Unsettling Landscapes: Landscape and the Entelechies of the Alienating Gaze in Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night

Satarupa Sinha Roy, Calcutta University, India


This paper examines and analyzes Kipling’s representation of colonial Calcutta in his travel sketch, The City of Dreadful Night. It explores the role of the European gaze at length seeking to uncover the ways in which it became complicit in delineating not only the colonial space but also the (hitherto more secure) notion of Englishness. In order to do so, this paper exploits Freud’s play on the concepts of heimlich and unheimlich, shining a light on how the colonial space, in Kipling’s imperial narrative, functioned as a covert force in the formulation of identities.

[Keywords: Kipling, Landscape, Colonial space, Gaze, Alienation, Desire]

Vision seems to adapt itself to its object like the images that one has of a town when one contemplates it from the height of a tower; hearing is analogous to a view taken from outside and on the same level as the town; touch, finally, relates to (the understanding of) whoever comes in contact with a town from close up by wandering through its streets. (Leibniz 1668)

In Kipling’s rendering of the colonial city of Calcutta in The City of the Dreadful Night, the entelechies of the urban colonial space can be grasped through a careful consideration of the senses—primarily, the visual, the aural, the haptic and the olfactory—and the interplay among them. In the specific context of his travel sketches on colonial Calcutta, this sentience is both the locus of his desire as well as its occasion. But before one can delve any deeper into the vectors of such longing, it is imperative to remind oneself that Kipling’s narrative on Calcutta distils the essence of European alienation and the primordial desire for home. Calcutta, for Kipling, both is and is not home and it is this very contradiction that enables one to see desire as an embodiment of two opposed ideas: first, as an entity that one must resist or escape from in order to preserve one’s integrity and second, as an entity symbolizing the human longing (at the moment of desiring, that is) for an ideal state, object or outcome.

Interestingly, the traveller/narrator of The City presents desire as both promise (albeit, elusive) of fulfillment as well as absence or lack—an idea that replicates the essential dichotomy between longing (for the ‘object’ that one lacks at the moment of desiring) and evasion (of the seductive yet, admittedly sinister world of taboos etc.). However, the desiring Subject is not essentially aware of this basic dissonance characterizing the nature of his desire(s) but is, nonetheless, structured through the object(s) of his longing(s). It is on account of this very inevitability that it is useful to apprehend the traveller/narrator of The City (and concomitantly, the narrative he produces) as the function of his desire(s) for the Orient as well as for all that it (the Orient) lacks. While the European’s desire for the Orient (the promise of adventure, discovery, power etc.) can be easily explained, his longing for what the Orient lacks warrants a more conscientious speculation. In this particular instance, what the Orient lacks and the traveller/narrator desires can be summed up (not too imprecisely, so to speak) as “some portion of [my] heritage” (Kipling 7). It is no doubt an abstract idea but, also one that reasonably embodies the European’s anxiety, his longing for the heimlich in the midst of an alien world and the ultimate unattainability of his desire(s). For although “Calcutta holds out false hopes of some return” (Kipling 6), the materiality of the claustrophobia it invokes automatically cancels the immaterial reprieve afforded by an illusionistic idea of ‘homecoming’. The desire for the heimlich London within the unheimlich domain of colonial Calcutta culminates into the febrile crescendo of the (ironically self-fashioned) “backwoodsman” and “barbarian”: ““Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!” Then a distinctly wicked idea takes possession of the mind: “What a divine—what a heavenly place to loot!”” (Kipling 8; emphases added). While Calcutta in its being the specular reflection of Dickensian London excites the desiring Subject (the traveller/narrator of The City) into asserting the malleability of forms and models (London, in this instance, is the model not only of Calcutta but also of all metropoleis), it is also the locus of the European’s desire to appropriate the Other for himself (“What a heavenly place to loot!” (Kipling 8)). However, this should not be confused with anti-desire or the desire to annihilate or destroy; on the contrary, it traces the trajectory of colonial desire to a longing that manifests itself as (latent) power of the Occident over the Orient.

As indicated earlier, Kipling’s representation of colonial Calcutta derives, to a great extent, from his sensory experience of colonial space. Like the royal palace in Italo Calvino’s “A King Listens” (Under the Jaguar Sun 2009 [1983]) which is “all whorls, lobes: [it is] a great ear” (Calvino 38), the colonial metropolis of Calcutta for Kipling is a sprawling sensory map—a vast network of sensory signals concretizing emotion, affect and memory. He repeatedly makes reference to the great “Calcutta stink” which he variously describes as the “essence of corruption” (9) and “the clammy odour of blue slime” (9)—notably fusing the haptic, olfactory and the visual. That the experience of the colonial space (and the subsequent representation of the same in writing) is informed by sensory perception in The City need hardly be over-emphasized, given its conspicuousness. Rather, it is the deployment of sensory perception to convey a sense of anxious alienation from the notion of home or the heimlich in and through language that is likely to strike one as particularly intriguing. The speaking Subject of Kipling’s narrative—a stand-in for the European colonial—is alienated in ways more than one, for he not only typifies the Self in exile condemned to dwell “in the outer darkness of the Mofussil” (Kipling 5) but also problematizes the gaze of the European surveying the colony in a more or less unambiguous acknowledgement of the blurring boundary between the familiar and the foreign. At the heart of Kipling’s representation of colonial India lies this central paradox: India is both familiar as well as foreign; both home as well as abroad; both heimlich as well as its terrifying Other. It might be noted that the relation between the (German) words heimlich meaning familiar, homely, tame etc. and unheimlich (the prefix un- indicating inversion) meaning unfamiliar, strange, uncanny etc. is not free from ambiguity; they do and do not—well, at the same time—seem to suggest the same conventional relationship as that shared by two unequivocally antithetical terms. As Freud writes, “Heimlich thus becomes increasingly ambivalent, until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich. The uncanny (das Unheimliche, ‘the unhomely’) is in some way a species of the familiar (das Heimliche, ‘the homely’)” (Freud 134)…Access Full Text of the Article

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