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The Weblog at The View from the Core - Wed. 05/19/04 06:53:09 PM
The Brutal Truth
"If all men stood talking of their rights before they went up a mast or down a sewer or stoked a furnace or joined an army, we should all perish...."
John Derbyshire quotes C.S. Lewis at The Corner, May 16:
It is a brutal truth about the world that the whole everlasting business of keeping the human race protected and clothed and fed could not go on for twenty-four hours without the vast legion of hard-bitten, technically efficient, not-over-sympathetic men, and without the harsh processes of discipline by which this legion is made. It is a brutal truth that unless a great many people practiced the Kipling ethos there would be neither security nor leisure for any people to practice a finer ethos.
Your Humble, Faithful Blogster was unfamiliar with that quotation, so I decided to try to find it. And find it I did, in a lecture called "Kipling's World" from Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1969). Some bits of this passage tend towards the obscure, but I think it's well worth quoting and reading the entire passage (footnotes omitted; brackets and quoted ellipses in original).
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.... There is nothing Kipling describes with more relish than the process whereby the trade-spirit licks some raw cub into shape. That is the whole theme of one of his few full-length novels, Captains Courageous. It is the theme of "The Centaurs" and of "Pharaoh and the Sergeant", and of "The 'Eathen". It is allegorically expressed in "The Ship that Found Herself". It is implicit in all the army stories and the sea-stories; indeed, it may be thought that the author turns aside from his narrative rather too often to assure us that Mulvaney was invaluable for "lick[ing] the new batch of recruits into shape". Even when we escape into the jungle and the wolf pack we do not escape the Law. Until he has been disciplined "put through it", licked into shape a man is, for Kipling, mere raw material. "Gad", says Hitchcock to Findlayson in "The Bridge-Builders", "what a Cooper's Hill cub I was when I came on the works!" And Findlayson muses, "Cub thou wast; assistant thou art." The philosophy of the thing is summed up at the end of "A Walking Delegate" where the yellow horse (an agitator) has asked the old working horse, "Have you no respec' whatever fer the dignity o' our common horsehood?" He gets the reply, "Horse, sonny, is what you start from. We know all about horse here, an' he ain't any high-toned, pure-souled child o' nature. Horse, plain horse, same ez you, is chock-full o' tricks, an' meannesses, an' cussednesses,... an' monkeyshines... Thet's horse, an' thet's about his dignity an' the size of his soul 'fore he's been broke an' raw-hided a piece." Reading 'man' for 'horse', we here have Kipling's doctrine of Man.
This is one of the most important things Kipling has to say and one which he means very seriously, and it is also one of the things which has aroused hatred against him. It amounts to something like a doctrine of original sin, and it is antipathetic to many modern modes of thought. Perhaps even more antipathetic is Kipling's presentation of the "breaking" and "raw-hiding" process. In "His Private Honour" it turns out to consist of prolonged bullying and incessant abuse; the sort of bullying (as we learn from "The 'Eathen") which sends grown men off to cry in solitude, followed by the jeers of the old hands. The patient is not allowed to claim any personal rights whatever; there is nothing, according to Kipling, more subversive. To ask for justice is as the sin of witchcraft. The disaster in the poem called "That Day" began with the fact that "every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind". In contrast, "'My rights!' Ortheris answered with deep scorn, 'My rights! I ain't a recruity to go whinin' about my rights to this an' my rights to that, just as if I couldn't look after myself. My rights! 'Strewth A'mighty! I'm a man.'"
Now there is no good whatever in dismissing this part of Kipling's message as if it were not worth powder and shot. There is a truth in it which must be faced before we attempt to find any larger truths which it may exclude. Many who hate Kipling have omitted this preliminary. They feel instinctively that they themselves are just the unlicked or unbroken men whom Kipling condemns; they find the picture intolerable, and the picture of the cure more intolerable still. To escape, they dismiss the whole thing as a mere Fascist or "public school" brutality. But there is no solution along those lines. It may (or may not) be possible to get beyond Kipling's harsh wisdom; but there is no getting beyond a thing without first getting as far. It is a brutal truth about the world that the whole everlasting business of keeping the human race protected and clothed and fed could not go on for twenty-four hours without the vast legion of hard-bitten, technically efficient, not-over-sympathetic men, and without the harsh processes of discipline by which this legion is made. It is a brutal truth that unless a great many people practised the Kipling ethos there would be neither security nor leisure for any people to practise a finer ethos. As Chesterton admits, "We may fling ourselves into a hammock in a fit of divine carelessness but we are glad that the net-maker did not make the hammock in a fit of divine carelessness". In "The Pro-Consuls", speaking of those who have actually ruled with a strong hand, Kipling says:
On the stage their act hath framed
It is a true bill, as far as it goes. Unless the Kipling virtues if you will, the Kipling vices had long and widely been practised in the world we should be in no case to sit here and discuss Kipling. If all men stood talking of their rights before they went up a mast or down a sewer or stoked a furnace or joined an army, we should all perish; nor while they talked of their rights would they learn to do these things. And I think we must agree with Kipling that the man preoccupied with his own rights is not only a disastrous, but a very unlovely object; indeed, one of the worst mischiefs we do by treating a man unjustly is that we force him to be thus preoccupied.... (pp. 238ff)
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