Monday, February 16, 2009

MY BOY JACK: A Reflection

Though it is technically “President’s Day,” this is not about presidents, except in a slantwise way. But sometimes “slantwise” is good strategy. This is thoughts about “My Boy Jack,” the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son who was killed the day after his eighteenth birthday in the Battle of Loos at the beginning of WWI. The script was written by David Haig, who gestated it over many years -- even decades -- because of his striking resemblance to Kipling. People urged him to take advantage of it, but the question was how? A life story of Kipling would be a large undertaking requiring huge amounts of money. Anyway, people frown on Kipling these days. Jingoism, you know. Instead Haig chose a tragic moment -- TRUE tragedy in which an immovable object meets an irresistible force so there is simply no escape. It is Greek in its intensity because it is the essential nature of the people that caught in this impossible situation. Abraham Lincoln would have understood.

Briefly, Kipling was an early recognizer and promoter of the need to go to war to contain German ambitions. He spoke to huge crowds, urging them to see the danger, how over-matched England was in sleepy confidence of its worthiness, and how young able-bodied men would have to take the brunt of war. When all of this came to bear on his own son, he stood by his principles even in the face of his own and his family’s anguish. The women, of course, had no choice, their beautiful Edwardian faces running with tears. The king, who understands both war and Kipling, loses his own son in the same period, not in “glorious” battle but as an ignominious victim of royal inbreeding, dying on his own bedroom floor. Nevertheless, alone.

The point that no reviewer struck upon was that Kipling’s worldview was the engine of his art. In good times and bad, he asked, “Do you want a story?” If they did -- and he didn’t force the issue -- he could produce a purified and rhyming account that braided emotion into high drama, packed with small details from reality. This is not possible if one is preoccupied with political correctness, nor is it possible if life is a matter of therapeutic dynamics. No amount of talk about how young men try to please their fathers or how fathers forget to protect their sons in their zeal for honor can be as vivid as seeing a determined young officer help his terrified soldier fix his bayonet as ordered before going “over the top,” and that same competent young man groping for his spectacles in the mud of a killing field that took thousands of lives per battle. The actual death is not accompanied by gouts of blood, but the simple pfft, pffft, of bullets striking.

Lincoln knew about losing sons. His response was also stories, though often in the form of jokes. His wife was not so reliable, perhaps, as Kipling’s American bride. But one can only do one’s best. Kipling’s wife’s obsessive determination to find their boy does not succeed, unlike the modern American dogma that if you want something bad enough, you’ll get it. At least in the end, they hear the story of the boy’s end. Kipling’s response was not in prose, but rather a balladic poem which is the heart of the film.

'My Boy Jack' (1916)

'Have you news of my boy Jack?'
Not this tide.
'When d'you think that he'll come back?'
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Has any one else had word of him?'
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?'
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind -
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Two forces contend in cultures: one is for the preservation of the whole, the system or the community; the other for the preciousness of the individual. Every war sacrifices individuals for the larger society. If that society is unworthy in its goals, if it is captured by self-serving leaders, if it has no respect for the individuals, then that society may not persist even if it wins all its wars. If the individuals have no care for anything but their own interests, they may survive but those around them might wish they hadn’t and their memorials might be reviling accounts of them.

This opposition comes out in war, but it also appears in economic hard times when individuals sometimes are capable of enormous generosity and social systems can set about reforms of structure to protect those individuals. But it also can be the occasion for predation and callousness, all in the name of preserving an outworn hierarchy and outright corruption. We’re seeing it now. We’ve elected a president who promised change and yet everywhere people are complaining about the changes, resisting as hard as they can. They’re terrified.

And they’re greedy.

What’s more, the whole concept of “nation,” on which rests the role of the president, is very much in question. Parts of the world that were once functioning nations have now been abandoned to chaos. International corporations are bigger than countries and hire private armies, so that their CEO’s are like unelected presidents. Internal wars tear countries apart so hordes of fleeing people cross every border and ocean in search of safety, though they bring bits of the violence with them.

I keep thinking about my elementary and high school teachers, who felt no ambiguity about whether Kipling should be admired nor any about whether Hungary should be celebrated and supported in 1956. I fear they’ve all been replaced by small-hearted people willing to kill sons, so long as they aren’t their own.

Here are two cautionary and contrasting translated scraps from Kipling:


Simonides(480 BC)


Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.


Bitterroot said...

Mary, I think certain of these blog posts should be gathered and published as a book of essays. Your commentaries on humanity are really splendid.

With all your newly gained self-publishing knowledge, it should be a piece of cake!

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Bitterroot! Check out So far I've gathered the Western based on the Demeter myth, my family on the prairie, my splendid dog-catching career, and some resources for doing Blackfeet history.

Essays in the works! Also, under my bed I have stored a box of prairie sermons all bound and ready to mail if you give me an address. They're the ones the Edmonton UU's chose and edited.

Prairie Mary