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Naipaul and the barbarians.

At the end of a long journey, it is the wastefulness of his life that impresses Willie Chandran, the protagonist of two late novels by V. S. Naipaul. Not only has he squandered his own talent, he has turned his back on the contributions of his family and culture. Like his revolutionary colleague in India, Bhoj Narayan, Willie is the ungrateful product of a family that has struggled for generations to work itself out of poverty. In squandering his opportunities for an education and foregoing a productive career in favor of a life of fantasy, Willie thwarts not only his own hopes but those of his parents and grandparents. As Naipaul writes, speaking directly of Bhoj but perhaps of Willie as well: "All that work and ambition had now been wasted; all that further possibility had been thrown away."(1)

Surely, Naipaul's crucial insight in Half a Life and Magic Seeds is that Willie's proud quest for self-liberation leads only to a self-absorbed, barbaric condition that is the opposite of genuine civilization. Despite what Willie and many of his contemporaries believe, culture is not merely chosen from the postmodern menu or "constructed" by individuals within the fleeting culture of their times: it is truly an inheritance, one that limits and restricts but also enriches, and lacking which, a fruitful life is unimaginable.

Sadly, Willie Chandran's young life begins with the repudiation of a father whom he considers a dinosaur of social striving and bourgeois pretension, but what he fails to recognize is the enormous danger that lies outside the customary and accepted boundaries of the very civilization that his father has embodied. His naive gesture of rebellion, "to make a sacrifice" of himself by marrying a girl from a much lower caste than his own, turns out to be a fiasco, for Willie understands nothing of the consequences of his action both for himself and for the timid, frightened young woman with whom he becomes involved at school. Willie's romantic conception of this action as a momentous self-assertion in which he will be swept away by passion, removed from "a dull and ordinary place where ordinary people walked and worked,"(2) is savagely undercut in Naipaul's narrative: rather than torrents of passion, Willie is granted a future of emptiness and failure. Although he considers himself a young man stepping proudly outside the narrow bounds of his father's world, he will spend much of his future idling away his time in pointless fantasies and in flight from actual human affairs. As a result of the impulsive actions of his youth and the escapism of his adulthood, Willie will drift further and further from the civilized norms of responsibility and restraint that he ought to have learned as a child. Although he considers himself culturally advanced, freed from the petty restrictions of traditional culture, Willie in fact has joined the barbarians who live only for the sake of self-gratification.

The conviction that modern culture has declined into a condition of thoughtless impulse and even tribalism is one that has preoccupied Naipaul for quite some time and that has equally mystified, and continues to mystify, his critics. The modern barbarians, Naipaul discovers, are those who refuse to look at the world as it is and to reflect on the causes of its inadequacy. Not least among these are the many unsympathetic or hostile critics of Naipaul's fiction, including such well-known figures as Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Jonathan Yardley, and J. M. Coetzee, whose novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, I will discuss later in some detail. In a reading oddly focused on Willie's "spiritual journey" as a progress toward sexual self-discovery, "identifying the sexual embrace as the ultimate arena of truth," Coetzee mistakes Willie as an "alter ego" of Naipaul himself, one that, Coetzee believes, intimates "where Naipaul himself might have gone if ... he had, instead of secluding himself with his typewriter, followed his heart." (3) Aside from the unwarranted personal attack in which it appears to engage, Coetzee's reading fails to appreciate that Willie is a character "who follows the line of least resistance, not one who follows his "heart." More extreme is the response of Terry Eagleton who, in a sneering review of Dagmar Barnouw's Naipaul's Strangers, manages several thousand words without ever emerging from the cocoon of blinkered radicalism. Refusing to take Naipaul seriously for one moment, Eagleton fails to credit the profound humanity of Naipaul's writing even as he accuses him of being "short on sympathy" for just about everyone. (4) For his part, Yardley misses the point that Willie fails because he is cynical and disaffected, not because disaffection is a "universal condition" that Willie need only accept in order to "fit in." (5) Finally, Said's view of Naipaul as "a kind of belated Kipling," (6) aside from its apparent ignorance of Naipaul's detractive critique of Kipling (which appeared as "Theatrical Natives" fifteen years before Said's article in the same publication, The New Statesman) is, I believe, a gross simplification of Naipaul's complex understanding of colonialism.

What each of these critics fails to perceive is the remarkable relevance of Naipaul's writing to our times. Naipaul's characterization of Willie Chandran has particular relevance for our culture, for it is the story of one who wishes to "transcend" all parochial and local definitions of identity and attain a sort of universality that will vaguely align him with the causes of human rights and social equality, without placing any actual demands or limits on his own conduct. With his "feeling of being detached, of floating, with no links to anyone or anything," (7) Willie seems a familiar sort of modern barbarian, a contemporary Everyman of universalist and humane sympathies possessed of a most furtive and expedient moral nature. By the time he is thirty, Willie's good intentions have already been perverted into hypocritical justification for his own moral passivity; his passion for justice, such as it is, has been dulled by the conviction that the world is universally unjust; his ideal of service to others has been transformed into cynical self-indulgence. All of Willie's liberal instincts point to a constriction of life as, bit by bit, he lowers the bar of what he expects from himself and others.

After he arrives in England on a post-secondary scholarship, Willie comes to believe that his entire civilization in India is an arbitrary construction--"the old rules were themselves a kind of make-believe, self-imposed"(8)--and once he is convinced that the rules of his culture are arbitrary, he concludes that no rules have binding power over him. Willie's conception of the arbitrary nature of culture, however, overlooks the crucial role played by inherited systems of belief within all advanced civilizations. All of us have grown up within a distinct historical culture, and while that culture evolves over time, it also retains a core of inherited wisdom of a sort that individual human beings cannot simply summon up on their own. We can never really step outside of the world. that we know, if only because the fact of stepping outside of itself presupposes a certain knowledge of the sort that enables that transgressive act.

The difficulty is that, amid the mischievous clutter of information circulating through our "advanced" media culture of the past forty years, the role of inherited knowledge has been overwhelmed by an incoherent and thoughtless load of trivia. Those of us living in the West at the present appear to have access to an abundance of information and novelty of culture that make possible a range of personal freedom unknown in the past when, in fact, the overload of information, analysis, and "expert" advice results in a desperate confusion. As Naipaul writes in an essay entitled "Reading and Writing: A Personal Account," our historical period is "surfeited with news, culturally far more confused [than the nineteenth century in Europe], threatening again to be as full of tribal or folk movement as during the centuries of the Roman empire."9 Faced with a thousand indiscriminate suggestions and opinions, critical choices become, in effect, random acts, and with the very choices that are most influenced by that abundance of news, we exhibit our own limitations. The World Wide Web, as its pretentious moniker suggests, reflects this millenarian aspiration, as do the assortment of cable networks that offer news "24/7." Acting on the basis of an indiscriminate flow of knowledge, we revert to "tribal" reactions based on purely emotive responses or on crude measures of affiliation. Those critics who misjudge the damage of this arrogant culture tend to regard Naipaul's writing as reactionary or even misanthropic. Paul J. Griffiths finds that Naipaul's assessment of the human condition is "not much different from Gulliver's (and Swift's) at the end of his travels."1" By Griffiths' account, Naipaul would have us serving up babies and sleeping with horses in the company not only of Gulliver but of Swift himself. Yet this misreading (of both Naipaul and Swift) fails to credit the necessity of satire in the face of widespread cultural illness of the sort that Swift and Naipaul, each in his particular context, have had to confront.

Naipaul's acute awareness of the incompleteness of modern culture helps to explain the central themes as well as the titles of his two recent novels, Half a Life and Magic Seeds. It is part of the human condition, of course, to function within the limitations of what we know, but the great danger of contemporary existence is that, as it disregards the fact of its own limitations, the birthright of human imperfection devolves into something far worse. Ignoring its essential condition of limitation, contemporary culture shifts restlessly from one intellectual fashion to another in search of the magic seeds that deliver instant gratification. It is the heedlessness of contemporary culture that is the central thematic concern of Naipaul's two novels and that explains his sense that modern humans, not just Willie Chandran as a "postcolonial" figure but so many of Willie's contemporaries, have been granted only half a life. It is not just in India, Africa, or the Caribbean that Naipaul detects a fracturing or insufficiency of inherited structures of order: it is in Britain, Continental Europe, and America as well.

Naipaul's first publishable writing, the stories collected as Miguel Street, revealed the barren level to which colonial society can be reduced, but it is not only within a colonial setting that the barbarians make their presence known. As Naipaul's protagonist in Guerillas, Peter Roche, tells us, the state of anarchy in which law ceases to function and civil order breaks down, in which even the most fundamental services are unavailable and in which human beings resort to brute force can come to pass anywhere: "Every country is that kind of country. People would be frightened if they know how easily it comes." (11)

For his part, Willie's path toward this condition of anarchy begins with the exploration of his own sexuality. As a young man who has grown up within a conservative culture, one not far removed from the mores of rural India, Willie is totally inexperienced and lacking in confidence in his relations with women, and the modern ethos of sexual liberation offers him an illusion of unlimited gratification and choice. After Willie's Jamaican friend at school, Percy Cato, introduces Willie to his girlfriend, a young woman who works at the perfume counter of Debenhams department store, June briefly becomes Willie's mistress as well, though in the perfunctory, no-nonsense manner of bohemian youth culture. Sinking further into rebellious libertinism, Willie then seeks out the joyless company of a hard-bitten prostitute and engages in a brief fling with the girlfriend (or fiancee--the point is that one is not quite sure "which) of his friend, Roger.

Through all of this, Willie remains a solitary figure within a cruelly unfeeling society, one in which sexual liaisons are more readily initiated than are genuine friendships. In this regard, it is important to note the connection that exists between the enduring loneliness of Willie's life and his instinct to escape reality by way of erotic pursuits of one kind or another. As Hannah Arendt noted in The Human Condition, "the modern discovery of intimacy seems a flight from the whole outer world into the inner subjectivity of the individual," (12) and one result of this flight is a culture of unprecedented personal freedom and, at the same time, of pervasive isolation and loneliness. Willie's brief, pointless sexual encounters while a student in London, and his later, more protracted but fruitless relationship with Ana, the young woman from Portuguese East Africa who becomes his wife, constitute a dream-world beyond the reach of everyday affairs, but for this very reason, they fail to afford the emotional shelter and spiritual reward of a functioning private life grounded in the practical affairs of the family. In an admiring letter, Ana introduces herself to Willie after the publication of his book of stories, but even before he actually meets her, Willie perceives Ana's essential nature and the basis of her identification with his writing: the fact that "she belonged to a mixed community or stood in some other kind of half-and-half position." (13) Like Willie, Ana "floats" on the surface of existence, seeking to escape her insecure condition as a Creole within a failing colonial society. Not surprisingly, Willie finds that he and Ana are compatible, and when his scholarship runs out, Willie decides to accompany Ana back to Africa. The "magic" in which he has believed has proven inefficacious, and at this decisive point in his life, Willie takes the easy way out.

The significance of Willie's decision is underlined if we consider what Naipaul has disclosed about his own choices early in life. In "Prologue to an Autobiography," the author reveals his enormous anxiety at a similar point after his university scholarship lapsed and he was forced to confront the world with no resources beyond his raw, undeveloped talent and his passionate ambition to be a writer. Not unlike Willie, Naipaul was at first "practising magic," putting his faith in a whole host of superstitions (writing only on "non-rustle BBC paper ... less likely to attract failure"; refusing to number the pages "for fear of not getting to the end"). Less obvious at first was the genuinely redeeming "knowledge of [his] subject" that came as he actually began to produce something of value. (14) The danger for Willie, as for so many others (and perhaps, initially, for Naipaul himself), is that he may never arrive at a rewarding life because of his continued expectation of the bounty that is to be magically bestowed. Like so many others, he expects to acquire with little effort the magic seeds that will transport him up the beanstalk to the treasure. This sort of fantasy is damaging not only to Willie but to everyone around him because it breeds attitudes of passivity and expediency, qualities that are apparent in Naipaul's account of Willie's relationship with Ana. A huge irony underlies the sense of identification and comfort that he and Ana discover in each other, since their immediate sense of mutual attraction rests to a large extent on mutual convenience. Ana finds it convenient, not to say necessary, to secure a male partner before she returns to Africa. For his part, both financially and emotionally, Willie is less than self-sufficient, and so for the next eighteen years he allows himself to be supported by his wife--a wife to whom he is never really committed. What is missing in this relationship is that core of love and respect that form the basis of true intimacy.

After Willie relocates with Ana to Mozambique, he enters a long, unproductive period of escapism. Lacking an actual role in the management of Ana's estate or a definite position in society, Willie retreats into a private life that requires little connection to Creole society and almost none to the majority African population. Given the poor condition of provincial roads, social life is restricted to visiting nearby estates, and even among this society a pervasive sense of inadequacy prevails. As Willie tells us, "Many of the people who were our friends considered themselves, deep down, people of the second rank." (l5) Willie himself hails from a mixed-caste background similar in its own way to that of the Creole culture and so shares many of the social anxieties of Ana and her neighbors, but he never commits himself to the particular society he has entered. When the country is finally overrun by insurgents from the independence movement, Willie simply decides to leave.

As its turns out, Ana and her friends are living the same sort of provisional existence, grasping at straws as their colonial order dwindles. In their case, Jacinto and Carla Correia are convinced that their investments, including a beach house on the coast that they intend to sell at a profit, will protect them no matter what, but when Willie and Ana visit the property in the company of the Correias, they discover a house in ruin. The Correias's half-Portuguese caretaker has gone missing, windows and doors are broken, the house is rusted, unpainted, and littered with refuse. It is only at this point that Willie comes to understand the madness of Jacinto's life, constructed as it is on the illusion of economic control rather than moral order. What he does not understand at this point is the similarity of his own life to that of the Correias.

When the Correias finally depart for a visit to Portugal, a brief trip that turns into a stay of many months, they leave their property in the hands of Alvaro, an estate manager who is both unscrupulous and immoral. It is Alvaro who introduces Willie to the seamy underworld of African prostitution. Willie accompanies Alvaro to a seedy bar populated by native prostitutes, and soon Willie is himself" a regular customer. Characteristically, it is not so much the objective act, Willie believes, but the deception--not the offense itself but the dishonesty of concealing it--that constitutes a betrayal of his wife, Ana (as if any behavior were acceptable as long as one acknowledges it); yet Willie's conscience does not deter him from initiating a more serious affair with one of Ana's acquaintances. When Alvaro is sacked, he is replaced by the husband of one of Carla's convent school friends, Graca. When he first meets her, Willie is immediately struck by Grace's sensuality, and he and Graca fall into a passionate affair. So convinced is Willie of the momentous nature of this affair that he comments: "How terrible it would have been if, as could so easily have happened, I had died without knowing this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had just discovered within myself."(16) Willie's sudden discovery of the depth of passion, however, appears to be yet another example of his acting only from within what little he knows. The overwhelming sense of having discovered something of enormous worth within himself reflects a prudish, sheltered upbringing and the fact that he has spent the last two decades in Africa in a marriage of convenience with a woman of very limited feeling. More important, it reflects Willie's long-standing inability to credit any reality outside his own ego, and, once again, his ignorance of reality leads him astray. What Willie overvalues at this point is the sensuality of a woman who, for her part, has been involved in a series of shallow romantic adventures. For Graca, the affair is not half so momentous as it is for Willie.

As if to countermand Willie's naive discovery of passion, Ana, after she confronts Willie with the affair, asks him to meet her half-brother, of whose existence Willie has been unaware. In this climactic scene, Willie is introduced to a deluded, half-living barbarian who may be the novel's closest double of Willie. When Ana and Willie arrive at the half-brother's house in the African community that has sprung up on the edge of the city, they find the residence surrounded by dust and littered with vehicles in various states of disrepair. There they encounter the half-brother occupying a mere travesty of a formal parlor, a space cluttered with shabby furniture and with the radio playing too loudly. Ironically, the half-brother's charade suggests his aspiration, however hopeless, toward the very same values of respectability and decency that Willie spurned in his youth, In the case of the half-brother, however, one discerns quite the opposite of bourgeois decorum. His wife, a small, middle-aged white woman, seems menacingly controlled by her husband, and, once seated, the half-brother performs the aggressive gesture of which Ana has warned Willie: "He stroked the inside of his thighs slowly, as though he was caressing himself."(17) The half-brother then displays a bottle containing a spitting cobra, which he torments in a repellent manner.

Ana has taken Willie to see her half-brother, as she tells him, so he will realize what she has had to put up with, yet the effect of the meeting, however disturbing it is to Willie, does not influence his decision to divorce his wife. In narrative terms, however, the meeting is the decisive figurative element in a novel replete with images of incompleteness, fraudulence, and insufficiency. In the context of Half a Life as a whole, the meeting seems a final confirmation of the total exhaustion of the late-colonial culture in which Willie has been living for so long, but, even more so, it points to the fraudulence of Willie's moral being. Shortly afterward, when he suffers a painful fall on the steps of Ana's estate house--a fall that seems to confirm that he has arrived at a moral nadir--Willie decides to leave Africa for good. Willie believes that by abandoning Ana, he has entered a new phase of life, but he soon reverts to a condition of dependence and anonymity. After living for a time in Berlin with his sister, Sarojini, and her husband, Willie returns to India, where he allows himself to be convinced by Sarojini to join a revolutionary movement. In this, as in everything, Willie is less than resolute, even if his sister is fully committed to the classic Marxist struggle for the liberation of the masses.

It is important to understand how utterly opposed Naipaul's writing is to a vision of existence that finds meaning in political revolution, particularly in violent revolutionary struggle of the sort with which Willie becomes associated. In this respect, Naipaul's account of Willie's revolutionary phase warrants comparison with any number of conventional postcolonial novels. Naipaul's ethos of self-restraint and respect is the very opposite, for example, of the moral defeatism suggested by J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegorical novel in which an aging and ineffectual Magistrate, one who has survived for decades on an isolated frontier post, experiences that most hackneyed epiphany of the liberal imagination: a sudden realization that the world as we know it is unjust and that a vast conspiracy exists to protect the interests of the oppressors. A willingness to discern conspiracy among those who are charged with governing is one of the curious and insidiously destructive elements of modern political culture, and it may be that this single-minded fascination is attributable in the end to a perverse anxiety grounded in the disparity between the remarkable success of our own civilization and the abject failure, and yet presumed virtue, of non-Western cultures. As Naipaul has it: "The conviction that is at the root of so much human anguish and passion, and corrupts so many lives [is] that there [is] justice in the world." (18) Certainly, Coetzee's main character, the Magistrate, is obsessed with justice, but justice implies that power must be handed over to those who challenge one's privileges, thereby creating a new center of power and one far less democratic and humanistic than what had existed before. Naipaul's recent writing is in part an attempt to comprehend the anomalous sympathy on the part of so many in the West for insurgencies of just this sort: barbarian revolutions that intend to replace democratic freedoms with the reign of savage tyranny.

Like those who condone such insurgencies, Coetzee's protagonist foresees the inevitable destruction of his own civilization and the rise of the barbarians, who, in his view, are not barbarians at all but a noble, healthy, vital people to whom we are privileged to bare our throats. The same masochistic fantasy has preoccupied nearly every major postcolonial writer of the past fifty years, with the exception or Naipaul. David Malouf's much admired novel, An Imaginary Life, is a fictionalized account of the exile of the Roman poet Ovid to a barbarian region on the Black Sea. Among these primitive tribes, quite the opposite of the urbane society from which he has been exiled, Ovid is befriended and, for the first time in his life--in his guardianship of and intense involvement with a feral child--truly learns to love (though the affair conveys the disturbing appearance of pederasty, intended, I suppose, as an assault on repressive Western cultural norms). Even more transgressive in its implications, Nadine Gordimer's novel, July's People, dwells on the capability and virtue of the native African people in contrast with the hapless ruin of a white South African family after the props of their decadent civilization have been removed. In Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, a similar message of defeatism is suggested by the Magistrate's attitudes, even in what he expects to find in his archaeological pursuits. Digging in an area near his own fortification, he uncovers earlier forts, established like his own in the no-man's-land between civilization and barbarism, and he suspects that any number of previous lost civilizations may be found further down: "Perhaps ten feet below the floor lie the ruins of another fort, razed by the barbarians, peopled with the bones of folk who thought they would find safety behind high walls." (19)

From the beginning Coetzee assumes the existence of a vast cultural conspiracy in which the Empire (read: "the West") exploits colonial peoples for its own profit. In order to justify this exploitation, settlers resort to the timeworn definition of barbarians as less than human; but as the Magistrate comes to understand the mechanisms of power--the way in which the barbarians, once they are defined as "lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid," (20) can be systematically displaced, cheated, and abused--he sets himself against his own civilization, and as he becomes more and more isolated, he is consumed by a perverse instinct of self-contempt. As he confides to us: "Shall I tell you what I sometimes wish? I wish that these barbarians would rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them." (21) The thinly veiled sympathy with the wretched of the earth has been echoed by radicals at every turn of modern history, from the sympathy of the French Left with insurrections in Indochina and Algeria to those today who fancy a million Mogadishus, the perverse indulgence of intellectuals who revel in the gruesome images of Americans killed and mutilated. When the Magistrate, however, undertakes a journey into the land of the barbarians as an effort, as he sees it, to "repair the damage" that the Empire has wrought, the result is disastrous. His meeting with the barbarian leader concludes with no communication at all, and the subsequent march back to his fortress in the thick of winter is a near catastrophe. Still, against all evidence to the contrary, the Magistrate believes in the absolute virtue of the barbarian, just as he is convinced of the inevitability of his own culture's demise. He notes that the sophisticated farming techniques of civilized people can easily be devastated by the actions of a few insurgents who can open the floodgates and wipe out an entire crop within minutes. "How can we win such a war? What is the use of textbook military operations, sweeps and punitive raids into the enemy's heartland, when we can be bled to death at home?" (22)

The most difficult lesson that the Magistrate has to learn, however, is that of his own complicity. For one who has never wished to be "contaminated" by power, it comes as a shock to realize that he is part of "the lie that Empire tells itself when times arc easy." (23) When Colonel Joll, the caricature of the Afrikaner sadist, returns from his disastrous expedition against the barbarians, the Magistrate peers through the murky glass of Joll's carriage window and suddenly recognizes his twin in evil. The point that Coetzee is making is particularly relevant to an understanding of the nature of radical consciousness, for he suggests that since everyone (except the barbarians) is immoral, there exists no possibility of goodness in anyone connected with imperial society (and all societies that presume to conduct trade beyond the local marketplace or that impose order beyond the clan are defined as "imperial"). Given the existence of a single grain of evil within a society, no moral distinctions can be legitimate: our civilization, with its perpetration of civilian casualties and prisoner abuse, is "entirely" blameworthy, while the most ruthless terrorist organization is somehow magically virtuous, perhaps because it is "honest" about its uses of terror. Since such ''corrupt" societies as our own will always be tainted and thus "entirely" incapable of virtue, they must be replaced by more virtuous ones like that of the barbarians who will, as the Magistrate so tastefully puts it. "wipe their backsides on the town archives. ("24) So history comprises a preordained cycle of civilizations arising from primordial virtue and declining into civilized decadence. With Rousseau, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and a host of their wistful followers, Coetzee worships the innocent virtue of the primitive, and he accepts as inescapable the notion that advanced civilizations are inherently corrupt and doomed to extinction.

Yet somehow in the midst of the Magistrate's gratification of his quasi-erotic instincts for justice, the actuality of the world's suffering gets lost. The act of massaging the feet of a brutalized young woman, itself a crude travesty of Christian myth, devolves step-by-step into the self-righteous fantasy of serving as the godlike agent of salvation. What the Magistrate seeks, for the moment anyway, is not sexual gratification but a more insidious form of pleasure based on an overweening pride in his own salvific role. When the relationship later becomes sexual, its exploitative nature is hidden from the Magistrate because he interprets the affair's consummation, an explosion of erotic release that seems a recompense for the "senseless hesitancy" of the previous five months, as an epiphany beyond the comprehension and strictures of ordinary humanity.

"Senseless hesitancy"--the phrase reveals a great deal about the centrality of the erotic impulse within the scheme of liberal values. From the Magistrate's perspective, to restrain sexuality in his relationship with the captive girl makes no sense because that restraint is a violation of a code of ethics that exhorts every human being to extract the maximum degree of gratification from life. To overlook any opportunity of gratification, whether it be sexual or otherwise, is a violation of liberal ethics because at the root of that ethics is the assumption that reality consists of nothing beyond the individual's material existence. The central government and its representative, Colonel Jail, are evil because they deny physical comforts, not to say life, to the barbarians, but also because the necessity of defending the hegemonic culture wastes resources that could otherwise be devoted to an even higher degree of gratification ("healthcare, not war," as some would have it). From within this ethic, since immanence is all that matters, physical pleasure becomes a privileged category of experience, yet by its very nature, sexuality seems particularly vulnerable to hypocrisy, offering as it does the illusion of an escape from the ordinary ground of responsibility into a rarefied sphere in which existence has been emptied of everything except for sensual experience of a kind that is paradoxically so intense as to suggest its opposite.

The relationship of this radical conception of sexuality to the essential understanding of the self within radical politics should be apparent, for the radical understanding of the self is grounded in the overriding motive of self-denial to the point where one arrives at a blissful condition of emptiness and moral detachment. The "blankness" that the Magistrate discovers as the final outcome of his sexual relationship with the servant girl reflects this ecstatic condition and his goal of emptying the self. Yet the Magistrate, like the radical values that he embodies, ultimately comes across as a futile and somewhat pathetic hypocrite. What is absent in all of this, and what Naipaul grasps so clearly, is the fact that self-gratification, especially the "higher" gratification of the instinct to control others by "saving" them, can never constitute the basis of a meaningful life. Beyond a certain level of security and comfort, the fullness of existence does not entail simply amassing more and more pleasure or influence or credit for redeeming the lives of others. Ultimately, the goal of existence is to achieve understanding of one's place within creation and to live according to the implications of this understanding.

In the case of Willie Chandran, twenty years of escapism are not sufficient to instill this lesson: it will take another decade before the consequences of his fruitless rebellion begin to sink in. After his return from Africa, Willie joins a group of revolutionaries in India--young men from middle-class backgrounds possessed by the dream of liberating the peasantry from their supposed oppression. Naipaul records the tragic farce of Willie's joining the wrong faction of revolutionaries, with whom he serves as a courier and ultimately participates in the murder of at least three persons. After he is apprehended and charged with being an accessory to murder, it comes as something of a surprise to Willie that his interrogator considers him a dangerous criminal, since Willie in fact views himself as a nonentity who has never taken responsibility for anything. As he says of the superintendent, "He takes me twenty times more seriously than I took myself. He wouldn't believe that things merely happened around me. He just counts the dead bodies." (25) But, of course, here Naipaul undercuts his protagonist with the biting irony that he has always lived with a false idea of "things merely happen[ing]." From within his abstract view, the objective fact of murder does not exist. Willie does not believe that he can be held responsible for the revolutionary violence in which he has participated because he has never believed himself to be a participant in any actual society.

After some months, through the influence of his London friend, Roger, Willie is pardoned and exiled to Britain. While staying with Roger and his wife, Perdita, in London, Willie begins for the first time to reflect seriously on "an idea of the man he had become." (26) While it is unclear exactly what Willie has become, there is at least a suggestion that he may now begin to acquire a definite personality and a sense of responsibility. Thinking of the multi-ethnic population of London, a city so much changed from what he had known thirty years before, Willie questions the sanity of a contemporary world filled with turmoil and change. At the same time, he now seems more self-sufficient and purposeful. He thinks, "Now I don't have to join anybody. Now I can only celebrate what I am, or what I have become." (27)

For many of Willie's contemporaries, the lesson of humility and restraint has proved difficult as well, perhaps because the arrogant dream of human perfectibility is deep-seated within the human consciousness. Willie's ideal of self-liberation, though modern in terms of the radical character it takes on, may be viewed as the culmination of a long-standing Gnostic challenge to Western civilization. As Leszek Kola-kowski points out, in its reduction of the "inevitable tension" existing within Christian belief between the conception of the immanent world as evil and saved, fallen and divinely created, Christianity "has had to wage an unceasing battle with heretical tendencies which affirmed one of the elements of this tension while neglecting or forgetting about the other." (28) As Naipaul dramatizes it in the case of Willie Chandran, those who begin life with the aspiration to sacrifice worldly existence to a millenarian ideal, whether it be perfect justice, perfect beauty, or a purification of mankind or of nature, are soon led along the path of moral indifference that draws one eventually to violence, whether authoritarian or anarchic. As Kolakowski asserts, "To succumb excessively to the Gnostic temptation of condemning the body and the physical world as the kingdom of the devil ... is to declare one's indifference to, indeed to condemn, all that takes place within civilization; it is morally to cancel secular history and secular time." (29)

"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts." (30) Willie's conclusion is based on a lifetime of mischief, but it points toward the possibility of a return to sanity. In the end, Willie comes to understand that much of the inadequacy of modern life results from an unrealistic expectation of perfection. After thirty years in which this quest has drawn him into every sort of moral compromise, Willie now comprehends the deathly consequences of this arrogant faith. He has taken a long and unnecessarily difficult path toward this understanding, but perhaps he has at last come to understand the paradoxical truth that it is the barbarian, not the civilized man, who seeks perfectibility and who, in the quest for a perfect world, is capable of any crime. As we exist today, the barbarian is always with us, just beyond the gates of our own self-restraint, waiting for reason to devolve into reflex and civility to degenerate into tribalism. The barbarian hopes to gain by magic or luck what civilization affords to those who labor carefully and patiently, but, as Naipaul makes clear in the case of Willie Chandran, a reliance on magic or luck does not lead to treasure but to impoverishment. There are no magic seeds, only ordinary ones that must be planted, watered, and weeded in the uncertain hope of a bountiful reward. Unlike the magic variety, however, ordinary seeds produce real crops. With the harvest brought in, there is the prospect of joyful celebration, nourishment, and health rather than a future of disillusionment, emptiness, and grief.

(1) V. S. Naipaul, The Magic Seeds (New York: Knopf, 2004), 95. (2) V. S. Naipaul. Halfa Life (New York: Vintage International, 2002), 18. (3) J. M. Coetzee, "The Razors Edge," New York Review of Books (1 November 2001), 10. (4) Terry Eagleton, "A Mind So Fine: The Contradictions of V. S. Naipaul," Harper's 307 (September 2003), 81. (5) Jonathan Yardley, "Review of Haifa Life by VS. Naipaul," Washington Post Book World (21 October 2001), 2. (6) Edward Said, "Expectations of Inferiority," New Statesman 102, No. 2639 (16 October 1981), 21. (7) Naipaul, Haifa Life, 29. (8) Ibid., 57. (9) Naipaul, Literary Occasions; Essays, ed. Pankaj Mishra (New York: Knopf, 2003), 30-31. (10) Paul J. Griffiths, "'The Center Does Not Hold," Commonweal 132, No. 3 (11 February 2005), 23. (11) V. X. Naipaul, Guerillas (New York: Vintage, 1980), 254. (12) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition 'Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 69. (13) Naipaul, Haifa Life, 117. (14) Naipaul, Literary Occasions, 65. (15) Naipaul, Haifa Life, 150. (16) Ibid., 190. (17) Ibid., 200. (18) Naipaul, Literary Occasions, 77, (19) J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (New York: Penguin, 1982), 15. (20) Ibid., 38. (21) Ibid., 51. (22) Ibid., 100. (23) Ibid., 135. (24) Ibid., 143. (25) Naipaul, Magic Seeds, 150. (26) Ibid., 181. (27) Ibid., 188. (28) Leszek Kolakowski, "Looking for the Barbarian" in Modernity on Enless Trial (Chicago: "University of Chicago Press, 1990), 27. (29) Ibid. (30) Magic Seeds, 280.

JEFFREY FOLKS has taught literature on several continents, most recently at Doshisha University in Japan. His article on the fiction of Kent Haruf appeared in the Spring issue.
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Title Annotation:protagonist Willie Chandran in V.S. Naipul novels 'Half a Life', and 'The Magic Seeds'
Author:Folks, Jeffrey
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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