I have a dream—a dreadful dream—In the poem “My Mother's Son” (first published in Life's Handicap), Kipling is putting himself imaginatively into the mind of a soldier who has been damaged by War. He was not alone in finding this a potent and important theme. The realisation, from 1914 onwards, that some men had been so traumatised by war that they presented strange and disturbing hysterical symptoms was one that alarmed soldiers, mystified doctors and frightened the general public. Over the past ninety-odd years much has been written about the subject, and I apologise for the fact that what I am going to say now is a gross simplification, but here is a two-minute history of shell-shock.
A dream that is never done,
I watch a man go out of his mind,
And he is My Mother’s Son.
They pushed him into a Mental Home,
And that is like the grave
For they do not let you sleep upstairs,
And you’re not allowed to shave.
…This class of complaint excited more general interest, attention and sympathy than any other, so much so that it became a most desirable complaint from which to suffer. (p. 6)Many soldiers came to look at the problem in a different way – as a question of morale. As the Regimental Medical Officer for the 4th Black Watch told the Southborough enquiry: :
If morale is good in a battalion, you will have less so-called 'shell-shock' or war neurosis... I regard 'shell-shock' or war neurosis as very contagious when it gets into a battalion. (Report p.66)A new pattern of treatment was developed – men were kept in France, not sent home. The label “shell-shock was avoided, and men suffering from syptoms were classified as “Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous)”. They were given a period of rest, but were not allowed to lose their military identities. Gradually they were reintroduced positively to military duties. This seems to have worked for the less serious cases. So what did Kipling think? Well, he rejected the idea that it was a disciplinary or medical matter:
And it was not disease or crimeBut in the third line, who are “They”? The Germans who sent so ferocious an artillery barrage that the man lost his wits? Or the British Army that demanded too much of his fortitude? In that case, are They us and should we (to quote another Kipling poem) :
Which got him landed there,
But because They laid on My Mother’s Son
More than a man could bear.
…end by – (think of it) looking on We As only a sort of They?That is a possible reading – or we can look at it quite differently and think of the man's problem as precisely that he is making a distinction between himself and a hostile “They” to whom he does not belong. When Kipling considers the problem of shell-shock, it is linked closely with questions of isolation and belonging. In a series of stories written over a long period, from 1918 to the mid-thirties, Kipling explored the question of those on whom the war had imposed an intolerable burden. And it's worth noting that his treatment of the theme is significantly different from that of most other writers of the period. For a start, most others write stories centred on officers or ex-officers. Fictional accounts of psychologically suffering private soldiers are in short literary supply. The early detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers reflect the usual stereotype. Lord Peter Wimsey (Major, Rifle Brigade) returns from the war restless, neurotic, tormented by terrible dreams, and with an overwhelming need to be diverted by detection, whilst his servant and ex-batman - “the indefatigable Bunter”, as he is called in Whose Body? (1923) - who had presumably been through many of the same experiences, remains forever stolid, dependable and balanced. Neurosis becomes a mark of sensitivity, and for many writers of the day sensitivity was something reserved for the officer classes, though the statistics of actual war-induced neurosis tell a very different story, as is made clear by Peter Barham's book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (2004.) Kipling knew that war affected all classes, and so set many of his stories of shell-shock in a community that proudly proclaimed its openness to all classes and sorts of men, a Masonic lodge that first appeared in 1918, in the story, “In the Interests of the Brethren”. (Kipling made much of the inclusive nature of Freemasonry. Remembering his own first Lodge in Lahore, he claimed in a 1931 letter:'I was entered by a Hindu, raised by a Mohammedan, and passed by an English Master')
…I turned into a tobacconist’s to have a badly stopped pipe cleaned outThe Masonic handshake has bonded the two men, and soon Brother Burges, proprietor of Burges and Son (“but Son had been killed in Egypt”) introduces the narrator to his Lodge in a converted garage just around the corner from his shop. “Visiting brothers” – soldiers in London who want to re-establish contact with Freemasonry, are being tested to make sure that they are genuine. They include a one-armed New-Zealander, a man “all head-bandages” with only six teeth and half a lower lip, a silent “shell-shocker”and a man who seems to have forgotten everything:
“Well! Well! and how did the canary do? said the man behind the counter.
We shook hands, and “What’s your name?” we both asked together.
“I don’t blame yer,” he gulped at last. “I wouldn’t pass my own self on my answers, but I give yer my word that so far as I’ve had any religion, it’s been all the religion I’ve had. For God’s sake, let me sit in on Lodge again. Brother!”The visitors are set to work, one as an organist, though he has to be carried to the organ-loft, others to the recitation of ritual; the familiar words of the ceremony stir the memory of the Visiting Brother who had forgotten everything. It is important to both Brother Burges and to Kipling that they should be conducting the ritual for themselves, not having it done for them. This is a place of self-help and mutual help, not of top-down charity. The community is supportive, but gives men a chance to be useful through working – “You’ll often find half-a-dozen brethren with eight legs between ‘em, polishing and ronuking and sweeping everything they can get at.”
…the horror, the blackness, the loss of the meaning of things… a certain secret dread which he had held off him since demobilisation.A doctor only suggests a sedative and a rest. Marden goes to the country, but is brought to the brink of suicide by hallucinations, including a Black Dog, “an inky, fat horror with a pink tongue”.
“Just like ‘avin’ the Password, eh?” was Humberstall’s comment.In the Lodge, Humberstall has been supervised by Brother Anthony, who makes him work hard and talk about his experiences – two essential elements of the restorative process. Right at the end of the story, Anthony’s blush reveals that he is engaged to Humberstall’s sister. A final type of supportive community is revealed – a loving and caring family.
“That’s right. Ours was Imshee Kelb. Not so hard to remember as your Jane stuff.
The stories of shell-shock end with the clipped tones of men of power and action who know how to put things right. (347)Paternalism was something that Kipling quite frequently approved of, but I don't think it's what is happening in these stories. In “Fairy-Kist”(Limits and Renewals), for example Lodge-members prove that a war-damaged ex-soldier is innocent of murder, and even show how the man's odd delusions and eccentricities come from memories of a children's story read to him by a well-meaning nurse. However, Kipling makes it clear that their solution to the problem has no effect on his mental condition, and he happily continues with his eccentric practice of planting flower seeds on the verges of roads, lunatic by everyday standards, but to him a sensible, satisfying and absorbing practice.
…a set of social ideals based on male self-sufficiency, shared knowledge and comradeship, where special jargon and rituals not only confer power – the power of a secret mastered and shared – but imply unity and sense, a world that makes sense, obeys rules, and protects those inside it.(p.20) And Kipling's remedy is a long way from the rest and milky diet formula that wants to cure men by giving them a life that is the opposite of war. The lodge's familiar ritual, hard work and all-male community is very like the Army in whose service these men have have been damaged. So we can see Kipling as being on the side of those who saw shell-shock as a problem of morale, as a loss of control that needs to be combated by the reinforcement of a sense of the man's identity as member of a supportive group.
I WAS buying a canary in a birdshop when he first spoke to me and suggested that I should take a less highly coloured bird. “The colour is in the feeding,” said he. “Unless you know how to feed 'em, it goes. Canaries are one of my hobbies.”By the time it was reprinted in Debits and Credits in 1926, however, Kipling had made a significant correction:
I WAS buying a canary in a birdshop when he first spoke to me and suggested that I should take a less highly coloured bird. “The colour is in the feeding,” said he. “Unless you know how to feed 'em, it goes. Canaries are one of our hobbies.”“My” has become “our”. Later in the story Kipling drops the hint that Burges has now given up canaries. With the correction, Kipling wants to make very sure that we recognise that bird-breeding was something that Burges and his son had done as a pair. Their joint hobbies have lost all their appeal. No longer part of that significant pair, Burges has devoted immense effort to transforming the lodge as much for his own sake as for the soldiers. Organising meetings several evenings a week and two afternoons as well is his way of filling his life with useful activity, just as the polishing and ronuking was for the soldiers, and maybe as the War Graves Commission and The History of the Irish Guards were for Kipling. When Burges says that ‘All ritual is fortifying’ he is not just speaking of the soldiers but for himself as well, and indeed for Kipling. We can see Burges as a partial self-portrait of the author not only in his desire to help the war-damaged, but also in the intensity of his need. The same things are needed to help the bereaved as to help the war-damaged, Kipling is saying; they are in the same boat. What threatens them both most frighteningly is loss of meaning, existential emptiness. That is why Kipling felt able to write My Mother's Son in the first person.