Rudyard Kipling: International Writer

Bloomsbury is not a locality one associates with Rudyard Kipling. It is, let’s face it, the spiritual home of those experimenters in Social Relations so sceptically described in ‘My Son’s Wife’.
Never mind that. The ever-hospitable Institute of English Studies at London University was the venue for the conference Rudyard Kipling: International Writer last weekend, providing their usual calm and efficient hospitality, and some excellent sandwiches.
The speakers and listeners at the conference reflected the international theme. They came from Japan, England, Canada, Pakistan, Scotland, Australia, France, China, South Africa, India, South Africa, New Zealand and just about anywhere else that Kipling ever touched on in his travels – and even Russia, which I think he never visited (though its participation in the Great Game is crucial to some of his best work).
Equally varied were the themes of papers. There was plenty on Kipling and India (which pleased me, because the Indian writings are the ones I am least familiar with, and the ones I want to learn more about). I particularly liked Shamsul Islam’s talk, in which he compared Kipling’s reactions to Islam and Hinduism, and the two keynote lectures, by Amit Chaudhuri and Charles Allen. (Both Mr Allen and Mr Chaudhari were struck down by medical problems, but their papers were read in absentia and were both well worth hearing.). Shamsul Islam stressed Kipling’s appreciation of order; Amit Chaudhuri and Charles Allen communicated his love of India’s chaos. Both views are right. In Kipling there is a constant dialectic between order and disorder, rebellion and rule. It’s the intelligence with which he works through this opposition that makes him such a great writer.
Some of the conference papers were clearly in sympathy with Kipling’s thought, while others took a bracingly anti-imperial line (but I wasn’t convinced by the one that seemed to want to make the young Kipling guilty – by association at least – of complicity in causing Indian famines). Some applied literary theory. Foucault got several mentions, and this is appropriate, because often Kipling seems like a mirror-image of Foucault. The discipline that the Frenchman finds so sinister was precisely what Kipling thought was needed in a healthy society – so coming at him from that angle can be rather interesting.
I enjoyed a couple of talks on early Kipling that linked him with the Decadents. While he was at school, Oscar Wilde, apparently, was a friend of the family. The thought set me imagining a Max Beerbohm cartoon of their encounter…
Maybe the paper that set my mind working most productively was a suggestive one by Beatrix Hesse that compared Kipling with other writers of the time whose childhoods were disrupted by being sent home from the colonies to live in England. Saki and P.G.Wodehouse were two of them. Since I’m trying to write something on Wodehouse at the moment, this is a lead I shall maybe follow, to see where it takes me.
My own talk was on Kipling and Germans – contrasting the killings of German airmen in ‘The Edge of the Evening’ and ‘Mary Postgate’. I doubt if anyone found my conclusions very surprising, but we had a good question-time and I got some pleasant feedback, so I guess it was O.K. I shall probably add the paper to my blog, when I’ve had a chance to polish it. Also in the Great War panel was a bracing paper by Catherine Butler on ‘Sea Constables’ (she was one of the Foucauldians) and one that I liked a good deal, by Toko Omomo from Japan, on ‘The Performance of the Bereaved’, about the importance of ritual for Kipling in dealing with the losses of the Great War. It’s a theme I have thought about myself, but she came up with some formulations which made me look at the subject differently, which is about the best thing that a paper can do. This also happened with papers on Captains Courageous and ‘Mrs Bathurst’ (though I’m still far from convinced that ‘Mrs B.’ makes sense – but I’ll go back to look at it again…)
The curse of parallel panel programming struck, since the session on Kipling and the Jews and Irish was timetabled at the same time as our Great War panel. That’s one I’d greatly have liked to listen to. Looking through the programme now, I realise I also missed the paper on ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ and one on Hobson-Jobson that I would probably have enjoyed. But that usually happens at these conferences, and this time, unusually, I can’t think of any papers that I really regretted spending time listening to.
But just once or twice, I have to admit, my attention did wander, and I found myself speculating what Kipling would have thought of the varied crowd assembled in Bloomsbury. He’d have been delighted that his work was receiving detailed attention (and especially, I think, by the papers where the speakers communicated their sheer enjoyment) – but what would this connoisseur of jargon have made of our language? ‘Linguistic disjunction’; ‘The Consolidation of Postcolonial Space’; ‘strategies of separation’; ‘interdiscursive readings’; ‘markers of modernity’. I think he’d have been fascinated.


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