Kent Conference – Elizabeth Welby

September 7-8 2007

The Kent Conference
September 7-8 2007

Swirling in the Vortex of Abjection in Kipling’s ‘The City of Dreadful Night’
Elizabeth Welby (University of East Anglia)

[November 2 2007]

Kipling’s fiction, like the author, betrays a curiously twofold l’écriture de soi. Critics up to Salman Rushdie and beyond (1) have commented on the Kipling ‘paradox’ . Seeing Kipling as the absurdly incongruous ‘Ruddy Baba as well as Kipling Sahib’, his writing, Rushdie asserts, has ‘the power to simultaneously infuriate and to entrance’ (2). Certainly, Kipling’s stories of India are marked by a simultaneous loathing and longing, fear and desire, and become emblematic of an internal struggle to comply with the unyielding jurisdiction of imperialism and the antithetical attraction to a continent whose ‘vernacular idiom [he] thought and dreamed in’. (3)

Geography as well as history fuelled the sense of rift. His birth in 1865 in Bombay to John Lockwood Kipling and Alice Macdonald marked his arrival into a successful and creative family. Upon his exile to England at the age of five, Kipling’s world became torn in two; marked by an unyielding border that defies negotiation. Temporally, the past is unexpectedly forced to one side and the present propelled the other with an insoluble impasse planted between the two. The rupture Kipling experienced was to resonate throughout his adult life. Wrapped in the confused and conflicting emotions of his early childhood in India and England, Kipling struggled to make sense of his experience as an exile; an experience that is played out in uneasy ambivalence in his fiction and acutely on display in ‘The City of Dreadful Night’.

‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is a story about detritus. The heat from the dead air that sets the cicalas and jackals screaming also sends the bones in a Muslim cemetery rattling to the surface to escape its oppressive presence. Sleepers on the path into the city, their subjectivity translated and transposed by a narrator failing to extricate their bodies from the borders of being, become corpses, falling beyond the limits of self. ‘I’ disappears in the cadaver that penetrates the other side of the border, the place where, according to Julia Kristeva, ‘I am not and what permits me to be’. (4) The story is stuffed with corpse-like figures. The corporeal debris, which conversely bespeaks of the vitality of life, announces the dereliction of a narrator whose centre has shattered in a terror of ambiguity, an in-between, composite existence where all order and structure have disintegrated. The in-between eerily resurfaces as a hot breeze that becomes animate as it blows from the mouth of the city or swirls around gullies expelling noxious odours with poisonous intent.

Beset by abjection, Kipling, in a ritual purgation, struggles to organise and catalogue the human waste that litters this most terrifying of landscapes. The ‘one hundred and seventy bodies of men’ that lie on either side of the road, some ‘shrouded all in white’, some ‘naked and black as ebony’ and one, a leper ‘silvery white and ashen grey,’(5) are manifestations of inner disintegration as well as bodily decay. The filth, which the corpse-like figures garishly display, represents what is ceaselessly cast out in order to live, whilst hinting at a defilement operating within the narrator on a wholly internal level. Almost as an agent of abjection, the narrator reveals a membranous inside/outside by blurring the difference between the living and the dead and becoming in the process the revealer of in-betweenness.

Kipling, the insomniac, frequently strolled the streets of Lahore and Allahabad when, as he describes, ‘the night got into [his] head’ (6) Fluctuating between desire and repulsion, Kipling’s experiences became a serialised world of dreams that he relished for their sights, smells and sounds. His attraction attests to a compulsive desire to return to the echoic vestiges of the semiotic modality. Words literally fail him and he audibly refrains from comment whilst visiting these ‘exotic’ locations ‘for the sheer sake of looking’ (Something of Myself, p. 33). Vividly recreated in ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, Kipling’s penetration of this night-time world uncovered chaos and fragmentation where death is the ‘border that has encroached upon everything’ (Powers of Horror, p. 3).

Jettisoned into Kipling’s world, crossing internal borders, the abject, which as Kristeva tells us has the singular quality of being opposed to the ‘I’, enshrouds and threatens to draw the subject into an abyss where meaning flails and founders before disintegrating in the pit of vacuity. The fetid landscape has a ‘dense, wet heat’ that threatens suffocation and the very air is ‘dead’ as the narrator walks over the ‘jawless skulls and rough butted shank-bones’ (Life’s Handicap, p. 270) that line the path to the city. It is to avoid abjection that the narrator passes over the glimmering bones, for the July rains, whilst they hold promise for renewal of life, have ‘heartlessly’ exposed the dead and therefore blurred the distinctions and borders of self.

With scenes aestheticized in a way that Kipling suggests could have been written by Zola, he presents a corrupt, rotting underworld characterised by filth and defilement that the narrator is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by. Kristeva tells us that ‘[t]he death that ‘I’ am provokes horror, there is a choking sensation that does not separate inside from outside but draws them the one into the other, indefinitely’ (Powers of Horror, p.25). The dropping away of the flesh, dissolved into nothingness, the violent representation of death in the bleached skeletal remains, drive Kipling, as exile, into a state of a non-subject, wandering lost where abjection encroaches upon the very borders of self. Confronting the loss of connection, abjection breaks down the suture that enables Kipling as author, Kipling as narrator – Kipling as ‘I’ – to remain detached and autonomous.

Kipling renders the helplessness of the corpse-like figures shuddering en masse to find rest in the heat that threatens to engulf its inhabitants:

A small cloud passes over the face of the Moon, and the city and its inhabitants—clear drawn in black and white before—fade into masses of black and deeper black. Still the unrestful noise continues, the sigh of a great city overwhelmed with the heat, and of a people seeking in vain for rest. (Life’s Handicap, p.274).

The ‘unwinking eye of the moon’ presiding over this hellish scene with ‘sickly warm[th]’ (ibid, p.270), illuminates the restless multitude below. By breaking down the border of living and dead, by turning the sleeping figures into a proliferation of corpses that litter the realm of vision wherever the narrator’s gaze falls, Kipling erases the taboos surrounding the dead, the signification of which, Freud argues, uncover a vacillation between reverence and repulsion. These taboos, Freud goes on to stress, are ‘expressions of mourning; but on the other hand they clearly betray what they seek to conceal – hostility against the dead’. (7) It is not the actual corpse that so disturbs identity and eclipses boundaries and limits but more its invasion of the perimeters of the living, the “I”, that is distinguishable from the object. Without taboos to hold meaning in place and re-instate the demarcation between the living and the dead, abjection overwhelms the subject like a contagious infection, displacing and shattering as it engulfs.

Struggling to prevent a fall beyond the border of the Other, which the cadaver represents, Kipling confronts abjection by means of speech. By transferring the unnameable, unspeakable horror to a linguistic code, Kipling escapes annihilation and is resurrected in signs. Elleke Boehmer writes that ‘[t]o colonize something was to pile a writing, a grammar, a structure, upon it’. (8) Kipling’s systematised cataloguing of this hellish landscape is nowhere more evident than his detached reiteration of the sleeping figures framed in quotation, reminiscent of his journalist reports a decade earlier. The narrator could almost be, like Colonel Creighton in Kim, observing the scene as an ethnological exercise. The India of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is banished to the realm of the semiotic. India as the maternal figure threatens to devour the narrator and causes the blurring of boundaries and limits. We see Kipling simultaneously addressing and repelling abjection as it threatens to consume, swallow and collapse meaning and signification. Immersed in and engulfed by this nightmarish scene, the narrator tries to distance himself by standing on a Minar that places him above the native population. From this vantage point, the narrator is able to disconnect himself from the native population below which consequently enables him, as a white European male, to comment upon them as detached colonial observer. We see Kipling’s need to impose order on this most frightening vista by physically and figuratively distancing himself from the figures sleeping fitfully below him in the choking heat. From his metaphorical and temporal position on the Minar, he can reflect upon native India without actually aligning himself with the indigenous population. Abjecting India – the incarnation of semiotic modality – enables Kipling to disentangle his unarticulated pre-mapped body from the maternal figure.

Scuttling to shelter at the centre of the symbolic and clutching at the base of its most potent of signifiers, the phallus, Kipling thus attempts to codify the chaos of abjection that eddies around, beside and through the hellish landscape splayed out before him. And yet the narrator remains part of the scene, conjoined by a shared lack of restful sleep to the marginalised Others below him. Unable to construct a beyond, Kipling instead holds up a mirror, each image reflecting the other, both reduced in the end to the same abjection – on one side, the words that Kipling captures which in turn capture and pinion him and, on the other, all that is abominable, a body full of discomfort, the inside rotten and lifeless. Shattered and transformed by Kipling into a state which is as surreal as it is disturbing, this Other, this maternal realm, this India of chaotic sounds, sights and smells is fettered by the intense sub-tropical heat. Teetering on the brink of imminent collapse, trembling on the very borders of self, we sense Kipling’s unease as he scrambles to find safety above the fretful hordes laid out in a ceaselessly undulating phantasmagoria before him. And yet there remains an overriding sensuality in the scene and an impression that a powerful and ethereal experience is taking place which pulls deeply at the very core of being, shrouded in a cloak of blackness.

This murky, hazy connection to the Other, shot through with the uncertainty of Kipling’s lost language, provides a precarious route to an internal voice. It is through language that we are formulated and our interior lives configured. Language in a Bakhtinian sense, provides an internal dialogue through which our experiences can be vocalised, indeed it is the very medium of our being. Our perceptions and experiences of life along with our understanding of our present being are dependent upon having a living language within us. Hindustani, for Kipling, had long become a dead language and receded into the darkest recess of his consciousness. Abjection violently displayed in the defilement and filth of the night-time streets of Lahore nevertheless hovers on the perimeter of desire, unthinkable, intolerable, without hope of assimilation, yet as enticing as it is out-lawed. The horrors of the night end in the appearance of the corpse of a woman, who, unable to withstand the crushing heat, is borne high above the bystanders on her way to the incendiary fires of the burning-ghats. The corpse, that most terrifying Kristevian paradigm of human waste, irrupts into the narrative, shattering the boundaries between inside and outside. The ritual of cremation fails to prevent a psychogenic contamination of the living. It is death encroaching upon life, shattering borders, polluting and infecting as it slides by the narrator.

Upon returning from a night of wandering the streets of Lahore, driven out by the heat, Kipling talks of taxis perfumed with ‘hookah-fumes, jasmine-flowers, and sandalwood’ (Something of Myself, p.33) and it is in such taxis that Kipling uncovered the ‘real’ India if his native driver was in a talkative mood. Memories of India are evoked by smells and Kipling’s observation that ‘[m]uch of Indian life goes on in the hot weather nights’ (ibid. p.33) puts India and its peoples in antithesis to the European coloniser whose empire building is carried out by those dedicated engineers, soldiers and administrators – The Drums of Fore and Aft’ (Wee Willie Winkie), ‘William the Conqueror – Part I and II’ (The Day’s Work), ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’ (Plain Tales). The lures of magic, of superstitions, of benign and vengeful gods are reduced to fanciful curios by day. Whilst Kipling positions himself on the side of coloniser, we sense his desire for reparation with the unpronounceable, unreachable Other.

Amidst these highly charged images there is a preverbal sensuality where observer and observed are united under the moon: the Romantic emblem of magical imagination. This night-time realm incorporates Kipling’s dream self, and from it comes an artistic site – a site that Hélène Cixous characterises as on the very edge of the Symbolic. Experience in this realm, not fully controlled by the centre and system of language, escapes discourse. Kipling’s alarming descriptions of the night-time world in ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, the dream realm in ‘The Brushwood Boy’ and the drug-induced state of his protagonist in ‘The Bridge Builders’, hint at a penetration into a more deeply rooted psychological site in the author’s unconscious where his fractured sense of self lay. In ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ we see Kipling on the very border of ‘I’, precarious, brittle and in disarray. It is a state of utter disunity where identity (subject/object, symbolic law/semiotic authority, autonomy/annihilation), according to Kristeva, ‘do[es] not exist or only barely so – double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject’ (Powers of Horror, p.207).

Abjection expels its brutal ambiguity and forces the subject to acknowledge its fragile grip on its own identity. The horror of the abject cruelly waiting in the shadows attests to vulnerability of a subject who might at any moment be pulled back into the swirling chaos through which it was formed. ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ prefigures Kipling’s much-anthologised 1910 poem ‘If’ and captures with striking force Kipling’s internalised world. It is a world of horrifying contradictions with Kipling balanced precariously above it all. From his narratorial position on the Minar, Kipling observes the fetid city below him threatened at any moment to become engulfed by the uncanny pathology of his paradoxical states of subjectivity, moving between places, meanings and signifiers that are skewed and buckled; nacreous bones merge with the blanched, cadaverous skin of a leper, sleepers are indistinguishable from corpses, ‘sheeted ghosts rise up from their pallets’, gusts of wind are brought to life, kites snore like ‘over-gorged humans’ and breathing the stagnant air threatens suffocation.

Desire and fear, attraction and repulsion lie at the heart of Kipling’s early fiction. The geographical site of sedition that Kipling found in the nighttime world of Lahore and Allahabad finds its metaphoric counterpart in Kipling’s early stories of India. The internal struggle between the desire for the unknowable nighttime India and the reassurance of daytime work of the Empire, brought into sharp relief in The Day’s Work, underline the dichotomy of Kipling as distanced and dispassionate narrator and ambivalent voyeur clearly enjoying the intimate and ethereal India.

However, the need for boundary control over the self is metaphorically played out in the British imperial civilizing mission over the teeming, ungovernable population of the Indian subcontinent. Like the nameless, bruised and defiled woman of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ whose ‘feet are at Moorgate’ and ‘heart/Under [her] feet’, (9) the India of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ attests to the constant threat of fragmentation. The monstrous, bloody finger which, in this story, lays bare abjection will, in subsequent story collections, become sheathed, and cold and sterile will henceforth point to India as the site of Other, the borders of self will become established and bleeding boundaries will be cauterized with surgical precision. India as an artistic expression of the semiotic already under the sway of the autocratic symbolic brings Kipling as exile, Kipling as traveller, Kipling as deject to the very brink of existence and forces him to stand petrified at the edge of the abyss; alone, save for the unnameable, unspeakable anguish buried deep in his desire for his perpetually unreachable mOther.



(1) Bonamy Dobrée, Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist (London: Oxford University Press,1967)

Eliot L. Gilbert, ed., Kipling and the Critics (London: Owen, 1966), p.53.

Shamsul Islam, Kipling’s Law: A Study of his Philosophy of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p.13.

(2) Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (New York: Viking, 1991), p. 74.

(3) Kipling, Rudyard, Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings ed. by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.4. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

(4) Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) p, 3. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

(5) Rudyard Kipling, Life’s Handicap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.270. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

(6) Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings, ed. by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p.33. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

(7) Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893-5), in The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey (Hogarth, London, 1953-74), vol. II, p.61. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

(8) Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.92.

(9) T.S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’, in Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), p.62.
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