01 November 2001, 834 words
I was quite amused when I first heard that VS Naipaul had omitted Trinidad in his initial response to winning the 2001 Nobel Literature Prize. And I'm even more amused now that he has taken the wind out of his critics' sails by saying that he did mention Trinidad and, if he didn't, it was inadvertent.
Fielding questions on Monday night after a reading in Washington DC, Naipaul was asked if he was contemptuous of Third World societies. He answered that the people who thought so hadn't read his books; and I strongly suspect that nearly all those letter-writers who have been berating him over the past few weeks fall right within that grouping.
The fact is, most people who are familiar with Naipaul's work wouldn't have been the least bit bothered by his apparent omission. And everyone who was so bothered were, to my mind, only betraying their insecurity: hungering for the approval of the Other, embodied by Naipaul only now that he had irrefutable world status because of the Nobel.
But those of us who read him already knew about his world status, and also knew that his views have often been misrepresented (mostly by the so-called intellectuals in the Caribbean). Take the fashionable argument that Naipaul is contemptuous of Trinidad and that that contempt really reflects a contempt of himself.
Even if it were true that Naipaul is contemptuous of Trinidad, that kind of rhetoric is and always has been stupid. First of all, it assumes that contempt for one's society necessarily implies self-contempt. That can be true only if a society completely defines the individual, which is a position only totalitarians, post-modernists and counselling psychologists would try to defend.
Second of all, such a judgement assumes that contempt is necessarily a negative thing. But, if certain aspects of your society are not admirable, then contempt for those characteristics actually shows self-respect. (Mind you, wholesale condemnation invariably reflects intellectual shallowness and personal insecurity.) But the fact is, all of this is academic, because Naipaul's views of Trinidad have always been a lot more complex and nuanced than our so-called intellectuals would have you believe.
Badtalking Naipaul became popular after the publication of The Middle Passage, in which he had some harsh things to say about Trinidad. But a careful reading of that essay shows that Naipaul doesn't badtalk ordinary Trinidadians so much as he badtalks our elites. In fact, no matter what society he deals with, Naipaul is rarely contemptuous of ordinary people, who he perceives mostly as victims and/or dupes of oppressive social and political systems. (In passing, it is worth noting that the UNC regime has decided to name the national library the "Sir Vidia S. Naipaul Library": even though Naipaul himself doesn't use the title.)
Since systems are always controlled by the powerful, where those systems do not work for the good of the majority, Naipaul's criticisms and contempt are really aimed at elites. "To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines. The excellent coffee which is grown in Trinidad is used only by the very poor and a few middle-class English expatriates," he wrote in The Middle Passage. "The elegant and comfortable morris chairs, made from local wood by local craftsmen, are not modern and have disappeared except from the houses of the poor."
Naipaul was critical of Trinidadian society and culture only for not being itself, for its self-deception, and for worshipping foreign culture. Thus, he wrote "It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside Trinidad is a calypso...The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider."
And this is what he actually said about the Trinidadian psyche: "Everything that makes the Trinidadian an unreliable, exploitable citizen makes him a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style."
Far from being completely critical of Trinidad, Naipaul wrote, "To condemn the picaroon society out of hand is to ignore its important quality...if such a society breeds cynicism, it also breeds tolerance, not the tolerance between castes and creeds and so on - which does not exist in Trinidad, anyway - but something more profound: tolerance for every human activity and affection for every demonstration of wit and style."
All this was written in the 1960s, and our society has moved on since then. And this Naipaul also anticipated, saying that "As the Trinidadian becomes a more reliable and efficient citizen, he will cease to be what he is." Nowadays, we see that our most efficient citizens - the kind who belong to ethnic and political organisations - are the most intolerant persons amongst us. And one more point: the reaction of the people who were so ready to badtalk him for leaving out Trinidad just confirms the rightness of Naipaul's criticisms over the past 40 years.
Copyright ©2001Kevin Baldeosingh