The whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant
Stabroek News
November 21, 2001

Dear Editor,

Mr Freddie Kissoon is most put out by a comparison made by a previous letter writer between V.S. Naipaul and Edward Said, and claims that Said's intellectualism is far superior to Naipaul's, (SN 16-11-01 [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ]. Such conclusions are wholly subjective but Kissoon then proceeds to laud Said, in an attempt, it seems, to instruct us Naipaul supporters about the work of the distinguished cultural critic.

It is subjective, too, whether one views Naipaul's criticism of post-colonial societies as a denial of the effects of imperialism on these societies. His refusal to pander to and patronize us, to excuse our faults, is the position of an intellectual who is not "there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant." The words are Said's, taken from "Representations of the Intellectual", the publication of his 1993 Reith Lectures which were aired on BBC Radio.

Naipaul is not an economist, historian, social scientist or politician, nor does he claim to be any of these. He is a writer, one of the world's greatest living writers. Every culture and civilization acknowledges the important role that its writers, poets and artists play in interpreting their respective societies and in allowing us to share in their experiences of them. They are often called the soul of the people.

In his Reith Lectures, Said speaks of Sartre and Camus as much as he comments on the works of Joyce and Turgenev, relating their role as novelists to that of "challenging routine, assailing mediocrity and clichTs ...." In the third of the series of six lectures, entitled "Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals", Said includes C.L.R. James and Naipaul in his analysis after debunking the "mistaken assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from your place of origin."

He writes of Naipaul's "extraordinary antennae as a novelist" and of his "sifting through the debris of colonialism and post-colonialism, remorselessly judging the illusions and cruelties of independent states and the new true believers ...." Naipaul is certainly not banal and shallow to Said but an intellectual whose ideological views are to be taken seriously. (Interestingly, Said does not include Marquez in any of his discourses on intellectualism even though his analysis includes dozens of writers from various countries.)

If Naipaul's challenges to our post-colonial complacency and mediocrity are to be dismissed as mere vituperative and embittered commentary by our own intelligentsia, we shall miss a grand opportunity to heed a bold and uncompromising voice from among us.

In defining intellectualism, Said says: "Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial ... your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship." Naipaul does not only meet Said's criteria for being an intellectual, and a principled one, but he exceeds it: he got the big prize too!

In his zeal to appear non-racial, Kissoon misses another point completely. Naipaul is not just a hero for Indian people. His talent transcends such narrow communality: Naipaul is a world hero for all who enjoy fine writing and even if all other Caribbean ethnicities wish to remain silent about his Nobel Prize, that makes us no less proud of Sir Vidia's triumph.

Yours faithfully,

Ryhaan Shah