Let’s delve into two real-life instances of this scenario. First, a 20-year-old aspiring musician and college dropout arrived in New York City from the Midwest. Through radio play, albums and an autobiography, he’d identified with the simple, painfully authentic sound of a singer/songwriter fervently committed to a fairer society. A composer and performer of hundreds of songs over more than two decades, the 48-year-old hero was debilitated by Huntington’s Disease, confined to the Greystone Park psychiatric center in Morris Plains, NJ, where his admirer visited him in 1961.
Bob Dylan played his guitar and sang for Woody Guthrie. He subsequently brought other folk musicians to visit the guru after his transfer to hospitals in Brooklyn. The influence was so profound it was observed that Dylan “dressed, played, and even posed for cameras like Guthrie.”
The second instance took place in 1889 in Elmira, NY. A 23-year-old British journalist voyaged from India for a tour of Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and then the United States, which he entered at San Francisco. He filed reports all along the way, eventually crossing America and making a point to call, unannounced, on a world-famous author who himself had been a newspaperman in his early years. The 53-year-old celebrity was financially troubled despite his immense renown as a writer and raconteur.
Rudyard Kipling presented his credentials, then interrogated Mark Twain tentatively and intermittently; more often he listened and took notes as the white-haired man groused about copyrights and solicitations. Twain, the master of comedy and observation, later said of his guest, “Between us we cover all knowledge. He knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”
Both Dylan and Kipling produced direct testimony of their awe-inspiring meetings. The singer introduced “Song to Woody” on his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan. The reporter published his account first as an article and then, 10 years later, as part of his non-fiction collection, From Sea to Sea.
Examining each testimony, we find of course the heartfelt tribute. We also find second-hand imitation and forced diction. In his lyrics, the rhyme-happy Dylan affected speech that he and most Americans did not use. He dropped his g’s and liberally wielded the “a-“ prefix (“It looks like it’s a-dyin’”)—a take-off on Guthrie, who had given voice to the vernacular of his beloved subjects. Although he was the balladeer of the Okie, the miner, the migrant farmer, and the common man, “Guthrie was not some rube, some natural-born poet who just fell off the turnip truck in the big city. [He] was raised in a middle-class home... The hick was his stage role,” Ed Cray noted.
While it was insightful at the time to uphold the somewhat neglected Guthrie and his style, Dylan’s lines and imagery in this particular song are hackneyed and fall well short of his model’s emotional and political immediacy. For example, the first verse of “Song to Woody” concludes, “I'm seein' your world of people and things/Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.” The vague language and archaic titles of the referenced characters evoke, ironically, not the charged pleas of Guthrie—who wrote on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists”—but the sardonic fairy tales of Mark Twain, whose novels’ titles include a prince, a pauper and a king (Arthur).
Kipling’s tribute to Twain began, “You are a contemptible lot, over yonder,” and thus the apprentice affected the folksy parlance of his guru. (Like Guthrie, Twain gave voice to rural dialects after educating himself sufficiently to converse on the most erudite levels, according to his company.) His reporting, like Dylan’s playing, is engrossing enough, but the mimetic relation to his subject, coupled with his starched Victorian rhetoric, makes the centathlete cringe. Here is Kipling going over-the-top as if he were regaling an audience the way Twain did at public readings:
“Once, indeed, he put his hand on my shoulder. It was an investiture of the Star of India, blue silk, trumpets, and diamond-studded jewel, all complete. If hereafter, in the changes and chances of this mortal life, I fall to cureless ruin, I will tell the superintendent of the workhouse that Mark Twain once put his hand on my shoulder; and he shall give me a room to myself and a double allowance of paupers’ tobacco.”There’s the “pauper” again—it seems that a fawning apprentice (Kipling/Dylan) has to invoke medieval poverty as if it were a tarot card that must be turned over in such a reading… Whereas Dylan never lyrically protested as directly as Guthrie, Kipling never amused as deeply as Twain. However, the two apprentices each found their own voices and audiences shortly after sitting at the feet of their idols, and they magnificently transcended the humanities on their own terms.
Kipling’s 1901 novel, Kim, reminded the centathlete immediately of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Each book presents a street-smart vagabond on a rich, illuminating voyage toward manhood. Each hero has a senior, loyal sidekick with his own provocative quest.
Kim and Teshoo Lama navigate not the Mississippi River of the U.S. circa 1840 but the arteries and terrains of India circa 1885, especially the Grand Trunk Road which, according to Lonely Planet, “literally bound India together for centuries, providing a vital link for trade and communication across the empire.”
The escapism of Huckleberry Finn agrees with the American frontier history and sensibility—anything can happen out West in recently established, sparsely populated hamlets. In contrast, the escapism of Kim is curtailed by the ubiquity of other humans (even in remote Kashmir the local society engages the travelers), an entrenched cultural history, and a thriving British regime managing Empire through military force and geopolitical espionage known as “the Great Game.”
As Kim traverses India and what is now Pakistan he exhibits remarkable adeptness, owing to his untraditional upbringing, in run-ins with representatives of many cultures, castes (there are approximately 3,000 castes and 25,000 subcastes in India) and professions. Joe Sixpack will remark that detailed knowledge of this region is vital today.
Such an observation is not lost on the American military as it operates in Afghanistan (referenced in Kim, and the terminus of the Grand Trunk Road) and Iraq. Following is a passage from a MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) web site:
“The ability to support operations with intelligence in urban areas requires Battlefield Visualization (the “what”), the ability to depict and analyze urban terrain, objects and events in three dimensions; and Situation Awareness (the “why”), the commander’s understanding of the people, resources, and a wide range of forces (such as: culture, politics, religion, economics, etc.) and their relationships.”Culture, politics, religion, economics—what was ultimately parenthetical for the author, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, is in fact the substance of Kim. Moreover, Kim stands as the avatar of, to use contemporary espionage terminology, first-rate HUMINT (human intelligence). By upholding Kim and by mocking or punishing culturally myopic and insensitive characters in the novel, Kipling was telling his English audience that more authentically multicultural operatives were essential in order to maintain colonialism. The lesson would apply to a neo-con or like-minded reader in favor of “winning the war on terrorism” abroad.
In Kipling’s narrative Kim acquires fluency in many Asian languages and customs through immersion from birth to adolescence—a pedigree rarely found among Americans. Geography and resources have limited the U.S. Military’s ability to cultivate a legion of Kim’s, but urgent conditions call for an immediate, rudimentary commitment in that direction, as the lieutenant colonel noted:
“HUMINT operations require time to establish even basic relationships between people and are inherently more time consuming to develop than other forms of intelligence. Two weeks is probably the minimum time the urban force would need to be on the ground before it started to pay dividends but once the resultsAny reader should grant that multicultural literacy is positive; the question is, toward what end? Kim accepts the goal of maintaining order and justice under British rule—a point of view that placed Kipling’s work out of favor with anti-colonial perspectives. For example, George Orwell, a Top 100 author who lived for five years in Burma, labeled Kipling “the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase.”
start, they would increase exponentially.”
Orwell’s two essays on Kipling are fun reading for their trenchant, magisterial commentaries and asides, which can read like counterintuitive conundrums (like Noam Chomsky’s confounding observations) the more you consider them:
“There is no ‘Law,’ there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in.”(Americans, switch “Conservative” with “Liberal” and listen how the last sentence rings.)
“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”
“Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.”
As a hater of fascists and a sympathetic spokesman for the poor in the 1930’s, Orwell was a spiritual brother of Woody Guthrie. With regard to spiritualism and religion, the two men were not, as one might expect of ardent socialists, simply antagonistic.
One admirer of Orwell wrote, “…although [he] wasn't a religious man and didn't go to church (except for the usual occasions like marriage) he ‘loved the land and he loved England and he loved the language of the liturgies of the English Church.’”
Guthrie, as a young man, read up on “eastern religions.” His third wife, Marjorie Mazia, was Jewish; the couple lived with their children in the Jewish neighborhood of Coney Island. According to one interviewer, their son Arlo “grew up with an awareness of the Jewish roots on his mother's side, but in practice the family was not aligned with any one religion.”
Arlo related a poignant story that elucidated his parents’ views. Before he was born, the Guthries’ infant daughter was terminally injured in a fire, and then:
“She was brought to the hospital, still alive, and my mother rushed in and the nurse said, ‘Mrs. Guthrie, you filled in everything but what religion the child is,’” he says. “She said, ‘All.’ The nurse said, ‘We can't put that.’ So she said to put ‘none.’” Twenty minutes later my father came in and, thinking to get around the confusion, the nurse said, ‘You need to fill in the religion.’ He said, ‘Put “all.” She said, ‘We can't do that.’ So he said, ‘Put “none.”’”Kipling’s Kim exhibits an “all” religiosity. The boy engages five of the world’s six largest faiths— Christianity (Catholicism and Anglicanism), Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism—how many novels can claim that diversity?
The hero’s respect for each religion is underscored by the portrayal of universal rituals. Teshoo Lama constantly prays over his “rosary beads” (Kipling does not use the native term “mala” for them)—a practice that began in India in the 8th Century B.C. At the story’s end he baptizes himself in a river, then asks Kim to follow suit and wash away his own sins, satisfying Buddhist, Hindu and Christian alike. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime stressing such commonalities, would have been pleased.
Another Campbell called Rudyard Kipling “the first modern science fiction writer.” John W. Campbell, who as an author and editor of Analog magazine helped usher in “the Golden Age of Science Fiction,” was among many in his genre who idolized Kipling on account of his “approach and technique,” according to Fred Lerner:
“He was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story… Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on… A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.”The centathlete, a devourer of sci-fi as a teen and sporadic binger as a world-weary adult, would add that another aspect of Kim applies to the work of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Gibson, et al.— is it great children’s literature or adult literature?
Before Kim’s interfaith purification ritual, Teshoo Lama and the Muslim, Mahub Ali, conduct a tête-à-tête in amicable terms yet with divergent perspectives on the recent events and on Kim’s future. The narrative parallel with the final scene of the sci-fi trilogy The Matrix—in which The Oracle and The Architect agree to an entente between the Machine and Human worlds—seems to back up Lerner’s assertion.
After The Architect retreats, The Oracle (an African-American woman) is joined by the Chinese martial arts practitioner and the Indian girl whose father previously discussed “karma” with Neo. The movie’s symbolism reflects the writer-directors’ omnivorous appetite:
"The script was a synthesis of ideas that sort of came together at a moment when we were interested in a lot of things: making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life," said Andy [Wachowski].Kipling did not need to invent religious and philosophical diversity in Kim; it existed already in India. His boy hero adds the necessity of Action to the many dogmas. This practical bent is exhibited early in the story through his personal symbolism: a red bull on a green field (the insignia of a British military unit, we find out).
To participate sensually in this iconography, the centathlete tried his first Red Bull energy drink. On the palate the beverage recalls vitamins sweetened for pre-teens, begging the question: is this a drink for children or adults?
Invented in Thailand in 1962 and reformulated and marketed in Austria in 1987, Red Bull employs a logo of two clashing red bulls on a yellow sun, “the epitome of the kinetic virility and pugnacity the beverage claims to provide,” in the opinion of Brandchannel.com. The promotional copy on the can emphasizes the quaff “improves performance, especially during times of stress or strain” and “increases concentration.”
Already high on literature, the centathlete can’t testify to the vitalizing effects, but members of the U.S. military can. Red Bull is “the preferred combat zone pick-me-up,” according to The Army Times, “which easily moves more than 30,000 cans at contingency exchanges each week.”
The movement toward greater American HUMINT in Asia is thus facilitated…