A Biographer of Self-Deceptions
V. S. Naipaul was an old bigot. He wrote some good books and then took to bigoteering. Or so, one could begin to remember V. S. Naipaul as an homage to his own talent for devastating putdowns, no matter the occasion. (Naipaul’s essay when Nirad Chaudhuri passed away in 1999 began thus: “Nirad Chaudhuri was an old fool. He wrote one good and unexpected book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian , and then took to clowning.” ) To write a similarly uncharitable line — one filled with casual cruelty, an poison tipped arrow in the Naipauline quiver — is easy, Perhaps, it has already been written and is a staple wisdom in some quarters. What is harder however is to recognize that this kind of unthinking mimicry of other people’s thoughts that masquerades as sophistication was precisely what he described unsparingly for more than six decades of his writing career. The result was familiar: his detractors were plenty, their charges filled with indignation at his refusal to play by their rules, his admirers caveat any declaration of admiration lest they be implicated by proxy, and political forces opportunistically appropriate only to abandon him when his writings and remarks ill fit their needs.
But all that is to be expected especially when one is perched as high as he was on the greasy pole of world literature. From that zenith, for the past two decades, with a Nobel Prize and a Booker in hand, his armada of thirty odd books, by now dogeared and well worn in the hands of generations of readers, he was periodically let loose upon the new generation of the politically correct. He duly played the role of an irascible sage at anodyne literary festival where he provided the requisite provocations for the feminists, the liberals, and the all too conveniently triggered. From afar, one could only laugh at the periodic eruption of the anti-Naipaul cottage industry. One suspects, even Naipaul — whose genius for comedy in writing ran dry midway of his career — had a laugh at how easily the self-declaredly pious were offended. Yet amidst all these ‘festivities of insignificance', there remains the disquieting fact that by the end of his life, Naipaul had become a dispenser of sound-bytes that bowdlerized the hard earned insights from his own ambitious, many layered, unrelentingly observant, and carefully crafted books. Ever since his passing away on August 11th 2018, while reading about Naipaul, one is struck by the copious commentary that has entirely been biographical, which focussed on his early life in post-colonial Trinidad, his marriages, his relationships with women, and so on. Reading them, one needs to struggle to remember the unsettling grandeur of his books. To think through Naipaul’s creative mind and its labors one must try to sidestep, if not overcome, the the tyranny of biography imposed by others and the willful self-mythologizing he undertook to project himself as singular figure. (To a question by an interviewer in 1983 about his birth, he replied: “I was born there [Trinidad], yes. I thought it was a great mistake.”)
* * *
In 1924, the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a summer semester class on Aristotlelian ideas and texts at the University of Marburg to a group of students, many of who went on to be luminaries of modern philosophy such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, Karl Löwith among others. Later in the semester, Hannah Arendt attended this seminar and she was later to reminisce about this experience in an essay called ‘Heidegger at Eighty’. Amidst a skyscraper of metaphysical arguments that Heidegger carefully built, wherein they carefully read Aristotleaan paragraphs after paragraph, there remained the obvious question: what is one to make of Aristotle himself, his life experiences that informed those very pages. Heidegger, ever alert to any superfluous distraction, famously summarized his view on the question of biography: “regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died.”
For many of us, this Heideggerian attitude may seem like an extremely austere way to read a text or to understand a creative life — there still remains the open question: can we understand a writer’s output by studying his life? Naipaul himself, incidentally, had provided an answer of sorts in an essay where summarized a similar debate between the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and the French writer Marcel Proust. As is perhaps to be expected, the critic argued that the externally visible biographical elements of the writer told us much about the writerly life, its inner tensions and literary motivations. Proust argued that all this was academic blather. The book we hold in our hands is “the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.” Furthermore, Proust inverted the original premise to say that, in fact, it is the writer’s external self that is the “superficial self” and it is his books that distill the crystalline essence of his writerly self. In our media soaked and author-as-celebrity age, perhaps this is an instruction worth reiterating: read the books and not read about the author.
Naipaul himself however didn’t help in this regard. His foolish statements at public settings, late in life, which no doubt gave him the pleasure of thinking of himself as a truth teller, had the effect of a magician who progressively loses his audience. In this sense, in his last years Naipaul resembled the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who too would only be remembered by his legacy of his last days: a messianic, anti-modern, Christian traditionalist. But unlike Solzhenitsyn, whose life itself was an exemplar of moral courage, often braving the risk of assassination by the KGB, Naipaul’s life has been one of self-preservation and inching closer from the peripheries of power to its center. The risks Naipaul took, however, were of a different kind — an interior kind; his autobiographically inflected books were an effort to overcome his own recognition that “We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”
In this quest, the risks Naipaul took involved peeling layers of one’s own self-deceptions in the hope of arriving at a kind of self-knowledge that wouldn’t necessarily set oneself free but at least allowed one to experience life without filters. In his book, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’ the narrator, who is an immigrant on a boat from New York to Southampton, is alone in an upper class cabin, when a black passenger enters. In that moment, social categories are duly imposed on all — the black man and the immigrant. Naipaul’s narrator, despite years of heroic efforts to escape his provinciality at home, now comes face to face with the recognition: “I was ashamed that, with all my aspirations, and all that I had put into this adventure, this was all that people saw in me — so far from the way I thought of myself, so far from what I wanted for myself.”
Over his life time, Naipaul’s subjects in books and essays — he went back to them repeatedly — had five dimensions: his intimate self whose inner demands and deceptions he studied carefully [The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World, Half a Life]; his commingling of manners and comedy where charlatans, braggarts, and dreamers struggled to survive and eke out forms of social respectability [The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, A House for Mr. Biswas, Mimic Men]; his short novels or collection of stories that borrowed off real geographies and historic events which allowed him to explore the relationship between violence and politics[Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, In a Free State, A Way in The World] ; his portraits of different parts of the world at a specific time (Congo, America, British Guiana, the Republican Convention) where his principal preoccupation was both of form (how to reduce the chaos of the world into an orderly flow of ideas) and of content (how to represent the world as is, without preconceptions) [The Middle Passage, The Loss of El Dorado, A Turn in the South, The Masque of Africa]; and finally his large sized narrative accounts of his travels in same countries over different periods of time [in India — An Area of Darkness (1964), A Wounded Civilization (1976), and A Million Mutinies Now (1990) and in four non-Arab Muslim countries Among the Believers (1978) and Beyond Belief (1998)].
As is evident from this cursory list, Naipaul’s was a life spent not just in the company of words but also with direct sensorial experience of the world. To this end, Naipaul traversed between two great singularities: the disorderliness of the world that swallows all who seek to describe it and the solitary, and often lonely, pursuit of meticulously crafting books with its own inner logic and emotional needs. His early insight was to realize that the consequence of trying to portray the world as “transparently” as he could, with its warts and violence, would inevitably mean upending elaborate fictions upon which individual lives and social arrangements are built on. Naipaul’s literary genius, however, was to reverse this relationship. He demonstrated repeatedly that by chronicling the list of self-deceptions and self-promotions of individuals, one could indict or characterize entire societies for the same failings of individuals.
In of itself, this was not new. This contrasting of dire aspects of reality with pompous descriptors of the very same is a natural recipe for comedy. Writers before Naipaul — be it Evelyn Waugh in his critical social comedies or G. V. Desani in his “All About H. Hatterr”, a comedic masterpiece in style and range about a dubious spiritual search (published nearly a decade before Naipaul’s first book) — had mined this to great effect. Naipaul adopted this very strategy — low people, high talk — to a part of the world that had largely escaped such literary interventions: the West Indies. The results were his great early comedic outputs. However, when this same technique of drawing out sharp relief between word and reality was applied to the rapidly decolonizing world of the 1960s and 1970s, a world filled with empty slogans and self-aggrandizing claims, Naipaul’s tenor and tolerance for empty prattle changed. If the 1960s were a socially tumultuous period when many were politically radicalized, Naipaul took it upon himself to see through their ostensible claims. Whether it be the machismo of Argentina after Juan and Eva Peron, the kleptocratic elite of newly independent African countries, the vacuous and borrowed sloganeering of part time radicals in the developing world — no piety would go unexamined.
Nowhere did he do this more precisely and persistently than in his three books on India, a country that he realized had stripped him of his own illusions of being distinctive, if not special. (“To be an Indian in England was distinctive; in Egypt it was more so. Now in Bombay, I entered a shop or a restaurant and awaited a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality.”) The land of his ancestors in the early 1960s was a defeated and hungry country, living on American food aid, ruled by brown skinned ‘sahibs’ who were dispensers of borrowed wisdoms and not much else. More personally, India as a phenomenon to apprehend confounded Naipaul as an artist. He found it difficult to identify a form and tone that was commensurate with the tumult of his feelings. “From the railway train and from the dusty roads, India appeared to require only pity. It was an easy emotion, and perhaps the Indians were right: it was compassion like mine, so strenuously maintained, that denied humanity to many.” While he doesn’t mention this, Naipaul’s disgust towards India of the 1960s may also have been provoked by the identification of his surroundings with the debilitating squalor of his upbringing in Trinidad. His great biographer Patrick French describes Naipaul’s own house of upbringing: “a hot, rickety, partitioned building near the end of the street, around 7 square meters on two floors with an external wooden staircase and a corrugated iron roof.” Eventually, his writings from the 1960 became India: An Area of Darkness which was dutifully banned by the mai baaps in charge of protecting our cultural sensitivities.
By 1976, when he wrote India: A Wounded Civilization, the country was worse off in many ways. The earlier decades of poverty had been compounded by an explosion of socialist nonsense parroted by the elites. Morally sanctimonious public figures like Vinoba Bhave, who extolled the virtues of poverty and shrouded himself in a Gandhian rhetoric without Gandhi’s open minded intelligence to the world, enraged. His furies were directed at their wanton blindness that failed to see what was self-evident: a country of unrelenting poverty had taken to mouthing homilies to mask its material and psychological inferiorities. What Naipaul saw was an Indian middle class that was happy to enjoy the fruits of their privilege with a passivity that didn’t require any gift of perception about their own lives. Despite this, there is a sliver of optimism in his narrative when he witness “intermediate technology” and institutions like the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.
The India of 1989 that he describes n India: A Million Mutinies Now is no longer the somnolent decaying backwater of the 1960s, or the festering anarchy of the 1970s, but a country of great tumult. With tumult came the promise of personal liberation. Despite his conservatism, Naipaul was a great individual-liberty man. But the old enemies were still around. A new generation of self professed rebels who spoke in abstractions without details — ‘workers’, ‘villages’, ‘peasants’ ‘repression’ — caught his eye but remind him of India’s continuing affliction with intellectuals mouthing empty words. Along side there are vignettes with the underlings in the Shiv Sena, the Mumbai mafia, the Naxalites, the Maoists and so on — archetypes of discontent and hypocrises that generations of Indian non-fiction writers would return to, often presenting themselves as brave voices, often without acknowledging Naipaul’s own pioneering efforts largely because he had become an ideologically inconvenient intellectual forefather. Underscoring Naipaul’s observation in A Million Mutinies Now is also a certain relief that the lethargy and weaknesses were finally being shed. There is also an element of surprise that India had somehow managed to stick together through the murderous 1980s and stilled allow for visible improvement in the lot of its urban people. Despite this optimistic note, he notes that Indian cities are a difficult place to live and many of them are functionally alive but rapidly dying. and are incapable of any urban regeneration. More instructively, as if anticipating the groundswell of Hindu nationalism that relies on particular sort of muscular imagery, he notices that “out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country and pride and historical self-analysis.” These days, when one sees the visceral antipathy that many in the BJP leadership feel towards the Nehru-Gandhi family, I often think of Naipaul’s perspicacious three volume books on India that patiently recorded deeply felt humiliations that post-independence India subjected its citizens in the 1960s and 1970s. His genius was to realize that if politicians and intellectuals mouth words and concepts that were borrowed, shopworn, and moth ridden; another sort of vocabulary would inevitably arise. One that had little compunction in destroying symbols of the past and institutions that barely served them. Many understood Naipaul’s ‘million mutinies’ as expressions of personal disgruntlement, aspiration, and rebellion, but they failed to realize that in face of a mainstreaming of an older, more grounded vocabulary of Hindu identity, the traditional political calculus of India was ripe for an upset. By the early 2000s, Naipaul saw in the Babri Masjid demolition a sort of collective passion of history working its way through ordinary people who contested an history of secularism imposed from above. This, of course, endeared him to the BJP but they also knew he was too independent minded and much of an Anglophile to be reliably anointed as favorite thinker of the Sangh Parivar.
* * *
By the beginning of the new millennium, Naipaul had written two big books, about his Islamic excursions over a span of two decades, through the lands of the converted — Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The underlying thesis of both books can be summarized thus: “The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people — the Arabs, the original people of the prophet — a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and reverences… It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.” He argued that this internalization in the minds of the converted people that the Arab traditions were, all said and done, superior than their own pasts produces a form of mimicry and inferiority. The result is not just the abandonment of their own histories but a willful misreading of who they are and what their own past means. Some like the poet Iqbal in Pakistan come under fire for inflaming up an entire generation with meaningless poeticisms — “a new Muslim polity” — that ultimately meant nothing insofar as governance or building of institutions in Pakistan were concerned. Naipaul summarized his antipathy starkly: “poets should not lead their people to hell”.
In response to these books, there followed a barrage of criticism that earned him the reputation in secular circles as the enemy. Perhaps most prominently, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said critiqued Naipaul’s first Islam book (Beyond Belief) saying that Naipaul was prone to superficial readings of history, mistook facile psychologisms for truth of the situation, and perhaps most memorably as a: “mind-free body [that] gave birth to a super-ego of astonishingly assertive attitudes”. Others who followed in Said’s footsteps dutifully, but less elegantly, echoed the master and amplified the message more crudely. While for Said, Naipaul had never bothered to ask who were the true powers in many of these societies — a roundabout way to assign blame at Western doorsteps — or that Naipaul never found the need or courage to apply his powerful prosecutorial gaze on Israel. These, of course, were valid criticisms — but they tantamount to demanding that Naipaul write to conform to a political program. More subtle was the failure to recognize that the way to interrogate Naipaul’s writing was through an analysis of the form he relies on, of the choices he makes, the words (“corruption”, “desolation”, “simple” etc) he prefers to flatten out complexities. And there remains a little explored paradox as well — by summarizing the world as it is, by capturing the at the level of the phenomenological, is one’s writing entirely drained of politics? Or conversely, does one amplify the political structure and tendencies of the present. For Said’s acolytes, often in search of their private sinecures in the academy, it progressively became simpler: Naipaul was a Western stooge, lacking in subtlety, offering up interpretations that failed to genuflect to that old conspiratorial Stalinist sneer: who is truly in charge? In 2013, by which time Said had unfortunately died all too young and Naipaul was a doddering grouch living in England, he remarked to the writer Farrukh Dhondy: “Some writers who hide away in universities only write about the arguments they have had[…] They stay in the universities because they want security. And you can’t be a writer if you want to be safe.”
The irony, of course, is that all the while as the Left browbeat Naipaul for being inadequately sensitive, in the shadows of Khomeini’s revolution there flourished the first generation of jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al Zawahiri — who were more driven by Islam, more puritanical, and were preparing for their roles to spawn future generations of murderers in the name of disagreement over Quranic fine-print. When the terrible fatwa over Salman Rushdie was announced, while the rest of the Western intellectual struggled to comprehend this medieval diktat of the state to silence an author, Naipaul was barely surprised. By all accounts, Edward Said — the great interpreter of texts and valiant champion of human rights — had failed to see what was coming down the road. Naipaul, not a particularly pleasant man, and who may not have been the scholar that Said demanded he be, however had his ear to the grounds. Naipaul intuited the wave of Islamic messianism that was to emerge, particularly in countries with weak institutions and a ready supply of theologically furnished resentments. While the Left blamed America for corrupting civil societies in Pakistan and destroying Afghanistan by sponsoring a jihad, what Naipaul saw was the deeper substrata of beliefs on which these societies were built on. America may have been the match, but the desiccated trees of postcolonial Islamic societies of the 1970s to the 1990s, awaiting a fire.
* * *
For much of his life, Naipaul didn't have a financial safety net to fall back on. The result was he was, not just acutely aware of his tenuous financial situation, but also of the progressive need to ensure his writing wasn't yet another dollop of solipsistic immigrant writing that had begun to flourish in the 1970s onwards. In contrast, he went the other way. He went to the developing worlds only to find lands awash in nostalgia, in societies where memory had been abdicated in favor of an idealization -- either of the past or the future. In parts, such journeys and explorations were possible, because after every book, despite being well exhausted by the process, he would scrounge around and write to editors for assignments that would pay him for an essay or a travelogue. All this has an element of corrosiveness, the need to seek favors, to oblige oneself in order to garner assignments while still maintaining a modicum of independence. The result was a reputation and reality wherein many a friendships were sacrificed at the altar of self-preservation. Where others saw callousness, Naipaul saw these social norms -- the ones that came in the way of restraining his manifest destiny as a writer -- as another inconvenience he would simply overcome. In due course, all would be forgotten. Or so he thought. But the greater Naipaul's prestige rose, the more they remembered the slights and cruelty. It was, as he often described many situations, all very "shabby". Many superfluous things were said which, ultimately, were unnecessary.
* * *
Despite these hardships, there was no desire to return to the comforting mediocrities of a small sized society like Trinidad. In fact, by then, Trinidad had become a stand in for much that he detested. Not Trinidad the place itself, but ‘Trinidad’ as the repository of historical circumstances and social behaviors that, per Naipaul, restricted human flourishing. The enemy of this flourishing was not just Trinidadian society made up of descendants of Indian indentured laborers,, but more importantly the self-deceptions that people rely on to not just survive but also force others into similar artifices of self-representation. And no one in his life did he think deserved to flourish more than his father, Seerpersad Naipaul, a journalist, a minor writer and by all accounts a loving father. Seerpersad died in 1953, when Naipaul While alive, Seerpersad had relied on Naipaul’s progress in university as a form of consolation by proxy. Even late in his life, when talking about his father’s failed aspirations — the otherwise forbiddingly taciturn Naipaul’s voice choked: “as a child, I felt responsible for him [his father]. I saw his frailty. I wonder, [if] I would’ve been another person if I had a father I could’ve leaned on.”
* * *
By the end of his life, Naipaul had achieved more than he perhaps had originally believed possible when he had finagled a scholarship to Oxford. What Naipaul leaves behind are numerous successful examples on how to represent the world into words by relying on a certain kind of attitude about the fidelity of experience. Heidegger, in his Marburg lectures, called it bodenständigkeit. This is often translated as "indigenous character”, or more loosely, “original nature”. It is the belief that concepts and ideas can only be recognized for what they are in the context and grounds out of which they originally appeared.
As Naipaul repeatedly demonstrated any philosophic idea that is borrowed, transplanted out of context, often ends up as an empty symbol eventually to be used by charlatans to further aggrandize themselves. Implicit in such a worldview is a stench of stasis, an hierarchy and orderliness — some may call this an outcome of his Brahminical origins — with little use for transcendent claims of utopia in the future. This conservative view has little use for ideas or experiments in the name of social progress. His conservatism is writ large even in the literary forms he relies on. Unlike the two masters of experimental form who bookended Naipaul’s career — James Joyce and Salman Rushdie — Naipaul had little use for ‘new forms’ of writing. In fact, he said this search for new forms was born out of an “uncertainty about the function of the novel and [driven] by a conviction that the novel as we know it has done all that it can do and that new forms must be found”.
* * *
At eighty five, when he passed away, Naipaul had had tumultuous and cruel relationships with women including his first wife, but strangely for all that experience in the trench warfare between genders, he has little to show for as far as imagining the inner lives of women. In his imagination, while men are crushed by the weight of history, women are duly crushed by the cruelties of other men, usually their husbands. Wife beating was a staple feature in his early books. But beyond the cruel blandness of violence, Naipaul also imbued it with a meaningfulness that smells of truth in societies that still had one foot in agrarian world. (“Her beatings gave Chinta a matriarchal dignity and, curiously, gained her a respect she had never had before.”)
Women in Naipaul’s work can be clever, occasionally undermine men, but ultimately are shadows in a body politic dominated by men. In an essay on Argentinian creed of macho culture, he writes about the penchant for heterosexual sodomy in marriages, since even brothels of Buenos Aires wouldn’t cater to. Even here, it is not the women or their side or their stories that is of interest to him. For Naipaul, such sexual acts are a desecration -- "a parody of love", he describes it -- that allow him to be progressively appalled by a society in thrall of machismo which is a stand in for, as Roberto Bolano describes it, “a dramaturgy of blood and death”. (Bolano, who admired Naipaul, wrote later that he had tried to write a self-referential short story about Naipaul with the title: Scholars of Sodom imagining a fictitious Naipaul investigating the sexual practises of the Spanish and Italian working class.)
It is as if, despite his own knowledge about women, he was incapable of imagining women who are subversive, lustful, violent, and filled with an inner world. All of this, along with his intemperate remarks, have led to easy charges of misogyny. By all accounts, for an entire generation or two of women readers -- Naipaul is the sort of writer their male contemporaries wax about without paying heed to his life or his own words. The record however is complicated by the fact that while women are of little interest to Naipaul’s literary life, long before others, he had astutely noted in his Islam books that “old-fashioned tormenting of women” remains a major attraction for men who dreamed of an Islamic idyll — an unfortunate fact that the young men in ISIS repeatedly validated. As is to be expected, he was also greatly against women entering into some sort of burka or veil. With his usual talent to describe and denude -- he writes that these women, like the Invisible Man of H. G. Wells, "wrap [themselves] up to conceal a vacancy".
* * *
Naipaul leaves behind at least two generation of writers — mostly male and often from the developing world who recognize in his self-assessments the awkwardness of their own engagement with the West — who span the political spectrum. In 2000, when the veteran American broadcaster Charlie Rose asked Naipaul: “do you think about your own mortality”? Ever alert to needless pomp, Naipaul corrected him. “Why do you use big words?”. Rephrasing tactfully, Rose pressed on: “Do you think about dying?”. Naipaul paused and then replied in his gravelly Caribbean lilt which he never lost: “I think it would be a relief.” The next year, V.S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize.
V. S. Naipaul lived for another seventeen years, wrote a few more books, travelled in Africa and Asia, stirred up some more trouble in the name of truth telling, and ultimately, after raising up innumerable intellectual storms, V. S. Naipaul died peacefully in bed.
A shorter version of this piece was published in The Hindu on August 19, 2018.