Kipling’s shadow: Orwell, Rushdie and the critics

This piece follows on from my other post about Kipling here. Both first appeared as part of Norman Geras’ Writer’s Choice feature on his blog.

If we are ever to understand and appreciate Kipling’s art, we have to discard all our preconceptions about him and his world view. It is surprising how hard many critics find this; indeed, the dualities that are present in Kipling seem to draw similar contradictions – albeit unconsciously so – out of those who write about him.

The most egregious example, because perhaps the best known, is George Orwell, whose 1942 essay on Kipling begins as a review of TS Eliot’s collection of Kipling’s poetry. At its best, it reads as a conversation Orwell is having with himself, as if the different Kiplings represented different aspects of Orwell’s own personality. At its worst, which is most of it, Orwell’s essay is little more than a tirade:

It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person… [T]here is a definite strain of sadism in him… [H]e is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting… [His] is a crude, vulgar picture… Kipling himself was only half civilized… crude and vulgar… strange and even disgusting

And so on.

Clearly, these quotes are selective. But it would be a rare reader who came away from Orwell’s essay without the firm idea that, whatever caveats he threw in by way of praise, Orwell found Kipling to be a crude, vulgar and morally disgusting writer. Orwell’s justifications for such abusive epithets are thin, where they are not self-contradictory or entirely absent, and it is hard to see – on the basis of the essay – quite what drives Orwell’s obsessive loathing of its subject.

When Oscar Wilde described the experience of reading Kipling’s short stories as feeling “as if one were seated under a palm tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity”, we might accept the condescension because it is clearly also a compliment, and because we might accept that to a fin-de-siècle aesthete like Wilde much of Kipling’s work – concerned as it is with, in Kipling’s phrase, “the mere uncounted folk” – could, by his lights, appear brash and uncultured, aggressively disinterested in either high culture and high society.

But Orwell? Vulgar? Really? It is a class-based judgement if ever there were one – Orwell, the Eton-educated son of privilege speaking – and one moreover that reveals more about Orwell’s psychology than it does Kipling’s qualities as a writer. The same is true of the quite bizarre side-swipe Orwell indulges in at those who “snigger [at Kipling] in pansy-left circles”; but who, presumably, would feature quite prominently among the early readership of Orwell’s essay. What point is Orwell trying to make? That he too can be vulgar and crude? That you don’t have to be ‘a pansy’ to attack Kipling for his jingoism?

But Orwell’s arguments are weak on their own terms, even fatuous, too. For instance, Orwell decries Kipling’s attempts to represent dialect in his poetry as simply due to “his impulse to make fun of a working-man’s accent”. Yet there is nothing anywhere to suggest that Kipling finds non-standard speech inherently ridiculous nor that he was trying to do anything other than be as truthful as he could to reality – and nor does Orwell produce any evidence to substantiate the charge. “In the ancient ballads,” he continues, as if to clinch the point, “the lord and the peasant speak the same language” – a statement that is broadly meaningless and, insofar it can be made to make sense, untrue.

Kipling’s problem with the working class, the source of his desire to mock their speech patterns, Orwell says, is that he “ is looking down a distorting class-perspective”. And yet, he notes a little further on, Kipling “has far more interest in the common soldier, far more anxiety that he shall get a fair deal, than most of the ‘liberals’ of his day or our own.” Kipling is also “almost unconscious of the class war that goes on in an army as much as elsewhere”. But, lo and behold, a few lines later, “[Kipling] sees that the soldier is neglected, meanly underpaid and hypocritically despised by the people whose incomes he safeguards.”

And so on. When Orwell actually considers Kipling’s work directly, he sees immediately that the image of the man as an uncivilised, unthinking, unfeeling reactionary buffoon – which Orwell affects to argue with but nevertheless works to reinforce – falls apart as soon as it comes into contact with the human empathies that are everywhere in the work. But, for some reason, Orwell cannot or will not fully recant from the his preconceptions about Kipling’s art.

Certainly, Kipling’s politics are not my own. He is far from being a liberal and could not, I think, be called a humanist. But his writing – as opposed to his political thought – is prodigal with its human sympathies and rich in emotional generosity  and insight – qualities that are often conspicuously lacking in his critics.

As for Orwell, his most patronising, unsympathetic and damningly inaccurate judgement had been made a few years earlier.  “If [Kipling] had developed, as he might well have done, into a writer of music-hall songs,” Orwell had written, “he would have been a better and more lovable writer.”

It was with some surprise that I came across an echo of this sentiment in Salman Rushdie’s 1990 essay on Kipling, collected in Imaginary Homelands. “There is something condescending about Kipling’s mimicry,” Rushdie writes of the regional British dialects in Kipling’s early collection Soldier’s Three. And its protagonists’ “suffering is curiously diminished by the music-hall orthography”. I would hazard a guess that Rushdie, born in 1947, has never stepped inside a music hall in his life, so the chances of the opinion being one received, de haut en bas, from Orwell, are high. Is it Kipling who is condescending, or are Orwell and Rushdie, uncomfortable with the intrusion of non-standard “vulgar” English, merely projecting there own social unease on him?

But, unlike Orwell, Rushdie is at least self-aware enough to recognise the complexity of his emotional response to Kipling. “I have never been able to read Kipling calmly,” he writes, with what he calls Kipling’s racial bigotry in mind. “Anger and delight are incompatible emotions, yet these early stories do indeed have the power simultaneously to infuriate and to entrance.”

Moreover, he is also conscious of Kipling’s duality, writing that in Kipling’s Indian stories he presents “a personality in conflict with itself, part bazaar-boy, part-sahib”. However, he fails to recognise how interpenetrated these different personalities are in Kipling, nor how subtly Kipling negotiates their complexities. Indeed, taking as his theme an early story, ‘On The City Wall’, Rushdie argues that the two Kiplings are ‘at war’ in it – and that the Indian Kipling subverts the controlling narrative and wins that war – unbeknownst to the author.

It is a curious claim for one writer to make of another – particularly one whom the former professes to admire – but it stems from a profound misreading of the story, which misreading derives ultimately from the same flaw that undermines Orwell’s essay: the inability to escape from under the shadow of received opinion about Kipling.

The action of ‘On The City Wall’ takes place in a brothel set in the walls of Lahore, and the story is narrated by an unnamed British resident – a journalist – who visits it regularly, in keeping with members of almost every other faith and race in the city. (The Jews are excluded; but I am inclined to ascribe that less to anti-Semitism, in this instance, than a dry nod towards the story’s source in the Old Testament book of Joshua and the tale of his capture of Jericho thanks to the harlot, Rahab, whose house was also on the city wall.)

Rushdie describes the three main characters in ‘On The City Wall’ as being Wali Dad, an Anglicised, somewhat affected, young Muslim; Khem Singh, an aged anti-imperial revolutionary, recently imprisoned in the city’s fort; and the crowd of Shia Muslims who pack the streets during the Muharram processions and whose rioting against the Hindu population forms the narrative’s apparent, if not actual, climax.

It is striking that Rushdie thus ignores the character of Lalun, the prostitute whose house contains much of the action and about whom the whole story pivots. Indeed, Lalun is the point of the story, since she is also India, agelessly old and – whatever the British think – ultimately in control of its own destiny. Rushdie sees this, but he cannot bring himself to think that this might have been Kipling’s own point, since – as we know – Kipling was a jingo imperialist.

Briefly, as the narrative of ‘On The City Wall’ unfolds, Wali Dad throws off his British identity and joins the Muslim mob, and Lalun manipulates the narrator into helping to free Khem Singh from his prison. However, Singh finds the young men of his people uninterested in rebellion and chooses therefore to return to the relative comforts of his confinement in the fort.

It is Kipling’s treatment of Wali Dad that most angers Rushdie: it is, he says, “by any standards pretty appalling. He build him up purely in order to knock him down… [T]he meaning [of Dad’s regression to Islam] is clear: Western civilisation has been no more than a veneer; a native remains a native beneath his European jackets and ties. Blood will out.”

But again, Kipling is more subtle than that. As the narrator makes fairly clear, Dad’s problem isn’t that he is incapable, as a native, of assimilating English culture. It is that the culture he has immersed himself in isn’t worth assimilating in the first place:

He was a young Muhammadan who was suffering acutely from education of the English variety and knew it. His father had sent him to a Mission-school to get wisdom, and Wali Dad had absorbed more than ever his father or the Missionaries intended he should. When his father died, Wali Dad was independent and spent two years experimenting with the creeds of the Earth and reading books that are of no use to anybody.

The point about Wali Dad isn’t that he cannot find his place in a “superior” culture – and therefore spends his days pining with affectionately comic futility for Lalun – nor that he is incapable of benefiting from his western education. It is that he doesn’t – or shouldn’t – need to. Dad suffers from a characteristically Western kind of intellectual ennui; and he can only, in the end, rid himself of it by reclaiming his own urgent identity amid his own culture. We may or may not agree with that; but it is far from being a racist or patronising position.

As for Lalun, Kipling is at pains to point out, in the very first lines of the story, that she is part of a tradition that reaches back to the beginnings of time and – quite explicitly – before the beginning of the Judaeo-Christian world:

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.

The narrator addresses quite a few remarks on the inability of the indigenous peoples of the Empire to govern themselves through the story, of which this is the first. He is, of course, blindly confident in his pronouncements, but the whole story works its way to a conclusion which makes the opposite point unarguable: the people of the East manage their own affairs very well and subject themselves to the West only out of convenience.

Singh, the revolutionary volunteers to return to his British prison; but he has – again explicitly – not given up the struggle. He merely prefers the comforts. And Lalun? The very last line of the story has the narrator recognising how wholly he has been seduced by her: “I had become Lalun’s Vizier after all.” He, too, must now drift, wait and obey.

It is Lalun, the embodiment of the Eastern, who ultimately controls her destiny under British rule – and implicitly the destiny of the British in India. British command is apparently suffered; but it is, or will prove to be in time, all an illusion.

Rushdie knows this, and allows that the story confounds the narrator’s apparent confidence in British cultural supremacy; but his perception of Kipling’s thought so clouds his judgement that he finds himself arguing that it does so without Kipling realising the fact.

This is unfortunate, not least because Rushdie is imperiously dismissive of another critic who suggested that Kipling erred in placing Khem Singh’s escape at the end of the story. “It seems to be not at all unusual for a climax to be placed near a story’s end,” he thunders, “and far from being a minor incident, Khem Singh’s escape seems central to the story’s significance.” Yet over the following three sentences Rushdie himself contrives to claim that Kipling failed to understand the meaning of the very last sentence of his story. It is not particularly persuasive.

What hope has Kipling of receiving a just assessment of his work when his own long shadow can so deceive the critics? It is probably fortunate that so many of us encounter Kipling first in childhood – most likely through The Jungle Book or The Just-So Stories – otherwise one wonders if he would be read at all. And that would certainly be a loss.

Kipling makes us feel – and compels us to think. This is not because the views his characters express are different from ours – or not merely so –  but because we feel the force of their humanity so intensely we can’t help but think. He is an authority on the diversity of peoples, and where – as in his Indian stories – cultures collide, the idea that Kipling colludes as an artist in the oppression of one is untenable.

I was going to write that I can forgive Kipling anything, but that is not quite right. We do not need to forgive artists their private – or indeed public – errors. We may judge them, of course, but that is another matter. As for the work, it speaks or does not speak for itself. And Kipling’s work hums and frets and flames with impossible life. If we can accept Christopher Marlowe’s greatness while allowing the viciousness of The Jew of Malta, then why not Kipling’s?

In the preface to Life’s Handicap, another early collection, Kipling writes of a holy man who told him tales “not one in twenty [of which] could be printed in an English book, because the English do not think as natives do. They brood over matters that a native would dismiss till a fitting occasion; and what they would not think twice about a native will brood over till a fitting occasion: then native and English stare at each other hopelessly across great gulfs of miscomprehension… All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night.”

It is a fair prospectus of Kipling’s art: comprehending the mute, forgotten peoples of the world; listening for the distant halting rhythm of another story, for the approach of the Daemon: waiting patiently, as Lalun’s vizier must wait on the city wall, and as Bagheera waits, too, dark and still and deadly amid the shadows and shapes of things that are and are not there, ready to make his kill that death might buy another life.

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