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Naipaul and the Barbarians

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

JEFFEREY 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.

At the end of a long journey, it is thewastefulness of his life that impressesWillie Chandran, the protagonist of twolate novels by V. S. Naipaul. Not onlyhas he squandered his own talent, he hasturned his back on the contributions of hisfamily and culture. Like his revolutionarycolleague in India, Bhoj Narayan, Willie isthe ungrateful product of a family that hasstruggled for generations to work itself outof poverty. In squandering his opportunitiesfor an education and foregoing a productivecareer in favor of a life of fantasy,Willie thwarts not only his own hopes butthose of his parents and grandparents. AsNaipaul writes, speaking directly of Bhojbut perhaps of Willie as well: "All thatwork and ambition had now been wasted;all that further possibility had been thrownaway."1

Surely, Naipaul's crucial insight in Halfa Life and Magic Seeds is that Willie's proudquest for self-liberation leads only to a selfabsorbed,barbaric condition that is theopposite of genuine civilization. Despitewhat Willie and many of his contemporariesbelieve, culture is not merely chosenfrom the postmodern menu or "constructed"by individuals within the fleetingculture of their times: it is truly an inheritance,one that limits and restricts but alsoenriches, and lacking which, a fruitful lifeis unimaginable.

Sadly, Willie Chandran's young lifebegins with the repudiation of a fatherwhom he considers a dinosaur of socialstriving and bourgeois pretension, butwhat he fails to recognize is the enormousdanger that lies outside the customaryand accepted boundaries of the verycivilization that his father has embodied.His naïve gesture of rebellion, "to makea sacrifice" of himself by marrying a girlfrom a much lower caste than his own,turns out to be a fiasco, for Willie understandsnothing of the consequences of hisaction both for himself and for the timid,frightened young woman with whomhe becomes involved at school. Willie'sromantic conception of this action as amomentous self-assertion in which he willbe swept away by passion, removed from"a dull and ordinary place where ordinarypeople walked and worked,"2 is savagelyundercut in Naipaul's narrative: ratherthan torrents of passion, Willie is granted afuture of emptiness and failure. Althoughhe considers himself a young man steppingproudly outside the narrow bounds of hisfather's world, he will spend much of hisfuture idling away his time in pointlessfantasies and in flight from actual humanaffairs. As a result of the impulsive actionsof his youth and the escapism of his adulthood,Willie will drift further and furtherfrom the civilized norms of responsibilityand restraint that he ought to have learnedas a child. Although he considers himselfculturally advanced, freed from the pettyrestrictions of traditional culture, Williein fact has joined the barbarians who liveonly for the sake of self-gratification.

The conviction that modern culture hasdeclined into a condition of thoughtlessimpulse and even tribalism is one that haspreoccupied Naipaul for quite some timeand that has equally mystified, and continuesto mystify, his critics. The modern barbarians,Naipaul discovers, are those whorefuse to look at the world as it is and toreflect on the causes of its inadequacy. Notleast among these are the many unsympatheticor hostile critics of Naipaul's fiction,including such well-known figuresas Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, JonathanYardley, and J. M. Coetzee, whose novel,Waiting for the Barbarians, I will discuss laterin some detail. In a reading oddly focusedon Willie's "spiritual journey" as a progresstoward sexual self-discovery, "identifyingthe sexual embrace as the ultimate arenaof truth," Coetzee mistakes Willie as an"alter ego" of Naipaul himself, one that,Coetzee believes, intimates "where Naipaulhimself might have gone if . . . he had,instead of secluding himself with his typewriter,followed his heart."3 Aside fromthe unwarranted personal attack in whichit appears to engage, Coetzee's readingfails to appreciate that Willie is a characterwho follows the line of least resistance,not one who follows his "heart." Moreextreme is the response of Terry Eagletonwho, in a sneering review of Dagmar Barnouw'sNaipaul's Strangers, manages severalthousand words without ever emergingfrom the cocoon of blinkered radicalism.Refusing to take Naipaul seriously for onemoment, Eagleton fails to credit the profoundhumanity of Naipaul's writing evenas he accuses him of being "short on sympathy"for just about everyone.4 For his part,Yardley misses the point that Willie failsbecause he is cynical and disaffected, notbecause disaffection is a "universal condition"that Willie need only accept in orderto "fit in."5 Finally, Said's view of Naipaulas "a kind of belated Kipling,"6 aside fromits apparent ignorance of Naipaul's detractivecritique of Kipling (which appeared as"Theatrical Natives" fifteen years beforeSaid's article in the same publication, TheNew Statesman) is, I believe, a gross simplification of Naipaul's complex understandingof colonialism.

What each of these critics fails to perceiveis the remarkable relevance of Naipaul'swriting to our times. Naipaul'scharacterization of Willie Chandran hasparticular relevance for our culture, for itis the story of one who wishes to "transcend"all parochial and local definitionsof identity and attain a sort of universalitythat will vaguely align him with the causesof human rights and social equality, withoutplacing any actual demands or limitson his own conduct. With his "feeling ofbeing detached, of floating, with no linksto anyone or anything,"7 Willie seems afamiliar sort of modern barbarian, a contemporaryEveryman of universalist andhumane sympathies possessed of a mostfurtive and expedient moral nature. By thetime he is thirty, Willie's good intentionshave already been perverted into hypocriticaljustification for his own moral passivity;his passion for justice, such as it is,has been dulled by the conviction that theworld is universally unjust; his ideal of service to others has been transformed intocynical self-indulgence. All of Willie's liberalinstincts point to a constriction of lifeas, bit by bit, he lowers the bar of what heexpects from himself and others.

After he arrives in England on a postsecondaryscholarship, Willie comes tobelieve that his entire civilization in Indiais an arbitrary construction—"the old ruleswere themselves a kind of make-believe,self-imposed"8—and once he is convincedthat the rules of his culture are arbitrary,he concludes that no rules have bindingpower over him. Willie's conception ofthe arbitrary nature of culture, however,overlooks the crucial role played by inheritedsystems of belief within all advancedcivilizations. All of us have grown upwithin a distinct historical culture, andwhile that culture evolves over time, italso retains a core of inherited wisdom ofa sort that individual human beings cannotsimply summon up on their own. Wecan never really step outside of the worldthat we know, if only because the fact ofstepping outside of itself presupposes acertain knowledge of the sort that enablesthat transgressive act.

The difficulty is that, amid the mischievousclutter of information circulatingthrough our "advanced" media culture ofthe past forty years, the role of inheritedknowledge has been overwhelmed by anincoherent and thoughtless load of trivia.Those of us living in the West at the presentappear to have access to an abundanceof information and novelty of culture thatmake possible a range of personal freedomunknown in the past when, in fact,the overload of information, analysis,and "expert" advice results in a desperateconfusion. As Naipaul writes in an essayentitled "Reading and Writing: A PersonalAccount," our historical period is"surfeited with news, culturally far moreconfused [than the nineteenth century inEurope], threatening again to be as full oftribal or folk movement as during the centuriesof the Roman empire."9 Faced witha thousand indiscriminate suggestions andopinions, critical choices become, in effect,random acts, and with the very choicesthat are most influenced by that abundanceof news, we exhibit our own limitations.The World Wide Web, as its pretentiousmoniker suggests, reflects this millenarianaspiration, as do the assortment of cablenetworks that offer news "24/7." Actingon the basis of an indiscriminate flow ofknowledge, we revert to "tribal" reactionsbased on purely emotive responses or oncrude measures of affiliation. Those criticswho misjudge the damage of this arrogantculture tend to regard Naipaul's writingas reactionary or even misanthropic. PaulJ. Griffiths finds that Naipaul's assessmentof the human condition is "not much differentfrom Gulliver's (and Swift's) at theend of his travels."10 By Griffiths' account,Naipaul would have us serving up babiesand sleeping with horses in the companynot only of Gulliver but of Swift himself.Yet this misreading (of both Naipaul andSwift) fails to credit the necessity of satirein the face of widespread cultural illness ofthe sort that Swift and Naipaul, each in hisparticular context, have had to confront.

Naipaul's acute awareness of the incompletenessof modern culture helps to explainthe central themes as well as the titles ofhis two recent novels, Half a Life and MagicSeeds. It is part of the human condition, ofcourse, to function within the limitationsof what we know, but the great danger ofcontemporary existence is that, as it disregardsthe fact of its own limitations, thebirthright of human imperfection devolvesinto something far worse. Ignoring itsessential condition of limitation, contemporaryculture shifts restlessly from oneintellectual fashion to another in search ofthe magic seeds that deliver instant gratification. It is the heedlessness of contemporaryculture that is the central thematicconcern of Naipaul's two novels and thatexplains his sense that modern humans,not just Willie Chandran as a "postcolonial"figure but so many of Willie's contemporaries,have been granted only halfa life. It is not just in India, Africa, or theCaribbean that Naipaul detects a fracturingor insufficiency of inherited structures oforder: it is in Britain, Continental Europe,and America as well.

Naipaul's first publishable writing, thestories collected as Miguel Street, revealedthe barren level to which colonial societycan be reduced, but it is not only within acolonial setting that the barbarians maketheir presence known. As Naipaul's protagonistin Guerillas, Peter Roche, tells us,the state of anarchy in which law ceasesto function and civil order breaks down,in which even the most fundamental servicesare unavailable and in which humanbeings resort to brute force can come topass anywhere: "Every country is that kindof country. People would be frightened ifthey know how easily it comes."11

For his part, Willie's path toward thiscondition of anarchy begins with theexploration of his own sexuality. As ayoung man who has grown up within aconservative culture, one not far removedfrom the mores of rural India, Willie istotally inexperienced and lacking in confi-dence in his relations with women, and themodern ethos of sexual liberation offershim an illusion of unlimited gratificationand choice. After Willie's Jamaican friendat school, Percy Cato, introduces Willie tohis girlfriend, a young woman who worksat the perfume counter of Debenhamsdepartment store, June briefly becomesWillie's mistress as well, though in the perfunctory,no-nonsense manner of bohemianyouth culture. Sinking further intorebellious libertinism, Willie then seeksout the joyless company of a hard-bittenprostitute and engages in a brief fling withthe girlfriend (or fianceé—the point is thatone is not quite sure which) of his friend,Roger.

Through all of this, Willie remains asolitary figure within a cruelly unfeelingsociety, one in which sexual liaisons aremore readily initiated than are genuinefriendships. In this regard, it is importantto note the connection that exists betweenthe enduring loneliness of Willie's life andhis instinct to escape reality by way of eroticpursuits of one kind or another. As HannahArendt noted in The Human Condition,"the modern discovery of intimacy seemsa flight from the whole outer world intothe inner subjectivity of the individual,"12and one result of this flight is a culture ofunprecedented personal freedom and, atthe same time, of pervasive isolation andloneliness. Willie's brief, pointless sexualencounters while a student in London, andhis later, more protracted but fruitless relationshipwith Ana, the young woman fromPortuguese East Africa who becomes hiswife, constitute a dream-world beyond thereach of everyday affairs, but for this veryreason, they fail to afford the emotionalshelter and spiritual reward of a functioningprivate life grounded in the practicalaffairs of the family. In an admiring letter,Ana introduces herself to Willie afterthe publication of his book of stories, buteven before he actually meets her, Willieperceives Ana's essential nature and thebasis of her identification with his writing:the fact that "she belonged to a mixedcommunity or stood in some other kindof half-and-half position."13 Like Willie,Ana "floats" on the surface of existence,seeking to escape her insecure condition asa Creole within a failing colonial society.Not surprisingly, Willie finds that he andAna are compatible, and when his scholarshipruns out, Willie decides to accompanyAna back to Africa. The "magic" in whichhe has believed has proven inefficacious,and at this decisive point in his life, Willietakes the easy way out.

The significance of Willie's decision isunderlined if we consider what Naipaulhas disclosed about his own choices earlyin life. In "Prologue to an Autobiography,"the author reveals his enormous anxiety ata similar point after his university scholarshiplapsed and he was forced to confrontthe world with no resources beyond hisraw, undeveloped talent and his passionateambition 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 BBCpaper . . . less likely to attract failure";refusing to number the pages "for fear ofnot getting to the end"). Less obvious atfirst was the genuinely redeeming "knowledgeof [his] subject" that came as he actuallybegan to produce something of value.14The danger for Willie, as for so manyothers (and perhaps, initially, for Naipaulhimself ), is that he may never arrive at arewarding life because of his continuedexpectation of the bounty that is to bemagically bestowed. Like so many others,he expects to acquire with little effortthe magic seeds that will transport him upthe beanstalk to the treasure. This sort offantasy is damaging not only to Willie butto everyone around him because it breedsattitudes of passivity and expediency, qualitiesthat are apparent in Naipaul's accountof Willie's relationship with Ana. A hugeirony underlies the sense of identificationand comfort that he and Ana discover ineach other, since their immediate sense ofmutual attraction rests to a large extent onmutual convenience. Ana finds it convenient,not to say necessary, to secure a malepartner before she returns to Africa. Forhis part, both financially and emotionally,Willie is less than self-sufficient, and so forthe next eighteen years he allows himselfto be supported by his wife—a wife towhom he is never really committed. Whatis missing in this relationship is that coreof love and respect that form the basis oftrue intimacy.

After Willie relocates with Ana toMozambique, he enters a long, unproductiveperiod of escapism. Lacking an actualrole in the management of Ana's estate or adefinite position in society, Willie retreatsinto a private life that requires little connectionto Creole society and almost noneto the majority African population. Giventhe poor condition of provincial roads,social life is restricted to visiting nearbyestates, and even among this society apervasive sense of inadequacy prevails. AsWillie tells us, "Many of the people whowere our friends considered themselves,deep down, people of the second rank."15Willie himself hails from a mixed-castebackground similar in its own way to thatof the Creole culture and so shares many ofthe social anxieties of Ana and her neighbors,but he never commits himself to theparticular society he has entered. Whenthe country is finally overrun by insurgentsfrom the independence movement,Willie simply decides to leave.

As its turns out, Ana and her friends areliving the same sort of provisional existence,grasping at straws as their colonialorder dwindles. In their case, Jacinto andCarla Correia are convinced that theirinvestments, including a beach house onthe coast that they intend to sell at a profit,will protect them no matter what, butwhen Willie and Ana visit the property inthe company of the Correias, they discovera house in ruin. The Correias's half-Portuguesecaretaker has gone missing, windowsand doors are broken, the house isrusted, unpainted, and littered with refuse.It is only at this point that Willie comesto understand the madness of Jacinto's life,constructed as it is on the illusion of economiccontrol rather than moral order.What he does not understand at this pointis the similarity of his own life to that ofthe Correias.

When the Correias finally depart fora visit to Portugal, a brief trip that turnsinto a stay of many months, they leavetheir property in the hands of Álvaro, anestate manager who is both unscrupulousand immoral. It is Álvaro who introducesWillie to the seamy underworld of Africanprostitution. Willie accompanies Álvaro toa seedy bar populated by native prostitutes,and soon Willie is himself a regular customer.Characteristically, it is not so muchthe objective act, Willie believes, but thedeception—not the offense itself but thedishonesty of concealing it—that constitutesa betrayal of his wife, Ana (as if anybehavior were acceptable as long as oneacknowledges it); yet Willie's consciencedoes not deter him from initiating a moreserious affair with one of Ana's acquaintances.When Álvaro is sacked, he is replacedby the husband of one of Carla's conventschool friends, Graça. When he first meetsher, Willie is immediately struck by Graça'ssensuality, and he and Graça fall intoa passionate affair. So convinced is Willieof the momentous nature of this affair thathe comments: "How terrible it would havebeen if, as could so easily have happened,I had died without knowing this depth ofsatisfaction, this other person that I hadjust discovered within myself."16 Willie'ssudden discovery of the depth of passion,however, appears to be yet another exampleof his acting only from within what littlehe knows. The overwhelming sense ofhaving discovered something of enormousworth within himself reflects a prudish, shelteredupbringing and the fact that he hasspent the last two decades in Africa in amarriage of convenience with a womanof very limited feeling. More important,it reflects Willie's long-standing inabilityto credit any reality outside his own ego,and, once again, his ignorance of realityleads him astray. What Willie overvaluesat this point is the sensuality of a womanwho, for her part, has been involved in aseries of shallow romantic adventures. ForGraça, the affair is not half so momentousas it is for Willie.

As if to countermand Willie's naïve discoveryof passion, Ana, after she confrontsWillie with the affair, asks him to meether half-brother, of whose existence Williehas been unaware. In this climactic scene,Willie is introduced to a deluded, halflivingbarbarian who may be the novel'sclosest double of Willie. When Ana andWillie arrive at the half-brother's house inthe African community that has sprung upon the edge of the city, they find the residencesurrounded by dust and littered withvehicles in various states of disrepair. Therethey encounter the half-brother occupyinga mere travesty of a formal parlor, a spacecluttered with shabby furniture and withthe radio playing too loudly. Ironically, thehalf-brother's charade suggests his aspiration,however hopeless, toward the verysame values of respectability and decencythat Willie spurned in his youth. In thecase of the half-brother, however, onediscerns quite the opposite of bourgeoisdecorum. His wife, a small, middle-agedwhite woman, seems menacingly controlledby her husband, and, once seated,the half-brother performs the aggressivegesture of which Ana has warned Willie:"He stroked the inside of his thighs slowly,as though he was caressing himself."17 Thehalf-brother then displays a bottle containinga spitting cobra, which he torments ina repellent manner.

Ana has taken Willie to see her halfbrother,as she tells him, so he will realizewhat she has had to put up with, yet theeffect of the meeting, however disturbing it is to Willie, does not influence hisdecision to divorce his wife. In narrativeterms, however, the meeting is the decisivefigurative element in a novel replete withimages of incompleteness, fraudulence,and insufficiency. In the context of Half aLife as a whole, the meeting seems a finalconfirmation of the total exhaustion of thelate-colonial culture in which Willie hasbeen living for so long, but, even moreso, it points to the fraudulence of Willie'smoral being. Shortly afterward, when hesuffers a painful fall on the steps of Ana'sestate house—a fall that seems to confirmthat he has arrived at a moral nadir—Williedecides to leave Africa for good. Williebelieves that by abandoning Ana, he hasentered a new phase of life, but he soonreverts to a condition of dependence andanonymity. After living for a time in Berlinwith his sister, Sarojini, and her husband,Willie returns to India, where heallows himself to be convinced by Sarojinito join a revolutionary movement. In this,as in everything, Willie is less than resolute,even if his sister is fully committed tothe classic Marxist struggle for the liberationof the masses.

It is important to understand howutterly opposed Naipaul's writing is to avision of existence that finds meaning inpolitical revolution, particularly in violentrevolutionary struggle of the sort withwhich Willie becomes associated. In thisrespect, Naipaul's account of Willie's revolutionaryphase warrants comparison withany number of conventional postcolonialnovels. Naipaul's ethos of self-restraint andrespect is the very opposite, for example,of the moral defeatism suggested by J. M.Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegoricalnovel in which an aging and ineffectualMagistrate, one who has survivedfor decades on an isolated frontier post,experiences that most hackneyed epiphanyof the liberal imagination: a sudden realizationthat the world as we know it is unjustand that a vast conspiracy exists to protectthe interests of the oppressors. A willingnessto discern conspiracy among thosewho are charged with governing is oneof the curious and insidiously destructiveelements of modern political culture, andit may be that this single-minded fascinationis attributable in the end to a perverseanxiety grounded in the disparity betweenthe remarkable success of our own civilizationand the abject failure, and yet presumedvirtue, of non-Western cultures. AsNaipaul has it: "The conviction that is atthe root of so much human anguish andpassion, and corrupts so many lives [is] thatthere [is] justice in the world."18 Certainly,Coetzee's main character, the Magistrate,is obsessed with justice, but justice impliesthat power must be handed over to thosewho challenge one's privileges, therebycreating a new center of power and one farless democratic and humanistic than whathad existed before. Naipaul's recent writingis in part an attempt to comprehendthe anomalous sympathy on the part of somany in the West for insurgencies of justthis sort: barbarian revolutions that intendto replace democratic freedoms with thereign of savage tyranny.

Like those who condone such insurgencies,Coetzee's protagonist foresees theinevitable destruction of his own civilizationand the rise of the barbarians, who,in his view, are not barbarians at all but anoble, healthy, vital people to whom we areprivileged to bare our throats. The samemasochistic fantasy has preoccupied nearlyevery major postcolonial writer of the pastfifty years, with the exception of Naipaul.David Malouf 's much admired novel, AnImaginary Life, is a fictionalized accountof the exile of the Roman poet Ovid to abarbarian region on the Black Sea. Amongthese primitive tribes, quite the opposite ofthe urbane society from which he has beenexiled, Ovid is befriended and, for the firsttime in his life—in his guardianship of andintense involvement with a feral child—truly learns to love (though the affair conveysthe disturbing appearance of pederasty,intended, I suppose, as an assault onrepressive Western cultural norms). Evenmore transgressive in its implications,Nadine Gordimer's novel, July's People,dwells on the capability and virtue of thenative African people in contrast with thehapless ruin of a white South African familyafter the props of their decadent civilizationhave been removed. In Coetzee'sWaiting for the Barbarians, a similar messageof defeatism is suggested by the Magistrate'sattitudes, even in what he expects tofind in his archaeological pursuits. Diggingin an area near his own fortification, heuncovers earlier forts, established like hisown in the no-man's-land between civilizationand barbarism, and he suspects thatany number of previous lost civilizationsmay be found further down: "Perhaps tenfeet below the floor lie the ruins of anotherfort, razed by the barbarians, peopled withthe bones of folk who thought they wouldfind safety behind high walls."19

From the beginning Coetzee assumesthe existence of a vast cultural conspiracyin which the Empire (read: "the West")exploits colonial peoples for its own profit.In order to justify this exploitation, settlersresort to the timeworn definition ofbarbarians as less than human; but as theMagistrate comes to understand the mechanismsof power—the way in which thebarbarians, once they are defined as "lazy,immoral, filthy, stupid,"20 can be systematicallydisplaced, cheated, and abused—hesets himself against his own civilization,and as he becomes more and more isolated,he is consumed by a perverse instinct ofself-contempt. As he confides to us: "Shall Itell you what I sometimes wish? I wish thatthese barbarians would rise up and teach usa lesson, so that we would learn to respectthem."21 The thinly veiled sympathy withthe wretched of the earth has been echoedby radicals at every turn of modern history,from the sympathy of the French Left withinsurrections in Indochina and Algeria tothose today who fancy a million Mogadishus,the perverse indulgence of intellectualswho revel in the gruesome images ofAmericans killed and mutilated. When theMagistrate, however, undertakes a journeyinto the land of the barbarians as aneffort, as he sees it, to "repair the damage"that the Empire has wrought, the result isdisastrous. His meeting with the barbarianleader concludes with no communicationat all, and the subsequent march backto his fortress in the thick of winter is anear catastrophe. Still, against all evidenceto the contrary, the Magistrate believes inthe absolute virtue of the barbarian, justas he is convinced of the inevitability ofhis own culture's demise. He notes that thesophisticated farming techniques of civilizedpeople can easily be devastated by theactions of a few insurgents who can openthe floodgates and wipe out an entire cropwithin minutes. "How can we win such awar? What is the use of textbook militaryoperations, sweeps and punitive raids intothe enemy's heartland, when we can bebled to death at home?"22

The most difficult lesson that the Magistratehas to learn, however, is that of hisown complicity. For one who has neverwished to be "contaminated" by power, itcomes as a shock to realize that he is part of"the lie that Empire tells itself when timesare easy."23 When Colonel Joll, the caricatureof the Afrikaner sadist, returns fromhis disastrous expedition against the barbarians,the Magistrate peers through themurky glass of Joll's carriage window andsuddenly recognizes his twin in evil. Thepoint that Coetzee is making is particularlyrelevant to an understanding of thenature of radical consciousness, for he suggeststhat since everyone (except the barbarians)is immoral, there exists no possibilityof goodness in anyone connectedwith imperial society (and all societies thatpresume to conduct trade beyond the localmarketplace or that impose order beyondthe clan are defined as "imperial"). Giventhe existence of a single grain of evilwithin a society, no moral distinctionscan be legitimate: our civilization, withits perpetration of civilian casualties andprisoner abuse, is "entirely" blameworthy,while the most ruthless terrorist organizationis somehow magically virtuous, perhapsbecause it is "honest" about its usesof terror. Since such "corrupt" societies asour own will always be tainted and thus"entirely" incapable of virtue, they must bereplaced by more virtuous ones like that ofthe barbarians who will, as the Magistrateso tastefully puts it, "wipe their backsideson the town archives."24 So history comprisesa preordained cycle of civilizationsarising from primordial virtue and declininginto civilized decadence. With Rousseau,Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and a hostof their wistful followers, Coetzee worshipsthe innocent virtue of the primitive,and he accepts as inescapable the notionthat advanced civilizations are inherentlycorrupt and doomed to extinction.

Yet somehow in the midst of the Magistrate'sgratification of his quasi-eroticinstincts for justice, the actuality of theworld's suffering gets lost. The act ofmassaging the feet of a brutalized youngwoman, itself a crude travesty of Christianmyth, devolves step-by-step into the selfrighteousfantasy of serving as the godlikeagent of salvation. What the Magistrateseeks, for the moment anyway, is not sexualgratification but a more insidious formof pleasure based on an overweening pridein his own salvific role. When the relationshiplater becomes sexual, its exploitativenature is hidden from the Magistratebecause he interprets the affair's consummation,an explosion of erotic release thatseems a recompense for the "senseless hesitancy"of the previous five months, as anepiphany beyond the comprehension andstrictures of ordinary humanity.

"Senseless hesitancy"—the phrase revealsa great deal about the centrality of theerotic impulse within the scheme of liberalvalues. From the Magistrate's perspective,to restrain sexuality in his relationship withthe captive girl makes no sense because thatrestraint is a violation of a code of ethicsthat exhorts every human being to extractthe maximum degree of gratification fromlife. To overlook any opportunity of gratification, whether it be sexual or otherwise,is a violation of liberal ethics because atthe root of that ethics is the assumptionthat reality consists of nothing beyond theindividual's material existence. The centralgovernment and its representative, ColonelJoll, are evil because they deny physicalcomforts, not to say life, to the barbarians,but also because the necessity of defendingthe hegemonic culture wastes resourcesthat could otherwise be devoted to an evenhigher degree of gratification ("healthcare,not war," as some would have it). Fromwithin this ethic, since immanence is allthat matters, physical pleasure becomes aprivileged category of experience, yet byits very nature, sexuality seems particularlyvulnerable to hypocrisy, offering as it doesthe illusion of an escape from the ordinaryground of responsibility into a rarefiedsphere in which existence has been emptiedof everything except for sensual experienceof a kind that is paradoxically so intense asto suggest its opposite.

The relationship of this radical conceptionof sexuality to the essential understandingof the self within radical politicsshould be apparent, for the radicalunderstanding of the self is grounded inthe overriding motive of self-denial to thepoint where one arrives at a blissful conditionof emptiness and moral detachment.The "blankness" that the Magistrate discoversas the final outcome of his sexualrelationship with the servant girl reflectsthis ecstatic condition and his goal of emptyingthe self. Yet the Magistrate, like theradical values that he embodies, ultimatelycomes across as a futile and somewhatpathetic hypocrite. What is absent in allof this, and what Naipaul grasps so clearly,is the fact that self-gratification, especiallythe "higher" gratification of the instinctto control others by "saving" them, cannever constitute the basis of a meaningfullife. Beyond a certain level of securityand comfort, the fullness of existence doesnot entail simply amassing more and morepleasure or infl uence or credit for redeemingthe lives of others. Ultimately, thegoal of existence is to achieve understandingof one's place within creation and tolive according to the implications of thisunderstanding.

In the case of Willie Chandran, twentyyears of escapism are not sufficient to instillthis lesson: it will take another decadebefore the consequences of his fruitlessrebellion begin to sink in. After his returnfrom Africa, Willie joins a group of revolutionariesin India—young men frommiddle-class backgrounds possessed bythe dream of liberating the peasantry fromtheir supposed oppression. Naipaul recordsthe tragic farce of Willie's joining the wrongfaction of revolutionaries, with whom heserves as a courier and ultimately participatesin the murder of at least three persons.After he is apprehended and chargedwith being an accessory to murder, itcomes as something of a surprise to Williethat his interrogator considers him a dangerouscriminal, since Willie in fact viewshimself as a nonentity who has never takenresponsibility for anything. As he says ofthe superintendent, "He takes me twentytimes more seriously than I took myself.He wouldn't believe that things merelyhappened around me. He just counts thedead bodies."25 But, of course, here Naipaulundercuts his protagonist with thebiting irony that he has always lived with afalse idea of "things merely happen[ing]."From within his abstract view, the objectivefact of murder does not exist. Williedoes not believe that he can be heldresponsible for the revolutionary violencein which he has participated because he hasnever believed himself to be a participantin any actual society.

After some months, through the influenceof his London friend, Roger, Willieis pardoned and exiled to Britain. Whilestaying with Roger and his wife, Perdita,in London, Willie begins for the first timeto reflect seriously on "an idea of the manhe had become."26 While it is unclearexactly what Willie has become, there is atleast a suggestion that he may now begin toacquire a definite personality and a sense ofresponsibility. Thinking of the multi-ethnicpopulation of London, a city so muchchanged from what he had known thirtyyears before, Willie questions the sanity ofa contemporary world filled with turmoiland change. At the same time, he nowseems 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 hasproved difficult as well, perhaps because thearrogant dream of human perfectibility isdeep-seated within the human consciousness.Willie's ideal of self-liberation, thoughmodern in terms of the radical character ittakes on, may be viewed as the culminationof a long-standing Gnostic challengeto Western civilization. As Leszek Kolakowskipoints out, in its reduction of the"inevitable tension" existing within Christianbelief between the conception of theimmanent world as evil and saved, fallenand divinely created, Christianity "has hadto wage an unceasing battle with hereticaltendencies which affirmed one of the elementsof this tension while neglecting orforgetting about the other."28 As Naipauldramatizes it in the case of Willie Chandran,those who begin life with the aspirationto sacrifice worldly existence to a millenarianideal, whether it be perfect justice,perfect beauty, or a purification of mankindor of nature, are soon led along thepath of moral indifference that draws oneeventually to violence, whether authoritarianor anarchic. As Kolakowski asserts,"To succumb excessively to the Gnostictemptation of condemning the body andthe physical world as the kingdom of thedevil . . . is to declare one's indifferenceto, indeed to condemn, all that takes placewithin civilization; it is morally to cancelsecular history and secular time."29

"It is wrong to have an ideal view of theworld. That's where the mischief starts."30Willie's conclusion is based on a lifetime ofmischief, but it points toward the possibilityof a return to sanity. In the end, Williecomes to understand that much of theinadequacy of modern life results from anunrealistic expectation of perfection. Afterthirty years in which this quest has drawnhim into every sort of moral compromise,Willie now comprehends the deathly consequencesof this arrogant faith. He hastaken a long and unnecessarily difficultpath toward this understanding, but perhapshe has at last come to understand theparadoxical truth that it is the barbarian,not the civilized man, who seeks perfectibilityand who, in the quest for a perfectworld, is capable of any crime. As we existtoday, the barbarian is always with us, justbeyond the gates of our own self-restraint,waiting for reason to devolve into reflexand civility to degenerate into tribalism.The barbarian hopes to gain by magic orluck what civilization affords to those wholabor carefully and patiently, but, as Naipaulmakes clear in the case of Willie Chandran,a reliance on magic or luck does not leadto treasure but to impoverishment. Thereare no magic seeds, only ordinary ones thatmust be planted, watered, and weeded inthe uncertain hope of a bountiful reward.Unlike the magic variety, however, ordinaryseeds produce real crops. With theharvest brought in, there is the prospect ofjoyful celebration, nourishment, and healthrather than a future of disillusionment,emptiness, and grief.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, The Magic Seeds (New York: Knopf, 2004),95.
  2. V. S. Naipaul, Half a Life (New York: Vintage International,2002), 18.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, "The Razor's Edge,"New York Review of Books (1 November 2001), 10.
  4. TerryEagleton, "A Mind So Fine: The Contradictions of V. S.Naipaul," Harper's 307 (September 2003), 81.
  5. JonathanYardley, "Review of Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul," WashingtonPost Book World (21 October 2001), 2.
  6. EdwardSaid, "Expectations of Inferiority," New Statesman 102,No. 2639 (16 October 1981), 21.
  7. Naipaul, Half a Life,29.
  8. Ibid., 57.
  9. Naipaul, Literary Occasions: Essays, ed.Pankaj Mishra (New York: Knopf, 2003), 30–31.
  10. PaulJ. Griffiths, "The Center Does Not Hold," Commonweal132, No. 3 (11 February 2005), 23.
  11. V. S. Naipaul,Guerillas (New York: Vintage, 1980), 254.
  12. HannahArendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1958), 69.
  13. Naipaul, Half a Life, 117.
  14. Naipaul, Literary Occasions, 65.
  15. Naipaul, Half a Life,150.
  16. Ibid., 190.
  17. Ibid., 200.
  18. Naipaul, LiteraryOccasions, 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. LeszekKolakowski, "Looking for the Barbarians" in Modernityon Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1990), 27.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Magic Seeds, 280.