The link below is to a book review of ‘Homer’s Daughter,’ by Robert Graves.
For more visit:
The link below is to a book review of ‘Homer’s Daughter,’ by Robert Graves.
For more visit:
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books were first published in 1894 and 1895, and they feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The stories have remained popular and have inspired numerous adaptations – but their attitudes have been questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.
Indeed, a classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.
So its interesting that among the wide variety of music to be performed at the 2019 Proms is Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-log. It’s a piece that he wrote in the first half of the 20th century as part of his nearly life-long effort to set the whole of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to music. As a scholar whose focus has been both on Kipling’s children’s literature and, more broadly, the representation of animals in children’s fiction, I’ve been asked to take part in a BBC Radio 3 Proms Plus talk on the subject.
The classic account of Kipling, while persuasive in many ways, seems to me to be a bit limited. It misses some of the interesting questions the stories raise about notions of belonging and identity.
The standard account relies on the idea that the human and animal identities within the stories are clearly distinguished from each other and fixed – and that this fixed distinction extends via allegory to white colonial and Indian identities.
But what happens to our understanding of the stories if we don’t treat the human and animal identities as distinct? I would argue that a species name doesn’t necessarily fix a character’s identity in the reader’s mind’s eye.
For example, Bagheera, the black panther, is described in terms of a series of other animals: he is “as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant”. Attributes that are supposedly intrinsic to one animal can be found in another. Like Bagheera, Mowgli describes himself in terms of other animals: “Mowgli the Frog have I been […] Mowgli the Wolf have I said that I am. Now Mowgli the Ape must I be before I am Mowgli the Buck,” and it is this process of transformation that will lead to the end in which he will become “Mowgli the Man”. In this way he blurs the distinction between himself and the other jungle inhabitants.
This undermines narratives of essential difference between species. If we follow this through with respect to the common allegorical reading that sets Mowgli apart from the animals, it also undermines claims that there are absolute differences between white colonialists and Indian “natives”.
Also take a closer look at the relationship of the child Mowgli to the inhabitants of the jungle and you’ll see the way this complicates accounts of the Jungle Books as straightforwardly imperialist in character.
The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement?
Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that:
He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood.
For Akela, Mowgli’s belonging is secured by his actions and his conformity with wolf society. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the most strident advocate of the idea that identity and belonging are a matter of “blood” is Shere Khan, the villain of the piece.
By the end of the first Mowgli story it may seem that those, like Shere Khan, who claim that one’s identity is what one is born to be, carry the day – since Mowgli is cast out of the jungle. Though he speaks of leaving the jungle and going to “his own people”, he also qualifies this with: “if they be my own people” and he also goes on to reassert his claim to be part of the wolf pack when he follows this with the promise: “There shall be no war between any of us in the pack.”
As Daniel Karlin points out in his Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Books (1987), Kipling changed this in his final collected edition of the stories to: “There shall be no war between any of us and the pack,” and so in the later edition “he already identifies with men”.
Either way, Mowgli does go on to rule the jungle rather than just remain a member of the jungle “family” as seems to be suggested by the recent Disney live-action/CGI film based on the stories. So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.
After a century or so during which Kipling has frequently been painted simply as a cheerleader for the “white man” and his burden – and at a time when questions of identity and belonging are particularly relevant for Britain – perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his classic works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.
The link below is to a book review of ‘American Carnage – On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump,’ by Tim Alberta.
The link below is to a book review of ‘The Iron Heel’ by Jack London.
The link below is to another article that takes a look at ‘Moby-Dick,’ by Herman Melville.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Moby-Dick,’ by Herman Melville.
In her book Wordslut, Amanda Montell argues that patriarchal assumptions deny women an active role in society, claiming that, “In our culture, men run the show”.
With a degree in creative writing and linguistics, having studied “how language works in the real world”, Montell has set out to “verbally smash the patriarchy”. Her aim is to educate a readership of women who need “the knowledge to reclaim the language that for so long has been used against us”.
She promises that:
By the end of this book you’ll have all the nerdy know-how you need to sound like the sharpest word ninja in the room.
The wording of her promise sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Montell tries too hard to popularise her agenda by adopting up-to-date slang and jargon, although she must be fully aware of how transient and imprecise this strategy makes her argument.
Occasionally, she is also seduced into making irrelevant asides that contribute nothing to her argument. For example, she mentions a seminal feminist paper that was published in 1997, “the same year as Princess Diana’s death and Mike Tyson’s bite fight”.
Despite all this, it is a book that explores the fascinating etymology of words such as “bitch” and “slut” that we were taught never to use in polite company, and which have nonetheless underpinned gendered attitudes.
Since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, sociolinguists have been studying language and gender: how people use language to express gender, how gender impacts how a person talks, and how their speech is perceived.
Montell comprehensively discusses the way in which second-wave feminist activists put the distinction between sex and gender on the “mainstream cultural radar in the mid 20th century”. She notes that “no one ever posed a semantic distinction between sex and gender until the 1960s” and that the word gender didn’t enter the mainstream English lexicon until the 1980s.
As she also notes, the rise of the #MeToo movement with fifth-wave feminism has accelerated discussions around gender and sexuality in the press, with even the Summer 2019 issue of Playboy magazine dedicated to the topic.
Montell’s book ranges across issues relating to sex, gender and language with many provocative pronouncements.
The most astounding, to my mind, is her claim about “valley-girl ‘vocal fry’,” also known by linguists as “creaky voice”, “a raspy, low-pitched noise that we often hear as people trail off at the end of their sentences”. Particularly teenage girls.
Montell says that:
Today’s sharpest linguists … have data suggesting that “teenage girl speak”, one of the most loathed and mocked language styles, is actually what Standard English is going to sound like in the near future. In a lot of ways, it’s already happening. And that’s making a lot of middle-age men very, very cranky.
Her credibility would have been enhanced if she had provided data for this bold claim, as it would seem to me that this is a style of language mostly confined to certain parts of California.
Montell rails against sexism in relation to women, but exhibits it herself in relation to men, particularly older men. Through most of the book she uses the term “dude” to replace the word “man”, oddly claiming that “today dude is one of the most beloved terms in the English language”.
Her ageism is evident when she discusses how labels such as cisgender, transgender, graygender, and pansexual “aren’t surfacing just because it’s suddenly trendy to have an identity that will perplex and/or pissoff all our great-aunts and-uncles at Thanksgiving”. She quotes many male and female linguists throughout the book, but mentions the age of only two, a woman who is “now in her 70s” and a man who is 58 years old.
In his preface to Gwynne’s Latin (2014), the conservative British grammarian Neville Gwynne mentions what he calls the “now-contentious problem of how to express what for the entire history of English literature until the last few decades was the all-embracing ‘he’.”
Surprisingly, he suggests that before then it was never considered “remotely inappropriate or uncomfortable” and goes on to comfort the readers of his book by stating that “on the few occasions [in his book] that you see the all-embracing “he” or equivalent, that it is occurring without any offence being intended”.
Publications such as the Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers have accepted the singular “they” for decades, way ahead of those in the UK and the USA. Montell advocates the singular “they”, along with North American linguistics societies and dictionaries, although The Times style guide does not enthusiastically endorse it:
He and his can no longer refer to both sexes equally; he or she will sometimes do. It is often easier to use the plural they for he or she, and sometimes even the ugly their for his or her. Do this only when necessary.
Montell predicts, however, that “20 years from now, introducing yourself with your name and your pronouns could become the norm”.
In a book that aims for an educated readership, we would expect to see an index and a list of references. This book has neither. Montell’s failure to consistently and meticulously cite her sources somewhat diminishes the value of the book.
Much of the research that she mentions, such as a 2003 study of 30 Irish men and 30 Irish women on their swearing habits, features very small populations.
She also makes sweeping generalisations with no evidence: “people above the age of forty have always loathed teen slang”. The smattering of underwhelming cartoons contributes nothing to the text.
The book could also have done with a closer edit. On page four, Montell makes a grammatical and a factual error when she states that “Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years”. (Homo sapiens is thought to have originated in Africa more than 315,000 years ago.) Many readers will be put off by the book’s annoyingly gauche and patronising style: “You may or may not have heard of a little thing called patriarchy?”
But is the book worth reading? Yes. Despite my reservations, I enjoyed reading it. Montell puts her linguistics degree to good use in a thorough coverage of historical sociolinguistics that forms the precursor to the contemporary feminist stance practised in many arenas today.