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November 25, 2010


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I think this is almost entirely wrong. I think that if there had been any liberal thinker / writer who had stood up to the particular challenges posed by Kipling (i.e., not the question of 'Empire, right or wrong?', but the more difficult pragmatic one of 'Empire, how?' [including within it the question of how to dismantle such an entity if you don't want one]), then things (from Partition to Zimbabwe) might have developed in a much more humane and coherent manner. His enemies (and I think that's an unhelpful term) weren't worthy of him, or at least refused to see that he was asking questions which rode on entirely different tracks of thought from the ones they travelled.

Glenn Kenny

"Enemies" is likely an unhelpful term by standards or expectations of contemporary discourse, but perhaps not in 1950; and in any event Trilling is paraphrasing Mill. What I found interesting in this passage doesn't have so much to do with overt affinity or agreement as such, but its implicit definitions of liberalism, its citation of what is still a common liberal trait/affliction, and so on.

Kent Jones

"easy victories of right feeling and moral self-congratulation" - Kipling aside, that pretty much says it all when applied to this country. By contrast, the right operates with a keen understanding of politics - strategy, mobilization, coalition-building, clear communication. Granted, it's easier to communicate clearly when you have your own TV network and only one economic "idea." All the same, you can't effect real political change when you've decided that it's not even possible.

Actually, I spoke at an NYU journalism seminar recently, and I was heartened to see kids who'd had enough of "the spectatorial left." Encouraging.

Kevin Michael Grace

Did Trilling really not know that Burke was a Whig, not a Tory? Or was he being, erm, disingenuous?


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It's interesting to think that what now strike me as Kipling's fairly nuanced, certainly non-jingoistic views (his unique literary idea being in many ways a paraphrase of Marvell's 'The same arts that did gain / A Power, must it maintain') could have seemed so thuggish to so many people for so long. I really don't see how Trilling could have formed the ideas he did, reading the same author I do.

But the point about the liberal tendency to think that (more or less) it's enough to tar every right-winger as a buffoon and a clown and someone who is -self-evidently- wrong is painfully acute.

Tom Carson

f Kipling doesn't qualify as a jingo, then I don't know who does. But that just makes the misgivings and unease of "Recessional" more impressive, especially given the occasion (Victoria's diamond jubilee). Anyway, maybe because I was raised as a child of empire myself -- Pax Americana version -- I've never felt smug or dismissive about him. He's always worth grappling with, even or especially at his worst.

The Siren

I still think George Orwell wrote the definitive piece on Kipling. I say that as someone who read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi to her kids last week, and can reel off a lot of the old buzzard by heart.



Tom: The OED has 'jingo' as 'an advocate of bellicose foreign policy, a loud and blustering patriot': I suppose, of course, that Kipling does fit the first half of that definition. I was thinking more about the bluster, which I really don't find in him.

Pete Segall

Chris Hitchens chimes in (worth a look, honest):


Tom Carson

James: I do think there's a lot of bluster in Kipling -- often very potent bluster, whether he's speaking in his own voice ("Ye cannot stoop to less") or through one of his invented Tommies ("But it's 'thin red line of 'eroes' when the drums begin to roll"). Even so, the poignancy of his role as the Empire's literary blusterer-in-chief is that he's always conscious of himself as an offspring of the Raj who in the home country is a "colonial" and an outsider, making for a lot of what we would call overcompensating. And obviously both Mowgli and Kim dramatize that divided self in heightened ways, a very modern theme he may not get enough credit for anticipating.

On that count, it's interesting to me that Anglo-Indian writers still have to cope with Kipling in a shuddery "Luke, I am your father" sort of way, more or less as African American writers from Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison haven't been able to escape coming to terms with Faulkner. I also realize this is straying far from the point of Glenn's original post, but what the hell, GK must be used to that by now.


People like Trilling and Orwell aren't Catholics or Frenchmen either. So why don't they feel the need to exercise their intellectual generosity on, to name a novelist readers of this blog will recognize, George Bernanos, who in my view is actually a better novelist than Kipling.

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