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Pessimism and existentialism in V.S. Naipaul #3

Written by eastern writer on Friday, September 24, 2010

The existential sense of disgust and nausea is also brought out in Guerrillas when Roche is conversing with Mrs. Stephens about life in general and how things can go wrong. The use of nausea is utilized in the following passage. But it is not just a description of a physical discomfort or part of the local scene that is narrated; it is a more universal feeling of disgust. It is a projection of decay and non-being.

But he wasn't prepared for the contempt, the contempt of women for
women, the contempt which, in that room, from Mrs. Stephens, was
like a contempt for her own body and the body of her neighbor,
slack, swollen, worn out. The grapefruit taste in Roche's mouth
went bitter; he associated it with the smell of the chicken dung
and dust that came through the window; and the saliva thickened
nauseously on his tongue. (107)

Roche after his interview with Meredith in the studio becomes sad and overwhelmed due to the failure of the encounter. It seems he has had it with Trinidad; everything has come out wrong and nasty. He is a cuckold and a failure. But more than this there is the loneliness that he feels of the "immense world;" the sense of nothingness and disarray.

A great exhausted melancholy came to Roche: the sense of the end of
the day [or his life], a feeling of futility, of being physically
lost in an immense world. Melancholy, at the same time, for the
others, more rooted than himself: for the studio manager, the man
from the country, for the policeman with the rifle and the woman at
the desk who were both so deferential to Meredith, melancholy for
Meredith: an overwhelming exasperation, almost like contempt,
confused with a sense of the fragility of their world. [my
emphasis] (210)

A Bend in the River and In a Free State are novels with a deep Conradian pathos that reflect worlds falling apart. They are books that have an African setting and deal with alienation and fluctuating identities in the post-colonial world where tragic figures, marginalized and frustrated, grope for a sense of identity and meaning in life. There is an extreme pessimism projected by Naipaul in both these texts as to possible changes in Africa. This is also true of Naipaul's Indian texts and his Islamic ventures; it is not a personal form of criticism, but one that seems to unveil a great post-colonial conspiracy against the Third World. It is not what Empire has done to its peripheries, but what has not been done after the rampage, the pillage and the exploitation. The Third World has been ravished and left destitute by Empire: it has not been provided with support for its future development. It is this bitter consequence, which for Naipaul has no immediate answers but futility, dissolution and disintegration. (1)

The African rage that is characterized in the following passage is not something that is strictly local and African. Naipaul has used this same primitive rage in his other texts to characterize a more existential nihilism that humans by nature have within themselves. Salim tries to describe this nihilism: "The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences" (A Bend in the River 26). This African rage, this nihilism, is something that is also fundamentally human regardless of where it takes place, whether in Africa, South Asia, South America, North America, or in the Caribbean. The following passage in A Bend in the River that characterizes this nihilism is emblematic of the twentieth century in general where ideologies and beliefs have fostered massacres and genocides in the name of justice and equality:

Now they say they have to do a lot more killing, and everybody will
have to dip their hands in the blood. They're going to kill
everybody who can read and write, everybody who ever put on a
jacket and tie, everybody who put on a jacket de boy. They're going
to kill all the masters and all the servants. When they're finished
nobody will know there was a place like this here. They're going to
kill and kill. They say it is the only way, to go back to the
beginning before it's too late. The killing will last for days.
They say it is better to kill for days than to die forever. It is
going to be terrible when the President comes. (275)

Salim begins this narrative by laying a fundamental existential assumption that is the conceptual framework of the entire novel. It is not just a simple credo or assumption, as Campbell has wanted to argue (399), but rather, it is a declaration that has universal sense, a universal credo of man's existence and his futile search for meaning and identity: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it" (3).

In Beyond Belief, a narrative of his Islamic ventures seventeen years later, Naipaul continues with this deep sense of pessimism towards these "converted people" and their existence. Naipaul observes in this text a state of insecurity in the various countries he visits. It develops into philosophical nihilism; the Islamic state has entered every facet of people's lives. There is no sense of escape; these "converted" people have had their history erased. Naipaul's deep pessimism is everywhere inscribed, and by the end of the text one has a panic to deal with. It is a book of many stories that lead to futility and resignation; stories that may very well have a prophetic sense of upcoming doom and destruction, like the story of the deformed abused housewife who had her nose butchered by her husband. She was unable to do anything to defend herself; it was a futile affair; "she was helpless" (254). In "Author's Foreword" (Finding the Centre), Naipaul informs us of the importance of finding order and a center in one's experience of the world, of identifying the incongruities of human existence so that one can understand and make sense of them. He writes the following of his West African trip: "the people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself. They too were trying to find order in their world, looking for the centre; and my discovery of these people is as much part of the story" (ix). Most of the people and individuals represented in this and other texts are existential beings that will never obtain the serenity, assurance and order that they seek. They are destined to failure according to Naipaulian discourse.

The Enigma of Arrival, a massive text that includes an immersion into autobiographical realities, is also a philosophical text in which Naipaul projects existential ideas of impermanence, futility, and doom. Naipaul's panic, associated with this philosophical strand, is documented many times. Again, let me utilize the same quote that I used elsewhere in this study, but this time focusing on the philosophical idea that this strand takes on in Naipual: "To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we live in, our many moves, our general uncertainty" (52). These "nerves" and sense of panic are certainly connected to this philosophical perspective of doom and dissolution. At one point this existentialist credo is characterized plainly through Jack, the gardener, as Naipaul writes: "The bravest and most religious thing about his life was his way of dying: the way he had asserted, at the very end, the primacy not what was beyond life, but life itself" (93). It is clear that existentialist thought is not interested in what is "beyond life," but in life itself as was illustrated in Sartre's "The Wall." The Enigma of Arrival is a text that takes major concerns with autobiographical realities and philosophical implications; it is a book in which Naipaul is defining himself more fully, it is a sensitive, introspective, meditative and sincere text of himself. The following passage clearly reflects Naipaul's thoughts, a way of looking at everything from the perspective of decay:

How sad it was to lose that sense of width and space! It caused me
pain. But already I had grown to live with the idea that things
changed; already I lived with the idea of decay. (I had always
lived with this idea. It was like my curse: the idea, which I had
had even as a child in Trinidad, that I had come into a world past
its peak.) Already I lived with the idea of death, the idea,
impossible for a young person to possess, to hold in his heart,
that one's time on earth, one's life, was a short thing. These
ideas, of a world in decay, a world subject to constant change, and
of the shortness of human life, made many things bearable. (23)

The existential sadness continues in a later travel narrative, A Turn in the South, which takes Naipaul on a trip through the Southeast portion of the United States. The characters involved in this text also have a historical sense of hopelessness: the poor whites, the Blacks, the people on the bottom. This melancholic sadness, this song of the South, is a bleak foreshadowing for these groups. There is a deep sense of pathos and futility, especially as it pertains to the Southern Blacks and their plight. Though they have been liberated from slavery, they are still a rejected people and as Naipaul has noted: "among the most denuded in that country" (119). The same sadness and futility that was present in The Loss of El Dorado is also present here. This sense of historical doom and existential decay continues in A Way in the World.

In A Way in the World, Naipaul again documents his pessimism, both from a historical perspective as in The Loss of El Dorado and from a synchronic view as in The Middle Passage. There are also many autobiographical sections and passages in which philosophical pessimism is present. In broad terms A Way in the World represents a text that is tinged with an atmosphere of insecurity, panic and destitution. Naipaul's description of the inside of the Registrar-General's department with its fish glue smell gives a slight impression of a nauseating stimulus: "The volumes smelled of fish glue. This was what they were bound with; and I suppose the glue was made from a boiling down of fish bones and skin and offal. It was the colour of honey; it dried very hard, and every careless golden drip had the clarity of glass; but it never lost the smell of fish and rottenness" (23). The text includes such sections as "New Clothes: An Unwritten Story," which represent illusions and possibilities, a "what if" situation for the writer. It is a section in which futility is clothed with anonymity. The story reminds one of Camus's "The Growing Stone" (Exile and the Kingdom) in which the principal character has similar traits and existential feelings as this anonymous character in "unwritten story". "New Clothes" is another strange story, a kind of post-modernistic narrative in which the narrator is implicated in, not only the story, but in the writing of the story, looking into the mirror of a mirror. The illusion continues. The narrator narrates about this other narrator as he sinks into the red water (from the leaves), and a discourse of nothingness ensues much in the same manner as in Hemingway and Sartre's texts.

The pool is as deep as the young men say. Soon the light fades from
the water. Soon it is utterly black. Soon it is of a black so deep
that it is without colour: it is nothing, however much you
concentrate on it. In this nothing the narrator feels he has lost
touch with his body; water blocks sensation. He is just his eyes
concentrating on nothing; he is just mind alone, a perceiving of
nothing. He is quite frightened. He somehow gets in touch with his
will again and pulls himself up, to the yellowing light. (65)

Raleigh and Miranda are characterized as tragic figures, lost in swamps of desperation in the New World, becoming almost destitute at times. Total pessimism envelops their actions; they are caught between Empire and the uncivilized New World. They are futile characters in a futile environment according to Naipaul. This is also true of the real-life based characters of Lebrun, Morris, and Blair: losers of everything, and caught in the currents of the New World vortices of demise, doom and decay. Finally, one should look at Miranda and Sally's letters. These missives reflect such a sad existential and futile mood, intimate and pathetic conversations that project a kind of madness and the eventual arrival of "nothingness" in their lives (299-334). Truly, Naipaul's areas of darkness are not that much physical and material in nature, but begin in the deep recesses of the spirit of man; a sense of dread about life and what it offers. It is an existentialist mind trying to grope for sanity and order in a world that is governed by apparent chaos and death, in a world that is filled with contradictions and paradoxes.

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