The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (II)

The second installment of the excessively long and rambling review…

In any event, it is important not to confuse Kipling’s ironic non-condemnation for tacit acceptance of either the caste system or the behaviour that enforces it. On the contrary: story after story lambasts the English for their hypocrisy and vanity, their petty dedication to fulfilling all the demands of ‘decent society’. These themes become explicit in “Only a Subaltern”, a rather mawkish story showing how the ideal soldier (yet at the same time a fool as a man) is one who treats everyone as human, ignoring caste distinctions (I use the word ‘caste’ because ‘class’ doesn’t seem adequate to describe the rigidity and complexity of the Hegelian world we see in these stories, and because Kipling appears throughout to be seeking to equate English and Indian customs), and even more so in “A Second-Rate Woman”, in which a socially inferior woman is derogated by her ‘betters’, only to prove a far more admirable and more ‘productive’ person than the useless and ignorant women who have criticised her.

Two quotes may illustrate the sort of behaviour I’m talking about here:

One woman describing the pleasure ones feels when another woman is seen wearing an unfashionable hat: “I felt almost too well content to take the trouble to despise her.”

Or a woman explaining the importance of dress in judging character: “Her dress betrays her. How can a Thing who wears her supplément under her left arm have any notion of the fitness of things – much less their folly?” – yeah, it’s a world in which those who don’t follow all the latest fashion magazines aren’t just lesser people, they’re not people at all.

What these Deodars stories succeed in is hammering home the utter moral decrepitude of the Raj, and by extension of English society ‘back home’. At times, their audacity in doing so is itself impressive, and the reader can sit back in a strange amalgammous mire of disgust and horrified awe, like watching an exceptionally polite and well-mannered pit-bull mawling a three-legged deer in the middle of a dinner party. The problem is, however, that no matter how hypocritical or vain the deer, it’s hard not to sympathise with it. Kipling’s targets are so completely vacuous that it’s really hard to cheer when they’re undermined – they make no attempt to defend themselves against their author. That sort of assault, while amusing at first, while the reader is still startled, soon becomes distasteful, unless the attacker is either extraordinarily graceful (as in Wilde, where readers indeed often are so captivated by the grace of the attack that they forget that it is an attack at all) or is able to contextualise their battle in a broader moral context. Kipling achieves neither of these saving graces. Although it is clear who he is against, it is far less clear in these stories who or what he is for, and what he perceives the difference to be – the effect is thus primarily misanthropic, rather than ideological. More troublingly, although he has his share of great lines, Kipling is here for the most part a ‘talented’ writer rather than a brilliant one – for every glimpse of something great, there’s a faux pas. Much of this becomes instantly understandable when one remembers the astonishingly young age of the author – this is a young man’s voice, almost a teenager’s voice, albeit a teenager doing an extremely good impression of a wise old man, and at times he comes on too strongly, particularly in his attempts at flippancy. Underneath the layers of, as Kipling would have called them, ‘lies’ – the lie of accepting the mannerisms he seeks to undermine, the lie of being a wise literary narrator rather than a barely-adult backwater newspaper clerk trying to impress people – there’s something off-putting puerile here; one gets the impression that while the stories may belong to an american high school circa 1990, Kipling himself would feel most at home on an internet forum, dazzling people with his borrowed erudition, out-cynicising all his playmates in his safely comfortable mockery of the class whose goodwill he depended on financially, like the teenage flame-warrior who knows all the inadequacies of the adult world while still living in his parent’s basement.

Kipling, of course, actually did know a fair amount more of the world than most internet commentators – to re-iterate, he migrated back to India and his newspaper job when he was only 16. It’s understandable, then, that he’s so certain he’s the smartest man in India, and certainly smarter than all his characters. And yet there’s that element of not taking his characters seriously as characters… and of not taking his audience sufficiently seriously as people who have most likely heard all this before and to impress whom Kipling will need more than a little flippant superiority.

And yet. Yes, there are problems in these stories, but there is promise as well. Two stories in particular stand out, and I think it’s no coincidence that they’re the stories where Kipling is least present. “A Wayside Comedy” is a beautiful little slice of hell, delicately preserved in a petri dish, the story of how six people who get on well with on well with one another are only inches away from misery. In its small setting and cast, it strips away much of the superfluous scenary of ‘British India’ and becomes simply a study in human relations. It’s impressive precisely because there is no hero and no villain – something could be said for and against each of the six characters (three men and three women). Their characters are both realistically conflicted and also realistically ambiguous. It may not be a classic of literature, but in it’s horrid little way it’s a lovely story.

That’s even more true of “The Hill of Illusion”, a really memorable piece. This is perhaps Kipling stripped back to the bare minimum, stripped back to what he is really good at: observation and a sense of dramatic potential. It’s a playlet, which means that the sum total of all the narrator’s intervention is to write ‘HE:’ or ‘SHE:’ at the beginning of each line. It’s a two-hander, one man talking to one woman, and there’s hardly anything in the way of incident. Instead, it’s just two people talking about the situation they’re in, exploring all the possibilities of their situation. Unlike the ironic prose, this feels like something that comes naturally to Kipling. There’s no affectation here: it’s a real moment, between real people, and though the details of the situation and its consequences may be of the period, it’s an ultimately timeless story of the nature of humanity – and the extent to which it can fuck things up for itself. Because this is a merciless little story – whenever the reader thinks they’ve found some comforting raft, it’s ripped apart from under them. It reminds me of nothing so much as those wonderful, horrible argument scenes from plays and films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which this marriage or that friendship dissolves in the course of scene. Like those scenes, it’s harrowing for the reader.

Following on from the six Deodars stories, we have four stories from The Phantom ‘Rickshaw (yes, Kipling is that guy, the guy who both knows that “’rickshaw” should always begin with apostrophe (because the Japanese was originally jinrikisha) and is pedantic enough to insist upon it; it’s not even as though anybody might have complained, since it was Kipling himself who popularised the word in English  – yes, Kipling uses proper apostrophes even with words that only he knew). Where Under the Deodars was social satire, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw is theoretically a collection of macabre tales. I say ‘theoretically’, however, for two reasons: first, because one of the stories isn’t really macabre except in the sense of being horrible, and second because whatevever it says on the frontispiece Kipling’s main interest here is still the inadequacy of society. All the macabre does here is give him an excuse – and it’s extremely welcome.

There are four of these stories. Two of them are a contrasting pair of ghost stories – one serious, one jocular. The third is a strange, nightmarish story (which I have a feeling may have inspired Ballard at some point iirc, though I haven’t looked it up) based on a purported (and not at all unbelievable sociologically) traditional custom in some parts of India. And the fourth is “The Man Who Would Be King”.

All four are more than worth reading. The weakest of the four, “My Very Own Ghost Story”, is largely intentionally weak, because it is slight – the ghost story genre is invoked very competently, but mostly to laught at its conventions, and the whole thing primarily feels like an excuse to get the reader to experience second-hand an aspect of the Indian experience (in this case, the decrepit, under-utilised little inns that measured out the road network through the country). “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, on the other hand, is a ghost story that plays by the rules, and as a Victorian ghost story it’s a fine example of the form. Tropes and techniques that often seem clichéd and unbelievable in lesser hands seem natural when Kipling uses them. But it’s also more than a ghost story – the ghost story may be the excuse, but underneath it’s yet another social satire, and, as always, at root it’s a matter of the relationships between men and women, and how society categorises them.

“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, on the other hand, is nothing conventional at all. It’s peculiarly modern in nature, almost a science fiction story, as the English narrator finds himself in what at first appears to be an utterly inexplicable and hopeless place, and has to puzzle out both where he is and how to escape. On the one hand, it’s the sort of story one imagines would make an author like Kipling popular – a dramatic excuse to educate us about the (possibly fictional, or at least exaggerated; possibly not) customs of one of the dark places of the Earth. But as well as being unusual, it’s also a story with hidden depths. As in “A Wayside Comedy”, Kipling takes the miniature hell he shows us as a microcosm of the world, and the insanity of those who dwell in it; at the same time, he takes the isolation of the setting as an excuse to show us the fundamental bestiality of man when deprived of civilisation. Now again, I haven’t read much Kipling, and I don’t know how racist he is in his later work; but I do wonder, reading this, whether people haven’t misunderstood him. Because if he does see the European and the Indian as fundamentally morally different, and I’m not sure that he does, I think that this story may show us why: because Kipling does not see human beings as fundamentally nice people. He’s not out to revel in the joys of human potentiality in all its diverse forms, because he thinks human potentiality is frightening and inhuman. ‘Civilisation’, and even more so civilisation in its most refined, European form, is perhaps a way, for Kipling, to neuter and domesticate humanity (perhaps the problem is not that he sees non-Europeans as lesser, but that he sees them as greater, purer, and hence more threatening, more in need of controlling?). But if Kipling is racist, this isn’t the best story to show it. Because here, all men are equal in their impotence. The vanity of the English protagonist, that leads him to think himself better the natives he finds himself trapped alongside, that leads him to insist on certain behaviours that validate his social superiority, is undermined – more than undermined, explicitly and cruelly mocked, both by the narrator and by the characters – and in particular is held up against the behaviour of a Brahmin character, Gunga Dass. The narrator, and presumably the audience of the day, look down on the Brahmin, who thinks so highly of himself but is ultimately no different from the lower-case Indians around him, but that vanity exactly parallels the behaviour of the narrator himself, and I do not think that this is unintended. Interestingly, the Brahmin shows us something we very rarely see in colonial literature – the native who not only hates the European but who is actively contemptuous of the European character as an inferior, and not because he’s ignorant of Europeans but because he knows too much. It’s one thing to see the subject populations portrayed as jealous of their rulers, or as resentful (with or without cause), but it was very rare I think for the Victorian reader to be invited to look down into the eyes of a member of the ‘child races’ and see a more knowledgeable, more intelligent man looking back with contempt and disdain, attitudes that do not merely oppose the imposed order but that deny that it exists at all. I suppose it could be said that there is something racist about Kipling that a part of his vision of hell (for this is hell in spirit, even if not literally) is that an Englishman could be pushed down so far that he is even below an Indian; but then again there is something cosmopolitan about him that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he is able to envisage such a thing at all – and of course, this is not necessarily Kipling’s hell, but merely the hell of Morrowbie Jukes. It’s important again to remember that the author and the narrator are not the same person, and while Kipling’s characters always present themselves as reliable and good, we don’t always have to take them at their word (indeed, “My Very Own Ghost Story” is something of an explosion of the idea that we should trust Kipling’s narrators). (Going back a moment: the narrator of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” is certainly racist, horribly so, even by the standards of Kipling, explicitly considering Indians not as human beings but as inanimate objects without souls… but then he’s also highly misogynistic, and we see where that gets him. Indeed, the narrator not being a very nice person is really the whole point of the story!) And it’s tempting to wonder whether this portrayal of how Indians ‘really’ see the English once the usual power dynamics are removed is perhaps autobiographical: remember, in his early years, Kipling was raised by Indians, and only presented to his English ‘family’ for meals and other ceremonial occasions. Kipling, unlike most of his characters at least in these stories, spoke Hindi [ok, technically he spoke ‘Hindustani’, I don’t know whether his dialect was closer to Urdu or to Hindi] – he’d no doubt heard some of the things that servants say when they think their employers cannot hear or understand them.

So, in “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, we’re invited to see the distinctions between the races as as façile as the distinctions between the castes; the English, indeed, are merely one more caste. And it’s worth repeating that Kipling time and again seeks to undermine English customs by analogising them to Indian behaviours: ordinary English society, it is hinted, is a baffling and vain labyrinth of superstitions and rituals no more rational or ‘civilised’ than the behaviour of the people they rule over. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of “Only a Subaltern”, where we see an English family in England happy at the news that their son has passed an exam: “and there was joy in the house of Wick where Mamma Wick and all the litte Wicks fell upon their knees and offered incense to Bobby by virtue of his achievements”. Or the ‘diagnoses’ of the doctor in “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, who is ultimately no different from a witch-doctor; or even just the system of naming we see in that story, where we are introduced to (and, by the way, what the hell sort of a start to a story is that!?) “Ricketts of Kamartha” and “Polder of Kumaon”; or later, when the (educated, articulate, and presumably English) narrator mentions his theory that Pansay died because “there was a crack in Pansay’s head and a little bit of the Dark World came through and pressed him to death”. If the English rule of India (and it should perhaps be mentioned at some point that even to talk of India and its ‘rule’ by the English is something of a misconception: India was at the time divided into a dozen semi-autonomous ‘Provinces’ ruled jointly by Westminster and local British authorities, and around 700 princely states that acknowledged British suzereinty yet maintained their own sovereignty (i.e. made and enforced their own laws independently) – many of these, particularly the smaller ones (some were only tens of square miles in area, more a personal estate than a nation) later chose to privatise their governments, with the government of a nearby Province doing the actual ruling, while some of the larger or more remote princely states were de facto independent in all but name; in addition, there were of course areas of rule by other European nations, particularly the Portuguese; British India at the time only directly ruled about half the subcontinent) was predicated on the idea of the Englishman as the rational, Enlightened man of the future, naturally more fit to rule than the backward, superstitious, ritualistic Indian men of the past, Kipling torpedoes that justification time and again.

Incidentally, the naming customs are quite interesting. Leaving aside the rather mediaeval idea of naming the ruling class men after the locations they have power over, it’s striking how taboo the personal name is in these stories. Women get away with having their own names, among friends and lovers… but men are almost entirely devoid of them, to the extent that when we actually do hear one, it seems almost obscene. Indeed, Kipling charmingly has to explain at one point why he’s used the name “Ted” when writing from a woman’s point of view: “Ted – because she called him Ted…”. It should be pointed out that she’s having sex with Ted regularly, and is in love with Ted, but even after we know these things, it still tells us something new, Kipling suggests, that she actually has the temerity to call him ‘Ted’. Indeed, the whole of the story may ultimately be about the fact that she calls him ‘Ted’. This intolerable, degrading personal touch is in a way what shatters the carefully constructed impersonal rigidity of their society; everything falls apart because a man is ‘Ted’ to somebody, where he is “Kurrell” to everybody else. If he is ‘Ted’, after all, he is a person, not merely a nexus of political, social, legal and economic duties. It feels almost dirty to hear people calling him ‘Ted’, embarrassing, as though you’re in a play and one person can’t get in character and insists on calling people by their real names. The personal in Kipling’s world is not perhaps prohibited – indeed, these stories have their roots in the personal, and often their function in displaying how the personal can never be eliminated, that the whole of society is by its own measures ‘corrupt’, riddled through by personal behaviours – but the personal is something that is to be kept private, secret, encrypted, and when it escapes or becomes visible to others, all hell breaks loose.

5 thoughts on “The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (II)

  1. Hans says:

    I think you have hit on something important here. Something that often grates me in contemporary novels (films, comics) taking place in traditional societies is their informality. I think it’s simply hard for people from our age and culture, where spontaneity and informality are seen as something good (even if they, often, are more forced and token than natural), to imagine to what degree formality, rules of politeness, and the underlining of differences of status were important and a part of everyday life even a century ago. 19th and early 20th century writers make fun of pompousness, stiltedness, and servility because they were part of the morms of daily life (and the current fashion for informality is a result of the cultural changes of which these authors were heralds and symptoms). We, now, can only comprehend with great difficulty that people a hundred years ago could be the closest of friends (or husband and wife), but still would use polite pronouns and forms when talking to each other. So when in contemporary works I see, say, a historical or faux-medieval nobleman offering the use of first names to a commoner, then this is meant to make him look a nice, easygoing person from a contemporary point of view, but it’s probably something no nobleman would even have thought of doing in that period, even if he was a nice, easygoing person.
    Well, this was somewaht tangential to your review, but perhaps one thing one needs to keep in mind is that a lot of things that look strange to you in the society decribe by Kipling would have looked quite normal to a contemporary reader. And that, of course, also is an attitude that Kipling may have wanted to tackle with his stories – but, having read some Kipling myself, although some time ago, I’m not always sure where he’s indeed caricaturing things and where we see a caricature because we cannot gauge any more what was seen as normal over a century ago.

  2. Yes, although one of the fascinating things about the book is the way it’s a window onto the past, we do need to remember that, as it were, both sides of the window are in the past…

    And indeed (as I’ll go on to say, iirc), how much of what Kipling says you take as ironic is going to be a big part of how you approach him, which is one reason I think why a lot of irony-unfriendly people hate him.

    But I’m confident it mostly is ironic. Within the stories themselves, we have three hints: a) the exaggeration and hyperbolic tone, which I admit is the weakest evidence since it’s hard to gauge how hyperbolic it would have appeared at the tiime, but even so there are places where it’s obvious, even (in the earlier stories) crude – for instance, when he says “Men are licensed to stumble; but a clever woman’s mistake is outside the regular course of Nature and Providence; since all good people know that a woman is the only infallible thing in this world, except Government Paper of the ’79 issue, bearing interest at four and a half percent”, he’s obviously not being serious, and while in itself this is a fairly juvenile remark that doesn’t reflect well on the author, it should alert us to the fact that Kipling may well be using irony in many other places too (and this is probably partly why it’s there, since it was put in the second paragraph of the first story of his colllection); b) the use in many places of a flippant, ‘witty’, comic writing style very similar to other satirists of his day and quite dissimilar to the ‘serious’ writing of his time; c) the structural evidence that unless we assume an ironic and satirical intent some of these stories are entirely pointless; and d) the plot of “A Second-Rate Woman” fairly directly demonstrates his critical intent. Plus e) his biographical details, amplified by his treatment of them in “Baa Baa Black Sheep” make the critical/ironical reading of him much more understandable than the straight reading.

    [And yes, I do think the shear amount of formality is something we always seem to find hard to really credit about the past and, yes, one reason why a lot of historical and fantasy (and SF!) books read so much like 20th century america in different clothing. It’s not even just the quantities, but the meanings! For us, formality and intimacy are direct opposites, but not for everybody. It’s hard to imagine a world where not only might Mr Smith refer to his wife to her face in the second person as Mrs Smith (tangent: I love the moment in ‘The Madness of George III’ where the king and queen in bed refer to each other as ‘Mr King’ and ‘Mrs King’…), but he then goes and talks to God Almighty using the informal pronoun! Indeed, English got to a point where for a while there God was the ony person in the world you ever addressed informally…]

  3. […] Hill of Illusion”, “A Second-Rate Woman” and “Only a Subaltern”)) Part 2 (continued discussion of the Deodars stories; discussion of “The Phantom […]

  4. rottingham says:

    Proust also mentions that when he was little, they were trapped in a kind of rigid caste system within French society. Heh, does that mean the younger generation was free already? He began writing the darn thing in 1909, I think, around twenty years after The Man Who Would Be King.

    (Hymns to Kali usually address her in the most informal register, but older people are likely to be offended if I spoke to them like that. The English we use is still imitation Victorian, which is kind of fitting.)

  5. rottingham says:

    Apparently in those twenty years, the Dreyfus affair had been resolved, and church and state had separated in France: Proust was born in 1871. Still.

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