Friday, December 6, 2019

Not of This Tide

Rudyard (may I call you Rudy?) Kipling was a most celebrated writer around a hundred years ago. He was esteemed by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud, William James and his brother Hank. William J. compared him to Shakespeare. Even Edward Said, fierce opponent of colonialism, admired his work along with Salman Rushdie. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-speaking author. The next was W.B. Yeats sixteen years later.

Kipling was honored in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author."

In 1916 he wrote this very moving poem conflating his son’s death with that of a British sailor during W. W. I.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has anyone else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


Rudy’s star has been in the descendant for the past 75 years. He is not of this tide. He got it all wrong. The White Man’s burden is nonsense. Manifest Destiny is bull shit. Along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, he was an architect of imperialism. He loved the idea of building up man’s body with a good war. Even his beautiful poem damning war couldn’t help itself in the end by holding your head up high as if the folly of that Great War were not a crime against humanity.

Kipling lived in Vermont for about 18 months where he wrote some of his finest stories and began his novel, Kim. Here’s an example of his account of a railroad magnate, having procured an entire train for his personal use, traveling across the country during a great recession of 1892.

At night the bunched electrics lit up that distressful palace of all the luxuries…. swinging on through the emptiness of abject desolation. Now they heard the swish of a water-tank and the click-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp steel wheels, the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform, now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender and now a bearing back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked into the great abyss, a trestle purring beneath their tread or up to the rocks that barred out half the stars…..  

He wrote with poetic immediacy, drive and cadence as he suggests an unrest in the heartland. Yet for all that I regard Kipling as the finest last gasp of the 19th century. He was, for the most part, on the wrong side of history.

Can we separate the poet from the poem, the writer from his words or any artist from his art? I would like to believe creativity issues forth from the center of the creator but it seems not to be so. Consider Picasso’s womanizing, Eliot’s antisemitism. Rudy Kipling is one of those lost voices well worth a re-hearing. Genius is a gift not to be so easily dismissed. It is one of those conundrums I can live with.  

For anyone whose appetite has been whetted I recommend Christopher Benfey’s 2019 book about Kipling called, If, Penguin Press. By his account Kipling was a conflicted man with opposing voices moderating his view of war and imperialism. In his Epitaphs of the War, he spoke with regret
assuming the words of the dead,

If anyone question why we died,
Tell them becaause our fathers lied.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In the Middle of the Air

When those in human bondage looked down they saw cotton. When they looked up they saw sweet chariots coming for to carry them home. 

Ezekiel saw the wheel / Way up in the middle of the air / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air
Little wheel run by faith / Big wheel run by the grace of God / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now you never can tell what Ezekiel will do / way in the middle of the air / He lie about me / He lie about you / way in the middle of the air.

They may also have seen Lucifer falling from grace. According to Mormons Lucifer was Jesus’ brother. Not so, say everyone else. After all, only begotten sons generally don’t have brothers. Especially to rival them. Lucifer was no ordinary sort. When he fell he landed with a thud not unlike Humpty-Dumpty who was too much for all the King’s horses and men.

(The closest I could ever imagine is getting stuck in an elevator during a power failure. That’s not on my bucket list. Along with Severe Tire Damage it’s among those experiences I could easily live without.)

Lucifer was one of those pagan figures appropriated by the Christians to suit their fable. He was, in fact, the name for Venus, the morning star which seemed to fall out of sight daily. The New Testament took his beauty, his brightness and worldly brilliance and consigned him to eternal deviltry. How dare his curiosity which can lead to defiance. Lucifer takes the rap for Adam munching on that forbidden apple or pomegranate. Have a piece of fruit, he said, and for that gets a sentence of life plus forever. The lesson is, don’t mess with the Divine.

Icarus was another mythological young man who dared to defy authority. His father, Daedalus, who built the labyrinth that bested the Minotaur, warned his boy not to fly too close to the sun or his feathered wings held together by wax would melt. The accepted lesson seems to be that Icarus displayed hubris and paid the ultimate price. The way I see it the kid showed gumption. Who listens to their father? Fathers are yesterday’s news. The next generation pushes the envelope. How else would we have Saran Wrap or smart phones?

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him…is the name of a great book by Sheldon Kopp. Kill him metaphorically, of course. Listen to authority and then go beyond. Listen to yourself.   

Icarus was out there investigating in the middle of the air and then took the plunge. But there is more to the legend. Breughel, the Elder, is attributed as having painted, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.  The scene depicted is the legs of a figure going into the sea while a plowman is tending his field oblivious to the important splash in the green water. Benign neglect? Calloused indifference? There is a Flemish saying, And the farmer continues to plow, describing man’s indifference to human suffering.

In 1938 W.H. Auden took that theme and ran with it. In his poem, Musee des Beaux-Arts, the poet imagines several Breughel paintings showing town-folk ice skating, playing or doing chores and never looking up to the middle of the air. Auden was dismayed at the rise of Nazism of the eve of World War II.  I regard his poem as a cautionary tale of wanton disregard for the peril at hand.

This is my long way around to warn a somnolent American public of the imperative to vote in the presidential election, less than a year away. Too many voters seem uninformed or complacent, busy in the counting house counting all their money or at the table eating bread and honey. Next Nov. 3rd is not the day to caulk the bathtub or become a no-show because our candidate is far less than perfect. 

The Devil Donald with his brimstone of malice and mendacity must be defeated. The state of Grace seems to be unknownto him and one he will never carry. It is the one word which least describes him.

To his band of red-capped rally-goers I say, Question Authority. The man at the podium is a false idol with no chariot to deliver you. He lie about you. He lie about himself.