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153 THE LIGHT THAT FAILED: KIPLING'S VERSION OF DECADENCE By William S. Peterson (Andrews University) Perhaps Kipling's greatest gift as a writer was his journalistic knack for quickly absorbing new ideas, new atmospheres, and new locales into his fiction. His first novel, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, is an especially remarkable example of this: written only a year after Kipling's return to England in 1889, "t nevertheless portrays faithfully the art-conscious f_i.n de sjècle society of London. Though two recent studies of THE LIGHT THAT FAÕ LED have treated it as a war novel and concealed autobiography, respectively.' it is more rewarding, I believe, to view it as yet another late nineteenth century novel about art and artists, but of course strikingly different in other respects from, say, Wilde's PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY or Du Maurier's TRILBY. THE LIGHT THAT FAILED is, in effect, a study in decadence, but rendered in the unlikely medium of Kiplingesque prose. The implicit decadence of Dick Heldar's art can be best seen by a scrutiny of his relationship with three women~-Maisie (the girl whom he fruitlessly pursues), the "Negroid-Jewess-Cuban," and Bessie Broke, Maisie, of course is the typical femme fatale; she has "thin scarlet lips" (p. 64), black hair, and pale cheeks. (As Mario Praz has pointed out, the Fatal Woman is always pale*3) Dick also plays a traditional role by burning with masochistic desire before the Woman.4 Only "the red-haired girl," Maisie's companion, fully understands Dick's submissive attitude, and she reveals it to him in a sketch that "presented the dumb waiting, the longing, and, above all, the hopeless enslavement of the man. . . ." (p. 93) Significantly, Edmund Wilson has found this tendency toward self-abasement in Kipling as well--a permanent psychological injury, Wilson suggests, from Kipling's unhappy boyhood years at Southsea with the domineering "Aunt Rosy."5 If Dick cannot sustain a normal relationship with Maisie, neither can he with other women, though with them his hostility is directed outward rather than at himself. What he considers his greatest painting—that of the "Negroid-Jewess-Cuban, with morals to match" (pp. l49~50--is a curious blend of dream-fantasy, eroticism, violence, and heavenly-satanic forces. With the skipper's mistress as his model and with only three colors, Dick painted one wall of a cargo ship's lower deck to illustrate two lines from Poe: Neither the angels in Heaven aboi'e nor the demons down under the sea, Can ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee, This was the high point of his life, and even now the simple words of a sea chanty remind Dick of the time when he "was mixing paints, making love, drawing devils and angels in the half dark, and wondeiing whether the next minute would put the Italian captain's knife between his shoulder-blades" (pp. 159-60). Such is Dick's artistic paradise—dangerous, dark, passionate, remote from the ordinary world. Clearly this is not the "honest realism" that he espouses on other occasions. THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, then, delineates three artistic modes rather than merely two: (1) the timid, conventional style associated with effete London; (2) the realistic mode born of Dick's experiences at war; and (3) a tortured, self-annihilating mode—represented by the "Annabel Lee"--that is achieved at the expense of other values. It is significant that the first style is that of Maisie, who moves "to 154 and fro with the teacups" (rather like J. Alfred Prufrock's friends), produces fifth-rate paintings that have their inception in books rather than life, and talks incessantly of Art, She represents one dangerous alternative; she "spoilt" Dick's aim when he was a boy, and it is his momentary recollection of Maisie during a battle in the Sudan that enables an enemy soldier to injure Dick's optic nerve. The conventional canons of Art will eventually blind him; but that blindness is hastened by the reckless expenditure of his sight upon his supposed masterpiece, the portrait of Bessie Broke. His last painting, I would suggest, represents an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 153-155
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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