Monday, April 21, 2008

Kipling & Son

I was about to write something different today, but I got side-tracked by the excellent Masterpiece Theater dramatization of Rudyard Kipling's loss of his son, Jack, to the slaughter of World War I, the "war to end all wars." "My Boy Jack" was another powerful indictment of war, blind patriotism, and the nationalist spirit that inspires them.

Kipling is superbly played by the actor who also wrote the piece, David Haig, and the terribly young son Jack, also superb, by the Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe.

Since I was a child and had them read to me, I have always loved Kipling's stories. I read "The Jungle Book" and "The Just-So Stories" to my children when they were young, rediscovering the sheer oral pleasure of reading Kipling's words out loud: what could be more glorious and appealing than that "great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river," or "old dog Dingo, grinning like a coal scuttle"? As an adult, certainly, I was not unaware of the imperialist paternalism behind the Mowgli stories, nor of the cheesiness of Kipling's jaunty verse, but these faults mattered little compared to the joys of narrative and language.

Until close to the end, "My Boy Jack" threatened to undermine everything about Kipling that I loved. It was unsparing in its exposure of his simple-minded jingoism, his devotion to the monarchy and the British Empire, his unquestioning and enthusiastic rush to war with "the bloody Hun." Returning to his home country from years of world-wide travels, he was by this time widely known and influential not merely as a literary figure, but in the world of politics and the military elite. Brought up in this spirit of nationalistic pride, Kipling's boy Jack was mortified by his rejection by the Royal Navy on the grounds of his severe myopia; initially, he was rejected by the officer's training academy at Sandhurst, too, but his father used every ounce of his significant influence to get him admitted--despite the fact that without his glasses the lad was nearly blind.

Gung-ho for the war and the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm, well-educated young Britons like Jack were volunteering manfully for the armed forces as junior officers and being sent off like lambs to the slaughter in the poppy fields of France. (Read Rupert Brooke and this poem by Wilfred Owen, or this one, among many others, for a feel for the initial pride and the disillusionment.) With his father's blessing--and his required permission--Jack was posted to France in charge of an infantry platoon at the age of seventeen. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday in the sodden, vermin-infested trenches, ankle deep in filth and mud and the blood of the injured. And at the age of eighteen plus one day, he led his men "over the top" into enemy machine gun fire, where all but one were mowed down by enemy bullets.

The family--mother, sister, father Rudyard--were informed by telegram that Jack was "missing," and spent months contending with the cruel hope that he might yet show up alive; until the lone survivor from his platoon showed up at their home and told the dreadful story of his death. Racked with guilt and grief, Kipling was brought face-to-face with the futility and tragedy of it all, and the teleplay ended with a scene in which he recites with deathly dispassion the poem that he wrote to mourn his son's death. Here it is:

My Boy Jack

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

The tragic part, for me, is that Kipling still could not transcend the jingoism inherent in that "he did not shame his kind," nor the need to "hold [his] head up all the more." He still needed, perhaps more desperately than before, to believe in the meaning of his son's sacrifice--even though it was no more than to "that wind blowing and that tide!" The teleplay has him agonizing over existential doubts, and the belief that he has condemned his son not to some glorious afterlife, but to "oblivion." Clearly, he had glimpsed the futility, but could not allow himself to acknowledge it.

With Jack's mother and his sister, it was different of course--both, too, superbly acted roles. They got it from the first, but were powerless to argue with Kipling's male conviction and authority. And the real tragedy of it all is that NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Here we are, close to one hundred years later, with a predominantly male, predominantly military power structure (in BOTH conflicting worlds) sending others to their needless deaths in order to promote the interests of that same predominantly male, predominantly military power structure. We have learned nothing from a century of wars and countless millions of human beings slaughtered.

Must we still stand, hand over heart, flag pin in lapel, and pay pious homage to the memorials we erect, supposedly to honor the dead? It all brought me, once again, to tears.


Mike Cross said...

In 1243, in a chapter of Shobogenzo called Butsudo, The Buddha's Truth, Zen Master Dogen wrote a powerful indictment of sectarianism. But 765 years on, those who call themselves followers of Master Dogen identify themselves as members of the Soto Sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Notwithstanding the 2nd law of thermodynamics some things, as you very eloquently bemoan Peter, are very resistant to change.

citizen of the world said...

I was flipping through channels and watched a fw minutes of this. I thought that looked like Danile Radcliffe. But people were being killed and I had to change the channel. I can't watch violent things to start with, but it especially grieves me to think of young people being slaughtered in war. So senseless.