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Pessimism and existentialism in V.S. Naipaul

Written by eastern writer on Friday, September 24, 2010

Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Spring, 2008 by Serafin Roldan-Santiago

Naipaul, represent structures that deal directly with theme and ideas. They enrich the narratives with subtle meanings, thoughts and semantic direction. The autobiographical strand functions as a marker of personal identity since Naipaul has been in quest of "self" since the beginning. In the same manner, the philosophic strand has been essential in the development of a Naipaulian discourse. The philosophic strand is associated closely with the existential ideas of nothingness and dissolution, which in turn are closely connected to a state of pessimism and nihilism. This aura or existential sense is thus the idea or driving force that envelops many of his narratives. This is also true of Naipaulian irony. The philosophic notion of nothingness and dissolution has permeated most of Naipaul's writings beginning with his Trinidadian novels, especially The Middle Passage. This view has also developed further in some of Naipaul's middle works such as Mr. Stone and the Knight's Companion, The Mimic Men, and In a Free State, and in his later works such as A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. I prefer to call this a philosophic strand because the underlying currents and ideas can be classified as a variation of existentialist thought, perhaps post-1950s, that is, the ongoing existentialist thought to the present, especially as it pertains to post-coloniality.

Naipaul's use of this strand entails a deep pathos about life that many times ends in panic. Again, the great Naipaulian panic is brought forth. There is the mood and idea of decay and all that it can gather: dissolution, futility, corruption, and demise. It is a vision of the futility of life, especially in the post-colonial world. Lost colonials roaming across the post-colonial landscape, searching for a sense of identity, lost in a world that marginalizes them; their final destiny being desolation and dereliction. This Naipaulian philosophic strand projects the world as something that is constantly eroding and melting away. It constructs a deep pessimism about the world and its inhabitants who are viewed as totally absorbed in futility. Man is striving to understand his existence, trying to grasp it and find its rationale, but is failing at it. It is as Doerksen has written when describing the search for meaning in life as, "the futility of the search for the meaning of existence in both the past and the future" (108). It is important to point out that not only is this sense of futility and dissolution present in Naipaul's fiction, but also embeds his travel literature and historical texts. Specifically, The Loss of El Dorado is certainly an existentialist history of the Caribbean where characters, plots and events are headed towards colonial dissolution and decay. It is not Naipaul's bad intentions and meanness; it is the existential pessimism and nothingness, this driving, psychic force that permeates his writings.

In Naipaul's writings there are images and terms utilized by early existentialist writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway. Naipaul uses these terms, concepts, and images, the most important being the images or concepts of, "nausea," "nothing(ness)," and "panic." All three form fundamental philosophical constructs in existential thought. Naipaul has articulated these in his own particular way. In Sartre's Nausea, the protagonist Roquentin ponders the following about his existence:

I glance around the room and a violent disgust floods me ... With
difficulty I chew a piece of bread which I can't make up my mind to
swallow. People. You must love people. Men are admirable. I want to
vomit--and suddenly, there it is: the Nausea. So this is Nausea:
this blinding evidence? I have scratched my head over it! I've
written about it. Now I know: I exist--the world exists--and I know
that the world exists. That's all. It makes no difference to me.
It's strange that everything makes so little difference to me: it
frightens me ... (122-123)


This quintessential passage is echoed by Santosh in Naipaul's "One Out of Many" from In a Free State. The character, Santosh, is a post-colonial who has similar problems of existence. He declares:


I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a
presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All
that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face
and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body
for a certain number of years. Then it will be over. (57-58)


He has gained what Kumar calls "the freedom of an existential being," with all of the uncomfortable feelings and ideas that this may entail. But all three narratives in In a Free State do not "solicit sympathy for a select few," as Boxhill has noted, "it concerns itself with all mankind, even the insane and the perverted; it does not try to pinpoint the oppressors of mankind. The enemy is not simply slavery or colonialism; it is life itself, mankind itself" (81). It is the existential condition of humanity, and for Naipaul, it is not a bed of roses.

It is the existential angst in Santosh and Roquentin; the futility and the nothingness that gathers both of them into primordial existence. These disturbed sensations of the existential permeate many of Naipaul's writings. Sartre's "The Wall" is a story about political prisoners waiting for their execution at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. One of the characters, Tom, tells Pablo Ibbieta of the impending death that awaits them, something that will catch them off guard: "I've already stayed up a whole night waiting for something. But this isn't the same: this [death, mortality] will creep up behind us, Pablo, and we won't be able to prepare for it" (8). There is the sense of an ill feeling, a disturbing sensation, a nausea of the spirit, in these characters. Again, in Sartre's "Intimacy," the female protagonist, Lulu, is a disturbing character that provokes nausea in others. One is reminded of the many female characters in Naipaul that are presented in an unsavory manner such as Sandra in The Mimic Men, Linda in In a Free State, Jane in Guerrillas, Yvette in A Bend in the River, and finally, Willie's females in Half a Life and Magic Seeds. These women are projected as nauseating figures, as characters that invoke nausea and a general malaise. The image of nausea is, undoubtedly, fundamental in Naipaul's writings.

Camus's stories, "The Guest" and "The Growing Stone" forming part of the text, Exile and the Kingdom, have similar philosophic underpinnings. Both stories deal with the philosophic angst of making decisions and choices, and how these can be interpreted as either betrayal or loyalty. Only one study need be examined to make the point. In Camus's "The Growing Stone," the image of nausea is displayed, as in "The Guest." This story is set in the Brazilian jungle and the protagonist, D'Arrast, is a kind of consultant who is visiting these lonely outposts. He is also a character of exile. The poverty and ill conditions of the surroundings provoke in him a malaise: "D'Arrast breathed in the smell of smoke and poverty that rose from the ground and choked him" (177). During his visit he encounters a religious dance in a village in which the participants become possessed with spirits. D'Arrast is upset at this and other primitive rituals. It is his existential reality that conflicts with the natives'. After participating involuntarily in the dance D'Arrast is shaken from his foundation: "The heat, the dust, the smoke of the cigars, the smell of bodies now made the air almost unbreathable. He looked for the cook, who had disappeared. D'Arrast let himself slide down along the wall and squatted, holding back his nausea" (195). Finally, the narrator informs us of D'Arrast's loathing over this "whole continent," and how it provokes nausea and a sense of nothingness: "The whole continent was emerging from the night, and loathing overcame D'Arrast. It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers" (198). One is reminded of Santosh and Singh, and even of Salim in their situations and settings: the uneasiness, the plight, the futility of existence. These characters all reflect a kind of mental and spiritual, even philosophical, desolation and dereliction. It is one of Naipaul's main concerns in his narratives.

The philosophic term and concept of "nothing" and "nothingness" is also of importance in existential thought, especially in Naipaul's particular strain. It is a term that is constantly repeated in many existentialist writings. In one of Hemingway's best read stories, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the old waiter, who is a kind of alter-ego of the celebrated "old man," offers the reader a soliloquy of exceptional existentialist nothingness:

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that
he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.
It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain
cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew
it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in
nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as
it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our
nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us
from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with
thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam
pressure coffee machine. (382-83)

It is almost another Roquentin meditation. The repetitious dirge towards nothingness and dissolution provokes a malaise and nauseating sense in the reader. It is a dictum that forces an individual into either making a decision of social or political commitment, or of dissolution into nothingness. One has to choose; it is one's responsibility to do so in this world. Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men is not merely informing the reader of a bad night, or even of his encounter with the fat prostitute, but rather, he is communicating his disgust toward his present condition: "In the hotel that night I was awakened by a sensation of sickness. As soon as I was in the bathroom I was sick: all the undigested food and drink of the previous day. My stomach felt strained; I was in some distress" (237). The image of nausea is invoked in this passage, but interestingly enough, this malaise has been with the protagonist since his exile, this sense of fear and dread about his existence. Santosh in "One Out of Many" also feels nausea while on the plane, but it is not just physiological nausea as the passage attests, it is also the "journey," as he states, "[T]he journey became miserable for me.... I had a shock when I saw my face in the mirror. In the fluorescent light it was the colour of a corpse" (25). The "journey" may be that of life and existence, and the "colour of a corpse" may well be the ultimatum of existence: non-existence and mortality. Thus, one can assuredly see that the tenets of existential thought are embedded in both these narratives. Dayo's brother, the narrator in "Tell Me Who to Kill", is an estranged fellow, a tragic product of things gone wrong. He declares with great pain: "The funny taste is in my mouth, my old nausea, and I feel I would vomit if I swallow" (100). Again, this is not merely a sample of a specific incident in the narrative but of the general feeling that sprinkles this text, a deep pessimism that envelops the whole discourse, an emptiness, a nothingness. Finally, in Naipaul's A Bend in the River the term, "nothing" is used many times. It is not just the mere word which is important, but its associative and connotative function. The narrator's first line reads: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it" (3). A casual reading of this first line would be useless; a close reading would bring out the hidden meanings and associations. The sentence is again one of the tenets of existential thought: one's existence is of value when one becomes involved and committed to society and the world. Individuals who are not involved are useless and become non-entities. They have become nothing of worth; they have allowed "themselves to become nothing."

ne final aspect of this existential angst in Naipaul that I would like to document and connect to this philosophical strand is the ever present "panic" that Naipaul has felt since his youth. He has referred to it as his "nerves," while at other times critics have called it "anxiety attacks." This "panic" has been documented in Naipaul's fiction and non-fiction. The panic appears in his early Trinidadian novels, which includes the black cloud incident in The Mystic Masseur and Biswas's panic while in Green Vale in A House for Mr. Biswas. The last being more than just a mere "panic". It is the fear of becoming derelict or homeless, a fear that has been very close to Naipaul. It is the fight of an individual who does not want to end up in anonymity, who is fighting for an identity, and who many times ends up, as Naipaul terms it, a bogus. It is the philosophical theme of existential destitution in the contemporary post-colonial world. The "panic" continues in both his middle and later works; it is an ever-present feeling of insecurity; the possibility of falling into a black hole of non-entity. Biswas in Green Vale felt like this: "He put his feet down and sat still, staring at the lamp, seeing nothing. The darkness filled his head ... He surrendered to the darkness" (267).

Naipaul's first short, lighthearted and humorous narrative, Miguel Street, contains a light pessimism that would later develop into a devastating and utter darkness. There is a fatalism and futility in Elias trying to pass the sanitary inspector's examination; in fact, he never did. Elias ironically enough landed as a cart driver collecting garbage. In the last section of Miguel Street, "How I Left Miguel Street," the narrator communicates a sadness in his short bitter remark, a sadness that will eventually turn into a sense of doom and futility in Naipaul's later texts. The narrator comments: "I left them all and walked briskly towards the aeroplane, not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac" (172). It was a foreboding of things to come. The references to the "black cloud" in The Mystic Masseur and its repeated use in A House for Mr. Biswas is connected to the existential panic in these characters: "not the passing shock of momentary fear, but fear as a permanent state" (Mystic Masseur 123).

It is in A House for Mr. Biswas where this strand can be first identified. In the narrative Mr. Biswas was enveloped almost always in an atmosphere of insecurity. He had a constant fear of destitution and dereliction: "a dot on the map of the world," as he once remarked (237). This fear of becoming destitute is also part of Naipaul's autobiographical parcel: there was this "fear" always around him as a man and writer: the vision of existential nothingness, decay, and abandonment. For Naipaul, it is no joke; it is deadly serious. The following passage must be quoted in full because it exemplifies the existential consciousness of mortality felt by Mr. Biswas. It was when a piece of tooth broke off from Mr. Biswas' mouth. The existential dread is quite pronounced. The passage reminds one of Sartre's Roquentin and Santosh from "One Out of Many" in which both characters were conscious of parts of their bodies, and treated them as dislocated members of the whole. The narrator declares of Mr. Biswas:

Pessimism and existentialism in V.S. Naipaul Part 2

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