Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

R.J.K.- Little Friend Of All The World

Kipling did more than any writer I can think of to prepare Britain and- through Britain- the world for its multicultural future. He didn't know that was what he was doing, but then the choice in his day was between a narrow nationalism ("what do they know of England who only England know?") and an outward looking, culturally inclusive imperialism. Being himself a person of uncertain cultural identity (born of English parents but raised in India) he opted enthusiastically for the latter. He embraced freemasonry for similar reasons- finding in the Lodge a place where men were required to treat one another as brothers, no matter what their status in the outside world.

When he wrote "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" it was as a proposition to be argued against.  There's casual racism in some of the Barrack Room Ballads but it's a racism voiced in character and then placed on trial.  "You're a better man than I am Gunga Din" was a radical statement to be making in the 1890s.  In Puck of Pooks Hill- where historical figures are magicked up to tell their stories to an Edwardian brother and sister- he makes a point of including a medieval Jew among the honoured ancestors. A late story "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat" has a bunch of cronies visiting revenge upon a pompous anti-semite.

Kipling belongs to the first generation of writers to take English literature out of its European comfort zone. He had a fore-runner (more limited in geographical reach) in Stevenson and a contemporary in Conrad. Before Kipling English fiction rarely ventured any further than Italy. Afterwards the world was its oyster.  As a native of India he was able to get behind the orientalism of earlier fiction. His overview of "Mine Own People"- by which he meant Indians of all races, religions and castes- is as broad and detailed as Balzac's overview of the social strata of early 19th century France. In Kim- which is the summation of his early experience and knowledge- a boy of Irish parentage wanders the roads, keeping company- on equal terms- with (among others) a Tibetan lama, a Muslim horse-trader, a British spy-master, an aged Hindu princess and the matriarchal, polyamorous Woman of Shamli.  It's a celebration of humanity in all its variety and peculiarity- and an aspirational vision of a world without frontiers.
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