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Kipling's Pet Panic

SOMEWHERE IN THE works of Mr. Rudyard Kipling—I think it is in The Light That Failed—there is a passage which tells how, for every man alive, however brave he be, the world holds one terror that can beat his spirit to its knees. To one man it may be the dark, shining, swaying face of deep waters; to another it may be the flash of cold steel; and a third the darkness may turn to a child. Mr. Rudyard Kipling also is not without his own pet panic. He is afraid of white men and the ways of white men. He is afraid of them to the point when control breaks down and the lips are parted by the scream of an ancestral voice that has nothing to do with the civilized self. And this fear makes an ugly and uncharacteristic thing of his new book Letters of Travel.

It begins, tantalizingly enough, with a series of letters describing the United States and Japan which were written by the authentic Kipling who was young. He it is indeed who tells us how the Japanese baby played in the fishing-boat, and how at Kamakura one may see “the ancient, orderly gardens with their clipped trees, shorn turf, and silent ponds smoking in the mist that the hot sun soaks up after rain, and the green bronze image of the Teacher of the Law wavering there as it half seems through incense clouds.” It is the saddest thing in all literature—no early death can match its tragedy, for there there is no willful abrogation of the spirit’s own high quality—that this man who was a genius because he was younger than anybody else who ever lived and had beyond the lot of ordinary men youth’s interested eyes and habit of forcible exclamation at the world’s wonders, should abandon himself to the desire to be old; that he should hunger and thirst after senility, with its testiness and gouty prejudice and drawing down of the corner of its mouth at the way life goes, as if it were righteousness; and that his prayer should be completely granted.

In the larger part of this book, which was written after the onset of this voluntary old age, there is nothing to disguise the extent to which he is driven by this crazy fear. When he visited Canada in 1907 he may have taken with him the same pair of eyes that he took to Japan in 1892, but he let them see very little. The Great Lakes they saw, and that jade green lake high up in the Rockies which colored its reflections to its own tint and magically imaged pale green snows. But for the rest he was too busy with what white men have brought into the country of the organization which is characteristic of them. The Western world has not, in spite of the efforts of many strong men of the type approved by Mr. Kipling, been wholly unaffected by the spreading of that “moral rot” which began in Judaea two thousand years ago. That gospel of “softness” has left its mark in a general respect for individual freedom. It has to be so. There is no man so unworthy that he deserves to be a slave, for all men have immortal souls. There is no man so worthy that he can be trusted to own slaves, for all men are miserable sinners. The recognition of those hard facts—the ruins of the empire that depended on a slave-class show how hard they are – has impelled the Western world to the invention of certain social devices designed toward the suppression of slavery in any form. They are clumsy enough, but no one complains of the clumsiness of piles built hastily under the buckling structure. No one but Mr. Kipling. He weeps and will not be consoled because the common men of Canada are so willfully different from the seething millions, hardly named, of the Indian proletariat, forever sweating in the fields and factories, deterred from any hateful movement towards prosperity and the attainment of individual freedom by perpetual dependence on the moneylender and the assaults of famine and plague. He rages at Canadian labor because it will not hand itself over unorganized to these Canadian capitalists of which we have had surprising experience in this country; apparently feeling, in his enthusiasm for Eastern institutions, that the next best thing toa dusky potentate is a shady one.

Now, this is not merely the consequence of strong political convictions, though Mr. Kipling is a good political hater. He can Minor Prophet with the best of them, though that is a bad job of which no one can make the best. It is the contrary nature of jeremiads that if you let them go on too long they turn into comic songs, and Mr. Kipling has not succeeded in breeding a stock that is immunefrom this failing. He gives a description of the Liberal government in 1907, which, taken as curry rather than as a considered political judgment, is not so bad. But he goes on: “…The isolation of the unfit in one political part has thrown up the extremists in what the Babu called ‘all their naked cui bono.’ These last are after satisfying the two chief desires of primitive man by the very latest gadgets in scientific legislation. But how to get free food, and free—shall we say—love? within the four corners of an Act of Parliament without giving the game away too grossly worries them a little.” Consider this account of the activities of the Liberal government in die light of the personality of the late Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman … But there is more in Mr. Kipling’s abuse of democracy than the mere determination of the party man to scream as loudly as he can. It is a thing beloved of white men, and dreadful things happen in the finite man's world. Did you know that in 1907 the English working-class lived under a reign of terror administered by persons vaguely described as “the gentlemen who propose to be kept by their neighbors”? It was pretty bad for something completely invisible. “Tea-and-sugar borrowing friends have told them jocularly, or with threats, of a good time coming when things will go hard with the uncheerful giver … It is one of their preoccupations to send their children to Sunday School by roundabout roads, lest they should pick up abominable blasphemies…When the tills of the little shops are raided, or when the family ne’er-do-well levies on his women with more than usual brutality, they know, because they suffer, what principles are being put into practice…” Is it not amazing? But even the sanest people babble madness when they are greatly afraid.

Another book, a very different book, gives one the due to thesource of the terror that dominates Mr. Kipling to the frustration of his genius. It is D’Annunzio’s Tales of My Native Town. Never were there such people as the Italian peasant described in these stories. Past all belief is the corruption of their bodies, the leprosy of their conduct, for such a population would long ago have exterminated itself by its own vices. It occurs to one as one reads, “But these are the nightmares of a frightened child. While he was a baby in the country his nurse showed him some deformed beggar, and took him into some hovel where he saw horrible things.” He left the countryside and grew up and became that queer, scattered thing, a cosmopolitan. His present attempt to add to Italy a town that is not Italian is only the latest manifestation of a longstanding desire to scramble Europe as one scrambles an egg. Before the war it took the form of going to Paris and writing plays in bad French and giving the principal part to a Russian actress with a Yiddish accent. It is impossible to say which of these spectacles can have given the angels most pain. And when he came to write of the peasant life with which he had never merged himself in his adult years his childish terror at those ugly sights, not having been cancelled by subsequent experiences of beauty in the same place, rose up and dominated him. Mr. Kipling is surely in a similar case. At the beginning of the letters describing his voyage to Egypt he speaks of “the friendly whiff from the lascars’ galley … But for the hesitation of a few impertinent years I should have gone without hesitation to share their rice. Serangs used to be very kind to little white children below the age of caste.” There we have it. One can imagine a little English boy, many years ago, coming out of a world of warm weather and kind brown people with heaps of time to play with children, and entering into another and unblest section of the earth where the sun was blenched and people were ugly and most terribly busy: and forming then and there a hatred of white men and their ways which would persist, against all the workings of reason, till the end of life. It is a pity. A great pity for Mr. Kipling, and something of a pity for us also. There are various pleasures, the existence of which we learn from Mr. Kipling himself, which are denied to us by our elders’ rejection of the gentleness which is the wisdom of the Christian West. “There was a Sikh in a saw-mill” (in Vancouver) “had been driver in a mountain battery at home. Himself he was from Amritsar. (Oh, pleasant as cold water in a thirsty land is the sound of a familiar name in a far country.)” Not to us now, even in the farthest country, will the name of Amritsar be pleasant as cold water in a thirsty land No, not at all.