"Jungle Book" fever

How a childhood spent reading Kipling's wondrous tales gave a writer his spots -- India, Siberia, Africa.


Peter Matthiessen
March 24, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Hear and attend and listen, for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my best beloved, when the Tame animals were wild ... and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones ...

What we are offered here by Kipling is a strange and fascinating passage into another world -- a world we know by blood and gene inheritance and instinct rather than imagination, a world of earthly creatures rather than imagined monsters, lost dinosaurs, Dark Ages dragons or even that delightful wonderland on the far side of the looking glass. As a child, I preferred the true real strangeness of wild regions on the maps to the never-never realms of fairy tales and myths. Yet in choosing which childhood stories most affected my life and writing, it is very difficult to set aside such true and simple classics as Beatrix Potter's tales (Squirrel Nutkin in the talons of Old Owl!) and A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" (Mr. Edward Bear, who lived in the woods "under the name of Saunders") and Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" (with its fond and foolish Toad of Toad Hall -- "Travel! Change! Adventure!") and its mysterious, exquisite chapter called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," which still seems to me a more profound manifestation of mystical experience than almost anything to be found in the "religious" literature.

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But the inhabitants of these narratives are old neighbors of the countryside, embarking on outings rather than adventures, often with picnic hampers, while those to be found in Kipling's tales are wilder creatures altogether, aloof, enigmatic and even dangerous. Though by no means lacking in invention and charm, his narratives are permeated with a feeling of the withheld and the unfathomable, which is not only stirring but a little scary. Something of that feeling is with me still, more than a half century after those stories were first read to me at bedtime, and long after most of their details have been forgotten. My instinct is that these stories are very near the source of that lifelong fascination with wild creatures and wild places that was to become so manifest in my own fiction and nonfiction.

But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all wild places were alike to him ... [then] the Cat went back through the Wet Wild Woods waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone ...

In Kipling's own black-and-white illustration of "The Cat That Walked by Himself" that accompanies this tale in his "Just So Stories" ("It was so -- just so -- a little time ago"), a black cat is walking away down a white snow track between bare black winter trees, and its wild tail is held high in the air -- one can almost see that black tail twitch in exasperation. This is how the black cat in my own house walks away when miffed, tail high and twitching, and how even the greatest of great cats behave in their wild lones. I have seen an agitated lioness on a low umbrella acacia limb in Tanzania lash the wood with her black tail tuft in alarm and warning, and a crouched Indian leopard in low grass lift its tail straight up and wave it stiffly like a metronome, snarling horribly because its hiding place has been discovered. On the other hand, a tiger in Siberia, imagining it walked unseen down a corridor of snow between frozen spruces, kept its wild tail low, all to itself. Bobcats and lynxes and servals are all bobtailed, but when disgruntled, they look as if they would wave wild tails if they had tails worth waving.

"I am the cat that walked by itself and all places are the same to me" -- that poetic and succinct statement of essential feline principles has drifted in my brain like a sliver of old song as far back as I remember.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Take the Jones case, which has become the flywheel of the
anti-Clinton operation. Starr wrote a legal brief on her behalf. That was before he
was made independent counsel, and around the same time Jones was making
guest appearances in Falwell's libelous "Clinton Chronicles" video and onstage with the
Conservative Political Action Committee. Since then, Starr's flailing
Whitewater investigation has constantly been rescued by Jones. She
has provided the rationale for Starr's G-men to terrorize the state of
Arkansas with interrogations and subpoenas relating to residents' sex
lives. The Lewinsky affair, brought illegally to Starr's attention by avid
Clinton-hater and fortune-hunter Linda Tripp, was transmogrified by Starr, with a cowed Janet Reno waving him on, into a presidential "pattern of obstruction of justice." That Starr consistently piggybacks his "independent"
investigation on the baseless Jones case seems not to have raised questions
of obvious conflict of interest in any of the branches of government, not
to mention our vigilant press.

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And what of the Jones case itself, bought and paid for by Richard Mellon
Scaife and various right-wing "foundations"?
Jones has absolutely no evidence that she suffered any damage
as a result of her alleged sexual encounter in a Little Rock hotel room
with Bill Clinton eight years ago. In fact, like Kathleen Willey, she seems
to have done rather well in the wake of her rejection of Clinton's
alleged advances. Moreover, Jones and her changing legal teams have
continually recut the cloth of their tattered case every time it becomes
blatantly apparent that her harassment claims will be laughed out of court.
Suddenly she remembered that she felt intimidated by Clinton when she went
to leave the hotel room. Not good enough? Well, how about feeling
frightened by the fact that Clinton's state trooper stationed outside the
hotel door had a gun?

Had this case involved anyone but the president of the United
States -- a political hot potato for any judge -- it would have been
tossed out long ago. In fact, Jones herself might be in the dock by now. As both the
Chicago Tribune and Salon have reported, money that donors thought they
were giving to Jones' "legal defense fund" (based on a direct-mail appeal
signed by Jones) was spent on personal items such as makeovers,
dresses and doggie care for her canine, Mitzi. As Salon
has reported,
a highly placed official associated with the conservative
Rutherford Institute, which is currently financing Jones' legal efforts,
has used the term "mail fraud" in connection with the fund-raising scheme, which allows Jones to skim $100,000 off the top in
the first year alone. No wonder Jones has displayed such doggedness in the pursuit of her case -- justice can be lucrative indeed.

Respected prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has expressed outrage that Jones' and the far right's get-Clinton project has been allowed to tie up the entire nation -- a concern shared by many Americans.
But don't wait for the nation's agenda-setting press to shine its harsh light on these conservative machinations. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the TV
networks seem to have no interest in any of the frauds, con games, money
laundering, lying under oath, subornation of perjury and other tactics
utilized by the conspirators. The Chicago Tribune's bombshell story about
Jones' possibly illegal "legal defense fund" was dismissed in a
couple of paragraphs by the Times as merely another piece of fodder in the
White House spin-control armory. Vicious smears against a sitting president
bought and paid for by one of the nation's leading televangelists? Yawn.
Time magazine was perhaps too busy entertaining the good Rev. Falwell
(along with an older practitioner of the Big Lie, Leni Riefenstahl) at its
75th anniversary bash to grant this story more than one passing line.

How is it that the "liberal press," second only to Clinton in the
extreme right's demonology, appears to have signed up with the coup forces? There is no one cabalistic
explanation, but as with the conservative plotters, there is a community of
interests. One is the need to cover up its shockingly credulous reporting,
especially by the Times and the Post, whose correspondents were spoon-fed
early on by elder statesmen of the anti-Clinton brigade, Arkansas division, and then by Starr.
Another is the Woodward-Bernstein -- or rather the Redford-Hoffman --
syndrome. Bringing down a president is a sure bet for a Pulitzer, not to
mention lavish book deals and movie rights. Inconvenient facts cannot be
allowed to get in the way of such rich rewards.

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Finally, there is a certain Junker mentality among the media establishment,
an aristocratic and arrogant self-regard. Exercising power without
responsibility, these media grandees feel free to use their pages and
airwaves to wage personal vendettas, vent spleen and cast out from polite
society the Clintons, those declassé Arkansas hicks who never sought entry to the Washington club. These multimillionaire lords and bejeweled ladies are
as breathtaking in their disregard for basic rules of their trade -- like
accuracy, fairness and diligence -- as they are sickening in their hypocrisy.

The most recent example is Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes,"
who told us in shocked, moralistic tones how his show's softball interview with Kathleen Willey was "incredible ... and leaves little doubt about
what happened." Sexual harassment, pure and simple, opined Hewitt.
Actually, the interview (essentially a re-reading of her deposition with
correspondent Ed Bradley acting as a human microphone stand) left a great deal of doubt
about what happened. It was interesting, for example, to note how little
effort "60 Minutes" made to contact Julie Steele, a former friend of
Willey's who claims in a sworn deposition that Willey asked her to lie. And
Hewitt also
failed to mention his own history as an accused groper and harasser of female employees.

Whatever the motives of the media potentates, they are quite right, of course, to report on Kenneth Starr's investigation, leaks or no leaks. They are
equally entitled to interview Willey, regardless of her
motivations, and to speculate on the culpability of the president. But by
ignoring the parallel story -- the concerted effort to bring down
Clinton by any means available -- they are failing to do their job. In its
blood lust to see him fall, the media is ignoring people who present a far
more serious threat to the politics of this nation than a man who might have insufficient control of his libido.

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The people featured in this parallel story -- Scaife, the "reclusive" heir to
the Mellon fortune; Tyrrell, the ultra-right wing magazine editor who was spreading
anti-Clinton smears before the 1992 election (I was one of the recipients); Falwell, a man who will go to any extreme to impose his religious agenda on America -- exhibit a pronounced anti-democratic tendency.
They never got over the fact that a man seen as so inimical to their
interests got elected to the White House not once, but twice. With Clinton's
election, the authoritarian conservatism they worked so hard to establish
-- articulated by Patrick Buchanan's call at the 1992 GOP convention for a
"cultural and religious war" -- turned to ashes. The loose anti-Clinton
conspiracy, in major respects, is a continuation of that war by other means.

Sen. Jesse Helms, an early string-puller on behalf of Starr,
once famously remarked that the president's safety could not be guaranteed
if he ever set foot in North Carolina. Coming from the best friend of the
late El Salvador death squad leader Roberto D'Aubisson, Helms' remark
should not be surprising. But it is nonetheless chilling, and is a perfect
example of the paranoid, fascistic mentality exemplified by the forces
determined to topple an elected president. The kind of American order
that these men have in mind is far from the free environment now enjoyed by the nation's press.

The next time the bewigged aristocrats of the Fourth Estate gather 'round Sally Quinn's Georgetown dinner table, chuckling at how they intend to cut the Arkansas hick's nuts off, they may want to think about that.

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Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen is the author of eight novels, including "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," "Far Tortuga," "Killing Mister Watson" and "Lost Man's River," as well as numerous books of nonfiction, including "The Snow Leopard" and "The Tree Where Man Was Born." His new novel, "Bone by Bone," will be published in April by Random House.

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