Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Where the unreal’s real

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Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936[11]My friend Clare, over at the Scribblings blog, just published a post about Kipling’s poetry and the voice of objects.
And she says…

Whenever I read one of these poems, I can’t help thinking of those Japanese legends where an object takes on some sort of life by long association with and use by human beings… A concept I’ve always found highly poetic.

I was trying to put together some form of intelligent comment, and then I thought, what the heck, I’ll write a post for Karavansara.
And here we are – fast and loose.

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

This is from the first chapter of The Dream of the Red Chamber, the classic Chinese novel – which also goes by the title of The Story of the Stone because the main narrative is framed by a picaresque story about a self-aware stone that travels with a Buddhist monk and a Taoist sage to learn about the world.

51VpEw5RW3L._AC_UL320_SR212,320_I normally – and ignorantly – explain this animism in Chinese culture with the shamanic roots of Taoism.
My first exposure to this kind of view of the world, as peopled with objects that have souls, was through Chinese and Japanese ghost stories.
Because it happens, sometimes, that the haunting in the story is by a spirit belonging to an object.
So, not only objects do have a soul, connected with their daily use – which is the basic idea in Kipling’s poetry – but also, this spirit can become twisted and evil (usually because of old age and neglect), and become hostile to human beings.

Which – as I sit here racking my brain to find some novel ideas for a handful of ghost stories to write this winter – is a powerful, suggestive concept to try and develop.

But back on topic…
Was Kipling exposed to this sort of thinking, during his stay in India, maybe?
Indeed, there is a recognized form of Animism in Hindu philosophy. In the classic (but dated1) The People of India, Herbert H. Risley defines Indian Animism as follows…

[Indian animism] conceives of man as passing through life surrounded by a ghostly company of powers, elements, tendencies, mostly impersonal in their character, shapeless phantasms of which no image can be made and no definite idea can be formed.

But Risley – that continues by providing assorted examples from his experience mixed with quotes from the Latin classics – seems to think only of natural objects having their own spirit… trees, waterfalls…
But what of man-made things?
Risley’s account does not shed any light on the subject.

It is a matter worth exploring further – and once again, I’ll be able to mix work and leisure, and reader contribution is welcome.
Any suggestion?


  1. and yet – it was published in 1915, and therefore we can assume it represents the general perception of Hinduism at the time, and therefore also Kipling’s. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Where the unreal’s real

  1. Also, Kipling visited Japan in 1889, and stayed there long enough to see the sights, fall in love and – I’ll wager – hear tales and stories… He had a fondness for ghost stories, too , so he may well have heard of the soul’d objects right from the source, so to say.

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    • It would be interesting to discover if truly Kipling took an interest in Japanese ghost stories in 1889 – because this would predate of about a decade the first popular books about Japanese ghosts published in the West, Lafcadio Hearn’s In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan…

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