Tuesday, June 14, 2016

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used” - Kipling compresses

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used,” I said.  “What’s a trackless ‘heef’?  What’s an Area?  What’s everything generally?” I asked.  (“The Army of a Dream,” 276)

I think, maybe I should write about the good Kipling stories – take a run at the puzzle of “Mrs. Bathurst” or something.  Then I think, good is so overrated.

“The Army of a Dream” is the one story in Traffics and Discoveries that is easily classified as bad.  Kipling dreams himself into a world where England has become highly militarized, with universal conscription and a kind of permanent rotating global militia.  Some of his friends in the militia lead him through its logistics, including a climactic war game in which the scouts rout the regulars.  Or something like that.  I was a couple of steps behind the narrator, and that’s him up above, plenty confused.

Although presented as fiction, as a dream, the ideas for military reform are apparently meant seriously.  Kipling wants peace, so he prepares for war.  The proto-fascist nature of the ideas is blinding, now, painful, in a way that no one in 1904 could have seen, and my impression is that a decade later England would prove that it was all too prepared for war, although the Kiplingist counter-argument would be “Not in the way I meant.”  The story ends with Kipling realizing that the soldiers who have been his guides are all dead, killed in South Africa.

Then it came upon me, with no horror, but a certain mild wonder, that we had waited, Vee and I, for the body of Boy Bailey; and that Vee himself had died of typhoid in the spring of 1902.  The rustling of the papers continued, but Bayley, shifting slightly, revealed to me the three-day old wound on his left side that had soaked the ground around him.  (335)

The end is strangely moving; it’s good.  “The Army of a Dream” is propaganda disguising grief.  A failure, but fascinating.

To return to that first quotation, the method Kipling is pushing harder in T&D than he had before, perhaps harder than is wise, is a radical excision of explanatory material.  Or at his friendliest, a rearrangement.  “A Sahibs’ War” (and this is one of the good stories) begins:

Pass? Pass? Pass? I have one pass already, allowing me to go by the rêl from Kroonstadt to Eshtellenbosch, where the horses are, where I am to be paid off, and whence I return to India. I am a—trooper of the Gurgaon Rissala (cavalry regiment), the One Hundred and Forty-first Punjab Cavalry. Do not herd me with these black Kaffirs. I am a Sikh—a trooper of the State. (85)

He is a Sikh, former servant to “Kurban Sahib, now dead,” etc.  An enormous amount of information here – names of South African cities and Indian military units, plus a large dose of the character’s voice and state of mind, his pride and anger (“Pass?  Pass?  Pass?”) which I can see now, since I have read the story, but the first time, who knows.  I didn’t know what to keep, or since the answer is everything, I was not sure how to keep everything.  It took a long while, for example, for me to understand that Kurban (Corbyn) Sahib was English.  Kipling teaches me the cipher to his code while telling the story.  Yes, as with all significant art, I object, but Kipling now moves faster and skips more steps.  He assumes I can handle it.

Everything in this book, difficult or less so, was originally published as popular magazine fiction.


  1. My limited understanding of your posting and what you are writing about Kipling reminds me of a complaint I have about some writing that becomes time-bound and culture-bound; the universal becomes too hard to fathom within the morass of the topical, parochial, and experimental. That probably says more about the reader than the text. Well, that just a babbling thought from a confused reader.

  2. I guess I am not so interested in universality. I want to grub around in the specific, plunge my arm into the machinery, so to speak. Go ahead, author, show me how that steam-powered automobile works. The controls for the steam are in the back seat!

  3. Kipling on his troublesome Locomobile: It is quite true that she is noiseless but so is a corpse, and one does not get much fun out of a corpse.

    1. "one does not get much fun out of a corpse"
      ...unless one's a vulture. I could imagine Kipling writing a story from a vulture's viewpoint - perhaps he did.

  4. I just want to point out, to anyone wandering by, that "Locomobile" was the actual brand name of Kipling's car. It is, perhaps, the greatest car name ever.

    I'll also note that the vultures in the first Disney Jungle Book, the ones who sound like the Beatles, are not in Kipling's Jungle Book at all, sadly.

    1. There's an Adjutant-crane in The Second Jungle Book though.

    2. That's a good one - "there was a horrible raw-skin pouch on his neck under his chin--a hold-all for the things his pick-axe beak might steal"

    3. Oddly enough, in the Birds of Prey March, where you'd expect to find them, vultures don't appear, even though there's an obvious rhythmical opportunity here:
      Cheer! For we'll never live to see no bloomin' victory!
      Cheer! An' we'll never live to 'ear the cannon roar! (One cheer more!)
      The jackal an' the kite
      'Ave an 'ealthy appetite,
      An' you'll never see your soldiers any more! ('Ip! Urroar!)
      The eagle an' the crow
      They are waitin' ever so,
      An' you'll never see your soldiers any more! ('Ip! Urroar!)
      Yes, the Large Birds o' Prey
      They will carry us away,
      An' you'll never see your soldiers any more!

      Why the jackal turned up in the birds of prey is a mystery...

    4. You're right, a vulture or buzzard would fit.

  5. Maybe Kipling didn't include the Beatles-sounding vultures to avoid committing an anachronism that sooner or later would have ended up being caught (Kipling being such a careful craftsman, after all).

  6. Does Kipling write a story that makes use of wax cylinders? Recording the music of the future, maybe? I hope so.