Thursday, April 26, 2018

Imperialism and the early church

Rudyard Kipling (Photograph by Elliott & Fry, c. 1932)

“The Church that was at Antioch” 


HIS mother, a devout and well-born Roman widow, decided that he was doing himself no good in an Eastern Legion so near to free-thinking Constantinople, and got him seconded for civil duty in Antioch, where his uncle, Lucius Sergius, was head of the urban Police. Valens obeyed as a son and as a young man keen to see life, and, presently, cast up at his uncle’s door.

‘That sister-in-law of mine,’ said the elder, ‘never remembers me till she wants something. What have you been doing?’

‘Nothing, Uncle.’

‘Meaning everything?’

‘That’s what mother thinks. But I haven’t.’

‘We shall see. Your quarters are across the inner courtyard. Your—er—baggage is there already. . .
("The Church that was at Antioch", opening lines)

The roots of imperialism lie in the "boys' books" of the time, specifically the history of classical Rome, in Livy and others. The New Testament was more troublesome; it presented a view of empire from without.

The title of “The Church that was at Antioch” comes from Acts 13:1, and this story, like “The Manner of Men”, evinces close reading of the New Testament. Antioch can be considered the very birthplace of Christianity, for “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). It was not one of Paul’s own churches, but he was often there and it was the first place where the practical issues of mingling Jews and Gentiles in one congregation were seriously confronted. This is of course a major theme of Kipling’s story. In the Acts of the Apostles, the food question is resolved, temporarily at least, by letters sent from Jerusalem to Antioch by Silas and Judas Barsabas (Acts 15). Peter’s part in this account is limited to the Jerusalem end, where he appears to speak up in favour of Paul’s ecumenicism (“And put no difference between us and them” (Acts 15:9)), no doubt because of his own experience with the centurion Cornelius. But the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t square very easily with Paul’s account in Galatians (2:11-14), in which Peter is (most unexpectedly) said to have been present in Antioch at the height of the food controversy and to have reneged on his initial liberalism the moment that other seniors from Jerusalem showed up, until publically taken to task by Paul. Kipling, I think, makes admirable sense of all this; he sees that Peter’s weakness, notably his tendency to go against his own conscience in order to fit in with those around him (as when he denied Christ) can also be the basis for a credible moral authority.


In Kipling’s story the Christians are seen within a frame of Roman colonialism. Sergius, the head of urban police, and his nephew Valens, have all-too-obvious analogies with the British Empire-builders of his other stories; they speak Empire English and our perspective at the beginning of the story involves identifying ourselves with the Roman administrators and seeing the Antioch Christians as an alien and characteristically troublesome rabble. But as his readers are themselves Christians this perspective is always under threat, and by the end of the story it is reversed – Valens is being discussed by the two saints as a variety of “noble heathen”.


In truth Serga and Valens are far from being doctrinaire Romans; both have had corners rubbed off in the East. Kipling suppresses the alienness of Roman civilization, its appetite for mass public killings and its tendency to regard non-citizens as non-humans (Pliny the Younger’s famous exchange of letters with Trajan confronts us with quite different ideas). Both here and in “The Manner of Men” Kipling locates us in a mixed-race environment  on the outposts of Empire where, as he believed, men often speak humanly. As for the Christians, their friendliness is proverbial, and in “The Manner of Men” the suspicious Quabil says of Paul, “he had the woman’s trick of taking the tone and colour of whoever he talked to”. Considering Paul’s propensity for making enemies (e.g. his eventual falling out with Barnabas over John Mark, or his address to the Jerusalem Jews), this might seem unlikely. Quabil is perhaps registering, in a thoroughly unsympathetic spirit, the Christians’ determination to turn the other cheek and to comply with earthly authority, though an alternative explanation appears below.  


Valens comes to Antioch as a young man “keen to see life”, and he finds death. (Kipling idealizes him, rather along the lines of such imperialist stories as “The Tomb of His Ancestors”).  His heroism, which includes a too-overt vein of Christ-analogy, provokes a competition of grief, in which those who loved him seek to appropriate his power – I'm sorry that this is such a chilly way of describing natural human reactions. Serga threatens dire vengeance, the Byzant slave-girl throws herself on his body, and Paulus thinks he should be baptised. Petrus, who has been less personally affectionate towards Valens in life, is able to be more purely respectful. But the excellence of the story does not lie in this climax but in the credibilty of the fictional context.


“Father Serga” plays a large part in this, from his first remarks (“Your – er – baggage is there already..”). Genial as he is, there is a certain malice in the remark, as in the statement about Valens, “He rather fancies his legs”. Once fuelled with the “strong cup”, he enjoys singing the song about “Pickled Fish” to his Christian audience; he cuts the tremendous significance of the centurion’s conversion down to size by speaking of Cornelius as a formative drinking companion; and having put a flushed Valens on the spot chips in with a remark about “a young Sabine tush-ripe boar”. He has an easy consciousness that his squirming audience are in no position to take offence. But this mild sadism, because it reveals a sensitivity to how other people feel, wins our sympathy for “Father Serga”, at least in comparison to Petrus, who seems utterly absorbed in his own affairs. The Christians are unworldly in ways that are not beyond the story’s criticism: “...they were all extremely pround of being Christians. Some of them began to link arms across the alley, and strike into the ‘Enthroned above Caesar’ chorus”. It’s the criticism that Serga implies when he says: “Can’t either of you two talking creatures tell me what I’m to tell his mother?”  


Much of the story takes place in the evening, at twilight or dusk; Kipling here showing a true instinct for Mediterranean life. For Serga this should be a time for reconciliation, for drinking, talk and sleep; for Valens and his girl it develops into love-making; for Paulus and Petrus it remains a time for work. The Christians, in fact, have difficulty in subsiding naturally; Valens has to organize them. In Kipling’s imperialist vision these too-exalted children have to learn to be natural men.


Dusk, like the urban spaces of the inner courtyard and the Little Circus, are important manifestations of the story’s inner construction (what I have called elsewhere, the performance). It would be a shame to leave nothing for another reader to explore, so I leave aside the puzzle of what Paulus means when he says, finally, “Moreover there is the concubine”.

“The Manner of Men”

Online text

HER cinnabar-tinted topsail, nicking the hot blue horizon, showed she was a Spanish wheat-boat hours before she reached Marseilles mole. There, her mainsail brailed itself, a spritsail broke out forward, and a handy driver aft; and she threaded her way through the shipping to her berth at the quay as quietly as a veiled woman slips through a bazaar.

("The Manner of Men", opening lines.)


For the same reason I'll leave “The Manner of Men” almost untouched. The title refers to 1 Corinthians 15:32, which begins “If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts...”. It is a puzzling verse; most modern commentators, I think, interpret the conditional as “If I had fought with beasts”, on the grounds that people who enter the arena with the beasts do not survive to tell the tale, and also on the grounds that Ephesus had no amphitheatre. But if the phrase is purely hypothetical why would Paul specify Ephesus at all? Perhaps Kipling is right to imagine that something happened there; for example that someone set the dogs on Paul, but not in a public show.


The opening lines of the story, which describe the serene arrival of a ship in harbour, are very beautiful, and Kipling’s “performance” involves an extensive use of nautical terms throughout. The story of the shipwreck at Malta (based on the later chapters of Acts) appears unconnected to what happens in the frame (where the narrators Quabil and Sulinor are talking over the wine with the young Spanish captain Baeticus) but in one respect at least there is an important link. We discover eventually that Quabil lost his son three years ago. Baeticus at this point realizes who Quabil is. This interruption in the narrative is dealt with very cursorily, but it seems that Baeticus, who has been brought up by foster-parents in the Balearics, is also some kind of “son” to Quabil.


The important link, however, is that the disastrous voyage to Malta took place two autumns ago, when Quabil’s grief was still fresh. This then is the explanation for some of his doubtful decisions on that voyage, his intense desire to leave the Eastern Mediterranean and his unwonted lack of care for himself and his ship. One can also infer that his rejection of Paul’s conversation and “cheer” arose because Paul intuited his state of mind and tried to speak to him about his son. Whereas Sulinor welcomed Paul’s approaches and the probing of his phobia about the beasts, Quabil set his face against Paul’s psychotherapy. The title of the story refers, therefore, not just to the everyday work of men (in this case seafarers) but also to their hidden motives and mental struggles. The serenity of the opening image includes the notion of concealment. 


First edition of Limits and Renewals (1932), Kipling's final collection of short stories


Additional Note on “Proofs of Holy Writ”.


Limits and Renewals is Kipling’s last collection, but his last story, too late to be included in it, is "Proofs of Holy Writ", which is available on the alarmingly professional website of the Kipling Society. It isn’t much of a story. Ben Jonson visits Will Shakespeare in semi-retirement at New Place, and over the wine Will (assisted by a strangely compliant Ben) works out a rendering of some verses of Isaiah on behalf of the divines who are putting together the King James Version. The notion for the story arose over dinner with John Buchan, and a sentence like this shows how comfortable Kipling was with Buchan’s image of clubmen playing with the fates of nations: “...(T)he betterment of this present age – and the next, maybe – lies, in chief, on our four shoulders.” This is supposed to be Shakespeare talking to Jonson! As you may gather, “Will” sounds more like Kipling than Shakespeare; and “Ben” is a huge disappointment. The setting of the conversation is skeletal, and the discussion of renderings seems to go on for ever – one verse of Isaiah, rather than five, would have said everything that was required. I would gladly believe that a fitter Kipling would have enriched and disrupted this bald narrative beyond recognition. What the story does show, however, is the sort of logical terminus to which a late performance such as “The Manner of Men” is tending. Both pieces are (unusually for Kipling) harmless yarns, but it’s as if the author now believes that a story about great men inherits sufficient justification from its chosen topic.



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