George Orwell, in his 1942 essay “Rudyard Kipling,” gives me some peace of mind. I have been puzzled by Kipling’s reputation. It turns out the bad Kipling predates Edward Said and Homi Bhaba; it was there all along:
Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.
I will take a crack at the despised Kipling. Let us open our Complete Works to “The Mark of the Beast,” near the end of Life’s Handicap (1891), a story that is never anthologized. Some contemporary reviewers described it as “poisonous stuff” and “loathsome… Mr. Kipling at his very worst,” and they are not wrong (the post's title can also be found at the link).
The “Kipling” narrator and “[m]y friend Strickland of the Police, who knows as much of natives of India as is good for any man” become entangled with another Englishman, Fleete, who has been cursed by a temple leper and appears to be in danger of turning into a werewolf. Strickland and “Kipling” capture the leper and torture him until he lifts the curse:
Strickland wrapped a towel round his hand and took the gun-barrels out of the fire. I put the half of the broken walking stick through the loop of fishing-line and buckled the leper comfortably to Strickland’s bedstead…
Strickland shaded his eyes with his hands for a moment and we got to work. This part is not to be printed.
And a line of dots interrupts the text. A few hours later – Fleete has recovered from what he thinks was just a bender and makes a comment that causes this reaction:
[Strickland] caught hold of the back of a chair, and, without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics. It is terrible to see a strong man overtaken with hysteria. Then it struck me that we had fought for Fleete's soul with the Silver Man in that room, and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as Strickland, while Fleete thought that we had both gone mad. We never told him what we had done.
So, Kipling condones the torture of Indians. Note that there is no frame story here, that Kipling deliberately makes his fictional stand-in one of the torturers. The non-fictional Kipling is, of course, inventing the whole thing. Still, here we have the imperialist English doing what needs to be done to control India.
Of course, the reason Fleete was cursed is that he drunkenly desecrated a temple of Hanuman, to the horror of both Strickland and “Kipling” (“[Strickland] said that we all three might have been knifed”). The narrator insinuates that Fleete’s crime is deeply significant, and that Strickland’s vaunted knowledge is useless:
Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons. He has not yet succeeded in doing this, but in fifteen or twenty years he will have made some small progress.
And then the final sentence upends the entire story:
I cannot myself see that this step is likely to clear up the mystery; because, in the first place, no one will believe a rather unpleasant story, and, in the second, it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned.
The sensible imperialist, in other words, “justly” condemns Strickland and the narrator not for torture but for superstition for acting as if Indian beliefs are meaningful.
“The Mark of the Beast” is certainly loathsome, but it is unclear what is to be loathed, or who, exactly, is the beast.