doing when picking up a volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley over the weekend. Instead, I found an intense mix of oceanic metaphors, polemic castigations of Kings and countries, and the word 'Poesy'. But in that second measure of Shelley, I found nothing so blistering as this:
I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
I'm going to have to come up with a new exclamation to describe such a powerful image as this. Speaking of which, I'm sure you have noticed on television programs broadcasting the world's most incredible destructions caught on (tape/film/digital media) how we have, in the face of tragedy been reduced to the ubiquitous Oh My God and perfunctorily bleeped Holy Shit. Is nothing so tragic any more, or is that merely all these train wrecks and explosions deserve?
And yet not even David Cronenberg has manage to be so succinctly descriptive of evil as Shelley in those two stanzas in any scene of his filmic horror. I am becoming more convinced that we, some of us, lack even the ability to see the simply awful for all our investments in entertaining grotesqueries. We're stuck on the Arendt phrase and pass over evil as merely banal. Yet in Shelley there strides Murder, capitalized.
So we live in times, insufficient to the task of appropriately guaging the measure of man, and it is in that mismeasure that the shadows surrounding the colonial cheek of Rudyard Kipling have been handed down to me. I should not complain so much about the lack of a noble arena and edifying air to breathe. One has to shut up and read the books after all. I hadn't; my bad. But now that is rectified. I am quite happy to ignore the implications of Kipling's N-bomb, which is supposed to be so emblematic of all that was wrong with the colonial world and the British. There is no colonial world, there is only our world such as it is, and one of the delights of it is that it has preserved Kipling's way with words.
Such Tortoises and Hares and Boys and Wolves and Thumbelinas and Hansels and witches wicked East and West fall short, far short I think of what we might have gotten were Kipling's stories told just so. And years we wasted on one unwanted boy whose magicks never traveled beyond a muggled world might have been spent in consideration of more inspiring things. But there are traps deeply laid in the matters of British mind and the place of its gentlemen and soldiers in the recent history of the world. I cannot say that I'm immune to their springing - so how exactly should one read the tale of the Ethiopian who changed his skin and gave the Leopard means to change to spots? No better explanation than the eminently contemporary Wikipedia entry:
Rudyard Kipling's Just So Story "How the Leopard Got His Spots" tells of how an Ethiopian and a leopard, who are originally sand-colored, decide to paint themselves for camouflage when hunting in dense tropical forest. The story originally included a scene in which the leopard, who now has spots, asks the Ethiopian why he doesn't want spots as well. The Ethiopian's original reply, "Oh, plain black's best for a nigger", has been changed in many modern editions to read, "Oh, plain black's best for me."
It gave me a start when I heard it at first, in the audiobook I was hearing.
I drove over railroad tracks just at the moment, but which had affected my steering?
I smiled at the moment of shock then I laughed calming my own mental waters.
Glad that I could take it not as an affront, but still keep it away from my daughters.
And that was the last that I thought about the matter and kept on listening, growing ever more satisfied with the quality of each successive tale, until at last the tale of the The Cat and then of the Butterfly revealed themselves to be purest genius.
Like all frat rats of my generation, I was pledged to recite Rudyard's If from memory, and was rather glad I could at last. And I recognize it called out by bits in the course of my reading and writing and speaking of larger matters. I daresay nothing of Jungle Book survives as much of a lesson to me except for the Disney songs, most annoyingly sweet Bare Necessities. And in passing through the brief and expected harangue of Pops', there's something about Gunga Din. But for the most part in this and most of my discoveries I am on my own in finding, interpreting and integrating literature and the reputations of the authors.
I wouldn't know any place but here to get a word in edgewise about my impressions of authors and their works but I am now completely fond of Kipling. At the center of Kipling is a question of standing import to my current investigations. What is the difference between Imperialism and Evangelism? There isn't much really. They are merely aggressive, convinced forms of "Hey, I've got an idea you should try." Kipling is a piper alongside the troops of Great Britain's ideas. I can't imagine the world was ever discovered or built up differently, because as in the evasion of Kipling we find that many people study at being small minded and offendable. Such people need conviction, I think. Then again there are certainly enough of us who have conviction.
The reader of the audiobook reminds us of a time when the English language was closer to something it oftimes seems unable to convey, which is conviction and respect, even authority. He rolls certain Rs in words for emphasis. It used to be a more common practice to do so, even here in America. Did Dorothy Parker roll the occasional R? I can't imagine that she didn't in the course of her discourse. And so I am remembering Kipling, and Poesy and the discipline and song of adventures into the world, thankful I have been reminded of my great fortune to inherit the language of Liberty.