This Is Important (Part IV)

Rudyard Kipling


Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger is writing about Roger Kimball’s latest book, The Fortunes of Permanence. For the first three installments, go here, here, and here.

Quite possibly, the most politically incorrect thing in Roger’s book is a quote from George Santayana. About the British Empire, Santayana wrote, “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.” He went on, “It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.”

Writes Kimball, “What’s happened in Africa in the period of de-colonization — better call it ‘rebarbarization,’ a much more accurate name — is stark evidence that Santayana was right.”

The human mind is a tricky thing — and a bizarre thing. Some years ago, I was talking with an Arab-American acquaintance of mine. I said, “Sometimes I get the impression that Arabs would rather be brutalized by fellow Arabs than freed and well treated by foreigners.” He said, “Of some of them, that is certainly true.”

In Roger’s book is a chapter praising The Dangerous Book for Boys. It so happens — just a personal note — I bought this book for my nephew (then ten) last Christmas. Roger describes the book as a “healing zephyr” blowing through “the swamp-like miasma of contemporary life.”

You’ll like this, I think:

The first chapter, “Essential Gear” . . ., lists a Swiss Army knife, for God’s sake, not to mention matches and a magnifying glass, “For general interest. Can also be used to start fires.” Probably, the book would have to be checked with the rest of your luggage at the airport . . .

But The Dangerous Book is not just for wreaking havoc. It has more than puppy-dog tails in it. For example, you’ll find “Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know.”

Roger writes,

And speaking of “boys,” have you noticed how unprogressive the word sounds in today’s English? It is almost as retrograde as “girls,” a word that I knew was on the way out when an academic couple I know proudly announced that they had just presented the world with a “baby woman.”

I’ve told this story in Impromptus before, but let me tell it again. The episode occurred about 20 years ago now. I was in a bookstore on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Two young men — a clerk and a customer — were discussing a mutual friend: a woman. The clerk said, “Did you hear [So-and-so] had a baby?” The customer said, “No, that’s great! Boy or girl?” The clerk gulped and replied, somewhat rebukefully, “She had a woman.”

That is exactly the way it happened. Swear.

Kimball has a chapter on Rudyard Kipling. And I want to mention here that I read Kim relatively late in life — just five or six years ago, I think. I was headed off to India. And my friend Jonathan Foreman, the journalist and a veteran South Asia hand, gave me a reading list. At the end he said, “And, above all, of course, Kim.”

I was a little surprised: I always assumed that Kim was a little hokey, embarrassing, and dated. That’s the prejudice I grew up with. Little did I know — I knew when I started reading — it’s a fricking masterpiece.

The man’s ear — to take that alone — was superb.

Here is Kimball on T. S. Eliot on Kipling: “Eliot notes that one is usually called upon to defend modern poetry from the charge of excessive obscurity: with Kipling the culprit is ‘excessive lucidity.’”

As Kimball tells us, Henry James once complained that there was one thing missing in Kipling: “the civilized man.”

“It’s a frequent refrain,” writes Kimball. “But in a deeper sense, Kipling was about almost nothing else — not the civilization of elegant drawing rooms, but something more primeval and without which those drawing rooms would soon be smashed and occupied by weeds.”

He then quotes Evelyn Waugh on Kipling — a man, said Waugh, who “believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.”

The line between us and outright barbarism seems like a Kleenex. The line between ordered liberty and barbarism — so thin, you can hardly blame the barbarians, or would-be barbarians, for being tempted.

(I feel I should note that the barbarism can come from cultured Europeans. See Germany and Austria, short decades ago. And remember those professeurs at the Sorbonne who taught and inspired the Khmer Rouge . . .)