EN4223 Seminar 7 – Kim, “Tomb of His Ancestors,” “Mark of the Beast”

I.   Kipling’s Supernaturalism: Abstract and eclectic spiritualism – associated most closely with the “middle way” of Buddhism in Kim, but meant to include and incorporate similarly open-minded people (Lahore curator, Lurgan, Father Victor, Kim of course, Hurree in his ethnographic mode) while excluding others (Chaplain Bennett, Russian spy, perhaps Mahbub) – can easily shade into geopolitical supernaturalism.  i.e. the supernatural used to further geopolitical purposes, (very broadly) transforming the native space/other into a supernaturalised entity, thus abstracted (from concrete socio-political and economic realities).   (Properly speaking it should be “supernaturalisation” – i.e. the act of making the other into the supernatural – rather than “supernaturalism,” but for ease of reference, and also because there aren’t 2 conflicting ideas at stake here, the latter shorter term will be used).

             Geopolitical spiritualization functions more at the level of cultural eclecticism, philosophical open-mindedness: it is used in the fiction to depict the cultural-social possibilities (for the neo-colonial society) of multi-cultural harmony, as long as certain restrictive and exclusionary aspects of traditionalism (whether Hindu or Anglican or whatever) are overcome.  Geopolitical supernaturalism, like spiritualization, operates as an abstraction, suggesting an abstract harmony that is perhaps/probably not possible at the concrete/material level.  But supernaturalism is a less comfortable, less controllable, darker and more messy dimension – it seems to acknowledge a certain inability to control (the other and its supernatural power), and with it a certain aspect of fear/anxiety.  (We might call supernaturalisation the “gothic double” of spiritualization?).  A textual representation of the (conquered) “empire striking back,” a concession of supernatural power to the defeated other who no longer has political power.

Features of Kipling’s supernaturalism:

a.   Basic separation of rational whites and supernaturalised natives: Kim, despite his nativised aspects, shows his white essence as a rational core that resists the irrational: e.g. when he holds out against Lurgan’s mind-control techniques by repeating multiplication tables “in English,” and when he fights hard against the “dawut” ceremony that Mahbub (who attributes this resistance to Kim’s “white” side) submits him to.  White tolerance and open-mindedness goes so far as to accept native religions/spiritualism, but not native supernaturalism – i.e. there is a recognition of the disturbing power and claims of native supernaturalism, but a refusal to embrace and submit to it.

             Likewise Strickland in “Mark of the Beast” (MB): one of the seasoned, knowledgeable colonialists like Kim and Lurgan, Strickland (unlike the hasty and arrogant Fleete) has a healthy respect for native customs and the power of the supernatural.  Yet this respect (e.g. for the Hanuman temple and its priests – note separation of temple/religion from supernatural, when they go back to the temple there’s no mention of the silver leper nor any desecration of the idol) doesn’t mean an acceptance of the supernatural encounter – Strickland says he is fit for “permanent quarters in a lunatic asylum,” his white essence going into hysterics at the unaccountable nature of the native supernatural. 

             This separation seems to retreat back into a kind of racist distinction, and to a certain extent it is – it is an acknowledgement of an enduring difference that cannot easily be negotiated by geopolitical will.  Yet it is more complicated than that: a kind of white gothic thrill, that is simultaneously repulsed by and fascinated with (a kind of morbid attraction?) the native supernatural.  Supernaturalism a kind of grotesque exoticism, whose very threatening nature is paradoxically a source of attraction (and thus consumption/participation).

b.   Paradoxical kinship between white and other: supernaturalism provides the context (space?) where white and other can interact in ways which are prohibited by socio-political conditions.  Writing supernatural interactions thus a kind of surreal imagining of contact/relationship - a fantastical narrative of kinship?  (Overdetermined fantastical symbolism, will also include suggestions of other elements – doubling/similarity; desire; homosexuality/homoeroticism; degradation/devolution of the white man as well).

             Thus Kim’s relationship with the Lama – in a sense, it is through the suggestion of a kind of mystical union, a soul-tie between Kim and Lama near the end of the novel, that the closest and most intimate tie between Kim and Lama can be expressed.  The notion that Kim falls sick because the Lama feeds on him (“eating him”) is basically vampiric image (whether the food is Kim’s body, blood, spirit/psyche, whatever).  Also the closing passages, when the Lama’s out-of-body experience is halted out of his concern for and desire to return to his chela; the narrative of native supernatural power (this ability to transcend the flesh/earth) here clearly is contained within the overriding desire of Lama for Kim.  These supernatural episodes, while suggesting a “higher” relationship between white and other than that of the flesh (“son of my soul,” the Lama calls Kim at the end), also paint a disturbing/threatening dimension to that relationship (vampiric, stronger-than-spirit, stronger-than-religion) which both reinforces and yet also problematises that relationship.  If the Lama truly is “free, and sinless,” as he says at the end, it is not in terms of Buddhist spirituality (in whose terms he is still in bondage to the earth, rejecting the “Great Soul” out of attachment to his chela), but in terms of something else – a kind of renegade spiritualism, a supernatural experience that cuts wildly across racial, cultural and even religious strictures.

             In MB, the whole supernatural encounter (from start to finish) occasions unwarranted contact and suggestive intimacy between white and other.  At literal and physical level: the silver leper comes out and hugs Fleete, “dropped his head on Fleete’s breast,” “nuzzling” him; he removes the curse by laying his hand “upon the left breast” (of Fleete); Strickland and narrator lay hands on the naked leper to apprehend him, and the narrator registers the intimacy of the contact: “even through my riding-boots I could feel his flesh was not the flesh of a clean man”; when they torture him (an ordeal of the flesh), they tie him “comfortably to Strickland’s bedstead”; and when he leaves, they give him their personal items (bedstead, bedsheet, gloves, towel and whip), which is an act of dissociation, but also resembles an act of intimacy/remembrance.  There is also an invisible supernatural link between white and other: Fleete’s convulsions “follow the cry [of the leper] by two seconds in each case,” and of course the suggestion is that the leper confers the curse on Fleete.  Semantically/symbolically, the title of the story (with its ambivalence/overdetermination in its title – “of the beast” meaning Fleete’s mark upon the beast/idol, or Fleete the beast’s mark on Hanuman, or the mark which the beast-leper places on Fleete, etc) emphasizes the slippages/doubling between white man and other.

             In Tomb, the whole supernatural superstition (John Chinn is Jann Chinn reincarnated, supernatural “father” of the Bhils, and rides a clouded tiger by night) serves to forge a strangely powerful bond between him and the natives – a bond which would be impossible for him to forge by natural or political means (even his senior officers are surprised and envious).  On the one hand, it sounds like a classic coloniser’s tale of racial superiority corroborated by native superstition, but (typical of narratives which supernaturalise the native) it is more complex than that: the colonial figure (John Chinn) is reluctant to accept this supernatural position, the Bhils are all too eager to confer it; but the conferment also brings with it a strange kinship which (as with the whites in MB) exacts a cost for the white man too (he is “in the thick” of the “Bhil orgy,” which is “a thing not to be safely written about”).  By adopting the supernatural narrative, John gains exceptional authority over the Bhils, but perhaps at the expense of losing something of his own identity and restraint (a typical geopolitical trope – the best e.g. may be Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who had “no restraint” after being apotheosized by the natives): he slips easily and casually into a matter-of-fact reporting of his supernatural status to the Colonel “And so, sir, I’ve vaccinated ‘em, and shot my tiger-horse…”; and the story may be seen as the acculturalisation of John Chinn to the supernatural beliefs and practices of the natives (John learns to dispense judgement and punishment like a god, preside over native orgies, sit alone at his ancestor’s tomb “thinking about his ancestor,” and at the end of the story it is suggested that he will even come to accept Bukta’s matchmaking or at least pressure for him to marry and have children).  i.e. the ghost of the Chinn’s ancestry is as much a burden for/haunting of the white man, as it is for the natives.

             Supernatural (de)territorialization: a kind of narrative/cultural act, on the one hand messier and darker than other forms of cultural rapprochement/negotiation (e.g. religion, commerce, professionalism), but as a kind of “last resort” device it is useful in suggesting a (dark, surreal, nightmarish) interpenetration or involvement of white man in native space.  i.e. by creating native space as powerfully messy and overdetermined, it writes white involvement into that overdetermined space (even if it is as unwilling victim in this supernatural power).

             Another way to see it might be as a metaphorical (but also ideological) “descent,” into a hellish, unconscious space which then purports to unearth the truly human (anxieties, superstitions, fears), and in so doing finds a common (collective?) human dimension that seems to link both whites and others.  To continue the metaphor of the descent, it is as if by digging deeply enough, the supernatural geopolitical tale goes beneath national/cultural demarcations into a (myth of a) deeper, earthier territory.


II.   Devolution, Bestiality: Surreal/fantastical nature of some of Kipling’s stories also permit a more prominent articulation of Victorian/geopolitical tropes of devolution and bestiality than in the rather more socio-realist/romance novel Kim.  It is already implicit in the infantalisation of the Lama and some other native characters, especially when this is seen through the eyes of the European child Kim (who thus appears as more mature than adult natives).  But that novel (nor the quasi-realist Moonstone) does not seem to permit more bizarre images of devolution the way that the nightmarish Sign of Four does, or Kipling’s supernatural stories.  (Devolution/bestiality closely tied to, or sponsored by, supernatural element?  Without it, devolution/bestiality is always going to seem overblown, excessive colonial/racist ideology; in a supernatural narrative, the white position is also implicated in devolution/bestiality, so it is less outrageously colonial/racist).

             MB, as title suggests, is centrally concerned with devolution and bestiality: a kind of geopolitical fantasy of devolution, in which the white man (Fleete, but by implication also Strickland and narrator) is threatened with bestial devolution (Fleete is referred to as “the Beast” in the midst of his mad fit); but this is caused by contact with the bestial native (the leper has literally lost his human face, and mews like an otter).  Strickland/narrator also undergo a descent of sorts (into violent savagery – but again this is depicted as being provoked by the native – while they acknowledge Fleete’s offence, they maintain that the leper can’t take “the life,” so it is their rational and just reaction to this excess that provokes their violent degradation).  Although Fleete’s offense against native religions (at the Hanuman temple) is at least implicitly acknowledged (“they should have mauled us,” says Strickland), there is the obvious connection that the worship of the monkey god could be seen as a kind of primitivism that has bestial overtones.

             Likewise in Tomb, the supernatural terror (of the ghost of Jann Chinn) results in bestial connotations: John repeatedly calls the Bhils “pigs,” and describes Bukta as “a man whose name is known among beasts and men” (refers to his reputation as a hunter/beater, but also suggests the kind of discourse between men and beasts that is evident in Kipling’s other writings, e.g. Jungle Books).  Again, the bestiality is doubled or reversed back onto the white man, in the image of Jann Chinn’s connection with his tiger.  This bestial imagery seems to signal the white man’s real fear of devolution in his contact with native customs, peoples and territories: the Bhils are constantly referred to as those whom Jann Chinn “has made men,” but in his contact with them, it is John who seems to become devolved and savage, not only in terms of his convenient transformation into the mythical Jann Chinn, but also in his actual functioning as white warlord/god, participating in native “orgies,” etc.


III.   Madness: a kind of schizophrenia?  Are there geopolitical implications?  For instance, madness in Kipling’s stories seems to be a necessary precondition (or corollary) to being able to “get the job done” (i.e. for colonial survival).  Kim’s existential schizophrenia (“who is Kim?” “what is Kim?”) might be seen as a kind of coping or release mechanism which allows him to continue struggling to reconcile the 2 opposed sides (white and native, colonizer and chela) within him.

             The link between madness and geopolitical survival is perhaps more significant in surreal/supernatural stories.  In MB, both Strickland and the narrator go into hysterics at what they witness, and what they are called to do in order to tame the leper and save Fleete.  Yet it is significant that this episode is not a complete breakdown and thus failure of the colonial project (in fact, it is the ultra-rational doctor, Dumoise, who finds it difficult to deal with the irrational/supernatural encounter – his “professional” sense is offended, he is “dumb” and rushes out of the house).  After their joint hysterics, both Narrator and Strickland (presumably) continue on their colonial projects, and they also toe the colonial line by concealing their actions (which speaks of strategy and communal sensibility, rather than outright madness and remorse).

             In Tomb, John Chinn by the end of the story has arguably gone mad – a kind of double-identity (colonial subordinate John Chinn, native god Jann Chinn), which leads to a kind of schizophrenic uncertainty (“What are – what are we doing here, sir?” he asks the colonel at the end).  The fluid shifting of identities within a single sentence – “I’ve vaccinated ‘em [i.e. as John Chinn], and shot my tiger-horse [as Jann Chinn]” seems to indicate schizophrenic inability to make clear distinctions.

             Madness is of course a loose and plural term, and it may well be that these stories (like Doyle’s account of Holmes) depict a kind of strategic “madness” which is a coping mechanism for the confusing and threatening realities of a geopolitical filled earth, that is careful to indicate the possibilities of carrying on with the colonial/modernist project despite or after the madness.


IV.   Narrative and Silences: Kipling’s narrative form shows the ways in which geopolitical themes and anxieties also impact on (and are shaped by) narrative form.  We saw something of this in the “encyclopedic” and diffusive (pseudo-democratising) form of Moonstone, as well as in the highly episodic, frenetic and character-less (dehumanizing) nature of the Holmes stories.  Kipling’s writings, while sharing in something of Doyle’s ever-moving plots, also show the role of strategic narrative gaps and silences: in the infamously abrupt ending of Kim (where silence both points to, and refuses to elaborate on, the problematic fate of the adult Kim), but also in smaller but equally significant narrative gaps and silences in the supernatural tales: e.g. the Bhil orgy which is “a thing not to be safely written about” (and the narrative correspondingly only suggests, without elaborating – although Bukta is explicitly said to have been “yelling and capering with naked fellow-devils of the scrub”).  E.g. the inscription at the Tomb of Jann Chinn, which is reproduced in its (ostensible) entirety rather than just a representative line or two, but that entirety is paradoxically flawed, occluded.  It seems to tell a typical colonial narrative of the white man’s burden and its blessing upon savages: “…the savage band/Foresook their Haunts and b….is Command” etc.  But, perhaps in the face of the supernatural link between white man John Chinn and superstitious Bhils, the colonial narrative on the tomb is strategically both asserted and qualified/repressed.

             Likewise the gaps and silences in MB: “This part [i.e. the details of the torture] is not to be printed,” and “we never told him what we had done,” is an obvious and stubborn justification of the white man’s burden, while also suggesting that the inability to narrate is excusable because it is created by the dark enigma of native supernaturalism.