Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kipling’s imperialism

Before I leave Kipling and move on to other works, I wanted to try and articulate my feelings on Kipling’s imperialism. David Cody’s short entry at The Victorian Web does a good job of summing Kipling up as well as putting him in the context of his time. It is easy to dismiss Kipling because of his views, but simply branding him an “imperialist” oversimplifies his views as well as ignores other factors. Highly recommended for a sober assessment of Kipling, even if all too short.

Kipling believed that a benevolent and moral government is required to rule justly and fairly. I’ve pointed out examples as I’ve gone along because it is so clear. It may be a self-delusion to morally justify ruling over another country, yet Kipling held up good and bad examples throughout his work instead of just paying it lip service.

While it is easy to judge past cultures based on today’s ethics, the racism in Kipling’s work is a mixed bag at best. Separating what the author believes from that of his characters is difficult, but doing so for Kipling is even harder. He clearly believes in the superiority of the British, but how does he truly feel about the natives? The uneasiness of reading Kipling is probably best exemplified by the last few lines of “Gunga Din”:
“Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

You want to believe he means the last line, but the remainder of the poem treats the waterboy with extensive condescension, leaving the reader to try and reconcile the two. The additional irony of judging Kipling racist requires glossing over the caste system he vividly paints within his stories. While one doesn’t justify the other, neither can you judge only one.

One last comment before I dig myself too deep a hole. In seeing imperialism judged today, I don’t see a realistic analysis of what would have happened otherwise: it isn’t simply an imperial/non-imperial equation. Regarding Kipling’s focus, I have no idea what would have happened if Britain had not ruled India, but some of the options would be a whole lot worse than what happened. Again, this isn’t excusing or apologizing for imperialism but sometimes the options are bad and worse, making the bad choice the best one. Imagine an India today had it come under Russian rule in the 1800s, for example. Idle speculation, obviously, but in order to evaluate the past you have to include all possible possibilities. One possibility, of course, does include better treatment of ‘natives’, but that's only one possibility which could have happened.

Next up…looking at more imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Twain’s King Leopold's Solioquy. Quite different views on the process, although much easier to come to that conclusion since dealing with the Congo’s atrocities.

Update: As usual, I find someone who has articulated my thoughts better than I ever could have. Christopher Hitchens' piece in City Journal titled An Anglosphere Future talks about far more than my musings, but his approach and the quotes from Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 highlight the good things (while also recognizing the bad things) very well.

Second update: See also George Orwell on Kipling for excerpts from one of Orwell's essays as well as some thoughts from Roger Kimball.

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