Kipling The Light That Faded ·,The Light That Failed,Heldar
Rudyard Kipling is remembered today mostly as a childrens author. Kiplings poetry and adult fiction are both worth serious examination; The Light That Failed is probably the most important of his adult novels, in which he apparently makes the clearest statements of his beliefs about art and the purpose of life.
Dick Heldar is an orphan, a young savage who is not civilized by the beatings he gets from Mrs. Jennet, his foster-mother, nor by the contempt he receives from his school-fellows for his cheap and shoddy clothing. Coming out of his childhood, he goes off to wander the world, learns to paint, and finds he can see things that others cant, and capture them on canvas. His childhood companion, Massie, who is aptly described as “an atom” — indivisible and impenetrable — also learns to draw, but with considerably less success than Dick as she fails to give her whole life and soul to the work.
Dicks career is given its first great boost by a chance meeting with Torpenhow, a Special Correspondent for a news syndicate sent to the Sudan to cover the ultimately unsuccessful expedition to relieve Gordon. Torpenhow sees Dicks talents and immediately signs him up to supply drawings for his syndicate at a pittance. In this world of manly men, its assumed that the strong will struggle forward on the thinnest of chances, and the weak will be swept away. Dick and Torpenhow become close friends in the course of the campaign, but in the midst of a battle Dick is wounded on the head and has a moments flashback to the world of his childhood and Massie, whom he fell in love with shortly before they last parted.
The bulk of the story is taken up by the life Dick and Torpenhow share in London, living pleasantly in each others company, arguing about the value of their work, and helping each other fail romantically. Women are implicitly a great threat to their work, to their whole way of being, and yet they provide something that cant be done without, either. Dick describes his greatest work to date as being a mural he painted in the hold of a ship while involved in a tryst with the captains mistress, Passion and sex feed the work, but love — true love rooted in friendship and mutual respect — challenge it.
Kipling saw a good deal of horror in his life, both as a reporter in India and later as a war correspondent and finally as a parent whose child was killed in the first world war and whose body was never found. His response to these horrors drove a good deal of his mature art, as it drives Dick Heldars. For Dick, his work is his justification for living, and he wants to succeed based on some absolute standard of work, not in terms of material rewards; he holds the wilful pursuit of social or material success as inimical to artistic success, though he doesnt shun good fortune when it comes his way. His advice to Massie is:
All we can do is to learn how to do our work, to be
the masters of our materials, instead of servants,
and never to be afraid of anything.
The cost of the ability to do good work is everything you have, and nothing more: “Success isnt got by sacrificing other people… you must sacrifice yourself.”
In the end, Kipling seems to suggest that this is indeed the case: Dicks last painting of Melancholia is “the likeness of a woman who had known all the sorrow in the world and was laughing at it.” But Dick himself fails to find this laughter in the face of his own failing sight, which can be read as a metaphor for the loss of artistic vision. He cant stay young forever, he cant continue to open himself to the beauty and horrors of the world and at the same time live a quiet domestic life with Massie. He cannot have both Love and Sight, and in the end has neither.
This is a bleak and bitter book, for all that some of the playful back and forth between Dick and his masculine friends is full of humour, and Dicks descriptions of the world through his artists eyes show Kipling the poet at his lyrical best. Dicks life is almost completely untempered by tenderness, despite the kindness of Torpenhows final attempts to help him. Kiplings apparent answer to the question of how an artist is to live is: Live for your work alone, and dont give a tithe to what others want of you, especially women. But its clear he recognizes the impossibility of maintaining this stance for long.