Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tariq Ali Discusses Rudyard Kipling

One of the books I’ve read while in Australia is Conversations with Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire and Resistance.


This book is comprised of a number of interviews that David Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio, has conducted over the years with novelist, filmmaker, author, and social commentator, Tariq Ali (pictured above in Minneapolis in February 2003).

One part of the book that I particularly found interesting was when Barsamian and Ali discussed “the pied piper of British imperialism”, Rudyard Kipling.

Following are excerpts from this particular interview, conducted in February 2004, and entitled in the book, “Enablers of Empire”.

As you’ll see, it’s quite frustrating and tragic how much of their discussion is appropriate to current events – in particular, the situation in Iraq.


David Barsamian: Let’s consider the great bard of empire – the pied piper of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, who coined the term “white man’s burden”. His evolution is very interesting: He lost his son in World War I, and then wrote “Epitaphs of the War”. Let me read you a couple of the lines: “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

In another poem, titled “A Dead Statesman”, he wrote:

I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?


Tariq Ali: Very beautiful lines – and very relevant to the war in Iraq, to the young men and women Blair and Bush decided to send to their death, to the young Iraqis and old Iraqis, ten thousand of them, who have been killed. I love that poem by Kipling, and in fact I used it in one of my speeches in the run-up to the war.

Kipling was a very strange guy: he was from a ruling-class British family – he was related to Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister of Britain [ . . . ] There is no doubt Kipling was a bard of the empire.

There’s a wonderful poem by Bertolt Brecht about Kipling. Brecht, like many of us, disliked Kipling’s politics, but at the same time, couldn’t help admiring his verses.

There’s a poem by Brecht about the deaths in the First World War. He talks about the last days of Queen Victoria, and he says in his refrain:

“Oh, East is East and West is West!”
Their hireling minstrel cried.
But I observed with interest
Bridges across that great divide
And huge guns trundling East I’ve seen
And cheerful troops keeping them clean.
Meanwhile, from east to west, back rolled
Tea soaked in blood, war wounded, gold.

It’s a wonderful poem. Brecht translated a number of Kipling’s poems into German and used them as songs in his plays.

Kipling is interesting – he may be the only “imperial” novelist who couldn’t help being, at the same time, very critical of aspects of empire. He was the only British writer at the height of the empire who could capture and convey the accents of ordinary English working people: he was the bard of the Tommies in India; he spoke for them as well. The upper crust of the empire in India, therefore, did not like much of Kipling’s work – not because he was pro-Indian but because he was an advocate for the lower-class English people who were forced to serve the needs of the empire.

That poem you read has a history itself: I think Kipling knew that he was to blame for his son’s death – it was not just the politicians who lied. Kipling’s son had very bad eyesight, which would have prevented him from being drafted into the army, but Kipling used his position in British society – pulled rank, as they say – to make sure that his son’s disability was ignored and he could enter the army. He died in battle not long after enlisting, and one of his fellow soldiers said he was killed because his glasses had fallen off and he couldn’t see. When Kipling heard this, of course, he was devastated; that poem expresses Kipling’s bitterness and anger with himself. He knew that jingoism had driven him to send his own son to die.

David Barsamian: In “On the Road to Mandalay” – one of Kipling’s most famous poems – he writes, “Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, / Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”

It conjures up a whole notion of the East as a kind of
terra nullius, either an empty land or just a place of great sensuality, where the white man could go forth and have women and treasures and magic lamps and flying carpets.

Tariq Ali: We can see this Orientalist exotica at work; that was the only world they could see, because they never looked any deeper. Kipling, to be fair, did, but most didn’t.

There were not only women to be had but, we mustn’t forget this, also men. Boys of every age were readily available in that world – it was not regarded as something scandalous.

In some of Kipling’s short stories, we can see where his interests totally dovetail with those of the empire: he portrays the Bengali, for example, as a short, dark, permanent talker with the mentality of a clerk, babu. The British were very threatened by the Bengalis, because the Bengalis picked up the English language very quickly, learned a great deal, and produced an intelligentsia which challenged the empire before any other part of India. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Hindu reformer, used to say, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”

The intellectual Bengali, who asks too many questions, thinks too much, and talks too much – which they resented – was counterposed with the beauty of the martial races: the Punjabi Jay peasant fighter, and, of course, the Pathan, descended from the tribes of Alexander the Great, the six-foot-tall men of fair skin, often with red hair and blue eyes, who peopled the Northwest Frontier of India – where homosexuality was part of everyday life. Bisexuality, one should say – boys for pleasure and women for procreation. Kipling and lots of other English administrators fell for that.

I’ve always wondered – I don’t know whether there is any evidence for this – whether Kipling himself was bisexual, because some of the emotional intensity in those short stories is quite staggering; it is almost as if he had had an affair with someone. It’s like the character Ronald Merrick, in Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, who is both repulsed and attracted to India.



Photograph of Tariq Ali from Faces of Resistance by Michael Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Reign of Ignorance and Fear in the U.S.
John Le Carré’s Dark Suspicions
Capitalism on Trial
R.I.P. Neoclassical Economics
When Terror is the Foil
Taking on Friedman
The Exception to the Rulers
An Unholy Alliance in Iraq
United 93: A Socialist Perspective
What's a Conscientious Faggot to Do?

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