Literature students do not need content warnings on reading lists: they just need reading lists
Updated: Aug 22
As he celebrated his nineteenth birthday, Rudyard Kipling was passing through Simla, in North India. According to one biographer, Andrew Lycett, Kipling (and his party) rented a house in the village of Kotgarh where he was struck by the attractiveness of the local women. In the words of Kipling’s biographer, Andrew Lycett: He (Kipling) was not particularly surprised to learn that the local clergyman...had been accused of sexually molesting his female flock. But rather than protest against this abuse of native women, Rudyard confided naively to his diary, ‘Should like to be Padre in these parts’ (Lycett, 1994, loc.2501-2).
This rather unsettling anecdote goes to show that it is not difficult to find highly influential and revered artists exhibiting dubious values. Sometimes the life of the writer becomes important in a comprehensive understanding of their work; inevitably, literature students will stumble across such descriptions. The lives of individuals who lived in different historical periods can sound unsettling, especially when we study them from the relative security of our own time. However, it is the duty of the English Literature student to place the lives of artists in perspective, because ultimately literature itself is at stake and it is far too precious to come second fiddle to the anxieties of its readers.
Writing in The Guardian recently, Katharine Swindells worries that the English Literature curriculum at university is “peppered with abusers’ names”, citing Salinger and Hemingway as examples.
Anyone who finds themselves studying English Literature at a UK university is part of a highly privileged generation who are fortunate enough to study the very finest works of literature. To think that reading literature could constitute someone’s full time occupation. Imagine explaining to the miners, labourers, factory workers and chimney sweeps of yesteryear that English Literature study could occupy three years of a young person’s life. All Swindells and her contemporaries have to do is to cope with the realities of the writers’ experiences whilst appreciating the beauty of their work.
I use Rudyard Kipling as my example because he was a great writer; his seminal novel, Kim, not only helped Kipling win a Nobel Prize, but is widely acclaimed for its beauty, wisdom and opaque wonder. If the Lycett’s quotation says anything about Kipling as a human being then Kim is the prime example of how art can rise above the vulgarities of human folly and debauchery. If Kipling was, by any standards, an apologist for predatory abuse, Kim proves that brilliance and wrongdoing can co-exist in the same individual.
I am not expert enough to know how serious Kipling was in the ‘naive’ comment quoted above. Had he been a second-rate writer this unsavoury biographical anecdote would probably never have come to light. Whatever Kipling’s shortcomings, his characters were vivid and enigmatic. Take Hurree Chunder Mookerjee from Kim. Hurree is an Anglicised Bengali working for the British in colonial India, “a writer of tales” (Kipling, 1901, loc.2733), according to one character, but might be more objectively described as an ambitious and dynamic pundit, dedicated to furthering the British exploration of Tibet. The pundits, or chain men, undertook highly daring expeditions across the mountainous borders of India and Tibet in their pursuit of map-making.
Hurree’s depiction is such that it is never clear what he represents or whose interests he really serves. A shallow reader might dismiss him as just another Indian stereotype, “a hulking, obese Babu whose stockinged legs shook with fat” (loc 2716), instead of considering his enigmatic brilliance, “these souls are very few” (loc. 2746), as one character puts it. It is Hurree who is able to travel into the Himalayas, rescue the precious papers from Russian insurgents and return British stability.
Hurree’s unprecedented dedication ironically provides a threat to British rule. Hurree wishes to be a Fellow of the Royal Society, just like Colonel Creighton, the British officer. Their ambitions are the same and perhaps Kipling foresees in Hurree the revolutionary spirit which will one day witness Indian independence. Kipling’s pundit has the surface presence of a caricature but is clearly a resourceful manipulator. The more you think about Hurree, the more that comes to light. Frankly, I fail to see how a seminar on Kipling would allow discussion of his real life indiscretions trump examination of a character like Hurree.
Don’t take my word for it. Kim has inspired a generation of writers, including ancestors of colonial rule, who may not appreciate Kipling’s colonial views, but were inspired by its brilliance. The academic and staunch critic of Kipling, Edward Said, referred to “the extraordinarily rich text of Kim” (loc.1584). The Booker Prize winner, The English Patient, featured an Indian bomb disposal expert, called Kip (a possible play on Kipling), who trained in the UK before serving the British army. Salman Rushdie pointed out that “no non-Indian writer understood India as well as Kipling” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/sep/30/fiction.salmanrushdie. Meanwhile, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee made a return in Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes in which Hurree teams up with Holmes in a Himalayan adventure.
I could go on. Kipling’s works transcend any of his personal transgressions; writers of colonial descent have used Kim as a starting point for more literature. When students place a disproportionate emphasis on the behaviour of artists in another time or place they threaten the future credibility of the arts as an academic discipline. If this doesn’t worry you, identify some countries around the world who don’t take the study of the arts seriously and ask yourself whether you would want to live there.
For his part, Kipling did not come of age in a placid, twentieth first century existence. He grew up partly in India and partly in the UK, as was customary for middle class Victorians. When he published Kim, British women did not have the vote, there was no national health service and within two decades an entire generation of men would be lying dead in Europe. Any judgement of Kipling from the comfort of 2018 should be considered in the light of the society around him. I have no idea what I would have been like had I been a middle-class Englishman in colonial India rule or, for that matter, what I would have been like had I lived in Nazi-occupied Europe. It is reasonable to say that there were not many who always did the ‘right’ thing in these societies.
Swindells presents a commonly held view that the morality of the present should be used to assess individuals in a different context. I get suspicious when individuals from another historical epoch are judged according to today’s standards. If students decide that they deserve protection from the behaviour of a dead writer, then the next logical step might be to boycott great works entirely. Writers from the canon will no longer be studied and what a disaster that would be. The very worst thing for any intelligent human being is to live in a permanent present, unable to engage with challenging ideas or confront the truths of human nature.
Writers like Kipling connect us to our history, which was not perfect, but demands a mature, dispassionate understanding crucial for a sense of identity. Taking the attitude that the past is too disturbing or that some writers are retrospectively guilty is regressive and infantilising. Secondary school students, for instance, should definitely be reading such works and assessing the events of the past rationally and objectively. They would not be enjoying twenty first century life without writers from the canon whose works were instrumental in establishing core Western values.
One of the most advisable things that a young, literate person should do with their time is to ransack their nearest library for the works of writers from the canon. Read them, talk about them, criticise them and influence them, but have the spirit to do so without trigger warnings. Kim opens with a description of the main protagonist, Kimball O’Hara, of mixed ethnicity, sitting astride a canon (Zam-Zammah) with defiance: perhaps, in some metaphorical way, this is Kipling’s message from the grave.
Kipling, R. (1901) Kim (Vintage: London) kindle ebook
Lycett, A. (1999) Rudyard Kipling (Weidenfeld and Nicholson: UK) kindle ebook
Said, E. (1994) Culture and Imperialism (Vintage: London) kindle ebook