Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kipling Revisited

George Orwell on Rudyard Kipling:

And yet the ‘Fascist’ charge has to be answered, because the first clue to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that he was not a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays. An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from ‘Recessional’, ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’. This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German...

...No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in. Kipling’s outlook is prefascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and the secret police, or their psychological results.

With that said, the following poem appears less a parody of Kipling that a fair paraphrase of his views for the 2000s. The best (i.e., least timely) stanzas are:

Take up the Wrong Man’s burden—
Bear up under the curse
Of recognizing danger
And having made it worse.
Don’t let a guilty conscience,
Or pesky truths or facts,
Persuade ye of the error
Of misplaced counter-attacks.

(From The Yankee Pot Roast, via Crooked Timber.)