On the Greatness of Kipling's Kim

When Rudyards cease from Kipling
And Haggards Ryde no more ...
So goes the wittiest couplet in English. But it falls short by pairing two writers who are only superficially alike: Ryder Haggard and Rudyard Kipling. Only Kipling comes close to real greatness when he is at his best, even on a par with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. We are not supposed to know this because Rudyard Kipling is (wrongly) damned by the Left for his supposed British imperialism and aggravated normalcy. The Left controls the organs of propaganda, and in Britain, the cultural Left has been in control for a whole century. To the Left, there are no artists, but only propagandists for and against them. Everything is politicized. But great writers outlast their political enemies. Who really cares today if Shakespeare supported the Tudors or not?

The Kultursmoggers of the Left are wrong about Kipling in the way that they are so often wrong. Their vision is severely impaired by those black-and-white prisms they use. Kipling shows the most heartrending empathy with human suffering, the supposed monopoly of the literary Left. He goes far beyond Charles Dickens, for example, by the breadth of his empathic warmth. He can glory in the nobility, strength, and joys of an extraordinary range of real people, and not just wallow in their weaknesses and cruelties, or their victimization by a Mean Social System.

Kipling's famous novel of Anglo-India, titled Kim, is one of the most enjoyable works in English. I found it in a remarkable vocal interpretation by British actor Sam Dastor -- a great audiobook of a great novel. You can't get better than that. Within the limits of a boy's adventure novel, Kipling manages not to reduce characters to cardboard cutouts. By comparison, Dickens' Oliver Twist has a kind of sadistic quality, a kind of sly celebration of cruelty and suffering. Little Oliver practically beats his readers into coercive empathy with all that famished begging. Dickens was a pioneer of compassion fascism, the standard trope of the Left. In the end, we look at Oliver as permanently Twisted -- which is presumably why the P.C. crowd loves the little tyke. But real human beings aren't Hallmark cards.

By contrast, Kim consistently achieves the highest levels of laughter, insight, irony, spiritual respect, compassion, truthfulness, and love. And it's completely entertaining. It is a grand celebration of India at the time in which the author was growing up there. That is why the protagonist is a young Anglo-Irish boy, thriving like a wild tiger cub, with minimal supervision, on the streets of the teeming city of Lahore. The young Kim hardly speaks any English, but he is fluent in all the ways of his world. This is India at the height of the Raj, the comparatively enlightened rule of British soldiers and bureaucrats over the sub-continent, which includes today's India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

India is more prosperous today than it was during the Raj, but there is a reason why the English language has been kept as a required language in both Pakistan and India, and why parliamentary forms of government are tenaciously upheld. Before the Raj, the subcontinent was a collection of ruthless local tyrannies. Afterward, they adopted the best the British had to offer in the way of governance, economics, and technology. That's what barbarian Europe learned from the Romans a thousand years earlier. A time of imperial rule can be a gift, just as the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany and the crumbling of the Soviet Empire was an immense gift to Europe.

The Left feels compelled to slander Kipling (without reading his books) for all the evil "isms": militarism, colonialism, imperialism, and even capitalism. But good literature transcends those isms in just the way in which real individuals transcend all the crude sociopolitical categories. Kipling-phobia is just another Lefty taboo, and it's not worth taking seriously. Leave them to their foibles, and don't let P.C. taboos get in the way of discovering something wonderful.

Kim is introduced as a tough and joyful street urchin on page one, just as his great alter-ego comes stalking into the city square: a tall and elderly Tibetan Lama who has simply walked and ridden the noisy trains thousands of miles from the highlands of the Himalayas to the teeming cities of the south, seeking a Buddhist river of purification and enlightenment. Kim defends the tall and elderly Lama's desire to sit and rest under the decorative cannon in the square against the officious interference of a policeman. A chord of sympathy is struck between the Lama and the urchin...and the story takes off.

The Lama and the boy both have a quest -- the one for his river of enlightenment, and the other to go adventuring in the immense expanses of Hind, the land of India. Both achieve their aims, in a way, but it is Kim who provides the focus of interest, as he is discovered to be a Sahib (the son of an Irish ne'er-do-well soldier of the Maverick regiment). Kim receives a double education, being drafted into a Catholic School for boys of the British bureaucracy and mentored as a young and talented spy for the Raj in the Great Game against Russia; but it is the land and the people who are his real education. Kipling allows us to see through Kim's shrewd and delighted young eyes at an extraordinary cast of characters in his travels through British India.

For millennia, the Indian subcontinent has been a meeting place and flashpoint between indigenous tribal, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Greek, Persian, Mongol, Afghan, and Chinese-Tibetan migrations, culminating in the British Raj. These last brought Western influence -- building the railroads, subordinating the independent princedoms of the Maharajas, and naturally, triggering the usual post-colonial reaction afterwards by people like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was himself a product of a British socialist elite. Nehru stood for socialist Euro-imperialism under the guise of anti-colonialism. He forged an alliance with Soviet imperialism -- not a good substitute for the British Raj.

Indian socialism led to the usual stagnation and scapegoating, but then, by a miracle of statesmanship, its political class realized how they were denying their own people the chance to flourish and grow. Today, India is less reactive about the Raj, perhaps because the educated middle class is doing so well in a free-market environment, and also because India is supremely adaptive. The whole history of the subcontinent is one invasion after another, beginning even before the Bhagavat-Gita, the central drama of Vedanta Hinduism, which is itself the tale of Indo-European warrior clans who were absorbed by the sophisticated spirituality of Vedanta and Buddhism. Muslim invasions over a period of centuries introduced a new and less tolerant creed, eliminating the Buddhist monasteries forever, but Islam was offset over time by Sikhism and other reactions. Like Russia, India can be invaded, but it always puts an indelible stamp on the foreign invader. That certainly included the British Raj. The great Taj Mahal palace is a monument to human love, but it was built by the son of a ruthless conqueror.

So Kim has a world of astonishing characters to meet. Besides the Red Hat Lama, he finds a father figure in a Pathan horse trader from Afghanistan; a protective but sinister spymaster; and a fat, shrewd, and comical Bengali, torn between his desire to join the Royal Society for his ethnological researches and the dark intrigues of the Great Game. In the background there are sympathetic Brits and Irish, from Kim's poor, drug-addicted father, now long-dead, to the Western scholars who first thoroughly investigated and attempted to preserve the wealth of ethnicities and traditions that constitute India, to the Anglican and Catholic priests who approach Kim with just the right set of religious and cultural blind spots.

But then, everyone wears blinders in this life-affirming novel, because almost everyone does in real life. That is part of the human comedy. Through Kim's eyes we see a bountiful parade of human beings in all their nobility and folly. This book does not sentimentalize; it sees people without fear or shame, but it is a book of unstinting love.

That's not bad for a mean, imperialist, colonialist, capitalist stereotype by the Left. Look beyond the cardboard cutout of Rudyard Kipling, and you'll see an extraordinary novelist at his best.

And the language...the language is glorious. I can't recommend it enough.
When Rudyards cease from Kipling
And Haggards Ryde no more ...
So goes the wittiest couplet in English. But it falls short by pairing two writers who are only superficially alike: Ryder Haggard and Rudyard Kipling. Only Kipling comes close to real greatness when he is at his best, even on a par with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. We are not supposed to know this because Rudyard Kipling is (wrongly) damned by the Left for his supposed British imperialism and aggravated normalcy. The Left controls the organs of propaganda, and in Britain, the cultural Left has been in control for a whole century. To the Left, there are no artists, but only propagandists for and against them. Everything is politicized. But great writers outlast their political enemies. Who really cares today if Shakespeare supported the Tudors or not?

The Kultursmoggers of the Left are wrong about Kipling in the way that they are so often wrong. Their vision is severely impaired by those black-and-white prisms they use. Kipling shows the most heartrending empathy with human suffering, the supposed monopoly of the literary Left. He goes far beyond Charles Dickens, for example, by the breadth of his empathic warmth. He can glory in the nobility, strength, and joys of an extraordinary range of real people, and not just wallow in their weaknesses and cruelties, or their victimization by a Mean Social System.

Kipling's famous novel of Anglo-India, titled Kim, is one of the most enjoyable works in English. I found it in a remarkable vocal interpretation by British actor Sam Dastor -- a great audiobook of a great novel. You can't get better than that. Within the limits of a boy's adventure novel, Kipling manages not to reduce characters to cardboard cutouts. By comparison, Dickens' Oliver Twist has a kind of sadistic quality, a kind of sly celebration of cruelty and suffering. Little Oliver practically beats his readers into coercive empathy with all that famished begging. Dickens was a pioneer of compassion fascism, the standard trope of the Left. In the end, we look at Oliver as permanently Twisted -- which is presumably why the P.C. crowd loves the little tyke. But real human beings aren't Hallmark cards.

By contrast, Kim consistently achieves the highest levels of laughter, insight, irony, spiritual respect, compassion, truthfulness, and love. And it's completely entertaining. It is a grand celebration of India at the time in which the author was growing up there. That is why the protagonist is a young Anglo-Irish boy, thriving like a wild tiger cub, with minimal supervision, on the streets of the teeming city of Lahore. The young Kim hardly speaks any English, but he is fluent in all the ways of his world. This is India at the height of the Raj, the comparatively enlightened rule of British soldiers and bureaucrats over the sub-continent, which includes today's India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

India is more prosperous today than it was during the Raj, but there is a reason why the English language has been kept as a required language in both Pakistan and India, and why parliamentary forms of government are tenaciously upheld. Before the Raj, the subcontinent was a collection of ruthless local tyrannies. Afterward, they adopted the best the British had to offer in the way of governance, economics, and technology. That's what barbarian Europe learned from the Romans a thousand years earlier. A time of imperial rule can be a gift, just as the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany and the crumbling of the Soviet Empire was an immense gift to Europe.

The Left feels compelled to slander Kipling (without reading his books) for all the evil "isms": militarism, colonialism, imperialism, and even capitalism. But good literature transcends those isms in just the way in which real individuals transcend all the crude sociopolitical categories. Kipling-phobia is just another Lefty taboo, and it's not worth taking seriously. Leave them to their foibles, and don't let P.C. taboos get in the way of discovering something wonderful.

Kim is introduced as a tough and joyful street urchin on page one, just as his great alter-ego comes stalking into the city square: a tall and elderly Tibetan Lama who has simply walked and ridden the noisy trains thousands of miles from the highlands of the Himalayas to the teeming cities of the south, seeking a Buddhist river of purification and enlightenment. Kim defends the tall and elderly Lama's desire to sit and rest under the decorative cannon in the square against the officious interference of a policeman. A chord of sympathy is struck between the Lama and the urchin...and the story takes off.

The Lama and the boy both have a quest -- the one for his river of enlightenment, and the other to go adventuring in the immense expanses of Hind, the land of India. Both achieve their aims, in a way, but it is Kim who provides the focus of interest, as he is discovered to be a Sahib (the son of an Irish ne'er-do-well soldier of the Maverick regiment). Kim receives a double education, being drafted into a Catholic School for boys of the British bureaucracy and mentored as a young and talented spy for the Raj in the Great Game against Russia; but it is the land and the people who are his real education. Kipling allows us to see through Kim's shrewd and delighted young eyes at an extraordinary cast of characters in his travels through British India.

For millennia, the Indian subcontinent has been a meeting place and flashpoint between indigenous tribal, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Greek, Persian, Mongol, Afghan, and Chinese-Tibetan migrations, culminating in the British Raj. These last brought Western influence -- building the railroads, subordinating the independent princedoms of the Maharajas, and naturally, triggering the usual post-colonial reaction afterwards by people like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was himself a product of a British socialist elite. Nehru stood for socialist Euro-imperialism under the guise of anti-colonialism. He forged an alliance with Soviet imperialism -- not a good substitute for the British Raj.

Indian socialism led to the usual stagnation and scapegoating, but then, by a miracle of statesmanship, its political class realized how they were denying their own people the chance to flourish and grow. Today, India is less reactive about the Raj, perhaps because the educated middle class is doing so well in a free-market environment, and also because India is supremely adaptive. The whole history of the subcontinent is one invasion after another, beginning even before the Bhagavat-Gita, the central drama of Vedanta Hinduism, which is itself the tale of Indo-European warrior clans who were absorbed by the sophisticated spirituality of Vedanta and Buddhism. Muslim invasions over a period of centuries introduced a new and less tolerant creed, eliminating the Buddhist monasteries forever, but Islam was offset over time by Sikhism and other reactions. Like Russia, India can be invaded, but it always puts an indelible stamp on the foreign invader. That certainly included the British Raj. The great Taj Mahal palace is a monument to human love, but it was built by the son of a ruthless conqueror.

So Kim has a world of astonishing characters to meet. Besides the Red Hat Lama, he finds a father figure in a Pathan horse trader from Afghanistan; a protective but sinister spymaster; and a fat, shrewd, and comical Bengali, torn between his desire to join the Royal Society for his ethnological researches and the dark intrigues of the Great Game. In the background there are sympathetic Brits and Irish, from Kim's poor, drug-addicted father, now long-dead, to the Western scholars who first thoroughly investigated and attempted to preserve the wealth of ethnicities and traditions that constitute India, to the Anglican and Catholic priests who approach Kim with just the right set of religious and cultural blind spots.

But then, everyone wears blinders in this life-affirming novel, because almost everyone does in real life. That is part of the human comedy. Through Kim's eyes we see a bountiful parade of human beings in all their nobility and folly. This book does not sentimentalize; it sees people without fear or shame, but it is a book of unstinting love.

That's not bad for a mean, imperialist, colonialist, capitalist stereotype by the Left. Look beyond the cardboard cutout of Rudyard Kipling, and you'll see an extraordinary novelist at his best.

And the language...the language is glorious. I can't recommend it enough.