Nobel laureate sizes up civilization
G.K. Chesterton once said that the purpose of journalism is to inform the public that Lord Jones is dead, when nobody knew that Lord Jones was alive. The purpose of the Nobel Prize in literature is to inform the public that an author is a great writer, when nobody knew the author existed.
The Nobel news is always electrifying. The laureate's works are reprinted and resurrected; and his once mundane name assumes a holy aura. Hence The Writer and the World, a new collection of 21 essays, many of them previously published, by 2001 Laureate V.S. Naipaul.
A native of Trinidad who has spent most of his life in England, Naipaul excels at finding the universal in the obscure. To study the repercussions of the colonial era, he visits Guyana and Mauritius; peers into Rajasthani politics; analyzes Black Power in Trinidad. To study the fateful marriage between God and greed in America, he wanders through the "Air-Conditioned Bubble" of the 1984 Republican National Convention. And in every instance he applies that "incorruptible scrutiny" for which the Nobel Committee praised him. Naipaul can always be counted on to expose the mimicked thought, the fruitless banality, the emperor's new clothes.
Two essays stand out. The first, "A Second Visit," summarizes Naipaul's notorious contempt for India's pride in its ancient culture, its spirituality, its self-victimization. The critique rings true, though at times it reeks of an easy Eurocentrism, as if his way is the only way and the whole world should resemble London.
In "Our Universal Civilization," Naipaul argues that the strength of the West lies precisely (and at first glance, paradoxically) in its intellectual "diffidence." He contrasts the West with Islam, which often rejects Western ideals yet accepts the fruits of Western progress. This theme should be familiar to readers of Naipaul's two books on Islam, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
But what is this "universal civilization?" Who belongs to it? Naipaul mentions two of its fundamental precepts: the Golden Rule and the pursuit of happiness. Naipaul refers to the first as a Christian idea, but it was a Confucian idea long before it was Christian. As for the pursuit of happiness, it is arguably the basis of Buddhism.
Naipaul is right to say that a new civilization is forming, and he is wise to distinguish it from both the West and the deliciously redundant "globalized world." But what the future of this civilization is, even wise Naipaul cannot foretell.
Kenneth Champeon is a writer who lives in Thailand.