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|Volume 10 |Issue 46 | December 09, 2011 ||
Writing the Wrong
An Imperialist's Process
Above author Rudyard Kipling's fireplace in his home, Naulakha are inscribed the words “The Night Cometh When No Man Can Work.” It's from the Bible. I stared at it a long time, my gaze wandering from the words to the view of the Vermont hills, the same view the writer saw when he sat down to write The Jungle Book.
At first I didn't understand what the words meant, or rather, what Kipling's motivation could have been for choosing this phrase. As I said, it's Biblical, and even though the Bible speaks in lessons and fables, it is essentially a comprehensive guide to life, so perhaps it's simply straightforward information; when you can't see the hammer in your hand, it's time to stop nailing because the sun has set. I doubt, however, that Kipling, whose stories were also mostly parables, interpreted it that way.
I decided that what he was talking about was classic writer's block, as this was the fireplace in his study, and where he did all of his writing. Darkness descends when one can no longer express their creativity. By working steadily, one can stave off the dark night of the soul, that sort of thing. As I am getting older and gaining more control over what a former teacher labeled my “instrument”, meaning my voice and skill as a writer, I am starting to understand more and more the need for two things: privacy and stillness. For any artist, working in any medium, be it painting, writing, or even an active medium such as filmmaking, the artist requires these two things. Chaos can abound around you but at some point it has to be shut out.
When I say privacy, I am not talking about isolation or secrecy. I am talking about keeping one's motivations and creative thoughts to oneself, i.e. the process, until one is ready to share it with the world. I am talking about retaining from the clamour of others' attention, for a time, one's inner, and personal lives. And, even when the artist is ready to share the work, which they will do, no doubt with tremendous trepidation, if they have an ounce of humility or sense, they also do so with a certain amount of restraint. Leave the effusiveness to others, and take that praise with a huge dollop of salt.
Kipling himself described both triumph and disaster as “imposters” in a poem to his recently deceased son, imbuing them with same quality of disingenuousness or dishonesty or even, I would say, illusion. An artist should enjoy the fruits of his exertions but always remember they have to start the humbling process of creation all over again with another endeavour. Essentially, an artist must never become complacent. Or conceited.
The more we talk, the more we put ourselves and our inner workings on display while creating, or are not vigilant about maintaining personal boundaries, the harder it is to find that core of stillness from which the artist's inspiration derives. Kipling wrote in the study I am writing in right now, at the far end of a house he built to resemble the dimensions of a ship. The study was the bow from which he commandeered his creativity. He sought, “an ideal of a remote, creative life” (The Landmark Trust Handbook) in rural, Dummerston, Vermont, and was able, for three years, to write in intensely guarded privacy. He even had an actual “guard”, his beloved wife, Carrie. Carrie Kilpling positioned her personal study between his and well, the rest of the house, indeed the world. Anyone who wanted access to “Ruddy” had to go through her. She handled his correspondence and mundane matters, and kept the servants and children away while he worked.
There is the other side of the coin, however, to this type of intense privacy, it can lead to isolation, and alas that is what happened to Kipling. Carrie's protective but well-intentioned strategy to keep her husband productive and focused prevented the writer from connecting with others. Prolonged isolation for anyone leads to a person actually forgetting how to navigate the world. They have to re-learn how to connect and adapt, kind of like a child who was raised by oh, say a black panther and a jolly bear, for example, who emerges from the jungle into a strange world.
A writer needs to engage experientially with the outside from time to time even just to find things to write about with any authority. They will lose their perspective if they don't. Given all this, I suddenly wondered what Kipling would have made of Facebook. There are of course “privacy settings” but most people on it, myself included, are not particularly private—though I am becoming more so, having culled a number of “friends” (some creepy ones) and keeping my statuses on the lighter side. On the dark side, this is an artificially intimate platform for exhibitionists (some of whom consider themselves artists of the highest caliber but post nothing creative except self congratulatory nonsense) who are compelled, as my friend Franie says, to “show their pink bits” for attention. Lately, I have become more aware of those artists who use it to express their intrinsic marvelousness. Some of these postings are emphatic and effusive, executed at a hysterical pitch to garner as much “buzz” and affirmation as possible and in some cases, because I have inside information, patently false. I have to say, however, that there are those elegant souls who use their Facebook pages to share their wonderful work and do not make it personal or they show their inner spirit in beautiful ways. I have a friend who writes new verse every day. I am not sure how she does it, but she manages, almost every time to capture the spectrum of human toil and emotion perfectly. But I digress. It seems to me that narcissistic display is the death of art.
What would the Kipling's have made of “reality TV?” If they had hung out all their dirty laundry and even say, the pain of losing a child, which they did, twice, once to war and once to disease, for others to scrutinize, judge, and of course offer mass condolences, how would his work have suffered from both the literal and existential “noise” of others commenting on their lives or despair? Kipling was a writer of a certain depth despite his flagrant colonialism. He would have balked at so much “sharing”.
Yet, he lacked balance, in the end. The great English writer Kingsley Amis, father of Martin Amis, notes that his work suffered from the isolation and lack of engagement. He writes of the time the author was the most engaged, when he was living in India:
“India and Kipling had been made for each other. She gave him what no other English writer was ever to experience in comparable fullness and intensity; he brought to her exactly those gifts, which were necessary to commemorate, in the words of an Indian writer, Nirad C. Chauduri 'the many faces of [that] country in all their beauty, power and truth'” (Amis, 52).
This was also the period of time where the writer formed his powerfully imperialistic politics. How appalled Kipling sahib would be to know that I, “a native” had soaked in his much loved tub only that morning. The writer felt Indians were inferior and should know their place and he suffered from the classic “White Man's Burden” syndrome.
Amis writes without a hint of irony: “Kipling was an Imperialist. He accepted the Empire as it was. …(It was attractive because it was an island of security in a turbulent, hostile world.) (52-53).
This last sentence harkens back to RK's powerful need for sanctuary against the “Madding Crowd” (incidentally, Facebook's back up name).
I do not admire Kipling's politics or virulent racism, but I admire his understanding of the process of writing. When it came to his fans, of which there was plenty, praise was appreciated but not sought after and not used as sustenance against the inevitable self doubt and fear of failure all writers experience. An artist with any talent who seeks constant affirmation and approbation will effectively throttle that talent. It appears that Kipling and his devoted wife were aware of the dangers of believing “your own hype.”
I'll leave you with two verses of his haunting poem “If”, written for his son who died in WWI about what it takes to be a man:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011