Saturday, June 24, 2017

empty, but still magnificent - Kipling's Actions and Reactions

Rudyard Kipling’s Actions and Reactions (1909) is the weakest of his short story collections that I have read, and I think that I just have three more to go.  It is nevertheless fascinating, often most so when it is most wrong-headed.  Complete mastery, ingenious and artful, applied to exasperating material.  This book is the most wrong-headed Kipling I have read; maybe that is what I mean.

The perfect example is “The Mother Hive.”  The second paragraph:

A young bee crawled up the greasy trampled alighting-board.  “Excuse me,” she began, “but it’s my first honey-flight.  Could you kindly tell me if this is my –”

Yes, this story is about and from the point of view of a bee hive.  It is being invaded by parasitic wasps.  The characters are various bees and wasps.  It is an allegory.  A political allegory.  The parasites, who introduce Reforms, are Liberals, the weak-minded bees Tories, or something like that.  The story ends in apocalypse, as a bee-keeper smokes everyone out and destroys the hive.  The natural history, the bee-keeping stuff, is fantastic:

…  two-inch deep honey-magazines, empty, but still magnificent, the whole gummed and glued into twisted scrap-work, awry on the wires; half-cells, beginnings abandoned, or grandiose, weak-walled, composite cells pieced out with rubbish and capped with dirt.

Kipling had recently become interested in bee-keeping.  If anyone has earned the right to animal allegories, it is author of Just-So Stories, but this one makes no sense.  What is the parasitic wax-moth supposed to do?  It is her nature to invade bee hives.  She can do nothing else.  Maybe that is Kipling’s point.

Two stories are not allegories but parables of imperialism, as usual complicating my ideas about Kipling’s ideas without making me any less – I would not normally say appalled, but “Little Foxes” is appalling.  The new English governor of the new English colony of – something near Ethiopia; this is all made up – discovers that his new country has foxes.

The Great River Gihon, well used to the moods of kings, slid between his mile-wide banks toward the sea, while the Governor praised God in a loud and searching cry never before heard by the river.

The poor fox “could not understand the loud cry which the Governor has cried.”  He cannot guess what is about to hit him.  The English proceed to organize the entire country on an English fox-hunting basis.  In many ways it works.  There is an insight here about the value of the rule of law, however arbitrary its basis.  Kipling may well have meant for me to find this story appalling.  I am not sure.  The main plot as such is just one of Kipling’s prank plots, thin stuff.

“A Deal in Cotton” is a narratorial masterpiece, with an Englishman describing a colonial African incident that he does not fully understand, because he was feverish when it happened, and his Indian servant re-telling the story in a way that contains its own elisions, with a let’s call it “true” story emerging out of the combination; it is more or less about competing kinds of imperial rule.  The game here, the skill, is in the omission of information.  No one was better at that game, not even Henry James.

What else.  “Garm – a Hostage” is a perfect dog story, and “The House Surgeon” is a perfect ghost story.  My doubt is if they are anything else, not that they need to be.  I have avoided mentioning the single story that seemed to me like a narrow, frustrating, surprising masterpiece, “With the Night Mail,” a science fantasy that is also perhaps nothing else.  I want to save it for tomorrow.

Technically, Actions and Reactions is almost beyond belief.


  1. I should re-read "A Deal in Cotton." I don't remember it at all.

    "With the Night Mail" mostly mystifies me. I have trouble reading it all the way through because it's so densely packed with journalistic detail. It's like steampunk as written by John McPhee. But it has these occasional marvelous sentences:

    “Magniac invented his rudder to help war-boats ram each other; and war went out of fashion and Magniac he went out of his mind because he said he couldn’t serve his country any more. I wonder if any of us ever know what we’re really doing.”

    I have a special place in my heart for "The House Surgeon," mostly because of the way it portrays the family of assimilated Jews as more fundamentally English - in their decency, their tolerance, their acceptance of things-as-they-are - than the Christian family that's been in the house for generations.

  2. Wait, is the bee-hive story about wax moths? I've read it under the title "The Wax Moth," unless he wrote TWO political allegories about bee-hives, which, you never know with Kipling, could totally happen....

  3. As usual, you're absolutely right. Besides the stories you spotlight, I also liked An Habitation Enforced: "In England all men spoke one tongue, speciously like American to the ear, but on cross-examination unintelligible."

  4. Yes, it's a wax moth that invades. That's the one.

    "An Habitation Enforced" is wonderful, full of genuine charm. The wife's character, especially, becomes quite complex. The picture of the people of the region, her picture of it and Kipling's, is a great accomplishment.

    As for "With the Night Mail," you have written my post! "steampunk as written by John McPhee" is excellent and will be pinched for today's post - thanks!