Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Kipling and civilization

This is a fine essay by Roger Kimball in the latest New Criterion on Rudyard Kipling’s "memorable speech" (Auden’s definition of poetry). Kimball reminds us of many his memorable lines, I only need to focus on this: "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." Kimball’s last paragraph, albeit more prosaic than I would have, is worth quoting:

"The key word is ’civilization.’ Kipling was above all the laureate not of Empire, but of civilization, especially civilization under siege. Henry James once sniffed that there was only one strain absent in Kipling: that of ’the civilized man.’ It’s a frequent refrain. But in a deeper sense, Kipling was about almost nothing else—not the civilization of elegant drawing rooms, but something more primeval and without which those drawing rooms would soon be smashed and occupied by weeds. Kipling, Evelyn Waugh wrote toward the end of his life, ’believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.’ Kipling endeavored to man those defenses partly through his political oratory, but more importantly through a literary corpus that taught the explicit lessons and the implicit rhythms of emotional continence and restraint."

Discussions - 6 Comments


An excellent essay.

Chesterton wrote an interesting essay on Kipling, which though interesting, still misunderstands the man. I think there is a certain segment of opinion desirous of getting Kipling wrong, and what's more, making sure that he is always "wrong," always under a shadow, always tainted.

Dan you have a point. Why might that be true? In Orwell's essay on Kipling, he refers to "jingoism and brutality," but Kimball's point that any person, no matter his exterior color could be "white" is also something Orwell could see. (I'll bet he even thought of women like that.)

Mansfield wrote about Kipling as one of those "manly" authors of that era and I found that chapter of his book fascinating because my dad gave me those books, from his childhood library, when I was a girl and I inhaled them and eventually force-fed them to my children. That last sounds ugly, but they loved those books, including Kipling, too.

Here is your Chesterton essay, Dan. Like Orwell, it is a yes and a no at once. "he has had something to say, a definite view of things to utter, and that always means that a man is fearless and faces everything." I can't help but think that as we deal with Islamic terrorism, Kipling will come back in vogue.

In realtion tot hose things out of vogue, Kimball mentions Colonel Blimp., that cartoon character which we all might know about without ever having seen. That character stands for something beyond itself, as was evident when I recently watched the movie, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", which has almost nothing to do with the comic, but is charming. It was an attempt to make the jingoistic, militaristic, imperialistic British officer into something recognizably human and endearing to the post-war movie audience.

William Kristol had an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Democrats should read Kipling."

But lets suppose that all democrats ran out and read Kipling...could they listen?

I think I can understand exactly what Kate means by the view that any person regardless of his exterior color could be "white"...but immagine the fireworks if such a position was embraced and articulated by McCain and republicans in general...it would be like running Alan Keyes against Obama.

"Could they listen?" Good question. The answer, generally speaking, is a resounding: No.

My dad is a Democrat. Those were the values of his youth, and in a sense still are. He only reads The Economist and The New Yorker now and watches TV all the time, even while he is reading. He had been a Republican and turned from Goldwater. He thought B.G. stood with racists and was uncivilized. His description of the recklessness of Republicans is hard to reconcile with the party of conservatives.

I am trying to think how to ask my dad about this. We don't discuss politics much. Every time George Bush does something that outrages him, my dad can't speak to me, because it is my fault.

To be fair to him and to other Democrats, my dad understood the invasion of Afghanistan, but not that of Iraq. Invading Afghanistan was perfectly Kiplingesque, and our winning there would have amazed him. I am not so sure what Kipling, especially the older Kipling, would have thought about invading Iraq. And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

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