Mr. Rudyard Kipling and World Travel

In an essay about Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton commented on what the globe trotter misses out on:

Mr. Rudyard Kipling has asked in a celebrated epigram what they can know of England who know England only. It is a far deeper and sharper question to ask, “What can they know of England who know only the world?” for the world does not include England any more than it includes the Church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the world–that is, all the other miscellaneous interests–becomes our enemy. Christians showed it when they talked of keeping one’s self “unspotted from the world;” but lovers talk of it just as much when they talk of the “world well lost.” Astronomically speaking, I understand that England is situated on the world; similarly, I suppose that the Church was a part of the world, and even the lovers inhabitants of that orb. But they all felt a certain truth–the truth that the moment you love anything the world becomes your foe. Thus Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.

The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men–diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men–hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. Mr. Kipling, with all his merits, is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems, “The Sestina of the Tramp Royal,” in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place. In this there is certainly danger. The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down and the High Commissioner in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

There is nothing inherently wrong with travel, or even travel for amusement. But Chesterton is fundamentally on to something when he takes issue with the people who think that traveling enlarges the soul. What travel does is it broadens the soul. The problem is that there are not merely two dimensions but three; travel broadens the soul but it tends to make it shallow. It makes it shallow because it is seeing life from the outside.

Life seen from the inside is love and all that that entails—labor and suffering and hardship and patience. Life seen from the outside—especially when you’re paying to see it—is all triumph and success. It would seem that this is getting the best of bargain—all of the rewards without any of the work, but it fails for the same reason that going to a trophy shop and ordering yourself an extra large trophy is not nearly as satisfying as earning it in a karate tournament, despite all of the bruises and sore muscles. It fails because we were not put on this earth merely to enjoy, but also to help build it up. Or to use a less extreme example, it is a much more rewarding things to make a decent wine than to drink an excellent wine.

The technical term for this is secondary causation, though I prefer to call it delegation. God could have created the world without anything for us to do but to enjoy it, but instead he delegates part of the act of creation to us so that we can become part of his creative act. When we give someone food, we become part of his act of creating the body. When we teach somebody something, we become part of his act of creating the mind. When we labor to help create something within creation it is not the suffering, in itself, which brings us fulfillment, but rather the taking part in its existence. The work brings suffering because we are in a fallen world and do not work right; the work is suffering because we aren’t strong enough for it.

This gets to what Chesterton said at the beginning of his essay on Kipling:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

We are bored by things while God isn’t not because our intellect is stronger than God’s, but because it is weaker. It is natural enough that as a man’s capacity to enjoy something good which he has already experienced diminishes, that he will seek a stronger stimulus to make up for his weakness, just as the weaker a man’s legs, the more he looks around for stairs instead of a ladder, and a ramp instead of stairs, and ultimately an elevator instead of a ramp. And such a man may well look on at someone who is still climbing the ladder and look on him with pity, who only knows this one, difficult way of ascending, while he has sampled all of the means of going up that mankind has ever devised. And he will keep feeling this pity even as he struggles to reach the button to make the elevator go up.

One of Chesterton’s great themes was paradoxes, and indeed there is a Chestertonian paradox in the fact that the most interesting people lead the least interesting lives. This is so because unhappy people seek variety while happy people seek homogeneity. To the man who loves something, even if it is a beetle, that beetle is as big as the world, because that beetle is a world. To the man who loves nothing, the whole world is as small as a beetle. Of the two, it is the man who loves the beetle who is right, and you can tell that he is right because he is happy.

After all, God is inordinately fond of beetles.

One thought on “Mr. Rudyard Kipling and World Travel

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    There’s another problem with the Cosmopolitan.

    He imagines that he “knows the world” better than the stay-at-homer, but he may only visit certain Cosmopolitan places with he meets other Cosmopolitans.

    If he’s American, he visits only places like London and Paris but imagines that he knows what England and France are like.

    He may visit places in Africa and Asia but the places are ones that cater to the foreign traveler not the places where most people in those areas live.

    He imagines he knows what China is like but only sees other Cosmopolitans (Chinese or otherwise) or Chinese people who have to job of “making things comfortable” for him. He doesn’t see how the average Chinese live.

    Liked by 1 person

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