Mar 27, 2008

On Kipling

That picture's from last August. The statue in question is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Kamakura, and that's me in front of it. I was a bit surprised last week when I found out that Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it.

George Orwell once called Rudyard Kipling a "good bad poet." I think that sums up the man rather nicely. His stories, the rhythms of his poems, the adventurous and exotic feel of it all are fun to read. But, his stories and poems are, ultimately, not really about the exotic places he talks about. They're not really about India or Asia or whatnot, they're about British people perceiving and interacting with such places.

Any way, here's the poem.

"And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura" 

O ye who tread the Narrow Way

By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,

Be gentle when the 'heathen' pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!

To him the Way, the Law, apart,

Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
Ananda's Lord, the Bodhisat,
The Buddha of Kamakura.

For though he neither burns nor sees,
Nor hears ye thank your Deities,
Ye have not sinned with such as these,

His children at Kamakura.

Yet spare us still the Western joke

When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke

The little sins of little folk

That worship at Kamakura --

The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies

That flit beneath the Master's eyes.

He is beyond the Mysteries

But loves them at Kamakura.

And whoso will, from Pride released,

Contemning neither creed nor priest,

May feel the Soul of all the East

About him at Kamakura.

Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
Of birth as fish or beast or bird,

While yet in lives the Master stirred,

The warm wind brings Kamakura.

Till drowsy eyelids seem to see

A-flower 'neath her golden htee
The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly
From Burmah to Kamakura,

And down the loaded air there comes

The thunder of Thibetan drums,

And droned -- "Om mane padme hums" --

A world's-width from Kamakura.

Yet Brahmans rule Benares still,

Buddh-Gaya's ruins pit the hill,
And beef-fed zealots threaten ill
To Buddha and Kamakura.

A tourist-show, a legend told,

A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,

So much, and scarce so much, ye hold

The meaning of Kamakura?

But when the morning prayer is prayed,

Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made

No nearer than Kamakura?
There are major problems with this poem. For one thing, I have doubts about whether or not Kipling ever actually saw the statue, even though he did go to Yokohama (very near Kamakura) in 1889. The Daibutsu is indeed impressive, and indeed made of brass, but he's a bit off the mark with the "brass and gold" bit. Can't recall any gold bits when I was there. Also, Kipling's a racist ass as always.

I could go on: Joss sticks are Chinese, not Japanese. The Shwe Dragon Pagoda in Burma is a Theravada temple, but Japanese Buddhism is of the Mahayana variety. The Buddha depicted in Kamakura isn't supposed to be Siddhartha Guatama, but Amitabha, a Buddha often described as being from a non-earthly realm and not in Burmese Buddhism at all. The statue isn't an idol, as idols depict gods, which Buddhas decidedly are not (the whole point of Buddhas is that they represent human potential for enlightenment). There are no "Thibetan Drums" in Kamakura. Those are usually in Tibet, thousands of miles away, and "brahmans" would have nothing to do with anything in Japan since they're from India, and a part of Hinduism anyway. And, given that Buddhism is so diverse and given to syncretism, claiming that any one image captures "the soul of all the East" is a bit of a stretch.

But enough. It's easy to criticize Kipling. This is the guy who wrote Gunga Din and The White Man's Burden, after all. He might as well have a target hanging from his moustache for pedantic liberals like myself myself to take cheap shots at. With all of the poem's flaws and stumblings, it would be easy to dismiss something like this. It would be easy to make fun of Kipling, write him off. It would be easy to get smug and self-satisfied, happy and full of ourselves at all the progress we've made since him. But, I like the poem despite its flaws.

Kipling is naive, more than anything. He doesn't go much beyond his preconceived notions, and pastes ideas of the "East" already rattling about in his head upon the Kamakura monument. But, despite that, I do think that the poem does convey some very really awe on the poets part, either at the statue or at the idea of it. Particularly the two lines "He is beyond the mysteries/But loves them at Kamakura," is an especially poignant bit. The idea that a monumental sites are a place where two worlds touch, a place that the things normally "beyond the mysteries" become more tactile is something very real, I think. For instance- I remember seeing George Washington's grave on Mount Vernon when I was a high schooler. Washington, like Buddha, is someone idealized and variously portrayed, mythologized and abstract. He is beyond knowing and beyond, almost, objective history, he is somewhere else. Yet, there in the rain and before a stone box that held his bones, he was no longer so "beyond." The ideal was suddenly made present and real, a thing "beyond" no longer. Some may call such a feeling religious (I don't), but I think that such a rush of perception is something that can be profoundly moving when the iconic becomes real.

Anyway, this is a sort of poetic niche that I tend to go for, actually- the romatical, exotic, and adventurous sort. Stuff like The Golden Road to Samarkand and Kubla Khan. Stuff that I can't help but regard as a bit of a guilty pleasure, what with it's idealization of things Asiatic, stuff that is before all else evocative. Stuff, in other words, that would piss off Edward W. Said. (To be fair, Said admitted that all cultures express some degree of exoticism when talking about others, and said it was harmless for the most part unless it got perverted into military or economic hegemony. But still, he remains an icon when it comes to discourse about cross cultural perceptions.)

This stuff is clumsy, I know. Clumsy, inaccurate, and immature. But, I think that the best thing to do, is to try to move culturally past Kipling et al, rather than condemning them. Just as modern chemistry moved past alchemy, so too should we see such things as immature attempts at cultural understanding, rather than something worthy of scorn.

And it's hardly unique to Western culture.

Last week I saw a Japanese guy on a JR line, decked out like he was an American rapper. He had the baggy pants, sizable jacket, head scarf and baseball hat combo, and sat with his legs splayed in front of him luxuriating in ease. But his clothes displayed an amusing and naive juxtaposition. His jacket was festooned with Gothic lettering, the design proclaiming "Los Angeles" or "LA" over and over again, like they were blue tattoos upon the white fabric. His baseball cap (worn, of course, over a headscarf) displayed the New York Yankees logo. To my American eyes, such a combination was quite absurd, yet this man was doing his best to revel in a foreign culture which he found fascinating.

He was naive, but like Kipling, I can't fault him. Kipling was naive and ignorant for coupling the Shwe Dragon Pagoda with the Kamakura Daibutsu, as was this man for mixing East and West Coast apparel. But both of them came from a sincere, yet ignorant, place. It is remarkably easy to cast this sort of behavior as idiotic, when in fact it is merely immature.

But immaturity is part of growth, of course.

No comments: