by Rudyard Kipling
The Spectacles From The Keeper Of The Images At The Wonder House
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
We'd like to start with a bit of an aside. It feels important to say that the mere fact that the lama calls the Lahore Museum the "Wonder House" (as do all of the local people in the book) and that he keeps referring to the museum curator as the "Keeper of the Images" or as the "Fountain of Wisdom" is kind of significant.
The lama shows such extreme respect to the curator as a fellow "craftsman" (1.88) of knowledge, that we can't help but wonder why might Kipling want to emphasize the lama's respect for this British curator's knowledge. What does this admiration on the part of the lama imply about the superiority of British art history and social science?
Now for our regularly scheduled programming. Do any of you out there wear glasses? Some of us certainly do. We spend a lot of hours peering at computer screens, guys—of course we're totally nearsighted. Anyway, have you ever traded your glasses with someone else? Or tried on someone else's lenses? Doesn't it make the world look bizarre and, sometimes kind of nauseating? That's why we find this whole scene in the Lahore Wonder House—when the curator of the museum trades his light, well-made glasses for the lama's clunky old ones—to be a little strange.
We guess that, back in the day, the technology for making glasses wasn't good enough to make the prescriptions really precise, so maybe it was easier to use someone else's? That's our only explanation, because Kipling was totally nearsighted—he should know better than to think that just giving your glasses to another shortsighted person would make them see better.
Anyway, the fact that trading your glasses with someone else is such a weird thing to do is not the only reason why we find this exchange so significant. The wise Lahore Museum curator hears all about the lama's quest and gives him three things: (1) some paper, (2) some pens, and (3) some glasses to see more clearly. So, literally, the curator sends the lama on his quest with sharper eyes. The lama says later that the curator has "acquired merit" (11.65) by giving him the glasses that have shown him the Way.
Symbolically, the lama seems to make this association between the eyeglasses the curator gives him and the curator's great wisdom himself, as when he tells Kim, "May be thou wilt be such a Sahib as he who gave me these spectacles […] in the Wonder House at Lahore. That is my hope, for he was a Fountain of Wisdom—wiser than many abbots" (7.68).
The great literary critic and theorist Edward Said makes a great case for the idea that Kim's emphasis on the British curator's strong sympathy for the Buddhist lama reinforces Kipling's overall political message about the positive, beneficial qualities of British colonial India. If you want to read a fantastic, thorough analysis of Kim and the symbolic importance of the Wonder House, check out Said's chapter on Kim called "The Pleasures of Imperialism," in his book Culture and Imperialism.