“As a small child Kipling was brought up by his Indian ayah. The family house in Bombay was near the burning ghats where the dead bodies were incinerated. Vultures flapped and lolloped on the look-out for tidbits. So, one day, a child's hand was found in the family garden. The young Rudyard was forbidden by his mother to mention it. "I wanted to see that hand," he writes in his autobiography, Something of Myself.’
Craig Raine’s rambling essay in the Guardian review ostensibly shows, against the convention of literary criticism and the dictates of common sense, that writing has a descriptive power equal to reality’s power to exist for description. Or is reality’s a power? In any case, we don’t believe Raine’s claim for a second. It leads him to this amusingly absurd passage:
“In an early chapter of The Bostonians, Henry James considers Ransom's Southern dialect and announces that it is not in his power by any combination of words to render Ransom's speech. In a sense, this represents a defeat for language - except that really it is only a local defeat for James's language. Kipling, though less intelligent than James, is a greater writer - at any rate, a writer more interested in capturing externals by means of words.”
We admit that the idea of James doing a Southern accent is as funny as Mark Twain creating a Portrait of a Lady. The Kipling reference gets Raine off his high horse – which is good, as he is riding nowhere on it, quickly – and the rest of the essay makes some interesting observations about Kipling. Which is why we recommend looking at it. We were fascinated by Kipling’s own fascination with Japanese cruelty – we didn’t know. After the graf we fronted this post with, Raine continues:
“The impulse here is cognate with Kipling's strange injunction in From Sea to Sea: "When you come to Japan, look at Farsari's hara-kiri pictures and his photos of the last crucifixion (twenty years ago) in Japan." The aesthetic cannot really afford to be squeamish. Of course, the moral will always make itself felt. Here Kipling concedes that there is "a strain of bloodthirstiness in their [Japanese] compositions". And he knows their "grim fidelity" will "make you uncomfortable"
Who knew? We couldn’t find Farsari’s photo of the last crucifixion in Japan on the web. We suspect Kipling really meant Felice Beato, whose crucifixion photo, here, is strangely placid.