By Ronald Suresh Roberts
Recent Naipaul commentary demonstrates once again that the obituary is not really the form for fresh thinking. If TS Eliot was at all correct that “to make an end is to make a beginning”, most obituarists never got the memo.
Thus Maureen Isaacson, a close associate of the late Nadine Gordimer, fulminates in the Daily Maverick that “Racism and Bigotry are Ineradicable Part of his Legacy”. As every West Indian schoolchild knows, these features are certainly part of Naipaul’s life, which I myself exhaustively inventoried and analysed in the final chapter of my first book, Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowed (1995), completed before I ever set foot in South Africa in 1994.
But Naipaul’s undoubted indulgence in racism and bigotry are in fact highly unlikely to survive his new and posthumous beginning. What is unworthy will pass away. So to fulminate in that spirit in 2018 is to mistake Naipaul’s enduring role as a complex and consequential figure for the unravelling of whiteness, including the decolonisation of the English language itself, especially as this decolonisation has developed during the interval 1994-2018. This paradox is the last laugh of a great ironist from Trinidad, where irony is not merely a national art form, but underpins an entire repertoire of such art forms: the core form of calypso itself, the verbal banter known as picong, and the dark carnivalesque soliloquy of “robber talk”, to name only the most obvious three.
Isaacson herself already seems mystified that more careful voices (from Paul Theroux to Salman Rushdie) have combined the necessary critique of Naipaul as citizen with powerful expressions of appreciation for Naipaul as a writer. As so often with Gordimer’s simple-minded if well-meaning admirers, Isaacson does not take seriously enough Gordimer’s own fundamental view that nothing she herself said as citizen was as important as what we find in her fiction. In this, Naipaul is Gordimer’s worthy peer.
Amit Chaudhuri, writing in the London Guardian, indeed noticed that Naipaul’s superlative achievements as a writer have taken a backseat to his obnoxious persona as a citizen. (“VS Naipaul’s legacy is complex – but his writing must be celebrated,” London Guardian, 12 August 2018). And Chaudhuri himself moves past this platitude (a necessary platitude, but still a platitude) to make a point that is far more telling for Naipaul’s future trajectory.
Chaudhuri shrewdly identifies Naipaul’s blackness as “another reason” for the under-appreciation of his legacy as a key re-inventor of English literary form in our times. This blackness, Chaudhuri observes, “means we must primarily view him as a representer – or misrepresenter – of the culture he came from, rather than as one who’s renewing language and radically rethinking the form he uses. After all, how can you renew something – in this case, the English language and the novel as a genre – which you don’t have cultural ownership of.”
In stark contrast, Gordimer’s career on the global stage famously began with the appearance of a short story, “A Watcher of the Dead” in the New Yorker in (1951) and was always built on a sharp distinction (prominently articulated in her Norton Lectures at Harvard) between the literature of testimony versus writing of more fundamental worth. In her longish essay, The Black Interpreters (1973), Gordimer indeed positioned Black South African writers as bringers of testimony in precisely the manner that Chaudhuri critiques. And as I pointed out in No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer, the New Yorker’s raffish founding editor, Harold Ross, used to say that mediocre manuscripts “seem to have been written by educated Negroes” (NCK, 93). In the final analysis Naipaul was treated, for several if not all intents and purposes, as himself an educated Negro. (After first meeting Naipaul at a PEN event in Scandinavia in the early Seventies, Gordimer described him in one letter as “oriental and withdrawn”).
Chaudhuri continues: “At most, you could admit Naipaul wrote impressively (the implication being that he wrote English unusually well for a non-white [sic] person). That his impact as a formal innovator was greater and more crucial than almost any of his contemporaries’ is something we’re just beginning to understand, because none of us as yet have the critical language with which to think of a brown man in that way; especially a grandson of an indentured labourer.”
By contrast, Gordimer, very early in her career, wrote a naturally self-assured piece called “Notes of an Expropriator” (1964) in the Times Literary Suppplement, to emphasise that she had never considered English anything but her own. It is an inconvenient truth that Gordimer like Doris Lessing, but never Naipaul, stood within the easy contemplation of such figures as Winston Churchill when they spoke of “The History of the English Speaking Peoples”, meaning the old white dominions rather than the “New Commonwealth” and its dark Windrush and other arrivees, a cohort to which Naipaul himself emphatically belonged.
Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, supplies a profoundly telling encounter between old dominions and new commonwealth, between Naipaul and his Oxford tutor, the South African-born fabulist, JRR Tolkien. Writing on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the undergraduate Naipaul handed in to Tolkien an essay that had nicely referred to “Prayer, the incense for the incenséd God.” Naipaul explained to French decades later: “Now I knew exactly what I was doing. ‘Incenséd’ meaning angry, it’s the same word. And Tolkien said to me, ‘it’s good, did you intend it?’ And I was ashamed and I said no. And so I lost points in Tolkien’s mind, I suppose, and the witticism yet was my own. I was too well prepared for Oxford, I suppose.”
Despite 1994 and all that, ours remains country where a self-styled Cambridge History of South African Literature (published at the late date of 2012!) can be edited without embarrassment by two white males (David Attwell and David Attridge) assisted by a third (Hedley Twidle) and can include a banal entry on Gordimer authored by a fourth (Stephen Clingman) who, by pure coincidence, makes no reference whatsoever to No Cold Kitchen, a work of native biography. Meanwhile, the press release for the Cambridge History places hagiographic emphasis upon Gordimer’s attendance at the launch of the book at Constitutional Hill. It is the sort of official history, an artefact of world-lliberalism, that has been undergoing collapse since 2016. How long did its authors believe such hoaxes might last?
Chaudhuri himself, in 2016, wrote one of the most telling ruminations on “The Real Meaning of Rhodes Must Fall” (16 March 2016), just as the illiberal globalist establishment was entering its present and deepening throes. Chaudhuri’s take on “Rhodes Must Fall” was distinctive because he could, from his personal experience, benchmark the hostile environment of Oxford and of British society in 2016 against the greater multiculturalist hospitality and British self-critique that he personally recalled from the late 1980s, when he and I were contemporaries at Balliol.
Writing in 2016, then, Chaudhuri could point out how things had in fact gone backwards, from a time within his memory (and mine) when Enoch Powell, glimpsed giving a speech at Oriel College (Rhodes’s own alma mater), could seem merely a curious and ineffectual relic. Today, Rhodes is neurotically defended while Powellism bestrides the Tory Party and indeed planetary whiteness as a whole. As President Mbeki said in Parliament during the violent convolutions surrounding the Iraq invasion (and quoting Brecht), “the bitch is in heat again”.
This post-anti-apartheid turn is evident as well in the unrepentant re-emergence of “white pride” in respectable local South African quarters: not only from Edwin Camron on the Constitutional Court, as I detailed in the inaugural instalment of this series, but in the unashamed whiteness of the upcoming generation of would-be cultural commentators, within the Cameron line of succession.
The textbook case here is Jonny Steinberg, a journalist who spent the early years after 1994 abroad in doctoral study (again at Balliol), returning to take up a Business Day column. Steinberg expressed open exhilaration, in print and in his column, after the late Ken Owen (whom Mark Gevisser has called “The Last Great White Editor”) praised Steinberg’s early writings there.
But then in September 2009 Steinberg’s admiration faltered and failed. With the ANC’s post 1994 challenge to the intellectual hegemony of whiteness interrupted by Polokwane and then defenestrated in September 2008, Steinberg could now be found attacking Owen under the headline “the wealthy are key”. Owen, having belatedly overcome at least some aspects of his own previous illiberal arrogance called for white restraint in public discourse (“Arrogance isolates” Owen wrote), In response, Steinberg—replying from New York—defiantly centred not only whiteness but its associated illegitimate wealth (!), as central to leadership. Steinberg even elevated this fatuity to a supposedly central lesson of world history. Steinberg wrote:
For which of his sins Ken Owen is atoning I do not know. Louder and louder he shouts that whites who are not silent are arrogant. We would do well to step away for a moment from our very South African hang-ups and read a little about the rest of the world. Wherever wealthy minorities opt out of politics, poison spreads and things end badly. Always. Everywhere. It is a signature story of the modern age. We can surely do better than to repeat the most common of mistakes. (Business Day, 17 September 2009).
Nor was this a passing fancy. Just the other day Steinberg announced, as seemingly incontestable fact, that “[t]oday, wealth and prestige are fused. It is hard to be anyone of significance if one is not rich”, adding condescendingly that the non-materialist ethos of Mandela and Sisulu was now past its sell-by date (Business Day, 25 May 2018). If Steinberg was right, then the Guptas were as well. They are wealthy but are they prestigious? Is Oppenheimer prestigious? The disparate answers to each of those queries says more about Steinberg’s supine interiority than about the objective external world.
For of course, and contrary to Steinberg’s oversimplified and uniform picture of the global collapse of ethics with the rise of money-values over the decades since 1994, there is a conspicuous and rich (pun intended) archive of contrast on this point: Tony Blair surrendered to money (and much else), while Thabo Mbeki did not. Trevor Manuel surrenders more every day, but Kader Asmal did not.
Again, Chaudhuri’s analysis of Rhodes Must Fall (2016) and Naipaul (2018) in the context of global market fundamentalism exposes Steinberg’s money fetishism as a mere symptom of currents he does not himself understand: “Not only does [neoliberalism] further empower the rich” Choudhurt writes, “it – by privileging the right to be seen to be rich as much as the right to be rich – legitimises retrograde desire. Moral judgment about a product that satisfies the customer is seen to be bad form, an attempt to constrain a market – or an inheritance – that should ideally be, in every sense, unregulated. In Britain, beneficiaries of the legacy of empire began to resurrect that legacy as a powerful and legitimate form of capital.” That is very explicitly what Stenberg seeks: the re-legitimisation of retrograde desire, specifically of the white will to be rich at black expense.
The final irony here is that while the movers and shakers of the rise of capital since 1989 turned from initial celebration of markets (George Soros, 1992) to critique of them (Soros, 1998) to outright despair (Soros, 2018) Steinberg is absurdly sanguine about the self-same rule-by-money in which the most astute money-men long ago lost confidence. To parse Mbeki’s pre-Polokwane engagements with Soros and Will Hutton is very easily to see this point. The salient insight, returning to Naipaul, is that the man simply never performed any such self-belittling intellectual transaction. Nowhere within the vast and dread sensorium of Naipaul’s political errors is there ever a category marked “mercenary” or “venal.”
Naipaul’s onetime editor and subsequent detractor, Diana Athill, backhandedly confirms this very point: “He was never our biggest selling writer. We hung on to him because in those days we could afford to, if we admired someone’s writing. If it was today, I doubt he would have had a career like that, because publishers can’t support writers who don’t sell. Those were nicer days.” While JM Coetzee long ago defined “white writing” as liberalism corrupted by mining capital, Steinberg generalises and globalises the ethical collapse of white writing through his sustained and explicit conflation of money and prestige.
The challenge posed by Naipaul’s death, and the afterlife that this death inaugurates for his work, is therefore to centre our reading of Naipaul outside the self-congratulatory illiberal literary laager, including the post-antiapartheid laager that still seeks to dominate the circulation of the native realities, including those of the South Africa native, within global letters. What Naipaul has incrementally done over the course of a profoundly consequential career is to take English itself and make it native.
And here Naipaul’s self-defining university encounter with Tolkien all those decades ago turns out to have very fresh local and contemporary relevance. At a critical turn in the Constitutional Court’s judgment in the university language rights case last December AfriForum v University of the Free State (2017) the white male judges on the racially divided Court (Froneman, Cameron and Pretorius) explicitly turned to none other than JRR Tolkien himself to emphasise that it is necessary to distinguish between a language as such and its speakers (see Froneman’s footnotes 56 and 57 and the accompanying text). The white Court hoped in this way to distinguish what it called “innocent users” of Afrikaans from the fact, undisputed on the trial record, that the university’s dual language regime was having discriminatory effects in practice. Meanwhile, all the black Judges voted the other way (Mogoeng, Nkabinde, Jafta, Khampepe, Madlanga, Mhlantla, Mojapelo and Zondo).
Among the many remarkable and fatuous aspects of the reasoning of the dissenting white minority Court, the most relevant here is the use to which the three white men pressed the long-ago words of Albie Sachs. Froneman quoted Sachs to highlight the irony of substitution of Afrikaans as a privileged language by an even more privileged English medium: “the enforced omnipresence of English could be seen as inconvenient and suffocating, and as inducing a sense of disempowerment and exclusion” Sachs had written in 1997.
It is in this that Naipaul has decolonised us. James Joyce’s Irish apprentice-figure, Stephen Dedalus, says that “my soul frets in the shadow of their language” before Joyce himself goes on to take command of that language. Now Naipaul has, in his command of English itself, rendered Sachs defunct. And while Churchill himself won the Nobel Prize for literature, the “Churchillian” cadence is a museum piece mocked among serious readers and favoured only by nostalgic Brexiteers like Boris Johnson.
After Naipaul, the future of English is blacker than it ever was before.
**Roberts writes from Liverpool, the former world capital of the slave trade.