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207 THE AESTHETICS OF VIOLENCE by Elliot L. Gilbert (Brooklyn Col lege) "From this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety." —Henry IV, Part 1 One of the charges most frequently leveled against Rudyard Kipling and his work is that of brutality. A reader may know little else about Kipling, but he will be sure to have heard of his reputation for condoning and even celebrating gross violence in his poems and stories. As early as 1900, Robert Buchanan was bitterly condemning Kipling as "the voice of the hooligan," and more than forty years later, George Orwell, equally harsh in his judgment of the writer, declared that "there is not the slightest sign anywhere in his work that he disapproves of [sadism and brutality]."1 Many other writers have made the same point just as vigorously. Richard Le Gallienee, for example, said that "perhaps no one ever wrote so profanely of death as Mr. Kipling or with such heartless vulgarity,"* and Max Beerbohm, in his famous—if quite uncharacteristically virulent—parody of Kipling in A CHRISTMAS GARLAND, mimicked brilliantly not only the unique, jaunty style of his subject's verse and prose but also the pathological revelling In cruelty which, to Beerbohm, at any rate, seemed the chief distinguishing feature of Kipiing's work. Then it's collar 'im tight, [Beerbohm wrote] In the name o' the Lawd! "Ustle Mm, shake 'im till 'e's sicki Wot, 'e would, would 'e? Well, Then yer've got ter give 'im 'Ell, An' it's trunch, trunch, truncheon does the trick. Like much other criticism of Kipling, the charge of brutality can readily be substantiated. In volume after volume of Kipling's works, the reader encounters incidents of bullying, beating and rank sadism, acts of maliciousness most of which, it seems plain, the author is not merely reporting but is actually enjoying. Such an early story as "A Friend's Friend" from PLAIN TALES FROM THE HILLS Is based upon one of the writer's favorite brutalities, the gang-up. The situation, familiar to Kipling aficionados, is one in which the members of an exclusive group combine to inflict excruciating mental and physical torture on an individual whose chief crime, for all anyone is able to tell, is being an outsider. It would be easy enough to dismiss this tale as one of its author's early mistakes were it not for the fact that as late as 1932, in LIMITS AND RENEWALS, Kipling permitted the reprinting of a story of his called "The Tie," a work, similar in its outlines to "A Friend's Friend," in which group punishment is inflicted on the worst sort of outsider the writer can imagine, an insider gone bad. 208 And these pieces only mark the boundaries of Kipling's career. Repeatedly during the forty-five years which separate the two works the author returned to the device of the gang-up, and even in such a story as "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat," often spoken of as one of Kipling's humorous best, the effect of all the great powers in England combining—to the obvious delight of the author— for the purpose of ruining a single village is far more grotesque and even sadistic than it is funny. Plainly, what these stories all have in common is the fact that brutality is not only their subject but also their object; that not content with merely contemplating sadism, they must be_ sadistic as well. Small wonder, then, that Kipling's voice should have come to be associated, in the minds of most people, with the voice of the hooligan. But to condemn these particular works on the charge of brutality is not to condemn their author's output as a whole. Indeed, for every story in which we find Kipling delighting in the discomfort of his fellow creatures, there are many other tales in which human suffering is treated by the writer with respect and compassion. There can, for example, be nothing more brutal and senseless than the deaths of Ameera and her son in "Without Benefit of Clergy." Yet that brutality is clearly the brutality of the universe, and Kipling...


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pp. 207-217
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