Doomed to smallness: violence, V. S. Naipaul, and the Global South.
This article traces the cultural authority of V S. Naipaul's essays and travel writing to his use of violence to represent and analyse the condition of the Global South. In this Naipaul may appear to be drawing on the works of other social scientists and theorists of decolonization /neocolonialism, but in reality he sharply veers away from these. Instead, Naipaul uses violence to promote a homogenizing and exclusivist vision of the Global South, so that it appears at once to be irreducibly distant and essentially different from what, according to him, is the core of human civilization. This faux-historicism is accorded substantial cultural authority since it is a crucial component in the triumphalist narratives of late capitalism and the 'new world order'.
Why Naipaul? Why now? These are more than facetious questions, given the reams already devoted to heated debates and analyses of the myriad aspects of the Naipaul canon. The Naipaul industry has been in especially ruddy health since the writer won the Nobel Prize in 2001. But there seem to be some good reasons at present to trace the development of Naipaul's representation and analysis of global violence, in particular in his non-fiction.
First, there is the writer's own (renewed) claims to pertinence and relevance within a global situation marked by endemic violence. During a BBC Radio programme in 2004, after the publication of his latest novel The Magic Seeds, Naipaul ruefully remarked that he had been speaking of the 'Muslim Rage' a couple of decades ago and had 'got very little thanks for it'. The events that unfolded on and after 11 September 2001 do not appear to be in any way surprising to Naipaul. Rather, he sees these as part of endemic global violence that developed over the past two or three decades and is 'Islamic' in character. It should now be amply clear that the rumours about the 'end of history' and 'new world order' that were circulated around the time of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 were, to say the least, premature. Indeed, the decade and a half since the initiation of this 'new order' may instead be seen as the era when the 'cold' war turned 'hot', with four major US-led wars (Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq again) and the concomitant saturation of the global environment with the violence of the so-called 'war against terror'. Clearly, a rigorous analysis of contemporary violence is urgently required. But given that Naipaul's analysis of this violence is in fact the dominant one in the Atlanticist world (that is, the US and its allies in Western Europe), tracing its genesis and blind spots is also, to say the least, pertinent.
Secondly, while the heritage of criticism of Naipaul's fiction is abundant and venerable, analysis of his non-fiction is relatively recent and mostly concentrated on his longer travel narratives. (1) In one of the first and most important studies of this aspect of the Naipaul oeuvre, Rob Nixon suggests that it is in his nonfiction that 'we encounter his most direct, obsessive, elaborate, and politically charged accounts of his understanding of the postcolonial world'. (2) Naipaul himself has commented that while fiction took him a lot of the way, travelling and writing about travelling took him further. (3) Nixon also notes the discrepancy between the unusual reach and cultural authority of Naipaul's non-fiction and what he calls the 'shallowness of its academic treatment'. (4) As the works listed in note one below show, the past decade has seen concerted critical efforts to address that lack. This essay sees itself as a part of those continuing efforts.
Finally, the questions raised by Nixon about the mode through which Naipaul's cultural authority as an 'expert' in post-colonial affairs has been secured is, it seems to me, still relevant:
First, given his standard evocations of the former colonies as 'barbarous', 'primitive', 'tribal' [...] how does his choice of idiom make his readings of such societies easily assimilable to imperialist discursive traditions that run deep in Britain and the United States? Second, how has he managed to reproduce the most standard racial and colonial positions while simultaneously presenting himself as a risk taker, someone who swims against the prevailing ideological currents out of fidelity to difficult and unpopular truths? In other words, how has Naipaul acquired a reputation as an unconventional, extratraditional writer while producing an oeuvre suffused with received notions about the barbarism and dishonesty of Islam, cannibalism in Africa, the simple-minded irrationality of Indians, the self-destructiveness of Black Power, and the inability of the Caribbean and India to generate real history? (5)
A host of mutually exclusive and hostile ethical, cultural, and aesthetic meanings have been assigned to Naipaul's work. But how can a writer be understood so differently by different readers and critics, and his work located on different sides of ideological and material divisions? This essay submits that this question is answered by looking at Naipaul's simultaneous engagement and hostility to a number of contradictory cultural, analytical, and ideological positions, and that this is clearly illustrated in his use of the idiom of violence. If he is said to be, at one and the same time, both the truthful chronicler of the despair and rebellions of the so-called Third World and the purveyor of malicious myths and misrepresentations about it, this is because of his simultaneous alignment with and hostility to the people and conditions there. There is an abundance of powerful African, Indian, and Latin American writings that chronicle the corruption, decay, and destruction of these societies after their formal independence from colonialism. Naipaul echoes these chronicles, thus claiming the role of an authentic recorder and transmitter of a global despair. On the other hand, the majority of the writings and writers of the Global South explain the violence and destruction that are their lived conditions in terms of colonialism, the political defeats of socialism in these countries, and the ongoing war waged by neocolonial powers and globalized capital against them. This explanation and analysis is intolerable to Naipaul and he refuses to engage with it. Naipaul is hostile to these nationalist, internationalist, systemic, and historicist analyses. Even as he chooses to accept and amplify the vision of Global Southern despair, he chooses to abandon and disregard any meaningful Global Southern analysis of it. Thus he can routinely claim to be simultaneously representing and misrepresenting the wretched of the earth and the conditions of their wretchedness.
This paper, then, will begin by sketching an outline of some of the critical debate about Naipaul; it will trace Naipaul's development of violence as both symptomatic of, and an analytical tool for, his understanding of the woes of the Global South in a series of essays written during the 1960s and 1970s; it will show how Naipaul transfers the idiom of violence to an 'Islamic' context around the early 1980s; finally, it will run Naipaul's analysis of violence against competing interpretations to suggest that the blind spots embedded in it are a result of his decision to accept certain essentialist, anti-historicist, not to say fundamentalist ideas about Western 'civilization'.
Temperatures rise when Naipaul is around. Take this press report about a conference in 2001 in Rajasthan, India. Passions were aroused after Naipaul, on a post-Nobel-prize-winning tour, interrupted the novelist Nayantara Sehgal during her talk 'Shared Histories: Issues of Colonialism and Relationship with the Past', exclaiming 'Why do you keep drumming up the issue of colonialism?'. He went on to say that India had been independent for fifty years and should stop harping on about the past, adding, 'Banality irritates me. Life is too short'. Understandably, this led to a verbal duel, with various writers joining in and the moderator, the writer Amitav Ghosh, being forced to adjourn the session. (6)
This cantankerous exchange is hardly a recent phenomenon. In 1986 Edward Said's comments in a discussion on 'Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World' ignited a famous and furious row amongst his co-panelists. Contrasting the early Rushdie with Naipaul, Said suggested:
The most attractive and immoral move, however, has been Naipaul's, who has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the western prosecution [...] what is seen as crucially informative and telling about their (Naipaul and writers of his ilk) work [...] is precisely what is weakest about it [...] the cheapest and the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies, myths that even Lord Cromer and Forster's Turtons and Burtons would have been embarrassed to trade in outside their private clubs. (7)
John Lukacs and Conor Cruise O'Brien took strong exception to this. Against Said's suggestion that Naipaul recycles the worst racist myths of empire, they contended that unlike most other ex-colonial intellectuals, Naipaul was not concerned with injustices but truth; and that if intellectuals failed to point out the true nature of the tyrannies and dictatorship of the 'Third World', they were in breach of their responsibilities. (8) In these heated exchanges the patterns of the Naipaul debates become clear: there he is, on the one hand, playing Cassandra to the doomed states of the Global South, dishing out unpalatable truths to people who want to evade their responsibilities by blaming the past. On the other hand, he has also be seen as the arch-compradore intellectual, writing, as Said puts it, 'to the Western liberal who wants very much to be reassured that after '"we" left [...] things got worse. To flatter a prejudice is not "simply" to tell the truth'. (9)
These altercations have been recently quickened by Naipaul's enshrinement in the Nobel pantheon. There is no doubt that the admirers and defenders of Naipaul's work have seen the accolade as the confirmation of what they have always known--the value and integrity of the writer's unflinching gaze at truth. A particularly energetic intervention has been made by Dagmar Barnouw. For Barnouw,
Critical readings of Naipaul's work have generally been divided into two groups: a strongly focused postcolonialist critique of his indebtedness to western cultural values that does not deal with the textual complexity, and literary studies of his fictional and non-fictional texts that do not deal with representational complexity, the text's connectedness to social and political realities. (10)
It is to clear this thicket of critical misreadings that Barnouw wades in with her critical scythe. Particular ire is reserved for post-colonial critics who, according to her, are blinded by their rigidly ideological vision, and have not only failed to read Naipaul with the requisite degree of sophistication, but also used their cabalistic hegemony in US Humanities departments to keep him off the university syllabuses. In contrast, Barnouw herself finds these virtues in Naipaul: that he has insisted on a historically situated, differentiating historiography of colonialism; that he affirms the Enlightenment achievements of secularism and a modern, complex, and mobile social intelligence; that he is appalled by Third World desolation because 'out of his own experience he can imagine them fully'; that he is accessible to the 'common reader,' and this provokes the snobs who populate academe; that unlike cosmopolitan intellectuals he does not construct the 'late-twentieth century shibboleth, the "other"', but is interested in questioning 'otherness' itself; that he advocates intelligent endeavour and the capacity for transformation in the victims of imperialism, and not an unquestioning support for them; and that he can see the problems as well as the benefits of European colonialism (pp. 1-51).
Much of Barnouw's work, it seems to me, is marred by contradictory evidence and caricatured exaggerations, and these are telling because they outline certain strategies in the culture wars over Naipaul. Barnouw praises Naipaul's mobile, non-aligned, inquiline movement between civilizations, and at the same time approvingly quotes another critic:
As Boyers puts it sensibly: 'there is something grotesque about demanding of a world-class writer that he hew to a party line or an ethnic perspective. He's been very frankly associated with western values and he's used that perspective to criticize what's happening in the Third world.' (p. 110)
Leaving aside the profoundly undifferentiated and dehistoricized notion of 'western values' for the moment, in what way is Naipaul's 'frank' association with these values not already a 'party line'? Similarly, Barnouw repeatedly contrasts Naipaul's historicized consciousness to the ideological blindness of post-colonialists, and then describes Among the Believers as his first exploration of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran--'the explosive clash between religious and political traditionalism and technocratic progressivism' (p. 54). It takes a quite staggering amount of counterfactual wilfulness to portray the Shah's Iran as technocratic or progressive, especially after the valuable studies of Iranian revolution by historians such as Roy Mottadeah. (11) Barnouw then writes of Pakistan that 'what by Western standards is considered corruption has been common practice in Pakistan since the inception of the Muslim state' (p. 75). Any intellectual value this sentence may have had is lost by Barnouw's failure to tell us that what is, by 'Western' standards, corruption was in fact common and institutionalized practice in the 'West' long before Pakistan came into being, thereby making redundant any comparative perspective that can be employed in a commentary on the Islamic state. When Barnouw attacks the migrant postcolonial intellectual for silencing the 'others' in their very act of representing them, she prefers to forget that she has just done the same, when she, as a senior US academic, has purported to speak for the 'common reader'. As the earlier sample of 'non-academic' reportage from the Indian media shows, the 'common readers' have scarcely been united in their admiration for Naipaul's work.
In truth, Barnouw's reduction of Naipaul's academic critics into intellectually stunted post-colonials and dehistoricized 'literary' readers is not a little simplistic. When the Indian historian Shahid Amin analyses Naipaul's construction of the Muslim to show how his is a search for ahistorical sacredness and not historical understanding, this is not a 'post-colonial' position. When Akash Kapur shows how, in his idea of a primordial Indian national identity that must be reclaimed from the obscurity of Muslim rule, Naipaul exhibits structural kinship with Hindu fundamentalism, he is far from a dehistoricized critic. The critic and writer Amitava Kumar would surely kindle Barnouw's wrath as a migrant 'Third World' intellectual working in the US, but his reading of Naipaul is politically and materially situated:
In his thinking, it is liberalism and not the destruction of the welfare-state that needs to be blamed for many of the ills of the society in which he finds himself a reluctant citizen. This is wrong thinking, but it also involves, on Naipaul's part, a kind of amnesia. (12)
The reasons I think Barnouw's book is a good representive of the Naipaul debate is because it outlines both the current critical positions on Naipaul and their various pitfalls. These have formed and hardened within the context of an endemic global violence that has been frameworked by the theses of 'clash of civilizations' and 'culture wars'. I want, therefore, to see whether turning to the representation and analyses of violence in Naipaul's essays helps in a proper appreciation of his vision.
Violence and violation have always been crucial to Naipaul's experience and representation of the Global South, be it the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Caribbean islands, Latin America, or South-East Asia. The opening exchanges in his essay 'Jamshed into Jimmy' (1963) is typical Naipaul:
'You've come to Calcutta at the wrong time', the publisher said. 'I very much fear that the dear old city is slipping into bourgeois respectability almost without a fight'.
'Didn't they burn a tram the other day?' I asked.
'True. But that was the first tram for five years'. (WW, p. 5)
Naipaul would later talk about how the dereliction and 'many layers of wretchedness' of India had caught him unprepared (LO, p. 21). But violence was the spice that made this taste of wretchedness linger. Naipaul sees it etched in the very architecture of the Raj: 'In India the confrontation of East and West was nowhere more violent than in Calcutta, and two buildings, both now regarded as monuments, speak of this violence: the Mullick Palace and the Victoria Memorial' (WW, pp. 10-11). He sees in Indians an attitude of frenzied plundering, and this impression of endemic, seemingly random violence will remain Naipaul's preferred key to an understanding of India, as the title of his book about a much later journey there, A Million Mutinies Now, reveals.
Violence also saturates Naipaul's Caribbean. In 'Papa and the Power Set' (1969) he notices how in Basseterre bullet marks on the walls of a police hut ('many shots were fired but no one was killed') are preserved as a national monument that feeds the myth of presidential invulnerability (WW, pp. 76-77). He sees the Trinidad carnival primarily in terms of an atavistic outpouring of lunacy and terror: 'this year there was a twist. After the carnival there were Black Power disturbances. After the masquerade and the music, anger and terror. In a way it makes sense' (WW, pp. 134-35). Perhaps his most elaborate statement on the 'mindless' violence of the Caribbean is made in 'Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power' (1979), where he chronicles a series of murders that took place in one of the Black Power revolutionary communes:
But the ground had given up its dead. Six men were charged with the two murders. Five were Trinidadian; one was American [...] Jamal gave interviews, and now he was as sober and anxious to survive as anybody else. He spoke of 'the atmosphere of violence' at the commune; he said he was lucky to be alive [...] So, in sobriety and self-absolution, the Malik commune ended. (WW, p. 148).
For Naipaul the macabre events at the Black Power commune summed up not only a particular Caribbean malaise, but also an essence of the Global South.
Violence and blackness, violence and race--these themes reach a predictable pitch in Naipaul's writings on Africa. Like India, Mobutu's Africa resonates with words of terror and 'simple official plunder' (WW, p. 209). A scene that becomes a metaphor for the sheer atavistic violence of Africa is the one where Naipaul witnesses the feeding of the 'royal' crocodiles in Yamoussoukro:
Again the bird was thrown. Again the jaws snapped; again the bird escaped. But now the clucking calls had brought from the water on the sand a crocodile even bigger and older than the other two [...] His teeth looked stained and worn. The chicken's limp neck was placed on the iron rail; the feeder began to bring down his knife. I didn't look. (WW, p. 278)
In 'The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro' (1982-83) decay, corruption, futility, nihilism, are all bound up in the description of an act of ritual violence. Naipaul's act of averting his gaze at the last moment is a testimony to the unbearable nature of this endemic violence, rather than to any vegetarian instincts.
The writer travels in an insurrectionary world. He catches something of the despair and bitterness of the former men of empire. One of them, Jacques Soustelle, who led the French fight to keep Algeria as its colony, explains that Europe has been provincialized because of its withdrawal from Africa, that France had yielded to the 'idol' of decolonization, which was responsible for converting the low cultures of Black Africa into a poussiere of petty dictatorships (WW, p. 308). After hearing Soustelle, Naipaul describes the Algerian war of independence as a macabre dance of death:
When it was over in 1962, the French had lost 14,000 men, the insurgents 140,000; 3,000 European civilians had been killed, 30,000 Arabs [...] To hand the country over to a terrorist faction would have been irresponsible, illiberal and stupid [...] The million colons have left; one Algerian dictatorship has been replaced by another. Arab Algeria sinks; an idea of France has been destroyed. (WW, p. 312)
In Argentina Naipaul sees deluded middle-class guerrillas and a brutal army locked in violent embrace, a society dictated by the rules of revenge and torture: 'No pattern can any longer be discerned in the terror. It isn't only the guerrillas and the union men and the country's few intellectuals who are threatened. Anyone can be picked up. Torture is routine' (WW, p. 393). Although he will call the endemic violence of the Global South 'patternless', this is a rhetorical sleight of hand in Naipaul's writing. Again and again he will devote entire stretches of his writing to the analysis of this persistence and pernicious nature of violence.
For Naipaul violence in the former colonies arises out of their derivative or mimic nature. His first encounter with India was undoubtedly traumatic--'I felt I was in a continent where, separate from the rest of the world, a mysterious calamity had occurred' (LO, p. 21). If violence is the visible face of this calamity, it also offers Naipaul a glimpse of deeper miseries. In 'In the Middle of the Journey' (1962) he finds in the plundering frenzy of the Indians an attitude of the conquerors: 'this attitude of plundering is that of the immigrant colonial society. It has bred, as in Trinidad, the pathetic philistinism of the reconcant' (WW, p. 6). This philistinism, this mimicking of the European colonizers, indicates a severely depleted stock of national cultural capital and leads to fatal, enraging dependency--'Incapable of lasting reform, or of a correct interpretation of the new world, India is, profoundly, dependent' (WW, p. 30).
The former colonies are, then, essentially parasitic in nature. In 'The Overcrowded Barracoon' (1972) Naipaul sees this in Madagascar:
Colonialism is a destructive institution. It creates parasites and hangers-on. And they are still with us--people of all races who profited from the stay in this country of a foreign power. I don't know whether they've completely reconciled themselves to the changes. (WW, p. 133)
Perhaps he is at his most corrosive and dismissive when he describes the Caribbean 'dependency':
The island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way they will continue to be half-made societies of the dependent people, the Third World's third world. They will forever consume; they will never create. (WW, pp.137-38)
This dependency has catastrophic consequences for all the revolutionary movements of the Third World. The violence, for Naipaul, becomes directionless not transformative. Like the compradore elites, the revolutionaries of the former colonies are hamstrung by their hollow mimicry. Michael X and his murderous commune become a metaphor for all Third World revolutions:
Revolution, change, system: London words, London abstractions, capable of supporting any meaning Malik [...] chose to give them [...] It was in London that Malik became a Negro [...] He was shallow and unoriginal; but he sensed that in England, provincial, rich and very secure, race was, to Right and Left, a topic of entertainment. And he became an entertainer. (WW, pp. 153-55)
Third World revolutionaries, then, play at revolution and, in the absence of any genuine aims, with murderous consequences. Some of Naipaul's most detailed analyses of this condition are to be found in his essays on Argentina and Grenada--'Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron, 1972-1991' (1991) and 'Heavy Manners in Grenada' (1984). After the kidnapping and killing of General Sanchez, notorious as a torturer and commander of the Argentinian Second Army Corps, Naipaul writes of these mimic guerrillas:
The guerrillas look for their inspiration to the north. From Paris of 1968 there is the dream of students and workers uniting to defeat the enemies of 'the people'. The guerrillas have simplified the problems of Argentina [...] they have identified the enemy: the police. (WW, p. 349)
Like Michael X, whose revolution is a perverse entertainment for the Global North, Argentines play at mimicking northern discontent: 'And I never thought the Argentine guerrillas had a good enough cause [...] They were educated, secure, middle-class people [...] yet, barely arrived at privilege, they were--as it seemed to me--trying to pull their house down' (WW, p. 404).
Similarly, after the US invasion of Grenada, Naipaul can find only the ruins of a mimic revolution:
The New Jewel Movement, founded in 1972, represented the first educated generation in Grenada [...] It was a full socialist revolution, Cuba became Grenada's ally; imperialism became Grenada's enemy [...] As the mimicry was perfected, so the excitement grew among the faithful in many countries [...] the mimicry was like the proof of the naturalness and rightness of the cause [...] It was the story of a retarded island community hijacked by people slightly more educated into the forms of a grandiose revolution. (WW, pp. 464-70)
As plotted by Naipaul, this mimic revolution then inevitably ends in internecine violence--'the revolution blew away; and what was left in Grenada was a murder story'.
The mimicry of the maimed nations and their incapacity for intellectually regenerating themselves lead to, in Naipaul's equation, a destructive rage. In the essays of the 1960s and 1970s Naipaul liberally adds the spectres of 'race' and 'culture' to explain this degradation further. The lower the stock of 'racial culture', the more its propensity to mimic the more highly organized societies (namely, those of the 'West'), and the more its rage and violence at the inability to become these higher forms of life. After his first 'Islamic' journey, Naipaul would add this dimension to his reading of global violence.
Naipaul's early representations of African and Afro-Caribbean societies are already blueprints for this analytical mode. After independence from Western colonial powers, these societies regress to a cult of the folk hero: 'The Negro folk leader is a peasant leader [...] They are linked forever to the primitives who were the source of their original power. They are doomed to smallness' (WW, pp. 79-80). This leader, then, inevitably takes on an authoritarian role, as seen in the case of Mobutu: 'these--the cap and the stick--are the emblems of his African chieftaincy. Only the chief can kill the leopard [...] when the chief sets his stick on the ground the people fall silent and the chief gives his decision' (WW, p. 206). This regression into 'primitive terror' and oppression occurs because culturally these societies can harness only a mythic memory of Africa as the source of their identity, and this is no match for the new and complex realities of the post-colonial condition. Their 'culture' is akin to a primitive religion and for Naipaul, is opposed to the enlightenment bestowed by the superior education of Europe:
The idea of African completeness should not have surprised me. Something like this, a similar religious feeling, was, fleetingly, at the back of many of the slave revolts in the Caribbean [...] Many of the recent political movements in the black Caribbean have had a millenarian, ecstatic, purely African side. (WW, p. 231)
This inferiority sabotages movements like Black Power, which are doomed to degenerate into anger and terror because of the dislocation between its contemporary reality and themythic (or anti-modern) source of its integrity and identity. This also makes it impossible for the people of these societies not to fall prey to imported and misunderstood ideas and ideals from the Global North. Michael X becomes a 'Negro' in London, a panderer to British fantasies about race. He returns to Trinidad, bringing that fantasy of revolution and resistance with him, promising a return to African purity when 'Malik's Negro was, in fact, a grotesque: not American, not West Indian, but an American caricatured by a red man from Trinidad for a British audience' (WW, pp. 161-62). This hollowness of Black Power movements betrays the larger cultural hollowness of black societies and traps them in a cycle of rage and violence, as Naipaul points out after Black Power troubles during the Trinidad carnival--'Excitement! And perhaps this excitement is the only liberation that is possible. Black power in these islands is protest. But there is no enemy. The enemy is the past' (WW, p. 137). In the absence of real enemies, the violence is self-mutilating and suicidal.
Such rage and deluded religious ecstasy can also be seen in other 'mixed' and 'second-hand' societies, like mestizo Argentina. Like the Caribbean, Argentina was built on the back of a genocidal displacement of the native Indian inhabitants. Like the Caribbean, it attracted European immigrants, who built a 'simple colonial society created in the most rapacious and decadent phase of imperialism' (WW, p. 388). Like the black Caribbean, mestizo Argentina yearns for a whole identity, and in its absence can only turn to rage and self-mutilation. Its most successful politicians will only inflame this wound:
It was Peron's gift or genius to tap all that rage, the rage not only of the European immigrants and their children, most of them workers [...] the rage also of the dispossessed Indians in the north, the dispossessed in the regions that were not serviced by the new wealth. (WW, p. 421)
If the Trinidad carnival is, amongst other things, a primitive religious cult, so is the cult of Eva Peron--'Saint Evita' in Argentina: 'And they have a saint: Eva Peron [...] She preached a simple hate and a simple love [...] a child's vision of power, justice and revenge' (WW, p. 354). The African cult of the leader is also the mestizo cult of the saints.
By the time he came to the 'converted' Islamic lands in the late 1970s, then, Naipaul had a fully formed and increasingly rigid understanding of the Global Southern states: that their stock of cultural and intellectual capital was low or nonexistent; that their material and non-material needs were met by imports from the West; that their resultant state of agitation, inferiority, and rage was violent and self-mutilating. In Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, he would largely retain this interpretative framework. To these he would add his specific understanding of Islamic imperialism. In a talk given at the Manhattan Institute of New York on 'Our Universal Civilisation' in 2001, he spoke about his first encounters with the 'alienated peoples' of Islamic societies far from the Arab heartlands:
The Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent [...] I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves. Because I was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. (WW, pp. 507-08)
In Naipaul's thinking, the areas of the Global South like the Caribbean islands, Latin America, and Africa have had a predominantly European colonial experience, and the damages they suffered are held in balance with the benefits they had accrued from the post-Enlightenment 'universal civilization'. But the countries of central, southern, and South-East Asia have had the misfortune of being coated with an added layer of a more pernicious (and, in most cases, older) colonialism--that of Islam. In addition to the factors already mentioned, this further retards their chances of participating in the 'universal civilization' emanating from Europe and North America. This makes them more deprived, more anxious, more violent:
I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world [...] This anxiety, this meeting of the two opposed worlds, the outgoing world of Europe and the closed world of the faith, was spotted a hundred years ago by the writer Joseph Conrad. (WW, pp. 512-13)
All the elements of his essays on the violence and deprivation of the nonIslamic Global South are present in his two book-length narratives of 'Islamic' journeys--mimicry, dependence, cultural/material poverty, anxiety, and violence. Much like Michael X, The New Jewel Movement, and the Argentine guerrillas, the Iranian revolution, the Baluchi insurrections in Pakistan, and Fundamentalist movements in Indonesia are built by people of 'simple origins, simply educated, but with a great sneering pride'. (13) This pride is especially irritating for Naipaul because it is in stark contrast to what he sees as immense cultural poverty. About Indonesia he writes:
Sustained great writing, rather than polemic, can only come out of societies that offer true human possibility; and in Indonesia we have, instead, a pastoral people who have lost their history [...] are without the means--the education, the language, and above all the freedom--to reflect. (BB, p. 79)
In Pakistan he scolds a man who wants to reclaim some of the burden of representing his country from 'Western' media: '"Do you think the Americans and Canadians should be travelling around talking to us about third world media?" "Yes. They know what newspapers should do. You wouldn't be able to tell us much"' (AB, p. 188). Such cultural poverty is analogous to the material poverty of the people--the former can be said to lead to the latter--and makes the Islamic nations dependent:
The West, or the universal civilization it leads, is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens. But at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes [...] All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. (AB, p. 194)
The awareness of such dependency and inferiority triggers rage in these people--'the rage of a pastoral people with limited skills, limited money and limited grasp of the world'--and Islam is their way of getting even. Getting even, despite local variations, is always violent and destructive. In Iran Naipaul feels that the Shia emphasis on martyrdom, blood, and death is being serviced by Islam: 'To keep alive ancient animosities, to hold on to the idea of personal revenge even after a thousand years [...] it was necessary to be instructed' (AB, p. 8). Even those local rebellions that are non-Islamic, ostensibly secular and even Marxist, like the Baluchi uprising against the Pakistani government, fall apart because they are led by a middle-class intelligentsia with garbled and imported 'Western' ideologies.
This era of Islamic rage is contrasted with two other 'historical' periods in Naipaul's writing. First, when the 'universal civilization' came to these lands under the auspices of Europe, 'Karachi in 1843 was a fishing village on the coast. In 1947, when the British left, it was a modern port and the main city of the western half of the new Muslim state of Pakistan' (AB, p. 106). Muslims could not take advantage of this moment because they were handicapped by their atavistic religion and resentment, and, as in India, fell behind intellectually as the Hindus welcomed the 'New Learning' and surged ahead (BB, p. 265). Next are the brief moments after formal independence when pro-Western leaders took their backward people to the brink of modernity, only to be thwarted by the ancient rage. Naipaul's exemplar for this is the Shah's Iran, as he comments on an Iranian's trip abroad: 'In the late 1970s Paydar went to England [...] this course of study in England was a tribute to Sha's Iran. It spoke of the mobility that had come to people like Paydar [ ] it spoke of the economy that had kept him in work' (BB, p. 193). But one of these eras was definitely over, and the other had melted in the heat of alienated and resurgent rage. Naipaul begins Beyond Belief by denying that his was a book of opinions, but his analytical and representative framework propels him towards some absolute conclusions: 'Islam ... makes imperial demands. A convert's world view alters ... he rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story[ ] ... in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism' (BB, p. 1).
Naipaul's linkage of atavistic violence to the Global South and, more recently, to the 'Islamic' South has gained the status of dominant discourse in the states of the Global North. Despite this, Naipaul persists in describing himself as an outsider, pricking the balloons of Western Liberalism as well as post-colonial persecution complexes. His writing is routinely described as prophetic about Islamic fundamentalism and the 'clash of civilizations', ideas central to the establishment (perhaps enforcement is a better word) of the post-Cold War 'New World Order'. Much before Samuel Huntingdon and Bernard Lewis, Naipaul is said to have analysed the poisonous and intransigent nature of the new enemy of civilization. In fact, a glance at any study of the formation of global Islamophobia from the early 1970s to the present reveals that Naipaul was very much surfing the Zeitgeist rather than anticipating it. This traffic between Naipaul's writing and the wider formations of Islamophobia must be the subject of another paper, and here we must return to the question of his analysis of violence. I will suggest that Naipaul's vision is impaired by his refusal or inability to accept two historical features of modernity. At the level of the 'local', he is unable to accept that in monopolizing violence in the name of order, the post-colonial states and their bourgeoisie reproduce the central values of 'Western' Enlightenment. Far from failing to learn from the European/American colonizers, the states of the Global South have absorbed their lessons only too well. And at the level of the 'global' he is unable to admit that the achievements of Western 'universal civilization', colonial and post-colonial, depend on ensuring conditions of material/cultural poverty and endemic conflict in the countries of the Global South.
Non-state violence is routinely seen (and not by Naipaul alone) as atavistic, anarchic, nihilistic, symptomatic of deeper social decay and malaise. Anton Blok offers an explanation in his essay 'The Enigma of Senseless Violence':
The comparative study of violence suffers from several handicaps. The most important is the dominant conception of violence in modern societies in which the means of violence have long been monopolized by the state. Precisely because of the stability of this relatively impersonal monopoly and the resultant pacification of society at large, people have developed strong feelings about using and witnessing violence. They are inclined to consider its unauthorized forms in particular as anomalous, irrational, senseless and disruptive--as the reversal of social order, as the antithesis of 'civilization', as something that has to be brought under control. (14)
Thus, for Naipaul, challenges to this monopoly in the states of the Global South--be they in Pakistan, Malaysia, or Indonesia--are inevitably nihilistic and self-destructive. Added to this, he refuses to take into account the formative role played by colonial and late capitalism in the maintaining of endemic violence. As Catherine Besteman explains:
The economic restructuring of the global capitalist system has produced a well protected 'global archipelago of wealth' and a global periphery characterized by 'brigandage, mafia-domination, and marauding private armies'. New forms of flexible warfare [...] match new forms of flexible capitalism. (15)
Since he does not admit the structural relationship between this global wealth and global violence, he produces the curious (yet seductive) picture of an advanced core and anterior or atavistic periphery. The illusion of the Global South being locked in a temporal as well as physical lag behind the advanced 'civilization' is the product of this vision. Islam and a host of other cultural grids are produced as an explanation of this lag; violence as the symptom of it.
Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth has long been recognized as an important intervention in the theorizing of violence. At first glance it might seem perverse to pair the Martiniquan revolutionary with the ex-Caribbean defender of European 'civilization'. However, there are illuminating convergences and divergences between the two. It seems to me that much visceral unease produced by Naipaul's writing is precisely a result of these moments of kinship with and emphatic rejection of radical anti-colonialism. As Gail Presbey and others have argued, Fanon does stress the rejuvenating and restorative effects of a violent struggle on the colonized peoples, but he puts a 'Naipaulian' emphasis on education to harness this violence:
Fanon predicts that the 'unmixed and total brutality' of the colonized, 'if not immediately combated, invariably leads to the defeat of the movement within a few weeks' [...] the immediacy of muscles is a mirage; knowledge is needed. If violent rebels are not educated, the colonists will infiltrate, try to divide the groups, and redirect the violence. (16)
Similarily, Naipaul can be seen as bearing witness to the fulfilment of Fanon's theses on violence and the post-colonial condition of the Global South. Fanon writes: 'The colonised man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people [...] the native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the oppressor'. (17) Nor is this violence limited to the phase of anti-colonial struggle: 'The atmosphere of violence [...] continues to dominate national life, for [...] the Third world is not cut off from the rest. Quite on the contrary, it is at the middle of the whirlpool' (WE, p. 60). This is exactly what Naipaul describes in his travels in Iran, the Caribbean islands, and Pakistan. His withering comments on 'dependency/ mimicry' have also been anticipated by Fanon:
This traditional weakness, which is almost congenital to the national consciousness of under-developed countries, is not solely the result of the mutilation of the colonised people by the colonial regime. It is also the result of the intellectual laziness of the national middle-class, of its spiritual penury [...]. (WE, pp. 121-22)
These parasitic middle classes, as Naipaul testifies later, will 'step into the shoes of former European settlement' and wave aloft 'the notion of nationalisation and Africanisation of the ruling classes. The fact is that such action will become more and more tinged with racism' (WE, p. 126). From Black Power to Mobutu, Naipaul's writings precisely chart the course of such decay and racism. Fanon is no less prophetic of the corruption and decay of the figure of national leader: 'In spite of his frequently honest conduct and his sincere declarations, the leader as objectively seen, is the fierce defender of these interests, today combined of the national bourgeoisie and the ex-colonial companies. His honesty [...] crumbles away little by little' (WE, p. 134). We recall Naipaul's portraits of Bradshaw or Michael X or the New Jewel Movement. The intellectually bankrupt, selfish middle classes and the corrupt leadership's empty slogans of national autonomy soon take on the tinge of religious tension: 'This merciless fight engaged upon by races and tribes, and the aggressive anxiety to occupy the posts left vacant by the foreigner, will equally give rise to religious rivalries [...] this religious tension may be responsible for the revival of the commonest racial feelings' (WE, pp. 130-31). And as Fanon sees it, the post-colonial nation is not equipped to combat this vicious cycle because 'By the time a century or two of exploitation has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national cultures [...] The poverty of the people, national oppression and the inhibition of culture are one and the same thing' (WE, p. 191). Poverty of culture, endemic violence, corruption, intellectual bankruptcy, dependency, racial and religious conflicts--all the features that Naipaul finds in the Global South are already present in Fanon's reflections.
On two telling points, however, Fanon is different from Naipaul on the analysis of globalized violence of the post-colonial condition. Consider Naipaul's earlier description of his first traumatic encounter with India--'I felt I was in a continent where, separate from the rest of the world, a mysterious calamity had occurred' (LO, p. 21)--and then recall Fanon's 'the Third World is not cut off from the rest. Quite on the contrary, it is at the middle of the whirlpool'. Whereas for Naipaul the maimed nations of the South have sealed themselves off from the civilized centres through their self-immolating rage, Fanon is alive to the fact that this horrendous state of affairs is maintained by a peculiar and intimate relationship, which he calls neocolonialism.
Naipaul berates mimicry, but, in the absence of any analysis of the global circulation of wealth and impoverishment, his descriptions are essentially, perhaps deliberately, misleading. The details have not escaped Fanon: 'The former dominated country becomes an economically dependent country. The ex-colonial power, which has kept intact and sometimes reinforced its colonial trade channels, agrees to provision the budget of the independent nation by small injections' (WE, pp. 77-78). Naipaul blames morally bankrupt native elites for allowing this state of dependency to continue, but he ignores the process by which they arrive at this state--through the very 'civilized' education that the country has received from the European colonizing forces. Fanon is very clear:
During the period of decolonisation, certain colonised intellectuals have begun a dialogue with the bourgeoisie of the colonialist country [...] during the period of liberation, the colonialist bourgeoisie looks feverishly for contacts with the elite, and it is with this elite that the familiar dialogue concerning values is carried on (WE, p. 35).
He calls this class of compradore intellectuals enfranchised slaves or, memorably, slaves who are individually free. It is education and culture, the talk of universal civilizing values, that under the conditions of colonialism produces the intellectual decay of the post-colonial condition. With no intellectual leadership the middle classes are blind to national concerns: 'Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism' (WE, p. 124). Naipaul cannot admit that it is the same European 'new learning' that he sees as being the cornerstone of universal civilization.
The second crucial difference between Naipaul and Fanon involves the question of the agency of the peoples of the Global South. As Naipaul places the burden of enlightenment and progress exclusively on the 'educated' postcolonial bourgeoisie, he can only write of bewildering defeats. Fanon, on the other hand, employs a more generous interpretation of 'education'/culture. As Nigel Gibson suggests in his essay on the role of radio in the Algerian revolution, Fanon observed that the peasants were much creatively in their use of 'foreign technology', using technology to 'create and express their own versions of truth'. Unlike the educated Algerian bourgeoisie, they did not mimic European culture/civilization, but bent it to their own usages. Fanon suggested that the 'uneducated' peasants could do this for two important reasons: first, they were the ones most oppressed under colonialism and had no incentive to collaborate; secondly, their own cultural resources (songs, oral story telling, poetry, drama) were less impoverished than those of the middle classes, and hence they could meet the ideological onslaught of Europe with more inventiveness and imagination. (18) The very idea of the cultural resources of the 'uneducated'--resources that can be used to convert the impact of European new learning to one's own advantage as well as to show its oppressive functions--cannot be admitted by Naipaul. He is condemned to simultaneously pinning his hopes on the 'educated' post-colonial bourgeoisie and somehow explaining their failures on anything but their education/culture. Hence, his essentialist readings of African voodoo, 'Islamic' fundamentalism, and the spiritual desolation of Latin America. Hence also, his refuge in the deadly mirage of 'pure cultures'--ancient Hinduism, for example.
This essay has attempted to trace Naipaul's representations of violence from his early essays to his later non-fictional travel narratives. What we see is the persistence of violence as both a sign and an analytical tool in Naipaul's understanding of the Global South. The alignments and differences of his interpretation with Fanon's analysis is indicative of his eclectic engagement with the Global South. He borrows and amplifies the trenchant rage and despair of Asian, African, and Latin-American peoples and writers. But he refuses to engage with or learn from their historicist and materialist analyses of their condition. Naipaul is unable to attend to both the material and cultural logic of colonialism/imperialism and their 'post'/'neo' conditions. By eschewing capital and class as interpretative categories, Naipaul fails to see the intimate and symbiotic relationship between the 'West' and the 'rest', and he seals off the Global South in its own hell of failure. By accepting and indulging in fetishistic views of Enlightenment learning, he offers fundamentalist dreams of cultural/racial essences that perpetually recycle myths of European/American world orders.
Let us briefly return to the Naipaul debates and to the Salmagundi exchanges about the post-colonial intellectual. We recall Conor Cruise O'Brien and John Lukacs stridently defending Naipaul as being deeply concerned with truth and public rhetoric, and conducting a relentless exposure of the human evil. Edward Said naturally pointed out that if exposing the evils of domination and dissembling was Naipaul's chosen task, then he should be writing about these evils as they exist in the Global North as well as the Global South. He goes on to suggest:
The moment Naipaul defines and crystallizes for the western audience is the moment of our disappointment with the prospects of other peoples. And that disappointment, based as it is on our tendency to grow bored with something we can't control, is at the root of the acclaim Naipaul has won. (19)
Said is surely correct in his explanation of the lionization of Naipaul. 'A little room was made for me in the England of the 1950s' says Naipaul humbly, but he prefers not to ask why. (20)
But let us leave Said for the moment and accept at face value Naipaul's admirers' claim of what he is--a fearless investigator of the heart of human darkness, albeit of humans who fall outside the ambit of what he calls 'universal civilization'. As a chronicler of maimed humanity, its rage, violence, and failures, how far does he go? His admirers have no doubt that his is an authentic voice of Global South despair, cutting through the faux-radicalism of metropolitan critics. Bruce King, in his review of Nixon's 'London Calling', takes the author to task for failing to recognize this:
Nixon should pay more attention to what third-world intellectuals, scholars, and artists write about their societies and less to progressive opinion in New York and London [...] Multinational capital has, for the most part, gotten along happily with (Eric) Williams, Saddam, and Mobutu; it would probably prefer that Naipaul and other critics of postcolonial order kept their mouth shut. (21)
But as this survey of Naipaul's essays shows, such attempts to align Naipaul with radical voices of the Global South are misleading. Naipaul is not interested in solidarity with 'third-world intellectuals', because he does not believe that they can ever be more than second-rate mimics under any historical/material circumstances. Naipaul is opposed to linking the 'post-colonial order' to the devastations wrought by multinational capital. On the contrary, he sees the ills of the Global South arising from its failure to be integrated within the world of late modern capitalism. He fails to acknowledge the structural and causal relationship between global privilege and global degradation. He refuses to analyse how 'universal education' has ensured endemic oppression. He does not engage with the material, political, and cultural resistances of the 'wretched of the earth', and he attempts to displace the productive messiness of human interaction with the baleful phantom of cultural and spiritual purity. In all this Naipaul is in breach of the most important duties of a conscientious intellectual worker.
(1) See Rob Nixon, 'London Calling': V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); The Humour and the Pity, ed. by Amitava Kumar (New Delhi: Buffalo, 2002); Dagmar Barnouw, Naipaul's Strangers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); V. S. Naipaul: An Anthology of Recent Criticism, ed. by Purabi Panwar (New Delhi: Pencraft, 2003); and Joan Cocks, 'A New Cosmopolitanism? V. S. Naipaul and Edward Said', Constellations, 7 (2000), 46-60.
(2) Nixon, p. 6.
(3) Literary Occasions, ed. by Pankaj Mishra (London: Picador, 2003), pp. 16-17. Naipaul's major essays have been collected in this volume and the earlier The Writer and the World (London: Picador, 2002). All the essays cited here are from these volumes, hereafter abbreviated as LO and WW, repsectively, with references given in the text.
(4) Nixon, p. 7.
(5) Nixon, p. 6.
(6) Sir Vidia Loses Temper Again!, PTI (Press Trust of India), 21 February 2002 <http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/feb/21nai.htm> [accessed 18 June 2006].
(7) dward Said, 'Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World', Salmagundi, 70-71 (1986), 44-64 (p. 53).
(8) Conor Cruise O'Brien, Edward Said, and John Lukacs, 'Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World: Response and Discussion', Salmagundi, 70-71 (1986), pp. 65-81 (pp. 67-68).
(9) Ibid., pp. 78-79.
(10) Barnouw, p. 1. Further references will be given in the text.
(11) The Mantle of the Prophet: Learning and Power in Modern Iran (London: Chatto & Windus, 1986).
(12) Humour and the Pity, p. 62.
(13) V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981; Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 2001), p. 3; hereafter abbreviated AB. Also, V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief (London: Little, Brown, 1998), hereafter BB. All references appear in the text.
(14) Meanings of Violence, ed. by Goran Aijmer and Jon Abbink (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000), p. 23.
(15) Violence: A Reader, ed. by Catherine Besteman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 303-04.
(16) Gail M. Presbey, 'Fanon on the Role of Violence in Liberation: A Comparison with Gandhi and Mandela', in Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. by Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 283-96 (pp. 291-92).
(17) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1965), p. 42. Hereafter abbreviated WE, with all references in the text.
(18) Nigel Gibson, 'Jammin' the Airwaves and Tuning into the Revolution: The Dialectics of the Radio in L'An V de la revolution algerienne', in Fanon: A Critical Reader, pp. 297-308.
(19) Said, in O'Brien, Said, and Lukacs, p. 81
(20) For a good account of the formation of Naipaul's cultural authority in the 'West' see Nixon, 'London Calling'.
(21) 'Review of London Calling', Research in African Literatures 24, 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 132-3.
University of Warwick
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|Title Annotation:||Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul on developing countries|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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