Saturday, June 21, 2008

The naturalism of Kipling's 'Jungle Book' sets it apart

The defining quality of great children's literature is persistence: It stays with the reader with undiminished vitality into adulthood. There is a certain type of gloomy old man who, for A.A. Milne's readers, will always be an Eeyore; children who read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" understand her befuddlement at the curious ways of the world only more acutely as they grow older.

No children's book has had a greater influence on the minds and attitudes of young English-speakers than "The Jungle Book" (1894) and its companion, "The Second Jungle Book" (1895), written by Rudyard Kipling while he was living in Brattleboro, Vt. These exciting tales and thumpingly rhythmic poems tell of the childhood and coming of age of Mowgli, a baby lost in the Indian jungle after a tiger attacks his village, who is adopted and raised by a pack of wolves and grows up to become a great hunter. Baloo, the wise, patient bear, teaches the "man-cub" the Law of the Pack, the animals' code of chivalry in the bloody battlefield of the forest.

What makes "The Jungle Book" so absorbingly vital, the reason it has persisted, is its naturalism. In Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," Mrs. Rabbit goes to the baker to buy brown bread and currant buns for her baby bunnies; Mowgli learns to hunt and kill for food, and to escape being hunted and killed by his implacable foe, the tiger Shere Khan. The architect of Kipling's jungle was Darwin, both in that it's governed by the principle of the survival of the fittest, and in its relative paucity of sentimentality for an age that had an insatiable sweet tooth.

Another fundamental reason "The Jungle Book" has maintained unsurpassed prestige in the competitive jungle of children's books is that it was literally institutionalized in 1916, when Robert Baden-Powell created the Cub Scouts based on "Mowgli's Brothers," the first story. The largest captive audience of boys ever created still adopts the names of Kipling's animals in their games, and recites a promise to do their best to do their duty to God and country, to help other people -- and to obey the Law of the Pack.

In tone, Baden-Powell's version of "The Jungle Book" veers closer to Beatrix Potter than to the original; yet the most significant departure of the Cub Scout's Promise from Kipling is its declaration of duty to God. Although Kipling routinely (in every sense) invoked the Christian God in his patriotic verse, he himself was an atheist. This passionate champion of the British Empire was just as hostile to Christian missionaries as he was to Hindu pandits; if there was a religion he admired, it was Islam. In conversation, he habitually referred to the deity as Allah.

God plays no part in Kipling's jungle; more crucially, neither does Empire, the principal theme of Kipling's life and work. Writing about animals, ironically, enabled him to observe humanity (for the animals in the stories are plainly people) without the strictures of nationalism, which eventually strangled and embittered his thinking.

Written precisely on the cusp of the cinema era, "The Jungle Book" predicts that medium's power to move and excite -- a compliment returned in at least a dozen film versions. Events are narrated boldly, in a verbal equivalent of real time, and are often told from multiple points of view. Unencumbered by the need to proclaim the glory of Empire, "The Jungle Book" permitted Kipling to glory in pure storytelling, always his greatest gift. Henry James, an unlikely friend and defender, who once called him "the most complete man of genius" he had ever known, considered "The Jungle Book" to be Kipling's finest work.

In no way does the rationalist-nationalist genius more closely resemble Darwin than in the scientific accuracy of his observations of wildlife. The best-known story in "The Jungle Book" is "Rikki-tikki-tavi," one of the many non-Mowgli tales, about the doughty mongoose who does battle with Nag the cobra. Here, the snake makes his terrifying entrance:

"From the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss -- a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion-tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of."

Kipling not only conveys a vivid sense of danger and wickedness but also describes the appearance and defensive behavior of Naja naja, the Indian cobra, with as precise an eye as any herpetologist.

He saw just as clearly into the workings of a boy's mind. (There are no girls in Kipling's jungle.) Boys, he knew, like to be petted by their mothers so long as there are no other boys around to see it, but they understand that the playground is the real world. The cruelty of Mowgli's code has been familiar to generations of children, who have instinctively felt the rightness of its central tenet: "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack." That first moment of reading a home truth that one already knows but has never seen put down in words is where the life of a reader begins.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

5 Classics Written Under the Influence

Many writers seek extreme experiences, including getting drunk / high / ecstatic / wasted / buzzed. And while we're not exactly advocating altered states here, it did seem to take the edge off their writer's block.

So, who says drugs and alcohol aren't useful? For one thing, they're responsible for some of the world's greatest literature. Here are 5 classics written under the influence.
1. Collected Poetry, Li Po (701 - 762)

One of the best of the T'ang dynasty poets in seventh-century China, Li Po wrote many poems about drinking. In his poems and in many poems of the classic era of Chinese poetry, alcohol has two functions. First of all, it brings friends together to sing, to reminisce, to have great little parties at which everyone gets tight and starts having poetry contests. Well, great!

Second, it acts as a muse, a way to relax and release the poet into fantasies and meditations that are good for the creation of poetry. See? Nothing new. Artists have been saying for centuries that if you take drugs, you make better art. They've often felt that the perceptual expansion offered by drugs lets them have better, more suprising insights. Or at least they think they do!

Li Po and his pals obviously felt that wine helped you be a better poet. Of course, being continuously sozzled comes with its own problems. Legend has it that Li died when, in a drunken state, he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in a lake and fell in.

2. "Kubla Khan," Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

After smoking opium, Coleridge fell asleep, and when he awoke he was on fire with images. He set to writing at a white-hot pace - until he was interrupted. When he returned to the poem an hour later, the vision was gone. He'd lost the moment. The result is one of the wildest, most puzzling poems of all time.

A lot of people like the fact that it was written under the influence: it had a period of great popularity in the 1960s. And back when it was published (1816), people took it as the quintessential Romantic poem: passionate, spontaneous, beyond conscious control. They also liked how "he had it all there - and then lost it," which is a nice little fable about how fleeting inspiration is.
3. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)

Like many famous writers, Hemingway battled alcoholism all his life. In The Sun Also Rises, one of his best novels, almost every character drinks continually. They're trying to ignore the realities of life after World War I, trying to ignore their hangovers, and, often, just having a great party.

War has torn apart the old ways, and the new ways - ways of nation building, ways of writing, ways of love, ways of being men and women - are full of pain and uncertainty. And these people, though they're adults, in many ways are incomplete, crippled. Jake Barnes, the protagonist, has suffered a war wound greatly compromising his sexual function (how's that for a delicate way to put it?), and the wound becomes a metaphor for the incompleteness that everyone's drinking to forget.
4. Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980)

Sartre apparently was a big ingester of mescaline to get him, er, up to speed. He also took downers to let him sleep. These facts create a big question for the history of philosophy, don't they?

Now, many readers have felt that despite his fame as the inventor of existentialism and despite his importance in many fields of literature, thought, and politics, he's completely unreadable.

Being and Nothingness, is supposed to be Sartre's great investigation of the experience of the absurdity and lack of intrinsic meaning in existence. When you discover nothingness, it's like a huge turning point, and there's no turning back.

Sure wish the book was better. This thing is a twisty-turny, pompous, sloppy, contradictory mess, written in a celebratedly bad prose, whether French or English. It may be a brilliant book, but it's not a good one. Maybe, applying the Li Po principle above, Sartre should have taken more drugs.

5. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs (1914 - 1997)

Burroughs was a Beat writer and a heroin addict. His surrealistic novel influenced poets, musicians, and other addicts for the rest of the 20th century. This may be the ultimate in underground cult novels. You'll find its influence in everything from the art of Keith Haring to the poetry of Jack Kerouac to the lyrics of Steely Dan.

One thing that's very impressive (besides the amount of drugs Burroughs reputedly took while compiling Naked Lunch) is how Burroughs uses addiction as a key metaphor for human existence. Everyone is a junkie for something - and everyone is also a narc, an agent of judgment and punishment.

It's a brilliant insight, and it emerges from the jumble of this novel like a flash of drug-induced wisdom. Now, how many films have you seen that explore this theme? Naked Lunch is often called a novel, but it's really a collection of scenes and characters held together by the aforementioned methaphor. In fact, it doesn't hold together. Its existence is more important than its actual worth as literature. But its impact, which continues today in artists, writers, and filmmakers all over the world, is, well, psychedelic.

Bonus: Writers Are the Craziest People
While living in a hotel room in Brussels, Belgium, French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) captured a bat in a nearby graveyard, brought it back to his room, and kept it as a pet, feeding it bread and milk.

Russian playwright and fiction writer Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) didn't have long to live. His doctor bought a bottle of Champagne and poured Chekhov a glass. He drank it down with great appreciation and remarked: "It has been so long since I've had Champagne." Then he rolled over, and Chekhov checked out.

One of the strangest novels ever written may be Gates of Paradise by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909 - 1983). It is one-sentence long, unpunctuated, 40,000 words.

Speaking of strange, how about Pugna Porcorum ("Battle of the Pigs"), published by the Dominican monk Léon Plaisant (Placentius) in 1530(?). The poem extends to more than 250 verses, and every word begins with the letter P! Talk about pig Latin, Playful priest produces porky poetry!

French poet Gérard de Nerval (1808 - 1855) had a pet lobster that he took for walks, guiding it through the parks of the Palais Royal on a pale blue ribbon.

Irish novelist James Joyce (1882 - 1942) wore five wristwatches on his arm, each set to a different time.