I always thought it was “Read at WILL”

“The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but duringthe contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!”
― Randall Jarrell

ISIS hates pigeons

Yes, I know; first Patrick, then others, sent me the news that ISIS is now executing pigeon fanciers, some teenagers. I did predict it a few pages ago.

Long ago, I concluded that tyrants tend to get rid of pigeons. Not only are they a primitive form of clandestine, encrypted conversation; watching at them fly above the town is exhilarating, even subversive. If birds fly free, why not me? This proscription reached its zenith, or nadir, in Kabul under the reign of the Taliban, who made it one of their 16 precepts— y’know, no sorcery, abuse your wife, no shaving, no music, NO UN- ISLAMIC PLAYING WITH BIRDS. They killed every highflyer in Kabul in two weeks.

But ISIS or ISIL or whatever the desert plague is currently calling itself, just has to be more badass, as usual. Not content to kill the birds, they are rounding up pigeon fanciers, some under 20, burning their birds alive in sacks in front of them, and executing them.

“…  Have no truck with the senseless thing/ Order the guns and kill.” (Kipling) Which we may have no need to do. Right north of them is the most pigeon- mad country in the world, and nobody ever called the Turks or Kurds wimps. They may have had pigeons for 6000 years, and (Turks) claim to have brought them down the Silk Road’s precursor in carts behind their horses….

On taking Kipling seriously

Kipling, perhaps because of his (perceived) politics, still “can’t get no respect” from middlebrow critics and the kind of hacks who enjoy making up dismissive one- liners. He has fewer problems with actual readers– he is never out of print– or serious critics; in addition to the ones mentioned below, good recent essays on him have appeared from Christopher Hitchens, who hardly shares his politics real or imagined, and from John Derbyshire.

Still, it was nice to see a celebratory Kipling essay, “The Storyteller”, in the formidable Robert Gottlieb’s new Lives and Letters. They don’t come more haut- lit than Gottlieb– he was head editor of Knopf, Simon & Schuster, AND the NYRKR, not to mention a director of the New York ballet, is old enough to have known all the giants, and is uniquely qualified to review things in three or four fields in the arts.

On Kipling, Gottlieb quotes a letter from the always ambivalent, yet reluctantly admiring, Henry James ” ‘… His talent I think quite diabolically great.’ (James Joyce, too, as Norman Page points out in his invaluable A Kipling Companion, cited Kipling — along with D’Annunzio and Tolstoy — as one of the nineteenth century’s ‘greatest natural talents.’) Alas, James didn’t live to read those stories in which Kipling’s talent was to be applied to material that James would certainly have found more congenial than talking locomotives — in fact, on occasion, to semi- Jamesian donnees, as in ‘Dayspring Mishandled’.”

He continues: “James’s ambivalence about Kipling is particularly worth noting because it presages the ambivalence of so much of the criticism and comment to come. No writer of the period — except perhaps James himself — has been so worried over, so condemned and reclaimed. Certainly no writer of the period has had so many remarkable explicators, among them T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Randell Jarrell, August Wilson, Kingsley Amis. And there is important work being done on Kipling today — by dueling biographers and by outstanding critics like J.M.S. Tompkins and Craig Raine. Eliot was primarily concerned with reconsidering the poetry, but he shares with his fellow critics the urge to rescue Kipling — or to place him, their efforts underlining the fact that, given his “diabolically great” talent, he has to be acknowledged and dealt with. However difficult a specimen he is to pin down, and however much one may dislike aspects of his mind and manner, he cannot be ignored.”

The most interesting recent biographical work I have read is (India- born) Charles Allen’s Kipling Sahib.

More Far Away- and Great First Lines

“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam- Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib- Gher– the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum”.

The opening lines of Kim, of course. My friend Grayal Farr, formerly of the Special Forces, naturalist, archaeologist, and fellow Kiplingite (see Kipling’s “The Janeites”) was lamenting the fact that this line is not as well known as “Call me Ishmael” or “I had a farm in Africa” with me this morning, in the midst of conversation about bird ID.

Which serendipitous mix reminded me of the image below, given to me by my friend Catherine Lassez. She and her husband Jean- Louis, born in France but long- time Magdalenians, are Asia travelers too.

Kim takes place along the Grand Trunk Road, which leads to the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border– where Catherine snapped this falconer with goshawk in 1990.

There is a similar one pictured in Kipling’s father’s book on the animals of India, which he wrote at the Wonder House.

Dennis Hopper RIP

He was never quite like anybody else— hipster visionary and “admittedly unorthodox Kansas Republican”; drug- addled loon and serious art collector; someone with more “second acts” than Scott Fitzgerald could have conceived; finally, gracefully stoic at his hard end. He was an archtypical American artist. (Rod Dreher goes a bit off- subject, but has some interesting things to say here, especially about Easy Rider; I liked it when it came out, but it took longer for me to see its (conscious) ambiguities). Incidentally, the always- original Bill Kauffman is right about Peter Fonda’s philosophical bent; we used to have the same Montana lawyer to keep us out of trouble, and Fonda was the only actor in Paradise Valley the local rednecks and cowboys liked!

Paul Domski discovered this gem, the perfect Hopper paradox piece:

a YouTube video of a young Hopper on the Johny Cash variety show, dressed like a cowboy, reading Kipling’s “If”!