More Kipling: history repeats itself ("the burnt Fool's bandaged finger")
Part of an interesting piece by Dr. Horsefeathers on the subject of Kipling, posted some time ago (ignore the spambot dump that the comments section of that post has managed to become) , is the following observation on Kipling and pacifists, written by George Orwell:
In discussing the pacifist left Orwell wrote, “A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep'.
That quote of Orwell's, "A humanitarian is always a hypocrite," brought me up short. Certainly, humanitarians are sometimes hypocrites, but always? Always? And Orwell was usually so careful with words! Which made me wonder what he was getting at here.
So I went back to the original source of the quote, this article Orwell wrote on Kipling. I found a few other interesting points about Kipling (about whom Orwell had mixed feelings, to say the least) before I struck pay dirt, such as this discussion of the ways in which Kipling is misquoted and misunderstood:
An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from "Recessional," "Lesser breeds without the Law." This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the "lesser breeds" are "natives," and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase "lesser breeds" refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are "without the Law" in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German.
And here is the full Orwell quote about humanitarians and their hypocrisy:
All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment," demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite...
So, in this context, he seems to be using the word "humanitarian" to mean "leftist" in the economic sense, not to refer to people who, for example, provide earthquake relief. The latter may be idealistic or simplistic, and they may at times be ineffective, but I don't see how the vast majority of them could be described as hypocrites--unless one happens to be an utter Malthusian and Social Darwinist and believes that people who really have humanity's best interests at heart should follow a strict non-interventionist policy in the struggle for existence, and that intervention only leads to a cascade of increasing problems.
But to get back to Kipling, in his essay Dr. Horsefeathers also reproduces a famous Kipling poem entitled "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," the last two stanzas of which I found especially thought-provoking. "Copybook Headings" is one of those archaic Britishisms that needs explanation for us benighted and ignorant moderns, especially of the American variety:
"Copybook" is the British for notebook; a "Copybook heading" was a proverb or other essential truth that a teacher assigned to his class to write an essay on.
Here are those last two stanzas:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will bum,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.
I would assert that it's hard to get any more pessimistic than that about humankind, history, and humanity's inability to learn from history--or, perhaps, any more correct. Not to mention that--at least to this reader--one of the things he seems to be describing is the end result of Communism and Socialism.
I suspected that the poem was written after the profound disillusionment of World War I--and, sure enough, it was: 1919.
That incredible line, "...the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire," is one that probably could be used by either side these days, to accuse the other. But to me it symbolizes in a profound, graphic, and bitter way the tendency of people to forget the lessons of history, even recent ones.