The Corner

Orwell On Responsibility

Peter:

Much too late in the game, I have finally pulled down my CEJLGO

to check the darn thing. Yep, there it is in the essay on Kipling in Vol. 2. I shall

type carefully.

“One reason for Kipling’s power as a good bad poet I have already

suggested — his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to

have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although he

had no direct connection with any political party, Kipling was a

Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call

themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of

Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the

opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even

disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip

on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such

and such circumstances, what would you *do*?’, whereas the opposition is not

obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a

permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the qulaity of its

thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a

pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for

Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling

himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing

class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgment,

for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into

abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from

having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.

It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not daring, has no

wish to epater les bourgeois. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since

we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his

worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’

utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of

cracker-mottoes at the ens of *Man and Superman*.”

Typing that out, I note a great many points to argue with. Kipling, for

example, has never struck me as the least bit snobbish. To be sure, when

rich and famous, he hung out mainly with other rich and famous people, but

that’s what rich and famous people always do. I don’t think it counts as

snobbery. Nor can I agree that Kipling was not witty or daring. If “The

Sergeant’s Weddin’” isn’t witty (“Grey gun-’orses in the lando / An’ a rogue

is married to a whore…”), then I don’t know any witty poems. As for

daring: How many late-Victorian short story writers could sell a tale about

venereal disease to the middle classes?

But these points, and many others, are covered in my own essay on Kipling

here I come at

the man from a quite different angle; and my politics is not as bizarre as

Orwell’s. He was a revolutionary socialist Tory; I am just a dull old

garden-variety Tory.

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