Jokers, Liars, and Dumb Clucks: The Curious Case of the Kensington Rune Stone
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We have now to face the fact that they were the bars of a cage, and that Shaw had shut himself and his capers inside it. It is true, indeed, that the man who trains himself to speak without notes, of Rent, Interest, Profit, Wages, Toryism, Liberalism, Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, Trade-Unionism, Co-operation, Democracy, the Division of Society into Classes, and the suitability of Human Nature to Systems of Just Distri bution, is building up his views rather badly too hastily leaving the principal sites of his brain to a rabble of reach-me-down tenants.
But if there had been nothing worse than this, Shaw would have pulled through, after a check ; he had creative energy enough to make even Interest interesting, and to convert Rents into a human reality ; he would have ultimately humanized these ill-conditioned aliens much as a rich soil will regenerate and civilize a top-dressing of undesirable settlers.
No, the fatal thing was not the type of topic he discussed ; it was the attitude he struck whilst discussing. It induced a spiritual deformity, a perpetual kink which he will carry to his grave ; you might say I, at any rate, would have no right to reprove you that it produced a condition of permanent hump. We have seen how he slaved to acquire a tone of icy arrogance. Well, once found, it fairly froze to his tongue. The aesthetic fashion of the hour favoured contempt, tirades, antagonisms, an omniscient schoolmastering of creation.
Instead of wearing it a moment and then tossing it aside, this man hugged it to him till it became a second skin. And the reason for this rueful permanence, like all the primary causes in this amazing comedy of errors, only make the result the more perverse. A weaker artist would have suffered less : our Cranes soon ceased their clamour, our Carpenters turned craftsmen, working happily at a bench instead of irascibly endeavouring to occupy one.
All the genuine born propagandists too, on the other hand, changed their manner quite cheerily ; the Salts of the earth, after acting as irritants for a time, soci ably subsided later on into agreeable condiments as Secretaries to the Humane Society, and so on. But Shaw is utterly incapable of this carnalness.
He is overwhelmingly consumed by the poet s passion for unity and symmetry. He feels forced to adhere to all the attitudes of his salad-days down even to their devotion to salad ; he is incapable of confessing sunnily that those early passions for rolled oats were really only another of youth s ways of sowing wild ones. That accusation of capriciousness so often brought against him how heartily one wishes it were true!
He lacks the courage to abandon his Convictions. Like his own Sergius, he "never with draws. He somewhere reminds us that we all die once each eight years but in his own case the estate is strictly entailed ; he takes these intimate ancestors of his with the most tremendous seriousness ; he would sooner die than repudiate their pledges ; and many of his apparently wildest and least forgiv able extravagances have been simply due to his proud attempt to fulfil these contracts. Shaw wouldn t a bit mind giving himself away ; what he cannot bear is the thought that he has involuntarily done so.
It would seem so very careless. Taking life with the triple seriousness of Art, of Ireland, and of Youth, the idea of having wasted a drop of it would anguish him ; and almost all his irresponsibilities have been the result of this terrifying sense of personal respon sibility. It is this, for example, and not freakishness, that makes him dwell so disproportionately on ap parent trivialities of dress and diet on his way of eating and drinking, of spelling " cigarets " and not smoking them ; and when he rages so fantastically over our refusal to agree, he is in reality just beat ing back desperately any private qualms as to his Tightness, frantically justifying himself to himself.
It is the same boyish fear that sets him eternally chattering explanations. He is often not so much trying to discover the truth as to find some further proof that he has told it.
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When he buttonholes us so officiously outside his own plays prefacing, pro mising, assuring for all the world like a Showman blarneying desperately away outside his booth before he dares let us in he is really not so much trying to humbug us with his harangues as to reassure and satisfy himself. He uses all the vigour of his imagi nation to hypnotize that vigour ; his wit never dis plays a more wonderful nimbleness than when trying to reconcile his own sallies. He will found a philo sophy to escape admitting a jest was idle, 1 and then 1 See, for example, the solemn Note at the end of Coesar and Cleopatra, where Mr.
And this, and even worse than this, is precisely the horrible practice we are now to see him engaged in. Worse, because his thrawn thoroughness, the artist s instinct perverted, made him mangle and carve his conception of the whole of the rest of mankind in order to make it fit into his own forced malformities. His instinct for harmony made him insist that dis harmony was an essential condition of health.
The gravely reproduced portraits of Caesar and General Burgoyne in the same volume and the solemn resurrection of a contemporary print of the Pharos of Alexandria are analogous devices for cunningly satisfying his conscience that he has been spending his powers on work of an adequate dignity. One sometimes feels Mr. Shaw must have less humour than levity the latter seems so often to outrun the first. Torment is its natural element : it is only the saint who has any capacity for happiness.
Simply to save himself from the agony of admitting to himself that his early attitude and insolences had been largely just juvenile egregiousness, he determined to agonize the rest of the world. He began a campaign of universal irritation, repeating feverishly, like a missionary muttering godless prayers, that taunts and intoler ance were logically much the best of all methods of preaching and spreading the gospel of The Brother hood of Man.
And of course it couldn t end with that absurdity. The disguise had to get deeper, his voice had to rise louder in order to deafen his own ears. Other argu ments had to radiate, flung out to balance and support the first : once his creative energy got working in this accidental twig it shot out branches till it burst into a self-supporting tree, seeking a satisfying sym metry. The first corollary that ran out, to act as stay and flying buttress, and subsequently to become a parent stem of its own so that it now sometimes seems the central pillar of them all, the very tent- pole of his patent storm-proof creed , was the formula that all men s miseries are the result of the dis crepancy between the sentimental version of life fed into most of us and life as it actually is, and that to hack away these sweetnesses and cauterize the wounds, to kill what he wrongly called " the romantic con vention" with the cruellest acid and steel he could find, was therefore hero s work, hygienic work, a harsh but holy warfare, a completion of the surgery THE INNOCENCE OF BERNARD SHAW 29 begun by old Cervantes.
Now there was some of the sap of human truth in this at least it did touch actual earth : it is a diagnosis, indeed, that we can find an instant use for, here and now, for doesn t it form the perfect definition of the source of all Shaw s own disasters? It is because he sentimentally sees himself as a satirist and harsh realist, instead of harshly realizing he is actually a romantic, that he has gone so hopelessly astray ; it is because he sees himself as a Cervantes when he is really a Don Quixote down even to his personal appearance, by the way : G.
But the vitality in this principle, ironi cally enough, only served to sustain him while he unconsciously provided a perfect demonstration of its fatal action ; and if a sudden, shivering sense of its personal aptness did ever assail his subconsciousness, it simply hurried him on with the task of planting, on the other side, as a stout protection against any lurking fatuousness, the famous pair of reciprocating twin hypotheses the hypotheses of the Artist-Philo sopher and the Superman.
The urgent necessity for these will be recognized. And these higher powers are called into existence by the same self-organization of life still more wonderfully into rare persons who may by com parison be called gods, creatures capable of thought, whose aims extend far beyond the satisfaction of their bodily appetites and personal affections, since they perceive it is only by the establish ment of a social order founded on the common bonds of moral faith that the world can rise from mere savagery.
No lifting his hallu cination now! Watch, now, how his conception forthwith clings and spreads dilating organically, expanding spontaneously, exhibiting all the signs of true vitality, as all conceptions do, even the most damnatory, if ever they get a purchase in an artist s generative consciousness, and suck at his divine but undiscriminating vigour. Dogma dovetails into dogma ; pedant theories flower as plays ; these scatter seeds that shoot up fresher saplings to support and screen the skinny parent crook.
Thus, the Superman plainly needing some solid social backing if he were going to keep the Artist-Philosopher on his feet, there spontaneously sprang to support him the now familiar Shavian doctrine so soon, alas, to grow sadly shop- soiled declaring the healthiness of wealthiiiess and the heavenliness of worldliness and the crime of being crushed. The universal regard for money is the one hopeful fact in our civilization, the one sound spot in our social conscience.
Oh yes, it was neat ; and none the less because it turned its very neatness to account by declaring clear thinking the supreme effort of the Life-force. But those who know that the clearness of a system is a proof of incompleteness, that definition is only gained by blurring truth, mustn t allow their possession of that knowledge to prevent them from perceiving the passion and glow that lie beneath these cold, clipped, charmless, lucid leaves.
For to do that is to miss the real cause of the coldness, and to make the miser able, fashionable, unforgivable mistake of seeing Shaw as a mere marvellous mental machine.
July 30, 2008
The thing to remember is the central tap-root of this rigid tree of thought that accursed grafted crab of studied sourness. It is that which diverts the good 1 Nobody wants bliss particularly or could stand more than a very brief taste of it, if it were attainable. It makes its pity appear pitiless, it curdles its kindliness, it forces the chivalry to emerge as contempt.
The exasperating thing about all Shaw s utterances isn t their surface savagery or cynicism ; it is the sight of the sweet sap being choked and changed behind ; cut through the metallic coating that covers ail his leaves with that glib, repellent, acrid shine, and you get generosity, wonder, wistfulness, awe, any amount of lovableness and love. His heart is in the right place ; it is only his tongue that has gone wrong ; it has taken a per manent twist into his cheek.
When he tries to preach gentleness, it turns the words into jeers ; it makes him malevolent in the cause of mercy, quarrelsome in the name of peace ; and when he strives to shout friendly advice this interpreter, tutored too well, changes the message into a cold snarl of disdain.
He sits down to write a play called Widowers Houses pleading the cause of the oppressed ; and the result makes the whole world howl him down as heartless and inhuman. When he tries to stop the practice of cutting up live animals he can only do so by rending the character of doctors. He believes that every man is a temple of the Holy Ghost " and promptly calls us " shirks, duffers, malingerers, weaklings, cowards.
For the choked delight in music and gaiety, in rhapsody and heartiness, bub bling up where it can, spends itself on ecstasies of in solence, wild arias of acrimony, arpeggios of contumely and spleen. For instance :. Januarius ; and straight forward public lying has reached gigantic developments, there being nothing to choose in this respect between the pickpocket at the police-station and the minister on the Treasury bench, the editor in the newspaper office, the City magnate advertising bicycle tyres that do not side-slip, the clergyman subscribing the Thirty-nine Articles, and the vivisector who pledges his knightly honour that no animal operated on in the physiological laboratory suffers the slightest pain.
Cowardice is universal : patriotism, public opinion, parental duty, discipline, religion, morality, are only fine names for intimidation, and cruelty, gluttony, and credulity keep cowardice in countenance. We cut the throat of a calf and hang it up by the heels to bleed to death so that our veal cutlet may be white ; we nail geese to a board and cram them with food because we like the taste of liver disease ; we tear birds to pieces to decorate women s hats ; we mutilate domestic animals for no reason at all except to follow an instinctively cruel fashion ; and we connive at the most abominable tortures in the hope of discovering some magical cure for our own diseases by them.
It is poetry perverted, imagination amok, a pure love of harmony, gaiety, sufficiency, intoxicated by the rush of recitative and simply carried away out of joyfulness into a rising crescendo of wrath. Stifle a virtue and you always get a vice and out bursts like these are simply the revenges taken by his temperament for being thwarted. And, regarded as revenges, their success is profound for they utterly ruin the cause for which the sacrifice was made. No doubt at all about that. Exactly as in Ruskin s case, the piston-rod rhetoric sinks the ship it was invented to drive ; the imaginations of both these men, turned into wrong channels, ruined the cases they were kidnapped to plead, Shavian rhap sodies like that either produce patronizing titters, as at the newest caper of our mountebank ; or else an irritation that ends in opposition.
Whilst poor humanity s humblest answer to such trouncings and tirades would after all be by far the most crushing : " You say I am a duffer, a weakling, a coward? My kindheartedness merely cowardice, my morals a mush, my honour a pitiable sham? Very well. You are wiser than I am ; are indeed if I take you aright the very Universe become articulate and aware ; I am therefore bound to believe what you say.
Only, if these are my qualities, then they must also be your keyboard. It is upon them you must play in order to alter and guide me. Deftly adapting your message to my stupidity and cowardice, you will tactfully teach me the truth. Yet you don t do this. I misunderstand you completely you say so yourself. But to me, in my darkness, that seems simply a proof that you must have misunderstood me. It doesn t seem in keeping. Either there is something wrong with your voice, which you cannot possibly help ; or there is something wrong with your estimate of my hearing. In either case who is to be blamed?
I feel there must be something wrong with your credentials. Perhaps your voice is not the voice of the Universe after all. Or perhaps you are not a very good judge of other people s hearing. Myself, I favour both views. I don t fancy a Universe talking falsetto ; and I don t think you are a good judge, not a particularly good judge of other people. These thoughts are meant kindly to you. A blind leader of the blind will probably bring about disaster but at least he will consider his poor com panion s shortcomings.
How much wickeder, waste- fuller, more shameful and ludicrous, would be the case of the clear-sighted leader who broke his client s neck because he couldn t be bothered to remember his afflictions. Good-day, Mr. Here s your fee. We part friends. And his complaint brings us naturally to the cul minating scene in our Comedy.
We are now going to contemplate Mr. Shaw being compelled to proclaim and believe himself a dramatist, and, at the same time, by the self-same power and process, being carefully un fitted for the role. PART II The first half of this epitome, the way Shaw s early pose of rebel insolence placed him on a track which propelled him implacably towards play-writing, is easily traced by simply jotting down some dates. In , twenty years old, he crosses from Ireland to London, knowing more and thinking more of pictures and music than of anything else in the world.
A couple of years later, entirely by accident, he hears a certain young Sidney Webb exactly his own age laying down the laws of life to an audience of awe-stricken adults ; and resolves to become a plat form speaker too. In pursuit of this fell purpose he permeates all the societies for scolding Society which were a feature of the London of that time, and by he has so out- woven Webb, has caught the trick of all-round truculence so perfectly, that even the most hardened and ferocious food-reformer, dress-reformer, land-reformer, reform-reformer, et hoc genus omne, will blench at the mention of his name.
And in , at the age of twenty-nine perhaps feeling that this fearless independence had depended on his mother long enough , he is looking out for some settled job in journalism. Now, what would you expect to happen? Naturally, he was made a musical critic. He became art critic to The World in , musical critic to the Star in , and in , following the course of nature, he was unhitched from the Star by Mr. Frank Harris and installed as dramatic critic to The Saturday.
What happens next has the same infernal neatness. It was a perfect repetition of his earlier innocent dis play among the societies and Socialists. He now idolized the theatre in the same impulsive way, and was once more taken in by his own eloquence. For Shaw s besetting weakness is a certain stubborn pride of soul which cannot permit him to admit, even in a whisper to himself, that the cause he is engaged in is not crucial ; and he now reacted exactly as such a character could be counted on to react, with results distinctly startling to the stage.
For no sooner had Mr. Harris seen him settled in his stall than he sprang up declaring it a choir-stall in a cathedral. The completion of the operation will be plain. Shaw may never persuade us that the theatre exerts a power equal to that which established Inquisitions, and curdled Europe into Crusades, and shot the great frozen fountains of Chartres and Rouen into mid-sky ; but he quickly persuaded himself. He became con vinced that Drama was the thing best worth doing.
It was therefore the work worthiest of his powers. He was already middle-aged but no matter. In he stole away from his mere stall. Before the end of the year he was known to the world as the author of Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. II Nothing, then, could be clearer than that Mr. Shaw became a dramatist not as a result of predilection but simply because he was propelled into the part by circumstances.
But these initial, native deficiencies wouldn t have mattered so much if it hadn t been for that other element ; the grim fact that the very circumstances which had made him dramatist had simultaneously robbed him of his best right to be one. Be one, that is to say, in his own high sense of it a maker of works of art depicting the daily life of the world, phials filled with essence of actuality. He was trebly disqualified and the first of these three handi caps stares out at us so brazenly from the record of his life that the wonder is it never warned him off; so plain is it indeed that it has visibly stamped itself into the framework of his house, making an ominous writing on the walls of his home.
What say they f Let them say. Shaw has had carved above the fire-place in his study. They are sufficiently significant. Admirable enough as the motto of a callow rebel, the old contemptuous Border battle-cry amounts to a surrender of his sword when heard on the lips of a dramatist. For, being interpreted, it really means that " I, the underseated, owner of this hygienic hearth, boast a deliberate lack of that imaginative sympathy which is the chief credential of the inter preter of character. By imaginative sympathy one simply means the jolly power of watching, with a chuckling absorption and delight, the doings of every sort and size of people ; and of this happy gift, if ever he had it, Shaw by now had been wholly dispossessed.
Sympathy is something hardly to be discerned in a man who has deliberately made disdain a working principle ; who has learned to study human nature in the spirit of an opponent ; and whose idea of " a generous passion " has become a " passion of hatred " for all the " accursed middle-class institutions that have starved, thwarted, misled and corrupted us from our cradles. That is a sort of vivisection that is fruitless. The big play is composed of little players ; it must com prehend them even when they don t comprehend it.
That, then, is the first of Mr. Shaw s three acquired deficiencies ; his socialism has made him unsociable : his confirmed habit of wiping somebody out, which he formed among the Fabians because it was so effective there, becomes here a disastrous obliteration of his model ; he is like an archer not William, though! And now, on the top of it, driving it in further, comes acquired defect number two one that limits still further his already narrowed range of subjects, and one that is all the more mischievous because it is masked by a quality that may have done much at the outset to convince him that drama was his line.
All Shaw s early efforts as a writer were given, as we have seen, to the task of forming a medium of expression apt for physical utterance a type of diction he could debate with and dictate with dogmatically, dealing it out from his hustings or stabbing it into his societies in successive sentences as pat and purposeful as neatly planted blows.
Now, that meant good dialogue ; and so, long before he had ever dreamt of turning dramatist, he had perfectly acquired the great trick which so many playwrights never do learn : the art of making all his words fit live lips and leap alertly off the tongue, as slick and natural as slang, fresh with the colours of actual intercourse.
For the essence of his own speeches had been their slitting, pelting salience : it had been his work to resolve the old vague rumblings of oratory into a rattle of definite drops and nothing, he found, sped a period so well as a core of cute meaning, self-contained. With the result that a crisp statement soon became essential to his sentences : he could no more begin to write one with out an assertion to maintain it than a cabby could go a drive without a fare. But though this confirmed inability to ask a question, or to suggest, or appeal, or submit, or discriminate, or qualify, or use art as a means of evocation, summoning a wisdom deeper than the artist knew he controlled although this limitation was an immense asset on a platform, it obviously became a fatal barrier to com pleteness when the habitual asserter set to work to write a play.
For it meant that the stage-door of his theatre had to be shut in the faces of a throng of very necessary characters ; all the dim folk and foggy folk, the puzzled and perturbed, the groping, hoping, helpless, humble, unassertive humans, who act by instinct in stead of by reason and whose deeds speak so much more clearly than their words all these he was compelled to turn away.
He couldn t employ them, for he couldn t equip them with a part. His sympathies, we have seen, were already limited but even if he were filled with a positive affection for such characters he couldn t take them on no, not even to take them off ; for although he understood them they did not understand themselves ; and for people who don t know their own minds and can t communicate the knowledge clearly, Shaw has no form of speech that will do.
A specimen of the sensible, highly educated young Englishivoman ; prompt, strong, con fident, self-possessed. A man of cool temperament and low but clear and keen intelligence, with the im perturbability of the accurate calculator who has no illusions. A vigorous, genial, popular man of forty ivith a sound voice which he uses ivith the clean athletic articulation of the practised orator. A dignified man, a born chairman of directors.
A strong man, with a watchful face. Pass them in parade, from Vivie Warren to Andrew Undershaft, and you find they have all had to be endowed with this rare faculty a power of quick, precise, and ruthless cal culation and self-confidence, the necessary adjunct to the way they ll have to speak. Each has a ready point of view, bright and finished as a rapier ; and the drama has to resolve itself into the ring and rattle of these weapons, the multiplex duel we get when they all unsheathe their points and prettily proceed to cross opinions.
What fun it is, how exciting it can be, we all, to our happiness, well know. But we have to admit that the mirror misses much. It is odd to reflect that his democracy is the cause of this exclusiveness. Ill Yet if these are serious handicaps I fear the third is even heavier. It was bad enough to be compelled to insist on his dramatis persona? The pressure of those early days of gleeful mutiny, the need for being dogmatic, pre cipitated his young ideas in a premature philosophy, to which ever since he has clung ; and at the same time the material out of which he had to get his ideas, the personal experiences he turned into opinions, were quite unfairly lopsided, incomplete, artificial.
The idiosyncrasy of his troupe he might to some extent have counterbalanced by picking their points of view with care and then arranging these so that they partly reproduced the pattern and poise of reality ; but such ingenuity availed nothing whatever against the bias of his own point of view. He might and he did arrange his rapiers like spokes to look like a mimic Wheel of Life ; but to no purpose, for the hub was out of truth.
And it was out of truth because, quite literally, what he had taken as his centre was really eccentric, and what he had accepted in his innocence as a genuine axle was actually only a crank. For remember, once more, where he was when he formed his views : remember the New Woman and The Woman Who Did, and the Ibsen Society and rational dress, and the general dank, indoor, stuffy, insincere atmosphere of devotees and defiance in which he formed his first impressions and made one. It was suburban the worst sense under the Town, shut in and overshadowed by its mass.
Morris had had Kelmscott to use as a base, his grey manor with its immemorial beauties was his hub ; and when he looked out from it he realized that Shaw s little London was a mere dirty splash on one of the spokes. But though Shaw took a Hertfordshire house many years later, and though a healthy Hibernian longing for the open has no doubt always been mixed with his motives, yet he never let that longing take him to his true kingdom ; and his work has been far more a product of indoor dilettantism than that of Mr.
Henry James. For Mr. James has travelled tirelessly, shed ding old shibboleths and learning the non-existence of horizons ; whereas Shaw has always remained com placently satisfied that his early contact with life was remarkably complete. He is constantly pluming himself on the breadth of his experience : " Like a greengrocer and unlike a minor poet, I have lived instead of dreaming and feeding myself with artistic confectionery.
He honestly believed that a brisk debate with Mr. Belfort Bax brought him very near to the simple heart of human nature. He felt that he understood the democracy because he knew so many democrats. Let me give one example of the way he generalized, of the way he accepted a suburban experience as a symbolical episode and framed a law on the strength of it which he promptly applied to the rest of creation. Let it be his theory of the relation of the sexes of woman as the huntress and man as the prey. It reappears constantly, for it is one of the several steel yard rules which he can handle easier than golden ones ; but its first appearance is in The Philanderer.
Now we have the assurance of Mr. Shaw s biographer that The Philanderer exhibits an attitude towards women induced in Shaw by "unpleasant personal relations with women prior to the time at which the play was written. The first act is a more or less accurate replica of a scene in Mr. Shaw s own life. The core of Man and Superman is simply a twisted point of view manufactured out of the shoddy and unreliable material circumstances brought him when he had to take what he got to make opinions. Not all the adroit ness in Ireland could overcome that initial drawback. He may declare that " Ann is Everywoman " as loudly as he will, and swear that her demonstration, that the initiative in sex transactions remains with women, is a piece of pure impartial drama, the result of "a creative process over which I have no control.
Falsified from the commencement, the piece had to be a fantasy. It is one of the most delightful variety entertainments ever witnessed on the stage, but it holds no mirror up to life. IV Then his plays are an imposture? Pardon me, I never said so : what I say indeed is that he has acted with perfect sincerity, that all the errors in the result must be attributed to our time. It is because they are not a fair indictment that they do become a grave one. But then, on the other hand, it is when we realize their vices that we discover his true virtues. For the fine thing is this and this the only use of critics efforts that once the limitations of the plays are realized they cease to possess any ; once you see that Shaw has done the best he could for us under the circumstances, then his effort is seen in relation to those circumstances and its errors instinctively allowed for.
Recognize that a passion for purity, gentleness, truth, justice, and beauty is the force at the base of all his teaching, and you will find his message one of the most tonic of our time. Realize further how he has limited himself by the philosophy he has expounded, and you will escape all danger of being hurt by its deficiencies. And instead of the irritation, the bewilderment, or what was worse the priggish complacency with which you regarded them, you find yourself turning to them with sympathy, with comradeship and eager friendliness, able to use all their strong medicine without being embittered by the taste.
It is only when you regard them, in short and this is the summary of the whole irony , it is only when you regard them with the very sympathy they doggedly deride that you receive the help which they hunger to offer. The Bookman, And icith Kipling, as you know, there are reservations to be made. Kipling s case this exasperating doppel - ganger has proved specially pobby and impervious and full of energy. The autobiography it rattles off, convincingly enough, generally runs like this : "I came out of the East, a youngster of twenty, but wiser than your very oldest men.
Life had shown me her last secrets, her unmentionable sins. I was as cool about them as a connoisseur towards curios, and I tossed you tales of twisted deaths and intricate adulteries with an air of indulgent half- contempt. I could do anything I liked with words, I had the nonchalant neatness of a conjuror ; and in my splendid insolence I was only twenty, mind you , I made Poetry learn slang, common sanguinary slang, and set her serving in canteens.
Born blase! Too clever to live, wrote another one, Stevenson. I was the cleverest young man of my day. And the brightness died out of my colours and the snap from my tunes. Your snug horizons hemmed me in, I lost my gift of shining vision. I relied contentedly on tricks I d learned before. I wrote a bad novel, it became a worse drama. I made pots of money, I made party speeches, I spoiled my paints by mixing them with politics. And now here I am, sir, the popular favourite. Seen the Post?
Save the King! I want to suggest that, instead of depreciating, the quality of his work has continuously improved, that his literary technique has never been so amazing as now, nor his artistic integrity more Lutheran ; and that, instead of being immensely precocious and worldly-wise "born blase," as Barrie it was Barrie once said Kipling has always been, as much as Barrie himself, one of those blessed born innocents who never grow up, who are never quite at home in the world, but who wander through it, like Haw thorne or Poe, a little alien and elf -like, a little envious of "the happy folk in housen," and that this quality of envy of the practical grown-ups and genuine worldlings is, indeed, the essential char acteristic of the man and the key to and core of his work.
II Now, to get the first glimmer of the ghost, to follow this Jekyll-and-Hyding from the outset, it is necessary to go back to the days of the Departmental Ditties so swiftly did the severance begin. Many readers, not yet aged, will no doubt still remember Me n of Letters. A new star had arisen, a rival to Loti, and the elect were at once in full song. Perhaps the hour was specially apt for such an over ture. It was the hour of the eighties the ineffable eighties when a recondite vulgarity was the vogue; and aesthetic London was tremendously anxious to display its capacity for enjoying raw sensation.
If you were a poet you were ashamed not to be seen in cabmen s shelters ; and a little hashish was considered quite the thing. Oh, a superior hour! And so when the rag-time chords of the Departmental Ditties flicked and snapped an introduction to the laconic patter of the coloured Plain Tales from the Hills, and when the tingling Tales themselves, with their parakeets and ivory, their barbaric chic and syncopated slang, provided qualities reminiscent in fairly equal parts of exotic Eastern prints and East- End music-halls then the "ten superior persons scattered through the universe" were naturally per suaded that their hour had found its very voice "Er petticoat was yaller and er little cap was green, And er name was Supi-yaw-lat jes the same as Theebaw s queen ; An I see er first a-smokin of a whackin white cheroot, An a-wastin Christian kisses on an eathen idol s foot : Bloomin idol made o mud Wot they called the great Gawd Budd Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stood.
John Lane began to collect his first editions. Richard le Gallienne was told off to Bodley Head him. Edmund Gosse this is perfectly true, I assure you , Mr. Gosse himself wrote almost tremblingly of " the troubling thrill, the volup tuous and agitating sentiment," which this artist s audacious words sent through his system.
The little sun-baked books from Allahabad seemed, if anything, more golden than The Yelloiv Book. The test of the literary epicures became their capacity for properly savouring the subtle Kipling liqueur. And then the exasperating fellow went popular. Ill What do you call the apostles of the Cubists? Very well then.
Just consider the con sternation of the cubicles if the general public began to clamour for Picassos. Think even of Mr. Roger Fry s chagrin if we made a popular favourite of Matisse. A consternation not dissimilar, I am per fectly sure, shuddered through the initiates of the nineties. I don t suggest, of course, that the masked paling of critical approval, the soft extinction of the starrier estimates, was entirely due to the widening blaze of popularity ; but even critics are human, and it helped. It was impossible to watch their precious liqueur being drained like mere Bass without begin ning to entertain doubts as to its quality.
It was felt that the public s enjoyment of Kipling was too true to be good. Criticism grew querulous, qualified, hedged ; Criticism discovered defects. The defects it discovered, the demands which it made, and the balking effect of all these hedges on Mr.
Kipling s career, I will consider in a moment. What I want to insist on, first, is the entire wholesomeness of that popularity. There is probably no living writer who is regarded, in England, with such widespread and spon taneous veneration. It is the nearest thing we have nowadays to the reverence that used to be excited by the great literary figures of last century. It is touching, it is beautiful, it is altogether honest, real, and good.
Bank clerks and clerics, doctors and drapers, journalists, joiners, engineers they all speak of this man and his work much as another kind of people speak of Wagner. Only, honestly. There is no priggishness about it, nor any desire either to impress or be improved ; and yet they find beauty in his work, they find magic and strangeness, and they find hints of inscrutable forces and mysterious powers, and constant reminders of something unimaginable beyond ; they experience that rich commotion of the blood we call romance, and are thrilled and renewed by it much as others of us are supposed to be thrilled and renewed by past poetry.
And at the same time, unlike so much of their " romancing," it is never a mere dallying with lotus-land sensations, a coloured refuge from the drudgery of day. Its action is always to excite their zest for actual life, to send them back into reality more exultantly not because of any particular philosophy it may teach, any "gospel of work" or the like, but simply because it names and uses, and irresistibly sanc tifies, the actual trite tools of each man s trade.
Much has been written of Mr. Kipling s capacity for picking up knowledge from technical experts ; far too little of the lessons the experts learned from him. He has renewed the workman s pride in his work and restored their mystery to the crafts. I believe he has done more than any man of his time to make the middle- classes less dully middle-class. But all this the ten superior ones were in no position to foresee.
Said they, " Yellow Book? But before we can take you seriously you must produce a full-length novel. This is striking but, is it Art? Essentially a dreamer, born in exile, he was absolutely innocent of all the coolly cockahoop motives and traits men ascribed to him he pretended to have them, in fact, just because he was so shy. It was an accident of environment, and a streak of naughty pride, and a sort of simple homely emulation, that really determined his first choice of tone and topic the hot-blooded topics and the sang-froid tone of those complicated Plain Tales from the Hills.
He hadn t the faintest notion of reverencing the common soldier. But he badly wanted the soldier to reverence the pen. What egged him on was the kind of humiliating half-resentment from which so many writers necessarily suffer most. Like Mr. Shaw s affectation of ferocity, like Mr. Maurice Hewlett s early hectics, most of his first work was just the artist s human retort to that intolerable tolerance with which the workers, the doers, fighters, men of action, regard his anaemic indoor trade.
It was Beetle s way of enforcing respect at Westward Ho! It was young Kipling s way of adjusting things at Simla. He would prove that ink can be thicker than blood and the pen even more daring than the sword ; and that a certain small spectacled sub-editor fond of poetry was not quite the innocent lamb that he looked. One of the most effective ways of out-Heroding Herod is to yawn wearily when the head is brought in. Kipling s yawn was a master piece. His make-up was perfect, the deception com plete.
The mess-rooms were duly impressed. But masks are dangerous things to play with : a little unexpected pressure, and they may permanently mould the face beneath. Could Kipling have been left alone after that soothing Simla success, he might, indeed, quietly sheltered, have now softly discarded his disguise and let his instincts find their native expres sion. But there leapt out upon him from Europe our roar of applause, and that riveted him to his role. Even the dabs of deprecation, the raps from the falling rocket-sticks, perversely whipped him in the same direction.
It did fail : and the critics who had really provoked it had their moment of mean triumph. But by now the youngster s pride was in pledge : he would write a brilliant novel if it broke him ; and for ten years he passionately fought out fresh perfections of technique, vising his artificially acquired violence to hammer out new details of equip ment, until at length by dint of sheer virtuosity he achieved the protracted tale called Kim.
He himself, it is said, considers Kim his master work ; I cannot regard it as that. I think he has done better work since, but it was certainly distinguished enough to enable him, with complete justification, to regard it as his second vindication. RUDYARD KIPLING 55 aright, his work was one long loyal effort on the part of his newly freed faculties to loosen the bars they had built round themselves and gradually to twist an in appropriate and stifling technique into a fitting house for their deeper desires.
For certainly it is in the books that followed Kim it is in Traffics and Discoveries, Actions and Reactions, Puck of Pook s Hill, Rewards and Fairies, and the con current verse that we begin to see most clearly the presence of this subterranean disharmony and heroic sense feud. If the reader will take these four books and consider them apart ; if he will let their particular characteristics form a fresh picture in his mind, an honest image of the kind of man he must have been who wrote them ; and if he will apply this graphic reagent to the books that came before Kim, he will see how extraordinarily it eats out and reveals their acci dentals.
The forced notes tumble out with a tinkle, the falsities fade, there is a linking up of scattered touches, unrelated before, and certain qualities, hitherto hardly recognized as crucial, rise glittering like veins. We get a fundamental filigree, a clear resultant mesh, which is a map of Kipling s mind.
Now of this fundamental Kipling the cardinal quali ties are three. The first a is an overpowering passion for definition a spiritual horror of vagueness that almost amounts to a desperate fear a hunger for certitude and system. The second 6 is the artistic counterpart and imaginative instrument of the first : a prodigious mental capacity, namely, for enforcing design, for compelling coherence, for stamping insub stantial dream-stuff into shapes as clear-cut and deci sive as newly milled and minted metal discs.
These are the three faculties, often bitted and strained, that form everywhere the sinews of his work. Take the so-called technical elements of his style.
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The rhythms run with a snap from stop to stop ; every sentence is as straight as a string ; each has its self-contained tune. Prise one of them out of its place and you feel it would fall with a clink, leav ing a slot that would never close up as the holes do in woollier work. Replace it, and it locks back like type in a forme, fitting into the paragraph as the paragraph fits into the tale. There are no glides or grace-notes, or blown spray of sound.
Most prose that loves rhythm yields its music like a mist, an emanation that forms a bloom on the page, softly blurring the parti tions of the periods. Kipling s prose shrinks stiffly from this trustfulness. The rhythms must report themselves promptly, prove their validity, start afresh after the full stop. Lack of faith, if you like but also, it must be admitted, a marvellously unremitting keen ness of craftsmanship.
And it is the same with the optical integers as its third. Sudden scenes stud his page like inlaid stones. The tales are gemmed but as watches are jewelled ; it is round these tense details that the action revolves. What is the emotional axis of The Finest Story in the World? It is that " silver wire laid along the buhcarks which I thought ivas never going to break" Are we to know that a man was struck dumb?
Then "just as the lightning shot tivo tongues that cut the sky into three pieces. Even the shadowy outer influ ences that brood over Kim s life, the inscrutable Powers that move in its background, come to us first in designs as vivid and dense as the devices of heraldry as a Red Bull on a Green Field, as a House of Many Pillars ; and before the close are resolved into the two most definite, clean-cut, and systematic of all earthly organi zations : the military mechanism of India and the pre cise apparatus of Freemasonry.
Kipling must have pattern and precision and he has the power as well as the will. He can crush the sea into a shape as sharp as a crystal, can compress the Himalayas into a little lacquer-like design, has even, in The Night Mail that clean, contenting piece of craftsmanship printed a pattern on the empty air.
He is primarily a pattern maker ; and the little pieces thus obtained he builds into a larger picture still. As the sentence into the paragraph as the paragraph into the page so do these sharp-edged items click together to form the geometrical pattern called the plot. Switch this imperatively map- making, pattern-making method upon the third element in fiction, the element of human nature, and what is the inevitable result?
The characters spring to attention like soldiers on parade ; they re spond briskly to a certain description ; they wear a fixed suit of idiosyncrasies like a uniform. A mind like this must use types and set counters ; it feels dissatisfied, ineffective, unsafe, unless it can reduce the fluid waverings of character, its flitting caprices and twilit desires, to some tangible system. The characters of such a man will not only be definite ; they will be definitions.
His heroes will be courage incarnate ; his weak men will be unwaveringly weak ; and those who are mixed will be mixed mathematically, with all their traits clearly related to and explained by some neat blend of blood and race and caste behind. Is not all this true of Kipling s characters? They are marked by a strange immobility. They strike certain attitudes and retain them. Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd live long but never alter ; Kim never grows up.
And indeed it is this very fixity that makes the short stories so effective. Their maker took these frozen gestures, rigid faces, and tense attitudes, and fitted them together to form his effect ; and, whilst the in flexibility was exactly what he needed for his mosaic- work, for making the sudden star called the story, the very tension of the details "life seen by lightning- flashes" some one called them seemed to prove the piercing realism of the writer.
It was only when he tried to construct a long novel with them that the stiffness of these details turned to obstinacy, and their numbness became a kind of death. A short tale can be told in tableau but a novel is not a long short tale. The pattern of The Light that Failed is every bit as neat as the most successful of the contes, but it is the static symmetry of decoration and stained glass.
It is applied art that is to say, misapplied art. Its logic is not that of life. The very qualities that made the first tales tell, that seemed to prove his supreme capacity for fiction, are exactly the qualities that cut him off from the ability to write novels. The novelist is essentially the explorer, the questioner, the opener of doors ; and the only law of human nature he knows is that the exception is the rule.
But Mr. Kipling s first word is obedience ; he is all for rules and rivets ; for regularity and a four square plan. Born under the sign of the Balance, his emblem is the compass and the square and it is not with tools like these that men s motives can be measured. His vision of the world, like his Lama s, is a well-made Wheel of Life with a neat niche for the individual ; and even his famous militarism, his worship of the apparatus of war, is nothing more, in essence, than a longing for quiet comeliness and order. It is the mind, if you like, of a martinet incapable therefore of complete imaginative sympathy.
Any lapse from efficiency fills his craftsman s nature with disgust, and the only characters he can handle with perfect satisfaction are the Stricklands, the Mowglis, the Kims, as unconquerably capable as machines. His voice, indeed, is never so tolerant and human as when he is dealing with heroes and heroines that are not human at all with beasts and ships and polo-ponies, or those odd little half-animals called children.
A like reason gives its race and richness to his dialogue the moment it takes refuge in a dialect. For dialect, in spite of all its air of ragged lawlessness, is wholly impersonal, typical, fixed, the code of a caste, not the voice of an individual. Kipling s plain conversations are markedly unreal. But honest craftsmanship and an ear for strong rhythms have provided him with many suits of dialects. And with these he dresses the talk till it seems to surge with character.
And so, in this way and in that, the actual words which he wrote joined in the conspiracy to keep him toiling on hopefully after that ignis fatuus of fiction. Until at length he made his supreme effort, fitted all the lore he had gathered the sharp-set scenes, the well-cut dialects, the crisp impressions of life into a single ingenious zoetrope set it whirling on one of the spindles of the Indian machine, the secret spindle called the Great Game and so created that spirited illusion of a novel which we know as Kim.
VI Thenceforward his work in prose has been a wonderful attempt to make his qualities cure their natural defects to make sharpness and bright neatness produce their natural opposites depth and shimmer and bloom.