The Love That Failed
review of The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling
by Tom Radcliffe
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe
(Amazon.com will contribute to the cost of hosting this site if you buy The Light That Failed through this link.)
Rudyard Kipling is remembered today mostly as a children's author, something I have to remind myself of every now and then, because I didn't read much of his stuff until adulthood. Kipling's poetry and adult fiction are both worth serious examination; The Light That Failed is probably the most important of his adult novels, in which he apparently makes the clearest statements of his beliefs about art and the purpose of life.
It's a pretty bleak picture he paints, cloaked in finery and delight but at the core full of stoic acceptance of misery, hardship and death. While there is a good deal of this that Kipling probably believed, even a casual examination of his own life suggests that this book is more of a bare-bones explication of the fundamental issues than a fully fleshed out portrait of how an artist ought to live.
Kipling was a child of British India, but was sent off to England to be raised "properly" by foster parents who were by his own account petty monsters. This experience, which was the centerpiece of the short story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," left permanent scars on his soul, and a deep resentment of his parents for so casually casting him out to the chance care of unproven relations. It's plausible that a good deal of Kipling's artistic power, his ability to "think himself into another man's skin" came from his sense of complete alienation from his own culture, brought about in part by his sense of being abandoned by his own parents and left to fend for himself in world where the rules were as irrational as they were petty.
It's particularly telling in light of this that The Light That Failed is dedicated to his mother. How is someone with an artist's soul to live in a world where, despite all protestations to the contrary, not even the love of a mother -- much less that of any other woman -- can be relied upon?
Kipling's heros, from "The Man Who Would Be King" to "Mary Postgate," are strongly self-reliant, and sometimes full of inventiveness and play. But they are almost always living under a shadow as well, and there is a deep but often-forgotten sense of tragedy in Kipling's work, even from early stories like "Dray Wara Yow Dee." Kipling can and does tell stories of courage and delight and great majesty, but what lies beneath is the bewildered pain of a sensitive, abandoned child, trying to understand how to live and be happy in a world that has no place for him. Readers of Kipling's poetry and children's stories are missing the greatness of the artist if they don't go on to explore his novels and most particularly his short stories, of which he was arguably the greatest master in the English language. I'm focusing here on The Light That Failed simply because it is considerably less well-known than his short stories, and contains perhaps the fullest statement of Kipling's dark philosophical credo, which is well-hidden by the oft-repeated pigeon-holing of him as the "Poet-Laureate of the Empire."
Dick Heldar is an orphan, a young savage who is not civilized by the beatings he gets from Mrs. Jennet, his foster-mother, nor by the contempt he receives from his school-fellows for his cheap and shoddy clothing. Coming out of his childhood, he goes off to wander the world, learns to paint, and finds he can see things that others can't, and capture them on canvas. His childhood companion, Massie, who is aptly described as "an atom" -- indivisible and impenetrable -- also learns to draw, but with considerably less success than Dick as she fails to give her whole life and soul to the work.
Dick's career is given its first great boost by a chance meeting with Torpenhow, a Special Correspondent for a news syndicate sent to the Sudan to cover the ultimately unsuccessful expedition to relieve Gordon. Torpenhow sees Dick's talents and immediately signs him up to supply drawings for his syndicate at a pittance. In this world of manly men, it's assumed that the strong will struggle forward on the thinest of chances, and the weak will be swept away. Dick and Torpenhow become close friends in the course of the campaign, but in the midst of a battle Dick is wounded on the head and has a moment's flash-back to the world of his childhood and Massie, whom he fell in love with shortly before they last parted.
The bulk of the story is taken up by the life Dick and Torpenhow share in London, living pleasantly in each other's company, arguing about the value of their work, and helping each other fail romantically. Women are implicitly a great threat to their work, to their whole way of being, and yet they provide something that can't be done without, either. Dick describes his greatest work to date as being a mural he painted in the hold of a ship while involved in a tryst with the captain's mistress, Passion and sex feed the work, but love -- true love rooted in friendship and mutual respect -- challenge it.
Kipling shows Dick facing an age-old dilemma, part of the horrific legacy of sexual discrimination. If love can only exist between equals, and women are basically inferior to men -- something that Kipling clearly believed -- then the only true love that can exist must be between men. But that love, amongst the Victorians, had to be chaste, non-sexual love. None of this is explicit in The Light That Failed, and I doubt Kipling would have seen it this way, but there are only two (thankfully non-exclusive) ways out of this dilemma: acknowledge women as equals to men, or accept the legitimacy of homosexual love. Men of Kipling's era found it virtually impossible to do either, thus ensuring themselves a nearly loveless existence. No wonder they flung themselves off to the further ends of the Empire as if driven by an insatiable thirst.
Dick's pursuit of Massie, and Torpenhow's brief involvement with a waif named Bessie whom he helped out in a moment of kindness, create an impossible tension between them. As an adult, Massie is more atomic than ever, simply failing to feel anything for Dick, which aggravates him no end because as an artist she is capable of appreciating his work. Her failure to love Dick when she can see his success is unaccountable to him, and yet at the center of her attraction. Her distance seems to suggest a degree of independence that will allow him to love her as something like an equal. Yet even then, in his descriptions of their proposed future together he envisions her as weak and incapable -- he tells her that they'll see the world but he "won't let you see anything horrid." But as an artist he knows the horror of walking through a field of dead men, bloated and blackening beneath the North African sun -- he knows that you cannot "do anything until you have seen everything."
Kipling saw a good deal of horror in his life, both as a reporter in India and later as a war correspondent and finally as a parent whose child was killed in the first world war and whose body was never found. His response to these horrors drove a good deal of his mature art, as it drives Dick Heldar's. For Dick, his work is his justification for living, and he wants to succeed based on some absolute standard of work, not in terms of material rewards; he holds the wilful pursuit of social or material success as inimical to artistic success, though he doesn't shun good fortune when it comes his way. His advice to Massie is:
All we can do is to learn how to do our work, to be the masters of our materials, instead of servants, and never to be afraid of anything.
The cost of the ability to do good work is everything you have, and nothing more: "[Success] isn't got by sacrificing other people... you must sacrifice yourself."
This is Kipling's creed, and it's a harsh and unrewarding one indeed. The telling lines in his poem "If" say: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same." The work, Dick says, comes from outside of him -- all he can do is prepare himself to receive it. And I admit that the creation of art does sometimes feel this way. But the consequence of believing this literally is that it is no credit on the artist when the art is great, and no shame when it is poor (so long as he has prepared well.) This is a terrible belief -- triumph and disaster are not the same. Triumph is good. Disaster is bad. And while it's true that we don't want to let disaster overwhelm us, part of that means that we should not let the risk of pain numb us to the possibility of joy; deep, fundamental, pervasive joy.
In the end, Kipling seems to suggest that this is indeed the case: Dick's last painting of Melancholia is "the likeness of of a woman who had known all the sorrow in the world and was laughing at it." But Dick himself fails to find this laughter in the face of his own failing sight, which can be read as a metaphor for the loss of artistic vision. He can't stay young forever, he can't continue to open himself to the beauty and horror of the world and at the same time live a quiet domestic life with Massie. He cannot have both Love and Sight, and in the end has neither.
This is a bleak and bitter book, for all that some of the playful back and forth between Dick and his masculine friends is full of humor, and Dick's descriptions of the world through his artist's eyes show Kipling the poet at his lyrical best. Dick's life is almost completely untempered by tenderness, despite the kindness of Torpenhow's final attempts to help him. Kipling's apparent answer to the question of how an artist is to live is: Live for your work alone, and don't give a tithe to what others want of you, especially women. But it's clear he recognizes the impossibility of maintaining this stance for long.
In a world that offers only an impossible choice between the sanctity of work and the tenderness of love, life is impossible, and Kipling's story is true to this dichotomy. But his own life gives the lie to it -- he was writing stories as moving and powerful as "The Gardener" (significantly, about the love of a foster mother for her adopted son) as late as 1925, unbowed to the forces that must have torn at him throughout his adult life.
There's an interesting contrast to be made between The Light That Failed and Ernest Hemmingway's The Garden of Eden, which is also about the relation between an artist and his work, and the women he loves. But that will have to wait for a future essay.