My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Many readers of my generation were introduced to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) by a later novel, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). Ondaatje’s warmly lyrical and fragmentary narrative concerns three figures—a Canadian nurse, a Canadian thief, and a Sikh sapper—gathered in a ruined Italian monastery at the end of World War II around the bed of the eponymous burned man, putatively an Englishman but really a Hungarian count who bears the literal and fatal scars of a romance doomed by political geography. This “English” patient is a devotee of Kim; he instructs his Canadian nurse how best to read the novel aloud:
“Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen.”
The demotic thud of “a lot” in an otherwise imperious injunction suggests the limits of a style more concerned to sound poetic than to be precise, but the patient/count, despite his protestations, no doubt loves Kim more for its themes than for Kipling’s journalistic exactness, for he shares the boy hero’s longing to be without essential identity in a world bounded by religion, caste, language, race, and nation: “All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”
Ondaatje’s novel was once an instant classic and is possibly now a bit dated (though the British public disagrees). I don’t plan to ruin the glow of my first, magical undergraduate reading by revisiting the novel in its entirety—the copy I checked out of the university library to review for this essay bears an impatient student inscription on the inside back cover: “EXTREMELY SIMPLISTIC CONCEPT, MADE ‘DEEP’ BY PRETENTIOUS, CONVOLUTED STYLE”—and its intended service as an often utopian (though not facile) ethical and erotic guidebook for post-imperial and post-national living has been dealt blow after blow by 21st-century events, from September 11, 2001 to March 20, 2003 to September 15, 2008 to November 8, 2016 and beyond.
My question, though, is how could so up-to-date a postcolonial author as Ondaatje summon Kim as inspiration for a worldview that looks beyond nation and empire? Don’t we know, as Orwell famously put it, that “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”? Yet Orwell also allows,
During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.
And not just because “enlightened persons” belonged, says Orwell, and still belong, I might add, to a hypocritical “middle-class Left” who “have internationalist aims, and at the same time…struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.” No, anyone who reads Kim “slowly,” as the English patient advises, will encounter both imperial ideology and a sensibility much larger than jingoism, one that explains the endurance of this novel and its author.
Our hero is Kimball O’Hara, orphaned son of an Irish soldier living by his considerable wits in Lahore at the end of the 19th century. Kim is a master of language, stealth, and disguise, able to move freely and unsuspected among all castes, religions, races, and classes as he runs clandestine errands on the city rooftops, among the brothels and markets. An early passage tells us much of what we need to know about Kim’s (and Kipling’s) styles:
As he reached the years of indiscretion, he learned to avoid missionaries and white men of serious aspect who asked who he was, and what he did. For Kim did nothing with an immense success. True, he knew the wonderful walled city of Lahore from the Delhi Gate to the outer Fort Ditch; was hand in glove with men who led lives stranger than anything Haroun al Raschid dreamed of; and he lived in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights, but missionaries and secretaries of charitable societies could not see the beauty of it. His nickname through the wards was ‘Little Friend of all the World’; and very often, being lithe and inconspicuous, he executed commissions by night on the crowded housetops for sleek and shiny young men of fashion. It was intrigue,—of course he knew that much, as he had known all evil since he could speak,—but what he loved was the game for its own sake—the stealthy prowl through the dark gullies and lanes, the crawl up a waterpipe, the sights and sounds of the women’s world on the flat roofs, and the headlong flight from housetop to housetop under cover of the hot dark. Then there were holy men, ash-smeared fakirs by their brick shrines under the trees at the riverside, with whom he was quite familiar—greeting them as they returned from begging-tours, and, when no one was by, eating from the same dish. The woman who looked after him insisted with tears that he should wear European clothes—trousers, a shirt and a battered hat. Kim found it easier to slip into Hindu or Mohammedan garb when engaged on certain businesses. One of the young men of fashion—he who was found dead at the bottom of a well on the night of the earthquake—had once given him a complete suit of Hindu kit, the costume of a lowcaste street boy, and Kim stored it in a secret place under some baulks in Nila Ram’s timber-yard, beyond the Punjab High Court, where the fragrant deodar logs lie seasoning after they have driven down the Ravi. When there was business or frolic afoot, Kim would use his properties, returning at dawn to the veranda, all tired out from shouting at the heels of a marriage procession, or yelling at a Hindu festival.
Kipling lived in America for a time before writing this novel, and he admired American literature. If the influence of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is evident in the structure of this boyish journey through a divided land, then Whitman’s catalogues of an America that is itself the “greatest poem” are recalled by Kipling’s own rhapsodic accounting of India’s variety—India, like America, is “a teeming nation of nations,” in Whitman’s words. (And Whitman, too, made an imaginative “passage to India.”) What in 19th-century English literature can compare to Kim? Oliver Twist only has London to perambulate, but Kim has a whole subcontinent.
Here we come to the critical commonplace of Kipling’s divided vision in Kim: his affection for India and his possessiveness of it, his love and his imperialism. No one who wished India harm could so lovingly and patiently count off her beauties and marvels as Kipling does in the picaresque portions of this novel. But his attitude is not so much divided as reconciled in the novel’s aesthetics.
Note that in the passage above, Kipling refers to Kim’s “properties,” implying a multifarious self but also a theatrical one, and also to Kim’s love of “the game for its own sake,” an echo of Walter Pater’s l’art pour l’art manifesto that concludes Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). Kim is able to see and indeed to be all of India because he is an instinctive artist, a master of “negative capability”—and plausibly a budding novelist, a boy who could grow up to write this very novel, which itself inhabits vast India just its hero does.
If Ondaatje’s English patient wishes to model his post-national self on Kipling’s hero, who has no essential self (throughout the novel, he persistently inquires, “Who is Kim?”), he nevertheless misses that this psychic malleability and heterogeneity is available only to the novel’s white main character and not to any Indian. In short, the decentered self said to be the ideal subject of postmodern globalization is initially portrayed in this late-Victorian novel as a privilege of whiteness. True, Kim is not particularly advantaged except for his status as sahib—we are told, “Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest,” and Irish to boot—but such outsiders often make the best insiders, able to renew power’s senescent and routinized core with fresh energies brought in from the periphery.
Given all of the above, it is no surprise when Kim is recruited from the small gamesmanship of erotic and economic intrigue in Lahore to the “Great Game” of big-power imperial rivalry. Kim is discovered by his father’s old regiment, and his pedigree and talents are likewise revealed to his new minders. He soon finds himself fast-tracked, as in a spy or superhero origin story, to a life of espionage. The middle third of the novel narrates his training by a series of mentors, from the enlightened ethnographer Colonel Creighton to the crafty Muslim spy/horse-dealer Mahbub Ali to the mesmeric curiosity-shop-keeper Lurgan Sahib, all of whom marvel at Kim’s unrivaled fitness for a life of clandestine intelligence gathering. And Kim lives up to their promise: he acquits himself perfectly in the novel’s final third, when he thwarts a Russian incursion into northern India and swipes the Russian agents’ communications for his English masters.
Kipling’s implicit conceit that aestheticism and spycraft go naturally together—that a spy is a kind of artist and vice versa—chimes disturbingly in the present, on the other side of a century when art and intelligence were far more mutually entangled than many care to admit.
If the above were all there was to Kim, then we would be left with Orwell’s judgment: Kipling the imperial propagandist, the bard of the white man’s burden, a jingoist so thorough he recruits the entire idea of art to the side of the British Empire. Yet the novel is an anti-propagandistic, because dialogic, literary form, and Kipling practices the art of the novel so honorably as also to dramatize in his book a worldview that counters the artist/imperialist’s acquisitive worldliness.
This antithetical worldview belongs to Kim’s partner on his journey, an aged Tibetan lama seeking to be cleansed of his sins and impurities in the river where the Buddha shot an arrow to win the hand of his beloved. It is only because Kim sets out with the lama to find this river that he is discovered by his father’s regiment in the first place, and the final leg of the lama’s journey coincides with the needs of the Great Game, as it is on the road that Kim encounters the Russian agents whose mission he needs to derail.
Between these two coincidences of the lama’s spiritual journey and Kim’s political rise comes the boy’s formal education at a Catholic school in Lucknow, but even here he relies on the lama, since the old man pays his tuition. The book concludes not with Kim’s first successful spying mission but with the lama’s vision of all India, a vision that allows him to find and bathe in the river, cleansing his and Kim’s sins: he “has won salvation for himself and his beloved,” in the novel’s final words.
It would be simple to enfold the lama and his Buddhist outlook into the overall ideological interpretation developed above, to see the lama as just one more element of Asian diversity held within the gaze of the polytropic white quester, whether Kim or Kipling, and the empire that stands behind them, to read the lama’s tutelage of Kim as a Buddhist blessing on British power. We find such an interpretation in perhaps the most famous postcolonial reading of the novel, that of Edward W. Said (his essay on Kim appears both as the introduction to the 1987 Penguin Classics edition of the novel and as a chapter in his Culture and Imperialism ).
Said claims that the novel culminates in a doubling: the lama’s climactic spiritual vision of all India is the metaphysical corollary of Britain’s secular and specular enlightened rule of the country by the modern disciplines of sociology and anthropology. And these commanding vistas in turn are the form and content of the novel itself: Kim is Kipling’s total imaginative possession of the land to which he is otherwise uneasily, like his hero, both fond native and transgressive interloper.
(A brief aside: while I grant that the visual motif is Kipling’s, I do deny that literature achieves the objectifying, surveilling control that marks film and photography, and I worry that literary theories developed after the advent of photography and film too often forget that literature is both more critically distant and more transformatively intimate than these “transparent” representational technologies. Because literature is made of words, which have an arbitrary relation to the real, readers never forget that they are encountering a subjective representation and articulation when they encounter a work of literary art, in contrast to viewers of photography and film who may feel they are simply looking through a window. On the other hand, literature is made of words that sound in our minds and our mouths, transformed by us as they were formed by the writer; we do not receive them passively. Film and photography may be endemically imperialist, as Viet Thanh Nguyen persuasively suggests, whereas literature is always more subtle, protean, and subversive than photographic media.)
To return to Said: he carries his reading a step beyond even this indictment of Kipling’s visual control of the Indian landscape to note that the novel’s imperial setting accounts for what some readers might read as its optimism and others its naïveté: Kim is able to survive and thrive in his narrative, unlike other great protagonists of late 19th-century European novels (Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, James’s Isabel Archer, Hardy’s Jude Fawley), because he doesn’t inhabit, in Said’s words, “a hideously bourgeois world of corrupt mammonism and philistine taste,” but rather the open-air pleasure dome of a teeming, diverse country arranged by its administrators for the benefit of his race—and gender, for as Said also observes, Kim takes place in a man’s world from which women are excluded as distractions or worse, both from the Empire’s service and the lama’s quest.
While no one can doubt the importance of the political context to which Said alerts us, and no one can deny his identification of the sly pro-imperial polemic Kipling slips into the text—by putting pro-Raj sentiment in the mouths of several Indian characters while allowing on the novel’s stage no spokesperson for nationalist resistance—we should also notice that the postcolonial critic achieves his demystification by denying the novel its spiritual dimension.
My quarrel with Said’s interpretation of Kim, a colonial novel by a white writer, reprises my quarrel with Said’s interpretation (also in Culture and Imperialism) of Season of Migration to the North, a postcolonial novel by a black writer: in both cases, Said proceeds as if the novels’ spiritual discourses were incidental to their meanings, when even a superficial reading of either text would show their metaphysical preoccupations to be their impetus. As I said above, Said interprets the lama as dependent on Kim, one more aspect of the East relying on the West to understand its worth and administer its disorder:
But we must not forget that the lama depends on Kim for support and guidance, and that Kim’s achievement is neither to have betrayed the lama’s values nor to have let up in his work as junior spy. Throughout the novel Kipling is clear to show us that the lama, while a wise and good man, needs Kim’s youth, his guidance, his wits…
But Said does not observe that Kim equally relies on the lama. The lama’s quest bring Kim into the orbit of English power and the lama’s money allows Kim to receive the best western education. “‘Do not forget he made me that I am,'” Kim reminds Mahbub Ali of the lama. This is to say that neither aestheticism nor imperial know-how is enough to advance in the world.
Secular knowledge must rest on a metaphysical foundation, must be supported by spiritual power and authority. Kim is a remarkably gifted guttersnipe as a boy, but he cannot grow into a master spy without the lama. As for the novel’s other representatives of the religious life—the two British army chaplains, a foolish Protestant and a humane Catholic, as well a Muslim sorceress—they pale before the lama’s kind if sometimes irascible wisdom.
What, then, is the content of this wisdom? It is a rejection of the Wheel of Things, a wish to exit the realm of illusion, the meaningless and terrible “Great Game” that is this life:
[The lama] drew from under the table a sheet of strangely scented yellow Chinese paper, the brushes, and slab of Indian ink. In cleanest, severest outline he had traced the Great Wheel with its six spokes, whose centre is the conjoined Hog, Snake, and Dove (Ignorance, Anger, and Lust), and whose compartments are all the Heavens and Hells, and all the chances of human life. Men say that the Bodhisat Himself first drew it with grains of rice upon dust, to teach His disciples the cause of things. Many ages have crystallized it into a most wonderful convention crowded with hundreds of little figures whose every line carries a meaning.
The lama’s illustration of the Wheel is another analogue of the novel within the novel, but this one, unlike the aestheticized Great Game, is self-annihilating: yes, it is a representation of the great round of the world, in its all fleshy delusion and sinfulness, just like what even Said concedes is Kipling’s Chaucerian, Shakespearean, and Dickensian power of mimesis—but it is also a wheel from which we should strive to free ourselves.
The novel’s conclusion is accordingly open-ended: it is not clear at all that Kim will go on in the Great Game. Isn’t it equally likely that he will continue to follow the lama? If so, the lama’s concluding view of India is not like the imperial survey, as Said claims, but like the final view and farewell of a soul floating free of this illusory plane:
‘Yea, my Soul went free, and, wheeling like an eagle, saw indeed that there was no Teshoo Lama nor any other soul. As a drop draws to water, so my Soul drew near to the Great Soul which is beyond all things. At that point, exalted in contemplation, I saw all Hind, from Ceylon in the sea to the Hills, and my own Painted Rocks at Such-zen; I saw every camp and village, to the least, where we have ever rested. I saw them at one time and in one place; for they were within the Soul. By this I knew the Soul had passed beyond the illusion of Time and Space and of Things. By this I knew that I was free.’
Said quotes this very passage and comments, “Some of this is mumbo jumbo, of course, but it should not all be dismissed.” Literary theory’s fabled scourge of occidental arrogance dismisses a Buddhist vision as mumbo jumbo—check the etymology. (In the matter of literature, irony never sleeps.) It is almost too easy to turn Said’s methods back upon himself: how is his overbearingly secular control of the texts he reads much different than the modern methods of imperial management he decries? Imperialism, among other things, is the disarticulation of rival metaphysics, the confiscation of the gods.
Kipling has outlived his detractors, then, not only because he observes a dazzling panoply of characters and scenes and conveys them in an alert, incised style. He is not only “pardoned,” as Auden puts it, for “writing well” in a narrow or technical sense. His work has survived also and more importantly because his great novel is capacious enough to undo its own avowed ideology from within, to suggest that there are more things in heaven and earth than the British Empire.
‘Then all Doing is evil?’ Kim replied, lying out under a big tree at the fork of the Doon road, watching the little ants run over his hand.
‘To abstain from action is well—except to acquire merit.’
‘At the Gates of Learning we were taught that to abstain from action was unbefitting a Sahib. And I am a Sahib.’
‘Friend of all the World,’—the lama looked directly at Kim—’I am an old man—pleased with shows as are children. To those who follow the Way there is neither black nor white, Hind nor Bhotiyal. We be all souls seeking escape.’
Worldly power may depend on metaphysics, but metaphysics finally inspire us to turn away from worldly power. In its lingering intimation of action’s futility and oblivion’s peace, of the mystic nothing that subtends, encloses, and finally obviates the Great Game, Kim might well express a more thorough anti-imperialist sensibility than anything secular criticism can offer.