Naipaul completely ignores the effect of imperialism on culture
Stabroek News
November 16, 2001

Dear Editor,

It has been no surprise to me that all the writings in the local press in praise of Naipaul have come from East Indians. Uncertain about an uncertain future in Guyana, Guyanese East Indians are looking for a hero they can identify with now that there is no Cheddi Jagan. One letter-writer even descended to the level of analytical impossibility by situating Naipaul in the category of East Indian achievers, Cheddi Jagan and Rohan Kanhai. What immense foolishness! Jagan and Kanhai are prodigious givers to the Caribbean people; their feelings on race are virtually non-existent. V.S. Naipaul is anti-African and anti-Caribbean. But more of this in another part of the letter.

One supportive letter (by Mr Ravi Dev) took up almost a page in the Stabroek but after giving Naipaul a modesty which he never possessed, went on to unfavourably compare Edward Said with Naipaul, quoted at length what Naipaul said of the Caribbean, and inexplicably told us to become conscious of Naipaul's truths. Manifestly lacking in this long letter is any treatment of the essential Naipaul. Drawing on Naipaul's condemnations of the Caribbean, and by an analytical leap, making him into a political wiseman is far from satisfactory.

Let me quickly dismiss the attribute of modesty when the writer said that VS does not use the title "Sir" and his life is an open one. So what? Let's see how unassuming and modest Naipaul is. In the eighties, he began to speak with an Oxbridge accent which he still uses. Anyone familiar with the fantastic achievements of Noam Chomsky in lingustics would know that such an accent cannot be derived either from environmental association or residential endurance. Not to mention that Naipaul has been travelling extensively since the eighties and therefore does not spend a great deal of time in London. Interviewing Naipaul for the Sunday Times of India (July 18, 1993, page 13), Dileep Padgaonkar cynically referred to this Oxbridge accent. In that same article, Padgaonkar quotes Naipaul as admitting that he is an "unrepentant snob."

Speaking to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, VS exclaimed; "....if you don't like what I write, you're disliking me...I can't see a monkey- you can use a capital M- reading my work." During an interview with Bharati Mukherjee and Robert Boyers of Salmagundi (No.54, Fall, 1981), Ms. Mukherjee tried to extract his feeling about teaching at one of the finest American universities with the finest student minds, he responded: "Are they bright students? I don't know. I think it's bad to be mixing all the time with inferior minds. It's, very, very damaging." (page 4). Referring to Tony Blair's attempt to bring about a more equal society, Naipaul bitterly (yes bitterly) retorted that such equality will destroy, "the idea of civilization in this country." He went on to say that Blair's Government is creating in the UK a plebian culture. He exclaimed to the interviewer of the Independent (July 12 2000), " this very plebian culture celebrates itself for being plebian."

I will be very brief on his racist views since that dimension of his thoughts needs no elaboration. He explained once that, "Asiatics do not read, of course, they are a non-reading people. If they read at all, they read for magic...." On Africa he said that, "I don't count the African readership and I don't think one should. Africa is a land of bush, not a very literary land."

I find the rejection of the racist label by the letter writer bewildering. What is the truth? The letter-writer didn't let us know but he kept repeating himself about Naipaul's truths. What are Naipaul's truths? This will open up a large debate but let's stick to the racist label. Alright suppose it is true that Derek Walcott finds it hard to take the anti-Caribbean charges coming from an exiled Indian but why does that exonerate VS from the accusation of racism? It would have been to the letter-writer's credit to only reject Walcott's anger but to prove that VS isn't racist. The writer's arguments are couched in his peculiar semantic approach. For example, he says that Naipaul is not consumed by bitterness but anger. I'm not sure these psychological terms could be so neatly compartmentalized.

The aspect of this Stabroek letter that must not be allowed to go unchallenged is the unfavourable treatment of Edward Said in a comparison with Naipaul. In my opinion, V.S. Naipaul could never come close to the intellectual achievements of Said. Said's Orientalism is a classic text that is to third world studies what Platio's Republic is to political philosophy. Said followed up on Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism. Orientalism is a powerful, brilliant analysis of Europe's self-representation in terms of an oriental and semi-barbaric Other, and it details the successful imposition of that self-image through imperial domination over the third world. In Culture and Imperialism, Said is at his best in which the reader is taken on an elegant sweep through continents and cultures. In this work, he fills a vacuum that weakens Orientalism, and that is, the confrontation between imperial domination and the resistance movement. In all honesty, one would have to be engaged in vulgar subjectivity to think that Naipaul could achieve what Said does in these two books.

The difference between Edward Said and Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the one hand, and VS Naipaul on the other, is that the exiled West Indian does not want to see the organic connection between imperialism and culture. Culture and Imperialism is such a fascinating work that it irritates and exasperates one when the banality of Naipaul's outlook could be compared to Said's work. It will be a revelation to Naipaul's supporters to know the main-subject-matter of Said's work, and that is, western culture is massively, invisibly shaped by the single fact of imperialism. In Culture and Imperialism, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is brilliantly dissected and Said shows how the novel is sustained by Antiguan slave labour. Said claims that there would have been no classic European novel if it wasn't for empire. Said posits that the rise of the novel and the consolidation of national identity were subtly interwoven and that identity rested on the subjugation of the colonial "Other." He argues that imperialism depended on culture for its power. Not only is imperialism a clash of economic interests among nations, it is also a conflict of languages, customs, belief-systems. The "high culture" of the colonialists that came out of this clash is the yardstick Naipaul presently uses to judge the governmental performance of Tony Blair. When you read Said you are better able to grasp the psychological damage that has been done to Naipaul and why he is such an offensive writer. Everything Said, Marquez and theorists like French philosopher Michel Foucault have done in order that we can investigate the relentless brutality of imperial domination and the effects on post-colonial society is denied by Naipaul. What the work of Naipaul does is to deny the cultural role of imperialism.

Said and Marquez are Aristotelian thinkers who filter history and culture through political lenses; Naipaul is contemptuous of politics. In the Salmagundi interview I referred to above, he told his two interviewers: "You see, from the very early days I've been very careful in my work not to use words that produce the wrong associations. I don't use the word "imperialist" or "colonialist"...they are words that are used only by those chaps in the universities...." This is Naipaul's greatest weakness that renders his conceptualization of post-colonial society mediocre. Given this structural fragility in the man and his work, how truthful are his truths. And aren't his truths (as marxists would say) false truths? David Aaronovitch writing about Naipaul in the same issue of The Independent (July 12, 2001) questioned his grasp of contemporary politics. But Naipaul's grasp of world history and political history has always been questionable. For example, Among the Believers: An Islamic journey is based on extremely faulty methodology. After a trenchant and cruel examination of non-Arab Islam, Naipaul takes a fantastic methodological leap. He ends the book with a view that Europe, Japan and North America (hey! he forgot Australia) represent a universal civilization which offers the kind of tolerant society and creature comforts that most people of the world want. This is nonsensical political rumour-mongering. Naipaul knows nothing about Japanese society and fails to see crucial cultural and political differences among the European nation-states. The CARICOM region is a far more tolerant geography than many territories of Europe and Japan. One of the world's leading political scientists, Robert Conquest advocates that Britain pull out of the EU and form a closer alliance with the US, Australia and the English-speaking Caribbean, the three areas of the world he says are more democratic and which has a greater degree of legal democracy.

This has been quite a long letter, and there is much more that can be said to dent the supposed justification of Naipaul as a truth-seeker, a competent analyst of Caribbean post-colonial society and the possessor of the Nobel Prize but no analysis of Naipaul would be complete if we separate who he is from his work. Naipaul's work is derived from the personality of Naipaul. Two philosophers should best be used to assess him - Sigmund Freud and Franz Fanon. His work constitutes four periods (1) - the Evelyn Waughish comedy phase whose books we all read of which Biswas stands out (2) - The anti-third world years which brought forward the infamous An Area of Darkness (3) - The English period in which he became transformed by his rising success and began to scorn his background and which produced Among the Believers (4) and finally the fourth phase which sees an aristocratic, racist, narcissist Naipaul who became a disturbed man because he could not change where he was born and the colour of his skin. This period is characterized by endless media interviews in which he sees nothing good about non-white people and the third world. The last period gave birth to the book Enigma of Arrival, perhaps the book that betrays what he has become. These four historical sections are connected by one overriding characteristic - the belief that he is of superior quality and therefore does not belong to the company of the ordinary writer and ordinary person.

In applying Freud and Fanon to Naipaul, we find an unhappy, psychologically traumatized person who locked away his pent-up desires and eventually released them three decades later. How much truths we can find in the work of such a person, is impossible to determine. I would like to close with a quote from another Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In his acceptance speech, he told his audience: "Why think that the social justices sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?' I wonder how Naipaul would answer this question in relation to the Caribbean?

Yours faithfully,

Frederick Kissoon

Faculty of Social Sciences

University of Guyana