We Can Go On, Let’s Go On: After the Twilight of V.S. Naipaul

by zunguzungu

V.S. Naipaul is in the news again for having declared that all women writers are inferior to a great man-writer like himself. Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates picked up a comment from Hilzoy on his post on the matter, which is a good starting point:

It would be a mistake not to read Naipaul…one of the best examples around of someone who is (imho) deeply worth reading, but whose treatment of both women and blacks (esp. blacks outside Africa) is just horrific. In the case of women: more or less all of his novels (before the mid-90s, when I stopped reading him) contain at least one scene in which a female character is subjected to some sort of extreme sexual humiliation. (I.e., male protagonist, who is her lover, is suddenly overcome with revulsion at her, hits her, and spits on her genitals. That sort of thing.)…[But] I would have lost so much had I just thrown the book across the room and never looked at Naipaul again. And in saying this, I’m not being nice to him, or something; I’m being entirely selfish. He’s one of the writers I learned the most from, I think, and I would hate to have been deprived of that.

To which Coates added:

What Hilzoy is pointing to here is not an embrace of blindness or amnesia, but the crucial importance of not becoming a shallow reactionary. It’s true that the The New Republic would piss me off when I was in college. But I read it whenever I could find the time, and I studied the people who wrote there, hoping to steal whatever secrets of the craft they brought to bear.

Which is all well and good, but incomplete. This is the question: is the fault in being a reactionary, or in being a shallow one? Naipaul, of course, has truly become both. He was always a crank, but at some point the case metastasized and he stopped being an interesting crank, going from an intellectual reactionary who grappled with his own psycho-drama in ways that illuminated the darkness to, well, a lazy bigot who was happy to be just as stupid as his projected hate and fear made it easy to be. His recent travel book on Africa, for example, is terrible not only because it’s racist, but because it’s so careless, because he’s so obviously just going through the motions. That it is saturated with crypto-racism is still part of the equation, of course; as Colin Murphy puts it:

There are the glib dismissals of various peoples: the rural poor of Ivory Coast who are “not yet a peasantry”; in Ghana the “idle fellows” surviving by selling bush meat by the roadside; in Gabon a passing reference to Chinese logging companies as expressing “the Chinese hatred for the earth”.

Then there are the repeated, thematic references to Africans as unable to control their fertility, their appetite or their waste. An orphanage in Ivory Coast brings to mind “Africa drowning in the fecundity of its people”; in Uganda he notes that, “given guns and left to themselves, they would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife”; at Yamoussoukro, mountains of garbage around the cathedral are evidence of “Africa reclaiming its own”.

In Lagos airport he reflects on the chaos and the apparent excess displayed at the baggage carousel, before being subjected to a mildly amusing ordeal of misunderstandings and apparent indifference by taxi drivers and hotel staff. This takes six pages. It has the wearied tone of the rants you hear in expatriate enclaves across Africa, from people lamenting the quality of their maids or the fecklessness of the local police.

But it’s there at the end that you start to reach what is truly offensive, the shallow failure to even be provocative. He sounds like a tourist, and not an interesting one, and doesn’t so much take courage in his convictions as he slumbers in their shelter. At his best, Naipaul is still worth reading; the sad thing about his latest book, in my mind, is what a decline it is from stuff like “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” which is exactly the same song, but played by a master at the peak of his skill with the instrument. As repulsive as Naipaul’s honest opinions may be, there is value in understanding the full course and progress of a mind with whom you disagree, and in coming to see clearly and directly — rather than fogged by euphemism and dog-whistles — where and how it is that the world you see and his are irreconcilable. That conversation of the minds is worth having. In fact, even in his latest being-a-horse’s-ass about women writers, the key line is his claim that “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing,” which expresses the same connection between the vocation (as he understands it) and the deep and profound meaning of a house which motivated his masterwork, A House for Mr Biswas, the story of a failed writer who failed because he lacked a house. What was different, of course — what made it a masterwork, I think — was that the failed writer in question was, unambiguously, a portrait of his own father, the father whose lifelong quest for a place in the world ultimately enabled his own ambition to be carried out by his sons, both of whom became writers because they escaped his fate of having “lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated,” as the final lines of the prologue lament.

Still, at a certain point, the returns from a reactionary like Naipaul diminish with him, and his myopic picture of a very small world centered on London need not be the totality of ours. This is the comment I wrote at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place:

Naipaul’s a great novelist. But the problem is not that we have no choice but to take the bad with the good here (the way there are relatively few magazines like the “New Republic” that you can actually buy). The problem is that there are more fabulous writers in the world than there are hours in the day to read them. And for every great novel you read by someone like Naipaul, there are ten novels that are just as great, in their own way, by people you’ve never heard of and that you’ll never read.  But you know what? Most of them don’t bring Naipaul’s garbage bigotry with them and taint everything they do with it. Naipaul is a great writer, but quite frankly, I don’t think he can carry Anita Desai’s jockstrap. Or Ahdaf Soueif’s, Nurrudin Farah’s, Leila Abouleila’s, Chris Abani’s, or Kojo Laing’s. I could go on and on and on.

In other words, this is a false choice, this “Naipaul or nothing.” We are not so impoverished for great writers that our only choice is to read someone like him or read nothing at all. The opposite is true. If you have the time, by all means, read him and learn from him. I’ve read four of his books and I don’t regret doing so. But as long as there are books I haven’t read by writers like the ones I named  — and there will always be books by those people that I haven’t read — then reading Naipaul takes time away from reading people who don’t see the world through a haze of lazy contempt.

The problem with Naipaul isn’t that there is no profit in reading him, if you read nimbly and carefully and thoughtfully. The problem is that another world is possible and inevitable, one that he has never known and which you will not know better from reading him. And there are so many writers who see so much more clearly than him — so many writers who will challenge your inheritance of passed illusions, in ways he never will — that to spend your time with him is to close your eyes to a great deal that is within your grasp.

The real reason Naipaul is one of the most famous writers from “the third world,” in whatever sense that phrase has meaning, is because he came along, brilliantly, at just the right time and didn’t challenge the myopic blind spots of a world long been confused by the humanity of brown people. Instead, he flatters it, and gives it sanction to carry on, or mourns its failures to do so. Like an astronomer wedded to a geocentric model — and requiring ever more complex additions to the model to keep it within an arm’s length of an ever receding observable reality — nothing in his world-view departs very far from the illusions of that past we had best find new ways to put far behind us. And so, I’m always of two minds with him: as a historically minded academic, I find his writings to be a fertile site for an archaeology of that past, as it lives on in the present*. But as a human being in the world, I jealously guard the time I’ll need to read the ever-so-many writers and poets and artists who can give us a greater and deeper glimpse of the world we’re already coming to occupy, the world that’s coming into being and in which Naipaul, poor lost soul, will never find a home.

* Though I must say, find little in a book like A Bend in the River that I didn’t find first in Conrad, and liked better that first time.