- Eavesdropping on Eternity:Kipling's "'Wireless'"
Of all Kipling's short stories, "'Wireless'" may well be the most devious. Many years ago the distinguished scholar J. M. S. Tompkins pointed out that Kipling had a tendency to lay false trails in his works.1 That shrewd observation, a much needed warning to critics, has not, however, prevented commentators from occasionally launching forth down a long trail that Kipling deviously has prepared that leads away from, not to, the promised land of accurate and enlightened exegesis. "'Wireless'" is definitely a case in point. Its particular false trail beckoningly invites a supernatural interpretation of the work, and a good many literary travelers have followed it.
One reason that they have is probably Kipling's insistence that there was something beyond understanding about how he wrote. Reading what he had to say about his Daemon naturally leads to the conclusion that he was thinking of some sort of paranormal phenomenon. He told his friend H. Rider Haggard that he considered himself simply the telephone wire through which the thoughts came;2 their source was that Daemon, the otherworldly voice who spoke to him from who knows where. Since in "'Wireless'" something mysterious apparently takes place that seems to have to do with the creation of literature, some critics have argued vigorously that at its most important level, the story expresses Kipling's ideas about the source of artistic inspiration. In this reading, Mr. Shaynor's experience in his "trance," that is, his calling up of "an induced Keats," is seen as an illustration of how, in Kipling's view, the Daemon works.3
Other commentators see things a bit differently but still with an eye toward paranormal experience. A good many interpret what transpires in "'Wireless'" as "channeling" in which the dead John Keats is summoned forth from the spiritual world as if a séance is taking place with the chemist's assistant Shaynor as the medium and the narrator as the [End Page 131] rapt observer of the supernatural occurrence.4 Somerset Maugham insisted that the primary subject of "'Wireless'" is metempsychosis: John Shaynor was actually John Keats in another life, and in the story he regresses to that past existence.5 Perhaps the most prevalent explanation of what is happening when Shaynor seems to be in touch with the spirit of Keats is that some form of thought transference is taking place, that is, that "the subconscious is taken over by some unexplained external influence aided by a similarity in physical conditions and struggles to reproduce the work of another mind which it has never known."6
These various approaches to "'Wireless'" all emphasize that something mysterious or even supernatural happens and appear to reach that conclusion because it is what the narrator believes and what he conveys to readers. He is thoroughly convinced that what he has witnessed has a supernatural dimension: the spirit of Keats has been called up ("induced") from the dead by a combination of powers and circumstances. Critics by and large take him at his word. They generally accept his observations, perceptions, and judgments as sound, and they seldom question his reliability. In understanding "'Wireless'" the most fundamental questions to be posed are these: "Who is the narrator?" and "Is he reliable?"
The answers most often encountered in commentaries on the story are that he is the author himself and thus is, indeed, reliable in the sense that there is no discrepancy between what he is conveying and Kipling's own point of view.7 Much in the story certainly appears to support the idea that Kipling and the narrator are one and the same. Kipling's interests and traits are frequently evident in the characterization of the narrator. For instance, he is fascinated with the early experiments in wireless telegraphy; so was Kipling, who reportedly had lunch in 1899 with the inventor of the wireless, Guglielmo Marconi, questioning him extensively. The narrator is an admirer of the seventeenth-century physician-astrologer Nicolas Culpeper; so was Kipling, who wrote about him in another short story ("A Doctor of Medicine"), gave a speech about him ("Healing By the Stars"), and mentioned him in...