A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Poem of the Day: Rudyard Kipling

The White Man's Burden   

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
    Send forth the best ye breed -- 
Go bind your sons to exile 
   To serve your captives' need; 
To wait in heavy harness 
   On fluttered folk and wild -- 
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, 
   Half devil and half child. 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
   In patience to abide, 
To veil the threat of terror 
   And check the show of pride; 
By open speech and simple, 
   An hundred times made plain, 
To seek another's profit, 
   And work another's gain. 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
   The savage wars of peace -- 
Fill full the mouth of Famine 
   And bid the sickness cease; 
And when your goal is nearest 
   The end for others sought, 
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly 
   Bring all your hope to nought. 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
   No tawdry rule of kings, 
But toil of serf and sweeper -- 
   The tale of common things. 
The ports ye shall not enter, 
   The roads ye shall not tread, 
Go make them with your living, 
   And mark them with your dead! 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
   And reap his old reward: 
The blame of those ye better, 
   The hate of those ye guard -- 
The cry of hosts ye humour 
   (Ah, slowly!) toward the light -- 
"Why brought ye us from bondage, 
   "Our loved Egyptian night?" 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
   Ye dare not stoop to less -- 
Nor call too loud on Freedom 
   To cloak your weariness; 
By all ye cry or whisper, 
   By all ye leave or do, 
The silent, sullen peoples 
   Shall weigh your Gods and you. 

Take up the White Man's burden -- 
  Have done with childish days -- 
The lightly proffered laurel, 
   The easy, ungrudged praise. 
Comes now, to search your manhood 
   Through all the thankless years, 
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, 
   The judgment of your peers! 
-- Rudyard Kipling

Sometimes a bad poem is worth reading. And this is definitely a bad poem, not so much in its heavy-footed metrics and clunky, obvious rhymes, but in the racist, imperialist, colonialist message insisted on in the first line of each stanza. 

Every poem has a persona, of course, a speaker not to be identified with the poet. And it would be nice to be able to read this one as a dramatic monologue in the persona of a well-meaning imperialist of the 1890s. After all, Kipling won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I'm afraid that I have to go along with George Orwell's view: 
It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct--on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. 
So why read him? To borrow another phrase from a Kipling poem: "Lest we forget -- lest we forget." Kipling's belief that "white men" have a moral duty to bring "civilization" to the "savages" is older than his poem: It was one of the "justifications" advanced by pre-Civil War Southerners for slavery. And you'll find it still, sometimes in coded form but sometimes not, in the pages of the National Review and the Weekly Standard. It is in the heart and soul of neoconservativism. It's what got us into Vietnam and Iraq. Although, if Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld had read Kipling's poem, they might have been warned that they wouldn't be greeted with flowers as liberators but with "The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard." One mitigating factor cited by Kipling's defenders is that he is clearly aware, in this poem and others, of the hard labor and the human cost of imperialism. Moreover, Kipling himself suffered that human cost with the loss of his only son in World War I.

To be fair, even Orwell had praise for Kipling's fiction, which demonstrates imagination and even empathy toward those "new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child." But as an antidote to the poison of "The White Man's Burden" you should read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost or Caroline Elkins's Imperial Reckoning

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