Devils in the Detail

Over at Freaky Trigger the Marquis of the Mothed Marches has been unearthing ‘wtf’ nuggets from Kipling’s short stories. It’s an idea that makes sense. He’s a writer impressive amongst other things for the great uncluttered accumulation of fine detail in his stories. Uncluttered in the sense that the knell of the stories is not confused by the accumulation of that detail. But occasionally the detail can become so compressed that this aesthetic of unfamiliarity can feel almost coded – perhaps the mnenomic narrative to a game of Kim, whose plate of assorted objects is the world.

The most recent entry was on a story I hadn’t read, The Eye of Allah, which deals wonderfully in its few short pages with amongst other things neo-platonic microbiology, theology, futuristic optics, song, illustration, monastic office politics, dreams and visions, and secular science v spiritual restraint.

But look at the lyricism of material detail with which it is all presented:

There is the ‘lame, dark Abbott Stephen, in his fur-lined night boots.’

Not that Stephen de Sautré was any spy; but as a young man he had shared an unlucky Crusade, which had ended, after a battle at Mansura, in two years’ captivity among the Saracens at Cairo where men learn to walk softly.

Or the chilling form of the demons with which the master illuminator John of Burgos wishes to decorate his margins

And see again! The devil that came out of a dumb man. What use is a snout or a bill to him? He’d be faceless as a leper.

Or the items with which John of Burgos returns to England after a journey to Moorish Spain:

A lump of richest lapis lazuli, a bar of orange-hearted vermilion, and a small packet of dried beetles which make most glorious scarlet, for the sub-cantor. Besides that, a few cubes of milky marble, with yet a pink flush in them, which could be slaked and ground down to incomparable background-stuff.

(Kipling was always great at lists, as you might expect with a Mephistophelean command of the material world.)

How is it that the whole story isn’t dragged to the bottom by the weight of its glittering detail? Because it’s bound together by a deep, yet only briefly-hinted at universal: love. The details are not impedimenta but form the viaduct for a tragedy and make the final violent destructive act carry its violence to the reader’s heart as well as his or her mind.

So it is – Kipling presents the material differences in people’s lives, in the world, in time. Though as humankind we may share similarly the various fates of love, loss, death, birth, madness, illness, war and peace, material detail gives the avatars of those fates their distinctive imprint and embodiment.

His attention to detail led him to pay extraordinarily close attention to the technological advances in the world around him. He didn’t just see them either, he knew how they worked; wireless, steamship, artillery, moving film, Kodak camera, railway train, lighthouse, motorcar, electricity. He saw in these items the adventure into the unknown. In fact part of the genius of The Eye of Allah is that it puts advances contemporary to Kipling into a past location on the cliff-edge of time.

In this respect he reminds me of another author who paid attention to the vanguard of technological change and how it would give the form to our fates and psychological imprints – JG Ballard. Ballard and Kipling were in a sense modernists; modernists of content, and that content gave a peculiar form to their style and aesthetic. Kipling’s remarkable and haunting Mrs Bathhurst is extremely like Ballard I think. A while ago, thanks to a tweet from Ballardian, I was alerted to the fact that a South Bank Show on Ballard is on YouTube in its entirety. I finally got round to watching it this week, and would thoroughly recommend it. First part here:

‘I believe in my own obsessions’.

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