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Rudyard Kipling : Surgeons and the Soul

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Address by Rudyard Kipling at the Annual Dinner of the Royal College of Surgeons,

London, February 14, 1923

"Once upon a time, or rather at the very birth of time, when the Gods were so new that they had no names, and Man was still damp from the clay of the pit whence he had been digged, Man claimed that he, too, was in some sort a deity.

The Gods weighed his evidence and decided that Man's claim was good - that he was, in effect, a divinity, and, as such, entitled to be freed from the trammels of mere brute instinct, to enjoy the consequence of his own acts.

But the Gods sell everything at a price. Having conceded Man's claim, they came by stealth and stole away this godhead, with intent to hide it where Man should never find it again.

But this was none so easy. If they hid it anywhere on Earth, Man, the inveterate hunter - the father of all hunters - would leave no stone unturned or wave unplumbed till he had recovered it. If they concealed it among themselves, they feared that Man might in the end batter his way up even to the skies.

And, while they were all thus at a stand, the wisest of the Gods, who afterwards became the God Brahm, said,

'I know. Give it to me !'

And he closed his hand upon the tiny unstable light of Man's stolen godhead, and when that great hand opened again the light was gone.

'All is well,' said Brahm. 'I have hiclden it where Man will never dream of looking for it. I have hidden it inside Man himself.'

'Yes, but whereabouts inside Man have you hidden it?' all the other Gods asked.

'Ah,' said Brahm, 'that is my secret, and always will be unless and until Man discovers it for himself.'

Thus, then, does the case stand with Man up to the present. Consider, for a moment, the pathos of the poor' brute's position. You all know the common formula for him.

'Born of Woman, on Woman designed to beget his like - the natural quarry of the Seven Deadly Sins, but the Altar of an inextinguishable Hope.'

Or, more scientifically (I regret I am not a scientific person), he might be defined as

'An imperfectly denatured animal intermittently subject to the unpredictable reactions of an unlocated spiritual area.'

It is just this search for this unlocated spiritual area, whether it be a growth or a survival which has preoccupied Man from that day to this. The Priest and the Lawgiver have probed and fished for it all through the ages; but, more than any other, through all the ages, the Leech, the Medicine-Man, the Healer, has been hottest on its track. He has searched, wherever he dared-openly or furtively-in safety or at the risk of his life.

In the early days the Astrologer-Physician, as he called himself, dreamed that the secret of Man's eternal unrest was laid up in the sun, moon, and stars; and consequently, since all created things were one in essence, that a universal medicament for Man's eternal woes would be discovered upon earth. So he searched the earth and the Heavens for those twin secrets, and sacrificed himself in the search as a matter of course.

Later, when the embargoes on the healing art were lifted, when, at last, he was permitted to look openly into the bodies of mankind, the nature of his dreams changed for a while. He had found more wonders beneath his knife than earth or the planets had heretofore shown him. And that was barely ten generations ago. Once again, the Surgeon, as he had become, renewed his search, and once again sacrificed himself in the search as his passion drove him. There is no anaesthesia so complete as man's absorption in his own job.

In the teeth of the outrageous, the absurd disabilities imposed on him, Man, the imperfectly denatured animal, who cannot trust the evidence of his own senses in the simplest matter of fact; whose evidence on the simplest matter is coloured by his own iniquities; Man, always the hunter, went up against the darkness that cloaked him and every act of his being, to find out what order of created being he might be. He called it scientific research.

It was the old quest under a new name. But, this time, the seekers who headed it, unlike the Priest and the Lawyer, admitted that they knew very little. Experience had taught them to be humble. For that reason their knowledge was increased. They moved forward into areas of the body, which, till then, had denied themselves to man's hand. They were bewildered by mysteries which some new marriage of observation upon accident, some predestined slip of the knife resolved into mysteries profounder still !

Is it any wonder that the old dreams came back ? The dream of the essential unity of all created things - the dream that some day that which men called life might be led into matter which men called dead - the boldest dream of all, that eventually Man might surprise the ultimate secret of his being where Brahm had hidden it, in the body of Man. And, meanwhile, their days were filled, as yours are filled, with the piteous procession of men and women begging for leave to be allowed to live a little longer, upon whatever terms.

Is it any wonder, gentlemen of the College of Surgeons, that your calling should exact the utmost that man can give full knowledge, exquisite judgment, and skill in the highest, to be put forth, not at any self-chosen moment, but daily at the need of others ? More than this. Your dread art demands the instant, impersonal vision which in one breath, one beat of the pulse, can automatically dismiss every preconceived idea and impression, and as automatically recognize, accept, and overcome whatever of new and unsuspected menace may have slid into the light beneath your steadfast hand."

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