Kipling’s Back

I don’t know what caused it. Maybe it was the president’s imperialistic foreign policy. At any rate, I had a sudden urge to read Rudyard Kipling.

I reread Kim and The Jungle Book. Both of these are excellent works for your children to read. Kim, the little friend of all the world, and Mowgli, who always obeyed the law of the jungle, are certainly two characters your children will enjoy adding to their list of imaginary friends. The original versions are much better than the movie versions most American children are familiar with.

It’s true that for a while, Kipling was declared a politically incorrect imperialist, but I guess that since the president has decided to take up “the white man’s burden,” Kipling is OK again. He always has been the finest writer of short stories in the English language. And if, as T.S. Eliot supposedly said, Kipling writes verse, not poetry, then I would say to Mr. Eliot that I prefer his verse to your poetry.

That poem of his, “The White Man’s Burden,” has become rather pertinent again, since our president believes that God has anointed him to bring the blessings of democracy to the unenlightened people. That is as arrogant and racist an attitude as the British had when they occupied about three-quarters of the world.

The poem was written after the Spanish-American War, when the United States decided it, too, needed an empire. The tone of the poem is fatherly advice coupled with a warning from one imperialist to another. It says, in part, “Take up the White Man’s burden and reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.” Does that line not strike a familiar chord in regard to our occupation of Iraq?

As a matter of fact, the poem is more warning than advice, because Kipling knew that no one appreciates an occupier, no matter how idealistic the occupier might be. The truth is that neither British nor American imperialism was or is idealistic. It has always been driven by economic or strategic interests.

Nevertheless, since our president has involved us in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, you will probably enjoy reading Kipling’s stories set in that general area. He was born in India and is such a fine writer that you can almost smell and feel the scenes he describes. He won the Nobel Prize, which is a lot more than many of his critics managed to do.

Though Kipling was writing of a different century, the Great Game is still afoot in the hills that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan. As I was reading about Kim’s holy man taking great strides up and down the high hills, I couldn’t help but think of Osama bin Laden striding up and down those same hills.

Nothing much but clothes and technology ever really changes, so you can enjoy good literature no matter in what century it is set. Human nature seems to be immune to change. Kipling traveled the world, including America, and married an American woman. They finally settled down in the south of England. His little novel Captains Courageous is set in America.

Kipling was born at the height of the British Empire and lived to see it begin to crack and crumble. It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to see India free. I expect he would have been happy about that but saddened, though not surprised, at the bitter conflict between Muslims and Hindus that followed independence.

I heard recently that an Indian author has written a fictional story, set in the future, in which India defeats the United States. It’s something to think about. India certainly has the potential to become a superpower, and a triple alliance of India, Russia and China would be formidable power bloc. I’m afraid our grandchildren are going to have an interesting world to live in, but reading Kipling will help them understand it.