The Catholic Thing
Chesterton on Kipling Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 13 July 2013

My love of Rudyard Kipling is irrational and unreachable. This is because it began in early childhood: and after Pookie books (deeper still), I learned to read on a trajectory that ran from the Just So Stories, through Kim. That I was, for a period, a child in Lahore, came into this: with remnants of the Raj all around me.

Whether my childish mind came hard-wired for Kim (and Pookie); or Kim (and Pookie) wired it, is a question for the philosophers. The connection is at a depth where the separation of self from the external has yet to be completed. One’s “critical faculties” will never penetrate that low. They must be content with pictures from memory, for the thing itself can no longer be touched.

My love for G.K. Chesterton is adult and acquired. I can recall being instructed to read him by good-hearted and good-humored souls, decades before I began to obey them. My first readings involved horror.

This was not Chesterton’s fault, or rather, it was. In the highest sense I recognize, he was a “hack journalist.” Delete the qualifier, then add “just like me.” Everything from his range of interests, to his paradoxical turn of mind, to the fish-and-water proselytizing impulse, was uncannily familiar. That he did everything better than I ever could, was the source of my horror.

A character like that can threaten one’s livelihood. He can undermine one’s self-esteem. Moreover, as an Anglican (then), trying to remain so in the way one tries to hold a family together, he (and a certain Cardinal Newman) needed to be strictly avoided. They knew too much about me, already; but worse than that, about God.

The bumptious quality in Chesterton fortunately repelled me, at the start. That was all his, and I gather it has repelled some other readers. It is easily mistaken for self-satisfaction by those who are smug. The man seems too confident in his judgments. He has an answer to every question, including questions we have not asked. That can be irritating in itself, but how much more when the answers appear to be right.

For all these reasons I am still new to Chesterton, a companion of my last decade, since all was lost and I swam the Tiber. I have now just more than a dozen of his books on my shelves, and have read those and a couple besides, but have yet to peruse Father Brown and much else. Indeed, one of the problems of starting late is that, even though pausing for beer and bacon, Chesterton wrote faster than most people read.

That is how I came, only this week, to discover that Chesterton had (of course) written on Rudyard Kipling. By now I’m not surprised that he nails him. Or that the nails pass also through me: crucified with the thieves.

At the heart of it is a typically Chestertonian reversal of an old saw about Kipling, provided by Kipling himself: “What should they know of England, who only England know?”

         Kiplings, father and son: J. Lockwood and Rudyard

Kipling stands politely convicted of being the opposite of a chauvinist: of being instead a rootless cosmopolitan. For Chesterton asks the more pointed question: “What can they know of England, who only know the world?”

A true man of the world, Kipling visited England often, and yet as Chesterton observes, “He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.”

My loyally rebellious heart intercedes at this point to explain something Chesterton might not have known, from having spent his own childhood elsewhere than in Lahore. Many cultured Indians could join me in suggesting that Kipling was a foreigner in England, because he was native to India. He could be presented plausibly as India’s greatest writer, in English.

But while there is much truth in this, there is still not enough, and such as Rudyard and his father Lockwood Kipling were in, but not of, India. They were rather typical Anglo-Indians: born rootless cosmopolitans. (And the Indians who praise Rudyard were born rootless, too; and they include several of today’s leading novelists in English.)

The essay in question, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small,” can be found in Chesterton’s collection, Heretics. Gentle reader is good-naturedly advised to consult it right away (I found it myself on the Internet). And this, whether or not he has the slightest interest in Kipling, for the essay doubles as a formidable commentary on the proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

The globetrotter learns a great deal about what makes men in one place different from men in another; but the peasant knows what makes them all the same. “The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men -- hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.”

Now, Chesterton also adores Kipling, and generously grants his area of expertise. For trains and steamboats and travel do make the world smaller, and smallness is the expert’s expertise. Moreover, the passages in Kipling that make Chesterton’s point also supply the defense, for in the same moment Kipling exposes his limitations, he shows some self-awareness of them.

He was never a Prussian-style Imperialist, trying to reduce the world to a machine, but more a Little English one, like a stamp collector, relishing variety. Yet, as Chesterton would insist, this remains a limitation, which reduces what is large to the small: 

The man standing in his own kitchen garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motorcar stupidly destroys it.

And of course, Kipling was enchanted by trains, steamboats, motorcars – by the rolling stone, or if you will, by dead things not the living moss. He is, in a word, “parochial” for this. Parochial, and small, and modern, like us. For we have been everywhere, and we have seen nothing. 

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Other Joe, July 13, 2013
On my first trip over the interstate system cross-country I was expecting to be caught up in a series of quest adventures, maybe being weathered in at an all night diner with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Bray, perhaps a close shave at the Bates Motel, certainly some romantic interlude with a buxom waitress in a Route 66 greasy spoon. I had read Kerouac and seen a thousand movies, television dramas (including Twilight Zone evocations of weirdness and irony). Alas, I pushed along a blind extrusion of featureless concrete behind and around big rigs while caught up in a kind of get-there anxiety that would not allow me to rest. I ate in franchise boxes made of easy-care-surfaces with sullen and unknown gobblers in universal denim with their hats on. I saw nothing of place, nothing of interest, stopped at and was drawn by not a single attraction. It was the perfect modern experience. I had traded life with all of its inconvenience for unused time. I had traded a sense of distance for a drive compulsion to grab more miles the way a hoarder grabs junk. There were no flat tires. The engine of my flight never missed a power cycle. I depended on no one and interacted with no one. I didn't even see a waitress, taking my brand name meals in bags across a sterile counter. "Have a nice day". I got there, but missed the trip. And that's the way it is today. Mr. Warren notes it well.
written by Manfred, July 13, 2013
Thank you for a fine piece, Mr. Warren. I, was an adolescent reader of Kipling, but my tastes ran more to adventure rather than the "kitchen garden". Kipling was a man of his era, a supporter of imperialism (both British and American)see "The White Man's burden which he wrote in 1899 after the Americans captured the Philippines. And of course, what boy has not received a graduation card with the poem "If". Kipling was shattered by his son Jack's death in WWI as he had pushed his son to enlist despite his having bad eyesight. Of course, Britain lost almost a miilion men in that war.
At a recent businessmen's lunch, the subject of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan came up and I mentioned that area will never change. I cited Kipling and I repeated one stanza of his poem:
When you are wounded and lie on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to carve up what remains,
Then roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your God as a soldier.

As most of the others had no military experince, the response was eerie.
Everyone's life experiences are different.
written by Stanley Anderson, July 13, 2013
The last Chesterton quote about fairyland opening at the gate reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from C. S. Lewis from his book about the medieval mindset, “The Discarded Image” (from chapter five, “The Heavens”):

The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite. And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt. In our [i.e., modern view] universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything – and so what? But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison…The word ‘small’ as applied to Earth thus takes on a far more absolute significance…to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.
written by Tom, July 13, 2013
There's an interesting appreciation of Kipling at the start of an economics commentary about gold investing and the Fed, "How Gold Lost Its Luster, How the All-Weather Fund Got Wet, and Other Just-So Stories". I offer this, and suggest that it is not off-topic for TCT - Dr Hunt's description of "Narrative" is compelling and seems nearly right, and can be applied as a lense to view the topics that interest us here.
written by Maggie-Louise, July 13, 2013
There is a great YouTube video recitation of Kiplings, "On the Road to Mandalay". There are many romanticized renditions of the well-known song, but this is a reading of the full poem. (I'd give you the reader but he is identified only by his URL, so I'd better not.)

Other Joe: There is a book you might enjoy by William Least Heat Moon who took the long way across: "Blue Highways". I think he enjoyed is trip more than you did.

"If", after Kipling: "If you can keep your head when all those around you are losing theirs, you don't understand the situation."

Sorry, the heat is getting to my brain.

Thank you, Mr. Warren. It is a great piece.

written by Gerard MacGabhann, July 13, 2013
Beyond sampling a few of their pages, I have previously read neither Chesterton nor C.S. Lewis. But Kipling's Kim charmed me when I first read it as a teen. Just now reading Chesterton's observations on Kipling recalled what Auden said of his poetry, "There are some poets, Kipling for example, whose relation to language reminds one of a drill sergeant: the words are taught to wash behind their ears, stand properly at attention and execute complicated maneuvers, but at the cost of never being allowed to think for themselves." 

I would suggest that both Chesterton and Auden do Kipling an injustice when they imply that it is his cosmopolitan desire for order that ultimately renders him unable to make the commitment of heart that would allow him to achieve the intimacy of the patriot; the intimacy of one who can belong to some part. 

After all, Chesterton is wrong when he says that the man in the cabbage field can think even though he has seen nothing at all. The man in the cabbage field may live in intimate immediacy in his world of  "hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky," but he hardly "thinks" this world; for thought is not immediate, it first requires a reflective distance before it can take up its object in comprehension, and this distance can only be achieved by first severing intimacy and then restoring it on a different level; a level that knows not just the part, but the part as part of a whole.

While Kipling's imperialism was an ideal product of his English head, his empire was the ideal 
œcumene of an Irish heart. Not that he was Irish in any imperially positive sense of the term, despite his mother's roots, but he was Irish in a sense approaching that in which he regarded the Irish to be the "orientals of the West." The mere imperialist can only unite men administratively, and must take care to assign order in categories of race, caste, education and culture; but to bond men as men, as spiritual beings, one must forge a way that elevates these differences into a common identity without destroying them. 

Such bonding calls for a proper integration of the separate actions of the head and the heart: the action of the pure imperialist, who seeks to impose order on the whole and demands that each part conforms to it, and that of the pure lama, who seeks, through a nirvanic enlightenment, to annihilate all differences so that each part becomes identical with the whole.  In the former case the part is sacrificed to the whole, while in the latter, the whole is sacrificed to the part. 

Kipling's art is an attempt to forge an integral measure that would retain both whole and part in an identity within difference, as well as a difference within identity. Kim is the Irish soul that mediates the English mind and the Oriental spirit. But, of course, these are just "types", originals within Kipling's own artistic soul, and we should not get carried away and suppose literal equivalences, as if the Irish actually had a distinctive soul, or the English a distinctive mind. Still, it's interesting to ponder. At one stage in Kim, Father Victor asked the Rev. Bennett if he believed in Providence. "I should hope so", replied the Anglican. "Well, I believe in miracles", said the Catholic priest, "so it comes to the same thing." 

That a prudent hope in Providence and a wild expectation of Miracle should arrive at the same place in Kipling's heart is a thing of beauty indeed.
written by L John Harrison, July 13, 2013
Interesting and informative. It helps in my understanding of two phenomena of contemporary society that have (and still do) befuddle me. The first is the reality of millions of Western Europeans and North Americans who travel outside their country, often quite extensively, and yet seem to have little real insight into the places and peoples they have visited. The second is the wealthy cosmopolitans who consider themselves "citizens of the world," who see this as a virtue opposed to narrow nationalism (i.e. internationalists), but which appears little more than narrow self-interest - having little loyalty to anything other than themselves.
written by Stanley Anderson, July 14, 2013
Gerard MacGabhann wrote:
After all, Chesterton is wrong when he says that the man in the cabbage field can think even though he has seen nothing at all. The man in the cabbage field may live in intimate immediacy in his world of "hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky," but he hardly "thinks" this world; for thought is not immediate, it first requires a reflective distance before it can take up its object in comprehension, and this distance can only be achieved by first severing intimacy and then restoring it on a different level; a level that knows not just the part, but the part as part of a whole.

I could suggest Gerard heed his own sage advice quoted above. At the beginning of his post he wrote, “Beyond sampling a few of their pages, I have previously read neither Chesterton nor C.S. Lewis.” Here is another sampling to consider from the introduction of Chesterton’s (perhaps) most well-known work, “The Everlasting Man” (and Chesterton makes similar points in “Orthodoxy” and elsewhere):
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote. It is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the "'hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was -far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own "farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today; and that is the point of this book.

[a few paragraphs later]… But with this we come to the final and vital point I shall try to show in these pages that when we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it [the Church] inside. It is exactly when the boy gets far enough off to see the giant that he sees that he really is a giant.

I guess my point is that Chesterton says a great deal of very interesting things, things that often can seem contradictory and paradoxical (and very often within the same sentence, a quality he is quite well-known for) without that broader “wholeness” view that Mr. MacGabhann so heartily and sensibly recommends. I would suggest that the seeming contradiction between the Chesterton quotes from David Warren’s column and these quotes from Orthodoxy hinges on not recognizing a certain distinction about “knowledge” or “thinking” that the two sources are discussing. That distinction rests, I think, on Chesterton’s quoted sentence from the column that precedes the “cabbage field” sentence – i.e., “The globetrotter learns a great deal about what makes men in one place different from men in another; but the peasant knows what makes them all the same,” contrasted with the last sentence from Orthodoxy quoted above – i.e., “It is exactly when the boy gets far enough off to see the giant that he sees that he really is a giant.” Different points of view to be sure, but connected enough, I think, that they can work well together, as do virtually all of Chesterton’s famously and intentionally-phrased paradoxical-seeming thoughts.

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