The Kent Conference

September 7-8 2007



Being a Man

Jan Montefiore (University of Kent)

[September 8 2007]


This paper is about what ‘being a Man’ means in two very different Kipling worlds and stories: (i) being a strong Man in a conventional sense – though not a gentleman and (ii) being a man as opposed to an animal.

First: I’m going to look at a relatively little-known short story ‘His Private Honour’. This begins with the arrival of a batch of raw recruits being mocked by Private Ortheris for being dirty, untrained and (in one case) Jewish. The narrator explains approvingly that this is all part of their training: ‘There is no scorn so complete as that of the old soldier for the new. It is right that this should be so. A recruit must learn first that he is not a man but a thing, which in time, and by the mercy of Heaven, may develop into a soldier of the Queen.’ (Many Inventions p. 130) The narrator watches this unhandy troop drill awkwardly under the nervous young Lieutenant Ouless actually lashes out with his riding-cane at the nearest soldier - the blameless Private Ortheris, for which he could be cashiered but isn’t (the private, though enraged, covers up for him. ) The troubled officer walks off one way, and Ortheris goes another to sulk and work off his temper on the unfortunate recruit ‘Samuelson’, scattering the man’s possessions in the dirt and kicking him when he tries to pick them up

This drama arouses amused sympathy in the narrator, who wonders how Ouless will deal with the matter and whether he will compound his sin by tipping Ortheris. Not so; when Ouless is next seen a fortnight later, he is visibly ‘a free man and an officer’ in command of a transformed squad of confident men at target practice. The narrator then hears from Ortheris how the young man (‘’E’s a gentleman. ’E’s an officer too’, Many Inventions p.148), offered him a private boxing-match to settle the score, and how his honour was satisfied by landing a blow ‘on the nose that painted ‘is little aristocratic white shirt for ‘im,’ . The moral is pointed in a loaded exchange:

‘It was your right to get him cashiered if you chose,’ I insisted.
‘My right !’ Ortheris answered with deep scorn. ‘My right ! I ain’t a recruity to go whinin’ about my rights to this and my rights to that, just as if I couldn’t look after myself. My rights ! ‘Strewth Almighty ! I’m a man.’
(Many Inventions pp.148-153).
Being a ‘man’ in this sense means being strong enough both to despise the rule-book because you can fight your own corner and to take punishment whether deserved or not, without complaint. Such proudly self-respecting manhood implies the acceptance of social hierarchies. True, Ouless offers Private Ortheris the opportunity to avenge his injury by fighting it out man to man, outside of the Army’s boundaries; but of course it’s not the private who wins. ‘’E wasn’t so strong as me, but he knew more’, says Ortheris (Many Inventions p.151), proudly displaying the gap where an eye-tooth was knocked out by the officer’s left hook.

The title’s theme of ‘private honour’ applies, then, to officer and man: Ortheris whose pride is mollified by the privilege (not the right) of private combat, and Ouless who proves himself a man of honour, first by his delicacy towards the affronted Ortheris (he neither ignored his own misdeed nor tried to buy the injured man off) and later by standing up to him in a fist-fight.. Ortheris’ account of his opponent’s anxious courage ( ‘’E sez to ’imself, more than to me, - “I’ve got to go through it alone, by myself!” ’E looked so queer for a minute that I thought the little beggar was goin’ to pray’ , Many Inventions p. 151), prepares the reader for the narrator’s satisfied verdict ‘It was all right. The boy was proven’ (Many Inventions p.153). In the background to these intertwined stories are the dimly-glimpsed recruits being knocked into shape and emerging as ‘men made over again – wearing their helmets with the cock of self-possession, swinging easily, and jumping to the word of command’ (Many Inventions p. 147). So the beatings and mockeries were all for their own good, training them to be like the disciplined Private Ortheris whose pride in being a ‘man’ is that he can stand up for himself.

It’s an ideal with its un PC attractions. BUT it depends – as CS Lewis pointed out – on taken-for-granted brutality and bullying - compounded by the anti-semitic scapegoating of the Jew known as ‘Samuelson’, the only man in the story with no ‘private honour’. The bullying starts when a contemptuous Ortheris first sees the new men:

‘Fried fish an’ whelks is about your sort. Blimey if they haven’t sent some pink-eyed Jews too. You chap with the greasy ‘ed, which o’ the Solomons was your father ?’

‘My name’s Anderson,’ said a voice sullenly. ‘Oh, Samuelson ! All right, Samuelson ! An ‘ow many o’ the likes o’ you Sheenies are comin’ to spoil B Company ?’
(Many Inventions p.130).
The nickname defines this man whose Hebrew name (which would certainly not be ‘Samuelson’) we never learn, and who is not heard to speak again in the story, his role being simply to be victimised. When Ortheris takes out his shame and anger at having been hit in public by persecuting the Jew, it is not the victim but the bully for whom the narrator feels sympathy and anxiety: ‘Learoyd … must have been a great comfort to Ortheris – almost as great a comfort as Samuelson, whom Ortheris bullied disgracefully. If the Jew opened his mouth in the most casual remark Ortheris would plunge down it with all arms and accoutrements, while the barrack-room stared and wondered.’ (Many Inventions p.145).

This is Kipling’s ‘knowing’ narrator at his moral and ideological worst. Unlike those wondering Tommies, he understands and sympathises with Ortheris taking out his temper on the other man – for although the phrase ‘bullied him disgracefully’ looks at first glance like condemnation, it carries the slyly complicitous intimation ‘But you can understand him, can’t you ?’ Whereas ‘dishonourable’ is always a serious condemnation in Kipling’s writing, ‘disgraceful’ implies unorthodoxy rather than sin - as when at the end of ‘The Mark of the Beast’ the narrator and Strickland are seized with cathartic laughter at the thought that ‘we had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever’ (Life's Handicap p.258). The contrast with Ortheris being reproached by the narrator and an (off-stage) Mulvaney for his lapse into resentful class- is striking:

‘“I’m a private servin’ of the Queen, an’ as good a man as ‘e is,” I sez, “for all ‘is commission an’ is airs an’ ‘is money,” sez I.’
‘What a fool you were,’ I interrupted. Ortheris, being neither a menial nor an American, but a free man, had no excuse for yelping.
‘That’s exactly what Terence said.’
(Many Inventions p.152).
Yet when Ortheris relates how: ‘ I give Samuelson a little more trouble with ’is kit… I give ’im one or two for ’imself, and arxed ’im very polite to ’it back,’(Many Inventions p.150), nobody tells him he’s a petty-minded brute for taking out his bad temper on a helpless man.. ‘Samuelson’ forfeits sympathy simply by being vulnerable and a Jew, his point of view remaining invisible. If he had fought back, Ortheris would presumably forgive his Jewishness, and Samuelson would then replicate Ortheris’ own happy ending by graduating from Other as victim to Self as a potential bully, happy to avenge his own grievances on the next lot of unfortunates .

This unthinking racism - so much the more unpleasant for clearly reproducing common attitudes and not being intended with any particular malice - tempts me to misquote Kipling’s own ‘The Return’: ‘If Kipling was what Kipling seems …’Ow quick we’d drop ’im ! But ’e aint’ (The Worls of Rudyard Kipling Wordsworth Poetry Library 1994 p.485) My point is not that Kipling was uniformly racist and never let ‘lesser breeds’ speak, for there are many sympathetic counter-examples to demonstrate the reverse (notably the Jew Kadmiel in ‘The Treasure and the Law’ (Puck of Pook's Hill) and the entire Indian cast of Kim); but rather that the ideal of tough masculinity explored and dramatized in ‘His Private Honour’ depends on class and race subjection. The boast ‘I’m a man !’ implies acceptance of one’s place in a social hierarchy, potentially undermined by the officer’s illegal blow, but stabilised first by the lower-class victim finding his own release by bullying a racial inferior , and later by the man-to-man fight which the officer wins.

This interdependence of an idealised masculine self with a hierarchy of race and class recalls Kipling’s justly famous ‘Ballad of East and West’, in which an English officer and an Afghan horse-thief Kamal discover friendship by respecting one another’s courage and chivalry. When ‘Kamal’ the border- thief steals a prize bay mare, the Colonel’s son (not named) follows them into enemy territory. When his own horse collapses from exhaustion the Colonel’s son, having lost a pistol to Kamal and being threatened with the prospect of being a meal for the jackals and crows, ‘lightly’ responds by promising vengeance :
‘Do good to bird and beast
But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast’.
His jesting defiance wins the tribute ‘May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath’ from Kamal, and the Englishman responds in kind : ‘Take up the mare and keep her - by God, she has carried a man !’ But Kamal gives back the mare with the ‘lifter’s dower’ of his own jewelled accoutrements, and when the Colonel’s son in turn offers him the gift of his remaining pistol Kamal, not to be outdone in generosity, whistles up his ‘only son’ to be the companion and fellow soldier of the Englishman. The two young men return to ‘Fort Bukloh’, and the boy who was last night a ‘Border-thief’ is now ‘a man of the Guides.’ The poem ends as it began:

Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgment seat,
But there is neither East nor West nor Border nor breed nor birth
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth
(The Worls of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library 1994 p. 234)
Despite that stirring proclamation of equality, it is noticeable that in this tale Kamal comes out the loser. In exchange for the Englishman’s pistol ( admittedly a heavily symbolic gift, but hardly a rare object to a Border bandit) he not only surrenders the mare and her trappings, but as a gesture of reciprocation – ‘Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him’ - gives up his son to the enemy British, his final words being the wry ‘Belike they will raise thee to Rissaldur [sergeant] when I am hanged at Peshawar !’. The recognition of one another by ‘two strong men’ means that Kamal’s tall wild boy who ‘trod the ling like a buck in spring and looked like a lance in rest’ must lose his wildness by becoming an anonymous member of a troop of military athletes . All of which shows with transparent clarity how the establishment of a masculinity recognised by the imperialist English implies the subjection of the colonised to the rulers’ own laws and customs.( Where the racial ‘Other’ is feminine she cannot be assimilated in the same way and is therefore likely to end up mutilated like Bisesa in ‘Beyond the Pale’ (Plain Tales from the Hills) dead like Ameera in ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’ (Life's Handicap), or at best rejected like ‘Lispeth’ and the Burmese mistress in ‘Georgie Porgie’ (Life's Handicap)..

Animal versus man

A more subtle and interesting notion of being a ‘Man’ can be seen in the Mowgli stories of the two Jungle Books. Because the magical appeal of these stories for children lies partly the hybrid nature of the hero who both can travel between and be master of the animal and human worlds, the idea of ‘Man’ is not based anything like so strongly on notions of gender and hardly at all on race. Unlike the Irish Kim, Mowgli is by origin the Indian boy Nathoo from a Hindu village. Although the local villagers will reject him and he will cause both the village and its cultivated hinterland to be destroyed by the wild beasts, he will eventually rejoin his Hindu mother among the ploughed lands when he grows up and leaves the Jungle in ‘The Spring Running’.

The Jungle animals are humanised by being given the speech, memory, individual characters, societies, customs, and above all the ‘Jungle Law’, a civil code governing the wolves as ‘citizens’ of the ‘Free People’ with maxims such as:

‘When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar
Lest others take part in the quarrel, and the Pack be diminished by war’.
This Law represents the ultimate social authority: ‘ But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is – Obey !’ (The Second Jungle Book pp. 30-2). The society of the animals, with its law, culture, unquestioned hierarchy (and even its own mythology in ‘How Fear Came’), is made to seem considerably superior to that of the cruelly superstitious mob of Hindu villagers. Thanks to his induction in the Jungle Law by Father Wolf, Mother Wolf, Baloo and Bagheera, Mowgli becomes a noble savage, superior not only in grace and strength but in forbearance to the villagers. He is patient when the children tease him for not playing games or fly kites, because‘luckily, the Law of the Jungle had taught him to keep his temper, for in the Jungle life and food depend on keeping your temper…but only the knowledge that it was unsportsmanlike [sic] to kill little naked cubs kept him from picking them up and breaking them in two’ (The Jungle Book p.95). As anyone who has watched a documentary film of carnivores in the wild will be aware, this ‘knowledge’ of decent behaviour clearly differentiates Kipling’s Jungle and its Law from zoological realities.

Yet their capacity for speech and obedience to the Law does not completely anthropomorphize the animals. Although Mowgli’s friends and enemies in the Jungle do each represent aspects of humanity in Baloo’s teacherly benevolence, Bagheera’s strength and cunning or Shere Khan’s bullying rage, yet the beasts retain their animal qualities. As Daniel Karlin says: ‘there is something other, something recalcitrantly estranged from human experience, in the silky violence of Bagheera, the silence and lordship of Hathi, and the cold, ageless, fathomless wisdom of Kaa’ (Introduction to the Penguin Jungle Books p.xxiii) And although the boy Mowgli ‘would have called himself a wolf if he had been able to speak in any human tongue’ (The Jungle Book p.27), none of the animals ever forgets that he is a ‘Man’. As Hathi’s fable of the Fall ‘How Fear Came’ emphasises, Man’s aggression and ingenuity have made him the most feared predator ‘through the noose, and the pitfall, and the hidden trap, and the flying stick, and the stinging fly that comes out of white smoke[Hathi meant the rifle]’ (The Second Jungle Book p. 26). The wise Akela sees from the start the value of Mowgli’s human intelligence: ‘“Men and their cubs are very wise. He may be a help in time of need”’ (The Jungle Book p.22) It is the boy’s intelligence, memory and presence of mind that enable him when kidnapped by the Bandar-Log to direct his friends to help him in ‘Kaa’s Hunting’. These qualities enable him as a youth to plan and carry out the trampling to death of Shere Khan by frightened cattle and the destruction of the hateful village by the Jungle, and in ‘Red Dog’ to lead the wolves’ victorious resistance to the far more numerous invading dholes. As Akela tells him, ‘“Thou art a man, or else the Pack had fled before the dhole”’ (The Second Jungle Book p. 257).

Mowgli’s humanity also, as Bagheera warns him, leaves him vulnerable both to the wolves’ envy and since unlike them he does not act by instinct, to his own folly or oversight:

‘The others they hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine – because thou art wise – because thou hast pulled out thorns from their feet – because thou art a man.’

‘I did not know these things,’ said Mowgli sullenly; and he frowned under his heavy black eyebrows.

‘What is the Law of the Jungle ? Strike first and then give tongue. By thy very carelessness they know thou art a man.’
(The Jungle Book p.31)
Man may be clever but is full of weaknesses. Thanks to his own early experience of captivity, the panther readily recognizes human weakness. Mowgli’s open inconsistency and furious ‘Am I to give reason for all that I choose to do ?’ later moves him to the comment ‘There speaks Man ! Even so did men talk round the king’s cages at Oodeypore’ and the muttered aside that for all Man’s wisdom he is ‘of all things the most the foolish’( The Second Jungle Book p. 66). In ‘The King’s Ankus’, Kipling’s brilliant re-writing of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, the six men who kill one another to possess a useless but precious object display a kind of greed and violence baffling alike to Mowgli and Bagheera who merely kill from hunger. Far worse is the mob-violence of the credulous villagers who stone the innocent Mowgli as a jungle-demon, and would also have burned Messua as a witch for being kind to him if she had not escaped to the protecting English (yes, colonial attitudes do persist even in the Jungle Books) who ‘do not suffer people to burn or beat each other without witnesses’ (The Second Jungle Book p. 81). Yet Mowgli the hero is Indian, not English, and will ultimately return to Messua and her domestic shrine. Moreover, it is partly Mowgli’s human fallibility that makes him lovable. There is a telling episode in ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’ when, after his intelligence, courage and Promethean ability to steal fire and handle it have enabled him to outwit and master Shere Khan the tiger and the Wolf-Pack, Mowgli is overcome by mortal grief:

‘Am I dying, Bagheera?’:

‘“No. Those are only tears such as men use”, said Bagheera. “Now I know thou art a man, and a man’s cub no longer. The Jungle is shut indeed to thee henceforward. Let them fall, Mowgli. They are only tears.” So Mowgli sat and cried as though his heart would break; and he had never cried in his life before’
(The Jungle Book p.40).
Since the Jungle where no one weeps here represents the enchanted world of childhood, the implication of Mowgli’s tears that prove him ‘a man-cub no longer’ is that to be an adult man includes both experiencing grief and giving it passionate expression. To be a man means, then, not only the capacity to pursue vengeance more terribly because more cleverly than any beast, but as Mowgli’s weeping shows, to be shaken by love and pain. This is very long way from the ideal of masculinity as the exercise of strength and self-control that enables Ortheris to boast ‘I’m a man !’ Viewed against Ortheris’ macho pride, this fantasy children’s book seems, strangely, to manifest the more adult and complex notion of ‘Man’.




[J.M.]
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