V.S. Naipaul, Beacon Against the Great Foolishness, Wins the Nobel
by Tim Scannell
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the greatest writer of the last half of the 20th century is some evidence that the world has regained its reason--though long not convincing proof of a full recovery. A cursory review of the record shows that, like drunks, Liberalism's social engineers, the self-appointed foster parents of mindless, unexamined polyculturalism, repeatedly fall off the wagon. V.S. Naipaul's steadfast focus (and constant worry) has always been the teeter-totter on which post-colonial tribalism faces off against the Enlightenment--Western Civilization's goals of reason-based education coupled with laborious efforts to level the fulcrum through modernization of national infrastructure.
For Naipaul, the yearning for ethnic roots--his own included--is delusional and detestable. In An Area of Darkness, he fairly runs screaming from the ignorance (darkness) of his ancestral Indian village (and relational hut). He finds modern life in the English countryside to be filled with like cruelty and bestiality (An Enigma of Arrival), not one degree separated from the disorganized tribal culture of, say, the Ivory Coast ("The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro" in Finding the Center).
He is no less appalled by the fawning worship and facile emotionalism at the memorial to Princess Diana, herself an example of modernity's hollow iconism created larded - by the even more empty-headed media: Where is Elvis? Who was the real Warhol? What would John Lennon say to us now? Wholly and properly disinterested in the ephemera of personality, Naipaul is fascinated by much larger and more important questions: "I try to find out how a society works, what drives the people on." (Newsweek: 9/16/81:110).
Let us dispose next of the pseudo-clash between Paul Theroux and Naipaul--a red herring. Ever since meeting Naipaul as a Sixties Peace Corps kid in Africa, Theroux has tried to garner spark and aura for his own anthropological junket-journals by preening in the spilt radiance of Naipaul's far more lucid, serious societal investigations. While Naipaul describes and evaluates objective engines of landscape and personality, Theroux's recordings (of his railway journeys, Pacific archipelagos, hikes in England, etc.) conjure crop circles. His books skim; they are paint-by-number expressions of the author's own moodiness, angst and ennui.
When the two met on a London street in 1997 (Theroux not one to miss a press opportunity (cf., his Sir Vida's Shadow)), Naipaul ended their 30-year relationship curtly, telling Theroux, "You take it on the chin, and move on."
No critic of Naipaul that I have read is an honest reader. Edward Said is an apologist for Arab terrorism. Derek Walcott, a Nobel poet of pastel Caribbean island patois dreaminess, is an apologist for victimization: "If the world that Naipaul has left behind [vide: Trinidad] for others to care about has . . . neither Art nor Culture . . . it is because none of that was given to the slave or indentured worker." (New Republic: 4/13/87:30) The word, "given," would make the proud, self-made Naipaul seethe. Walcott's Affirmative Action verse copiously integrates the rhetorical whine of Liberalism's designated 'victimized.' (Mine is not the only eye glazed by the sameness of multicultural plaintiffs for literary reparations. See "The Multicultural Melt" (Justin Quinn, Contemporary Poetry Review.) His critical writing on V.S. Naipaul, like that of many others, is all patina which ill-disguises a superseding ideological or self-promotional agenda.Naipaul forcefully asserts that the Great Powers played out the illusion of the colonial era: the Great Game. Of course, colonials lived their illusions as well, refusing Western Civilization's mental world (individual success) and unifying values (representative democracy). And into the cauldrons of a hundred native independence movements poured a worse chaos: of dictatorship (A Bend in the River), of terrorism (Guerrillas and In A Free State), and of medieval theocracy (Among the Believers, and India: A Wounded Civilization). Naipaul's thesis and conclusion are that loyalty to tribe and clan, pre-literate metaphysics, divisive language and custom, could never produce enlightened governance and have not.
In my view, The Overcrowded Barracoon, a collection of twenty-one essays (and do read the last first), is the best introduction to V.S. Naipaul. Here are dispatches from many ex-colonies, from tumultuous sub-continents to bereft isles. Conservative, but never disinterested, Naipaul cares for the world deeply, and for individuals poignantly (though unwaveringly pointing to any illusions in both individual and nation). His personal temperament, in forty years of writing, illustrates an obsessive thirst to observe, to unobtrusively tease out the fakir, the poseur, the self-imposed tyrannies of factions, in countryside and crippled nation-state alike, whose antiquated practices can only court disaster.
His own very difficult journey from Trinidad to Nobel dais is a supreme model of endurance, integrity, and self-education. About his struggle upon first arriving in England, he says with the typical understatement of true character: "One always had to pick oneself up and begin again. Always" (interview in The Guardian: 9/2001).
When Westerners reject the perpetuation into adulthood of adolescent attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles, they will find Naipaul an insightful read: stern, exacting, yet often comic. Non-Western readers will be persuaded that the universal values and reason-based education of Western Civilization are the only way out of benighted tribalism and internecine ideological terrorism. Surely, for example, Afghanistan's mosaic of twenty-five tribal, linguistic, and religious tiles will put Naipaul's ideas to a high-pressure test-- or, sadly, may shatter against his realistic assessments of willfully practiced individual and social illusions.
Naipaul's demand for a non-ideological, educated life is insistent and incessant. Even receiving after notice of the award, he gave no quarter, saying this at the opening of the Cheltenham literature festival: "The trouble with me writing about societies where there is no intellectual life is that if you write about it people are angry . . . forty years ago in India people were living in ritual." Deploring the illusions of ritual in every society he has written about, including America (A Turn in the South), Naipaul lives his ideal of the free, reasoning man:
Thus speedily composed, the opening section of The Enigma of Arrival is remarkable.
Each a compelling argument against the foolish way we live, all of us now, many of V.S. Naipaul's books will deservedly take their places on the permanent shelf of the Western Canon.
(Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer for this and many other magazines. He lives his idyll in Washington State.)