Between politics and literature - La nostalgia del viaggio di Kipling

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Between politics and literature

If Kipling had heeded the words of Henry James, today we would not be here to discourse over his wrongs. Following the publication of Kim, the great American-born novelist, later to acquire British nationality, had in fact advised him to concentrate on writing more books like Kim and not to dwell on political matters. Kipling, as we know, did everything in his power not to follow this suggestion. He was drawn towards the misfortune, although well deserved, to link his literary works to his political conceptions which resulted in him losing value in the eyes of his contemporaries and his descendants alike. His tendency to glorify the Empire, at the peak of its prosperity during the years of his time as a writer, went hand in hand with the dogmatic idea of it being Britain's duty to bring democracy and justice to the world.

The Anglo-Saxon bard referred to this as the 'White man's burden' in this poem of his, addressed to the United States in 1899 on the eve of their gain of control over the Philippines. Today he is criticised, mainly in England, where he is considered a jingo, meaning a fanatical nationalist. Without wanting to justify his shortcomings, it is wrong to condemn him with today's moral standards. He believed deeply in the moral and civilised mission of the white race, which he deemed well prepared from an educational, scientific and technological point of view for the role of spreading civilisation and of gradually encouraging the progress of other populations.

His conception of the Empire was a combination of myth and reality. His considerations and observations were inspired by a sense of supremacy and pride for the objectives reached, but at the same time by no means did he attempt to hide the weaker points and failures of the Imperial system. And it is just so, in the tales told in Gentlemen-Rankers, that Kipling exposes the horrors of the demise of certain servants to the Empire. This was aimed at forcing those who had not fulfilled their duties to look within themselves and at their own abyss of abjection. Whilst in the stories told in Arithmetic on the Frontier he criticises the stupidity and lack of values of some of the heads of the British Raj and their method for allocating defensive emplacements on the borders, causing a great waste of men and materials, all spent in a vain attempt to defend  perpetually uncertain and unstable frontiers. However, it is especially during the Anglo-Boer war that Kipling sees his idea of the Empire undermined and debased by the people and events involved. For this reason, his works on this subject are somewhat biased and nurture a sense of disillusion.

Other writers, of inferior literary value than his own, but equally as enraged for the wrong reasons, have received far less criticism. Often, however, his critics have confessed that they spent many days of their childhood engrossed in his books, following the adventures of Kim, Harvey or Mowgli. It must in fact be noted that 'literary' Kipling does not coincide with 'political' Kipling and it is only right to keep his artistic work separate from his personal opinions.

He was an impetuous artist, his writing full of enthusiasm even in his later years. His characters are a long way off from being mentally refined, caught in their own simplicity and natural ways, whilst at the same time reacting instinctively to on-coming events, without a great deal of torment or psychological complications. Their hidden nature  emerges with the unfolding of passing situations, without them needing to delve into their past lives. As Stevenson once said, Kipling's stories contain a great flow of vitality. The writer who influenced him the most was Defoe, from whom he had learnt the love of detail and the use of precise terminology, making his stories more realistic and plausible. From Dickens, instead, he had inherited a sympathetic attitude towards the humble and the ability to find humour in the tiniest of things.

Kipling's style of writing always began from concrete situations, if not from real-life episodes. This tells us that, deep down, the journalist in him always remained present, a role which helped him to mature his artistic resources, to cultivate the capability to pick out the conflicts and crises present in society and, with a good dose of irony, to conjure up words that are moving because they go straight to the heart.

  His life between two worlds

Kipling's middle name was Rudyard – his first name being Joseph - and had been suggested by an Aunt, in order to commemorate the courtship of his parents, which had taken place on the banks of a homonymous lake, which lies in Staffordshire. The writer, born in Bombay in 1865, spent his early childhood in India. At the age of five, like the majority of children born to English residents in India, he was sent to be educated in England and entrusted with adopted parents. He spent many unhappy years in their house in Southsea, which he nicknamed “The House of Desolation”. His world had completely changed and he could not adjust to his new life. Later on, he attended the United Services College in Devon, a school assigned to those who intended to serve in the armed forces.

At seventeen, refusing to go to university, he returned to India, where he started a career in journalism working for The Civil and Military Gazette. At the newspaper he performed almost any task, from proofreading the drafts of articles and reviews to writing columns of information on receptions, dances and polo matches for the Anglo-Indians. One of his colleagues had once recounted that, because of his brusque movements, by the end of the day his white shirt and trousers were completely covered in ink, making him look like a dalmatian. It was in those years that he published his first volumes of poetry and stories. Among them was Plain Tales from the Hills, written in 1888, which portrayed tales of British Officials serving in India, of their hardships and their feeling of being lost to the world. Success came immediately and suddenly, not only in India, but also in England.

After that, in 1891, The Light that failed was published. His great story-telling skills and his talent for re-inventing life by breathing the colours of reality and truth into the sphere of fantasies and memories were all put to practice. The story is set in Suez and Port Said nine years earlier. In 1882 he was returning to India, after finishing the last school term. That year, Gladstone had decided to take military action in Egypt with land and sea operations and by bombing  the harbours. Kipling found himself in the middle of a battle, where the prize at stake was the Suez Canal. Once again, in the book we find many of the topics and descriptions that are so typical of his later books: the Navy and sea trade, the soldiers, the heat, the smells, the corrupt atmosphere...

He left India behind once again to head for Japan, and later America, where he met Caroline Balestier, whom he married in London in 1892. He settled with her in Vermont, where he designed and commissioned the building of a house in the shape of a boat. This was named the Naulakha;  the study was where the deck cabin would have been and the kitchen was where the engine room would usually be. Whilst living there, in the year 1894, he wrote Captains Courageous and the two volumes of The Jungle book, where the author describes microcosms in order to represent the macrocosms of life.

He remained  in the States for four years, never fully succeeding to adjust to the country, towards which he built up something of a love-hate relationship. He moved to England in 1897, first near Torquay, and then up to the countryside of East Sussex, near Rottingdean, in a house called Bateman's, which had six chimneys arranged in a row and used as a landmark by the pilots of the direct airlines to Paris.

Kipling never became a man of the countryside. He continued to travel not feeling at home in any country, as suggested by this quip he once made: “England? The most marvellous foreign country I have ever been to”. He always spoke of his two worlds, the “two separate sides to my head”, referring to two completely different parts of his life. These were more dear to him than, as in his words, “friends, tobacco, and even   bread”. He chose South Africa as his newly adopted homeland. He loved its heat and light, which reminded him of India.

During the Anglo-Boer War, he worked there as a war correspondent. His death, which came in 1936, two days before that of King George V, made a mark. For some, amongst which the writer Woodehouse, this signalled the end of a literary era, whereas for others, such as the General Hamilton, this meant the end of a political age in the history of England and of Europe: an end to the expansion of the colonies.

Journeys and aromas

Curious about the lifestyle of ordinary people, rather than tempted to lose himself in analysis and debates, Kipling had followed soldiers on war expeditions, sailors on missions out to sea, train-drivers on their vehicles, nomads into their tents.
Spurred on by the desire to understand the different aspects of life and diverse lifestyles, he wanted to encounter all types of people, from businessmen and officers concerned with the well-being of their soldiers to humble workers fixing boilers. Eager to experience new things, to be embraced by new landscapes and to come across new and diverse events, he often changed his surroundings and moulded into a new way of life and into other worlds.

Thanks to his continuous wandering, filled with incidents but fertile with new experiences, he retrieved an abundance of images, a collection of personalities which we discover in his characters, who are so lifelike and expressive in his books, fully integrated into the magnificent plots of their adventures. The reader feels almost as if long hours have been spent listening to them speak and watching them, in the attempt to discover the secrets of their lives.

Ships were one of his great passions. During his numerous ocean-crossings it wasn't unheard of to see him asking the sailors and ship engineers for information, accurately jotting it down in his notebook. In his many tales and poems he spoke of the sea, at a time when steamboats and steamers were taking the place of majestic sailing ships. Here he reveals the proud and noble nature of sailors, the arduous job of the seafarers, the monotonous uneventful days, the courageous confrontations amid rough stormy seas and the yelling of orders called out in unison.

In the book Egypt of Magicians Kipling believes in the theory that it is a specific habitat that forges a man, whereby the sea and the desert create distinctly different types of man. In his voyages, he had encountered a man forged by the desert which lies at the borders of the Red Sea, where smugglers would be transporting hashish, which in his words “smells abominably, worse than a heated camel”. They would come ashore in dhows, Arabian vessels taken to prearranged points of the beach, where they were awaited by swift camels who would carry them away.

Other men are raised by the sea, which speaks to them of adventures and  mysteries and reawakens memories that lie in the depth of a man's senses and which are linked to recollections that cannot be reached in any other way. Even from London Bridge, in the city that is “half made of fog and dirt, and half of fog and noise”, one could smell the sea. In Salt water unbounded, he writes: “A Londoner, taking a stroll along London Bridge, can smell the salty perfume of the air brought in by the wind that blows down the Thames. This causes him to feel a touch of romanticism and to experience a rush of fondness, for the winds of the sea speak to the heart of the English and even for those who have never seen the sea, it is a fascination that runs through their blood. The British would soon perish on their Island if they did not leave the doors open to the Ocean.”

The huge ships are also a symbol of England's expansion and Kipling uses them to represent England itself, portrayed as a ship with wise and resourceful captains at its helm, bound for many different parts of the world. Also in Captains Courageous the sea plays the prime role, to the point that one can almost physically feel the waves as they break against the side of the ship and the smell of the sea brought in by the spray as the waters knock against the keel. In  Matter of Fact, an enormous blind sea-snake emerges from the depths of the tropical waters, a white monster that gives off a strong musky odour. In this sea adventure, Kipling uncharacteristically builds an imaginary route filled with mystery and gives the reader the feeling that anything could happen and slowly prepares him to accept events that, although impossible, are the result of the unpredictable laws of a great expanse of water.

His greatly developed sense of smell could possibly stem from the fact that he was born in India. From a young age, he had been used to paying a great deal of attention to it and manifested a great ability to describe this. In his books, we can even find descriptions of smells he had experienced long before. The journey he underwent when he was twelve, from Southsea to a college in Devon was for him one of disconsolation and depression. In his mind, this transfer was permanently associated with the faint smell of exhaust fumes and the odour of “damp trousers and overcoats”. The description of that journey, which he spent in the company of the headmaster of the institute who was a friend of the family, was written however many years later.

One important characteristic of Kipling's literature regards the evocative mechanism triggered by odours and the ability that they have to bring forth memories that seemed forgotten. When, at the age of eighteen, he returned to Bombay aboard the Brindisi and saw the scenery from his early childhood again, it felt to him like turning back the clock: “The sights and above all the smells took me back to my past life. I found myself automatically uttering phrases and words of which I did not know the meaning”. In Letters of Travel a similar experience is described, in which the scent of the Hibiscus and the Poinsettia releases his tongue to words and phrases that he thought he had forgotten.

On his journey through Canada, described in From Tideway to Tideway, a breath of genuine fresh Spring air drifts inside the railway carriage and entices him out onto the platform to delight over the aromas of the fine season. In Letters to the Family – The Fortunate Towns, he focuses his attention on the wide open spaces of Winnipeg, the entrance into the American prairies. “It is a stretch of space vaster than most and the air is lighter than any other that I have breathed because it returns to the Pole unimpaired by obstacles.  The open lands guard the secret of their magic jealously, as do the sea and the desert.” And yet all this is of little relief to him when at a certain point he is gripped by the love of his homeland and exclaims “I would like to be amid the mugginess and dust again... My body would suffer, but my soul would be at peace”.

Kipling believed Port Said to be the dividing point between the Western and  Eastern world. In that spot, where a fringe of Palm trees is outlined by the skies and the tropical waters resemble crushed sapphires, the smells of a foreign land and the accents of unknown languages sharpen a longing for home within the traveller, bringing an overwhelming rush of family memories. That is where the sparkle of  colours and perfumes of the East begins, the description of which is prone to being  commonplace. Kipling is a clear-minded and critical observer, always adhering to reality and not a prey to pindaric flights. The conspicuous odours on the Himalayan peaks, along the road that leads to Tibet, are in fact described in The Broken Man as a blend between incense and the stench of goats. Kim is a British youngster who was born in India and is the main character in the book, which gets its name from him. At nightfall he perceives the smell of “wood smoke and cattle and the good scent of  wheat cakes cooked on ashes.”

At another point in this book, Marigolds are mentioned, their fallen leaves giving off a characteristic pungent smell which mingles with that of Jasmine, an intense perfume which even succeeds in covering up the bitter reek of the dust. In The Edge of the East  Kipling describes Bombay as the odour of the whole of Asia which greets the traveller. It reaches ships when they are still many miles out from the shore and lingers in the noses of passengers until they are far away. It is a strong and aggressive smell which can build false prejudice in the mind of a foreigner, but it is counterbalanced by a more delicate and pervasive scent carried by the soft breeze which breathes at dawn: a fragrance of moist earth, bamboo, wood smoke, local food and is, on the whole, a comforting smell.

According to Kipling, It is not possible to cross the cramped streets of the Oriental city without coming across its filth and dirt, which the heat transposes into dense foul-smelling stagnant air. He describes this unpleasant stench on more than one occasion. Calcutta's odour earns itself the name of Big Calcutta Stink: “In the chill of the morning, a dense smoke caused by the combination of all the bad smells, animal and vegetable, that the city produces day and night, hangs low over an ocean of roofs”. As the city awakens with its boom of life, motion and humanity, these fumes begin to spread and besiege the back of ones throat. Also at night “the air is heavy and laden with an indistinct bitter, pungent stench – the essence of something revolting after long neglect– and one cannot manage to escape it, like it's trapped between the houses. There is a total stillness of people and things. There is no light. A patio exhales the disgusting smell that seeps into all the rooms...” In Benares and in some zones of Peshawar the stench is even fouler as the filth is concentrated in a small area, but Calcutta is the area where the nauseating zone is most widespread.

Unlike Bombay which covers its own odours with an aromatic blanket of Asafetida and of Hookah tobacco, there is no hope for Calcutta.“One cannot trace the Calcutta plague back to any one source. It is faint, it is sickly, and it is indescribable. It is certainly not an Indian smell. It resembles the essence of corruption that has rotted for the second time – the clammy odour of blue slime. There is no escape from it. It swirls round open spaces; it pours out of by-streets with sickening intensity. It is first found, in spite of the fume of the engines, in Howrah Station. The thing is intermittent. Six moderately pure mouthfuls of air may be drawn without offence. Then comes the seventh wave and the queasiness of an uncultured stomach”. If one lives in Calcutta for quite a long time one ends up getting used to it. So the locals maintain and they add “Wait till the wind blows off the Salt Lakes where all the sewage goes, and then you'll really smell something!”

In The City of the Dreadful Night, Kipling describes a night time stroll in the poor, overcrowded neighbourhood of Lahore. “The stench is worsened by the unhealthy added odour of chandu-khana, a type of Opium that is treated to be transformed into Morphine and Cocaine”. And shortly afterwards: “One goes home when the day begins, in a rented vehicle that smells of Narghile, of Jasmine flowers and Sandalwood: a large part of real Indian life happens at night”.
Another of Kipling's characteristics in many of his books is a feeling of ambivalence towards his two homelands and their cultures. When he is a long way from England, he speaks of the Country with a sense of longing. “Ah, God, one sniff of England!”.
But when he finds himself in the thick fog of London, the bright world of Asia is felt inside him with the seduction of its perfumes and of its colours, like an enchanted mirage, made of a tempting, irresistible fascination. “If you have ever experienced the call of the East, you cannot think of anything but the Sun, the breeze through the Palm trees, and the aroma of spices and garlic...”

He expresses his ambivalence in many other occasions, ever returning to a continuous game of homesickness for one or the other. In India, he misses the long walks and smells of home, whereas when in England he holds a burning desire to smell the perfume of the Deodar Cedar trees and the Champaca, the plants of the aromatic flowers that grow near the Buddhist Temples. Nostalgia is a bitter, sharp sensation, with different shades of meaning depending on your age. When one is young it is almost a physical uneasiness, instead further on in life, it is a deep longing for the past or to be somewhere else,in a country that is far away and which takes us to memories of a special time.

But for Kipling, the separation between his two worlds on the line of nostalgia is often more apparent than real. Within him, for a long time his two homelands are somehow linked and part of each other. In Christmas in India  the coming of Christmas makes him long for England. “I remember my first Christmas in India, the sadness of the hot, dusty days, the saffron-colour skies, the dust on the main road, the smells from the side roads, whilst at home they were intertwining the branches of mistletoe and holly, alternating the white berries with the red ones...” And he adds: “Some Indian trader or friend could have got hold of some holly or mistletoe for us, perhaps fetching it from the Himalayas”.

One can easily see that this would just not have been quite the same thing, because the surroundings did not suit the desired atmosphere, that mood described in My Sunday at Home, produced by the peaceful calm of the festive season and the sweetness of the English countryside. The charm of an English day in May finds him content to be alive and he abandons himself to the drift of Time and Fate: “And what a garden of Eden it was, this fatted, clipped, and washen land! A man could camp in any open field with more sense of home and security than the stateliest buildings of foreign cities could afford. Groomed hedgerow, spotless road, decent greystone cottage, serried spinney, tasselled copse, apple-bellied hawthorn and well-grown trees...a faint whiff as it might have been of fresh coconut, and I knew that the golden gorse was in bloom somewhere out of sight”. This plant, adorned with yellow, fragrant flowers is mentioned again in another point of the book: “The lovers of the British countryside will remember the comforting scent of the gorse..” And once more: “There was a beautiful smell in the air – the smell of smoke and bruised nettles – that brings tears to the eyes of a man who sees his country but seldom, a smell like the echoes of the lost talk of lovers; the infinitely suggestive odour of an immemorial civilisation”.

Closely following the importance of the sensations savoured with the sense of smell, his sense of taste is often mentioned as a channel for sensations. On the occasion of his visit to the White House, the President of the United States was Stephen Grover Cleveland, he writes. Regarding the politicians he met, he tells of how he was disgusted with this gigantic place frequented by stinking scoundrels, adding however that, politicians aside, the food was out of this world. In The Bull that Thought, in 1924, at a dinner-party in honour of a certain event, the champagne is described as so: “The velvety, perfumed liquor, between fawn and topaz, neither too sweet nor too dry...”

For Kipling, physical sensitivity is the expression of exuberance and vitality, as we can tell from the following phrase: “After four hours of acrobatic exercises, and having then eaten and drunk till you can no more, sprawl in the cool of a nullah-bed with your head among the green tobacco, and your mind adrift with the one little cloud in a royally blue sky. Earth has nothing more to offer her children than this deep delight of animal well-being”.

The main characters in many of Kipling's stories are soldiers, so much so that he has been considered a writer for soldiers rather than for children. They too are captured by the magic of aromas which brings back memories and reawakens emotions. An Australian soldier riding a horse in the beating rain can more easily discern smells than sounds or scenery, and is captured “by the perfume of the fragrant golden flower of the Acacia, which vibrates the strings of one's heart”. Also: “The smell of burnt grass takes me back to the Burmese jungle, whereas the sweet breeze, which spirals from the West, brings to mind the painful memories of old friends that are no longer here”.

A brilliant lecturer

In the course of his life Kipling had given many conferences which have been collected together in the volume A Book of Words. The first of these to be presented, named Some Aspects of Travel  was read out on 17th February 1914, before the members of the Royal Geographical Society, the association founded in London in the year 1830, which reunited British travellers and explorers. Two years earlier, Kipling had attended one of the association's organised annual banquets. On that occasion, the members had made sure that they were promised a conference. Some Aspects of Travel represents the fulfilment of that commitment.

The conference does not have a prearranged rigid construction nor a methodical development. It is a succession of points, a collection of impressions written and collected over the years by one prestigious writer who was also a great traveller, although he denies this last fact in his introduction on a whim of modesty. The central idea behind his speech concerns the changes and modifications that technology and aeronautics are bringing to the means of communication. Kipling maintains that all these changes would bring about a new aesthetic point of view towards travelling. With transfers by air travel, there would no longer be natural obstacles to overcome in the remote, secluded areas and the duration of the journey to cross the planet would be reduced. In the hearts of the old world travellers a tender nostalgia would be born, filled with the emotions handed on to them by what was once the fascination of voyaging: make-shift tents, the smell of the forest, the physical effort required, the meals enjoyed at the end of a hard journey, the physical exhaustion making them taste so much better. The unbeaten tracks would be ever fewer and would also reduce the number of journeys whereby the outcome depends on the events one comes across along the way.

On one hand, Kipling seems to prefer to keep things the way they are, without alterations, inspired by tradition, to the point of applying this principle also within his house, where he had conserved a sort of Medieval style, refusing to install a telephone, for instance. As a sign of respect for the buildings of that time, he kept in place not only the exterior doors constructed during the Saxon age, but also the wooden ceilings, the fireplace and its craft in wrought iron in the grand Elizabethan drawing room, which had been carried out four hundred years earlier by the owner of the ironworks who had constructed the building.

However on the other hand, he realises that everything must necessarily change and is convinced that technological progress has positive aspects to it, for example the flourishing of new cities, increased connection between continents and the opening of new lands. This implies carrying out work on research and adaptation and finding a new social and moral balance for the spirit of Man, whilst simultaneously avoiding a surge of omnipotence which could have disastrous effects.  Yet nevertheless he sustains that “Nothing changes in life. The most each generation can hope for is to rename each spiritual and emotional rebirth in their own language, rich with new inventions. But even if it produces new abilities and living conditions and even if new languages are born, man will not change”.

The second conference, The Verdict of Equals, was expounded in May 1912, once again in front of the Royal Geographical Society. A lot shorter and more concise than the first reading, it was aimed at praising the merits of this society for its geographical discoveries and the role of its President, Lord Curzon, an important, political figure who had initially been appointed a Member of Parliament, then later Ruler of India and finally Foreign Minister. The style is rhetorical and delivered in a pompous fashion. The contents however give an idea of the immense work of exploration of the Globe undergone by the British in the second half of the Nineteenth century.
Graziella Martina

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