Kipling: understanding and control

I just finished Kim, which was my favorite novel when I was 12 years old. I wanted then to be Kim, a boy spy in the Orient. Later, I would have avoided the book as imperialistic and juvenile. But a favorable word by Pankaj Mishra sent me back to it. It is a bit of a “Boy’s Own” adventure, and it is certainly imperialistic–in an interesting way. It is also finely constructed, challenging, and beautiful to read.

I was attentive to the different ways that Kipling’s characters understand or fail to understand cultures other than their own. Almost the full possible spectrum of such understanding is represented. Right at the beginning, we meet the English curator of the museum in Lahore, a man learned in the languages and religions of South Asia. He derives some of his knowledge from “books French and German, with photographs and reproductions,” drawing on the “labours of European scholars” accumulated over at least a century. (That body of work is a remarkable achievement.) But the curator also recognizes an old beggar as “no mere bead-telling mendicant, but a scholar of parts,” and engages the Lama in a respectful conversation, from which he continues to learn.

In Chapter 4, a “dark, sallowish District Superintendant of Police” speaks fluent Hindi or Urdu and wittily urges a woman to veil herself–enforcing not a British law but a local custom. She observes, “These be the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land. The others, all new from Europe, suckled by white woman and learning our tongues from books, are worse than pestilence.” In Chapter 11, we learn that the same policeman is actually a Government spy, “not less than the greatest” agent in the Secret Service. What makes him effective is his deep affinity for his Hindu subjects.

To control requires understanding and respect. It changes the ones who rule as well as those whom they govern. The two cultures grow more alike, either enriching or adulterating themselves (depending on your perspective and the way the merger turns out). Some Europeans in Kim do not understand this dynamic. For instance, the Rev. Bennett says, “My experience is that one can never fathom the Oriental mind.” He can’t even understand when Kim, in Urdu, calls him “the thin fool who looks like a camel.” To misunderstand is to lack control, as the Russian and French spies find to their humiliation near the end. They believe they can “deal with Orientals,” but they utterly misread the people around them.

And then there is the lama, who doesn’t wish to understand because he doesn’t want to rule. “It was noticeable that the lama never demanded any details of life at St. Xavier’s, nor showed the faintest curiosity as to the manners and customs of the Sahibs.” As a result, the Europeans affect him not at all. (Even the spectacles that the curator gives him never change the way he sees the world.)

So the imperialism that Kim describes and–presumably–celebrates is a process of careful, respectful interpretation and learning. It’s not surprising that the head of the Royal Ethnographic Survey is also the chief spy for Britain, or that an Anglified Bengali should wish to use charms and to describe them in scientific papers for the Royal Society. This “Babu” is, in fact, the perfect example of an imperialistic mix, with his invocations to Herbert Spencer as a prophet of karma, his Latin tags, and his brilliant mimicry of diverse Indians.

Kipling himself spoke Hindi before English, and his father was the curator of the Lahore Museum. So Kipling was the kind of imperialist he celebrated. What he overlooked was the economic exploitation essential to the British Raj. The British didn’t just “oversee justice”; they also made the rules to maximize their profit. The only hint of that fact in the novel is a complaint that the Babu makes when he pretends to be drunk in order to manipulate enemy spies. He is actually a British spy, despised in all his disguises. Yet perhaps Kipling faintly understands that the Babu’s complaint is just.

For better and for worse, the United States has never produced many people who yearn to understand, love, and control foreign countries. We intervene often enough, but we tend to beat a quick retreat when we find distant lands impossible to understand or to master. There have been fine American scholars of distant cultures; but they are rarely the same Americans who have invaded and governed such places. Today, after the new Counterinsurgency Manual and the shift in US tactics, American soldiers are busy learning Arabic and Pashto. I am not sure that their knowledge will last or accumulate, nor that it is motivated by the kind of love, affinity, and urge to possess that was so common among Anglo-Indians. I suppose the strongest example of real American “imperialism” is domestic; white Americans have periodically immersed themselves in minority cultures and have thereby helped to change and control them.

One thought on “Kipling: understanding and control

  1. tony grafton

    A thoughtful and enlightening post on a great (if problematic) book. Thanks so much.

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