The Guardian (of the UK) titled its Naipaul obituary, “a complicated man and a complicated legacy.” The obituaries are pouring in and not one of them devotes more paragraphs to praise than condemnation.
Naipaul wrote voluminous derogations of the post-colonial world, and he became famous for his acidic, contemptuous, disdainful dismissal of the Third World. But despite his training at Oxford, he was not a practicing intellectual engaged in philosophical enquiry and historical analysis. A top class intellectual was the Palestinian professor at Columbia University, Edward Said.
Said was totally dismissive of Naipaul’s assessment of Islam and the other religions and cultures of the Third World, and though he never said it publicly, I am sure he uttered it in private, countless times, that Naipaul was not intellectually equipped to understand the philosophical strands that underpin Said’s condemnation of what colonialism did to the Third World.
Said’s magnum opus “Orientalism” remains one of the defining explanations of how the colonial’s own psyche was shaped by the colonial’s contempt for his subject. I honestly think that Naipaul, if he read “Orientalism” would not have come to grips with the deep, intellectual arrangements in the book.
It was because he was not a practicing intellectual, he was not aware that he repeated ad nauseum the nonsense about the Third World that the colonials invented. We tend to acknowledge the genius of Naipaul in writing prose, in his use of the English language itself, but we tend to forget that he was not a trained political theorist and he ventured into the field of political and sociological analysis, and ended up regurgitating the putrid matters that the colonials put out about the non-white world.
I seriously doubt that Naipaul ever understood or cared about the bestial injustice and psychological dehumanization that inhered in colonial domination. Naipaul was an emotional rejecter of the failings of post-colonial societies, but he paid no attention and was intellectually incapable of paying such attention to the racism and cultural crusades of colonialism against non-white cultures.
He failed to see that in the non-achievements of the Third World, were the contributory factors of colonial domination. Naipaul just didn’t care to delve seriously into the history of the world, how the nation-state emerged, the role of Christianity and the nature of European plunder. These were intellectual nuances he was contemptuous of. He went to countries, found detestable and dishonourable things, and used his pen to dismiss these lands. In all his outpourings against the Third World, you cannot find in-depth philosophical analyses. And I think this is what we needed to come to grips with when we confronted him on his venomous denunciations of the non-white world.
I can hardly accept the Guardian’s point of him being a complicated man. There was nothing complicated about Naipaul. He knew he was brilliant, came to accept that his brilliance should not reside in some small island in the Caribbean, accepted that such brilliance should be part of a more developed society, so he gravitated towards the UK. More than fifteen years ago, in a raging debate on Naipaul, I said that it was easy to understand where he was coming from when you heard his false Oxford accent.
I don’t know if Naipaul read the non-political works of Naom Chomsky, but students of Chomsky would have laughed at the Oxford accent of Naipaul, because it was not linguistically possible for an adult to speak with a foreign accent; it had to be a fake one. I argued so long ago that the fake accent gave him away. Naipaul wanted to be British. He wanted to be a white man. The difference between Michael Jackson and VS Naipaul is that the former went to serious lengths to reshape his physical architecture to appear as a Caucasian. And Jackson felt that his genetic transformation could only be complete if he adopted white children and claimed that he fathered them.
Naipaul didn’t go in that bizarre direction as Jackson did. Naipaul was content with his British accent and his constant rejection of the world he came from – descendant of indentured servants and born into a small, non-white island. But Naipaul and Jackson had a dangerous thing in common. They were tormented souls, because the world knew they were not what they said they were, and that made them unhappy souls.
Naipaul got a rude awakening when he travelled to the US and continued to live in Britain. He found out that the world is not black and white. He found white, developed societies to have some of the very features he detested in non-white people of the Third World.
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