Friday, April 07, 2006

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.


At 12:50 PM, April 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are so damn good sometimes, its just scary!

I bask in your reflected glory. This is one outstanding piece.

At 1:30 PM, April 07, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I think what Orwell meant was that you have to be willing to pay the costs of humanitarianism, otherwise you are a hypocrite. Meaning, the personal costs of freeing economic helots or Muslims or etc. Whether that be higher prices, more wars, or more terrorism. If the humanitarians are protected by others from the consequences, then they cannot shed their hypocritical actions even if they wanted to. Other than say, going into foreign countries and living there, free from the strife of their homeland and capitalism.

I think Orwell believed intervention is good, if you really intended to help. But if you really intended to help, then you have to suffer the consequences of freeing a nation or giving them free trade. In his world, the American version of international interventionism, an honest attempt at creating freedom and economic prosperity, was non-existent. Only socialist practices like Venezuella existed, or Imperialist practices of economic taxation.

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.

Wow, I didn't know that Kipling read Fukie's the End of History. How old is Fukie anyway?

The "Gods" seem to mean the Slogan Banners. Those who hold to an essential truth. Like... PETA, ELF, ANSWER, CAIR, Code Pink, Socialists, Fascists, Communists, etc. Iraq the Model mentioned the Empty Slogan Banners that were the basis of the Baath party after the British evacuated the area. Empty Slogans have killed more people than any nuke ever has. Lots o slaughter.

Do as I say, not as I do. For I am God, and the exisgencies of human sin does not mire me in the least. Hollywood loves to do that with their SUVs and talk about Blood for oil.

I don't tend to think that people forget the lessons of history, rather the lessons of history are intentionally covered up by various parties for even more diverse reasons. It might have been argued before the printing press, that people were just ignint, but the excuse of ignorancy isn't available in the here and now. The problem is not lack of knowledge, the problem is that the knowledge is covered up by junk, by lies, and by effected distortions. It is hard for the average American to find the truth, but it is much easier than it was in the past. The Story of Iraq is available, but data can be destroyed by more data, simply by overloading the human brain. Before, the tyrants of history used the lack of sensory information to dominate, now they use the over abundance of sensory information to dominate. Communication is so fast and so expansive, that telling the whole story takes too much effort. Creating the truth is much harder than destroying it.

It isn't even that they are doing this with conscious malice. Hollywood for example, to alleviate their gift of being rich compared to the poor smucks in the rest of America, talks about blaming Bush and America. They talk about taxing the rich, but they do everything in their power to evade taxes. This self-deception, not only deceives them, but because they have money and power, deceives everyone they touch as well.

The Gods of the Copy book will return indeed. Perhaps the guilt ridden conscience of socialism truly did begin in the elitist and socialist polities of Europe, given fire by guilt ridden individuals, who have spawned a pantheon of Gods and beliefs for the rest of us to deal with in the future.

At 2:24 PM, April 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 1:50 PM, April 07, 2006, Frank Martin said...

You are so damn good sometimes,
Funny, I was thinking the same thing. And so is Kipling, much of the time.

At 4:33 PM, April 07, 2006, Blogger David Foster said...

Another very good Kipling piece is his "Epitaphs of the War," written after WWI. Samples:


I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?


If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.


If any mourn us in the workshop, say
We died because the shift kept holiday.


This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
We pray Them to reward him for his bravery in ours.

At 6:19 PM, April 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, while Orwell was sadly unappreciated in his time, he is today grossly misunderstood and mangled. Witness the many self-serving abuses of "Orwellian." But I suggest his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn", a far more explicit indictment of leftism and pacifism and the covert hatred its true believers hold for the west.

I enjoy your civil and literate contributions to the world.

At 10:44 PM, April 07, 2006, Blogger Callimachus said...

Thanks for this. Both for introducing me to old words new to me, and for your synthesis of them. For Kipling, the father and the writer, World War I was a personal, as well as a civilizational, tragedy.

At 9:39 AM, April 08, 2006, Blogger al fin said...

No, Orwell was right. Foolish and seemingly trivial ideological actions can have horrific consequences. Demagogues rally mobs of young people because the brains of the young have not matured--their brains do not work properly in terms of judgement and perspective. They cannot anticipate future consequences of their actions today.

Due to the current brevity of their lives and lack of experience, the young have not seen the monstrous results of the similar rallying of previous generations of young.

At 12:09 PM, April 08, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Orwell was talking about today's Hollywood. People who say environment and conservation matters, and they're driving around in SUV Convoys and Lear Jets. People who talk about taxing the rich instead of the poor, when they put all of their money into no taxable trust funds like Noam Chomsky. People who talk about being part of the proletariat when they come from a rich neighborhood, Michael Moore. People who repeat endlessly about affirmative action, but only hires like 5% black people in their staff for their movies, like Moore.

These are the people who advocate to solve social problems, but in reality they do not want those problems to be solved. Because if ever those problems were solved, they would have nothing to sooth their conscience. When all of life's problems are gone, they are only left with their own problems to solve, and that is intolerable to the rich and the powerful. No amount of money nor power can solve a person's guilty conscience.

Kipling's understanding of false slogan bearers, human nature, and human fallibilities makes him akin to Orwell. No man who did not understand human nature or how to manipulate it, could have written 1984 as Orwell did. What you can understand, you can also destroy and manipulate. Or, construct and support.

At 1:47 PM, April 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might find this Canadian Blog interesting:

BTW the Blog is very conservative in outlook.



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