Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 28, 2010

A Little Kipling Now and Then

A while back, I stumbled on a economic/market piece that quoted an old Kipling poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. Ever the geek, I looked up the whole poem to gather the full context… which was of course unnecessary, but sometimes you do it anyway.

As with everything else, there are traditions in writing – even the dry stuff like what someone thinks about portfolio strategy, the market, the economy and underlying social currents that may endure for longer. We’re always looking for “the next big thing”, or a way to make sure we really do understand “what just happened, or to be fair, to gather a bit of the erudition along to sounding “as if” we have some insight of our own… or if we don’t, a least offer some patter for the two-step dodge until we can manage better. Ah… that’d be the necessity of answering those inquiries on the dreaded cocktail circuit or the thirty-second summary that Fr. Guido Sarducci (SNL) used to say is all we really can bring to mind of our four years of college anyway. It’s as if one thing we learn in those standardized tests we all took (yes, they don’t only test, but teach!) and that one thing is:  “Fear the blank… Fill it in! Fear the silence… Fill it in!” The cultural imperative is… the Leviathan… the salesman… the broadcaster… and even… dare I say it? Even the prayer, the confession or the sermon? Nah… not that!

But basic choices are to either make it clear, or make it interesting. Most do neither, but fairly, sometimes it’s not their writing, but their thinking that’s the issue, or their relationship with the material or the audience that drives things off base. So almost no matter where you are or what the subject is, you really appreciate those who know enough about what they’re trying to communicate to choose one or the other. Especially appreciate those who manage to combine the two with a bit of a flair or style.

So for a little poetry to soothe the jangled and puzzled nerves, to remind us where all our “progress” is really heading, and like the old PBS afternoon show my kids used to watch “Clarissa Explains It All”, Kipling does a pretty good job:

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four—
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:—
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will bum,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

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