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Pessimism and existentialism in V.S. Naipaul #2

Written by eastern writer on Friday, September 24, 2010

Then biting his nails one evening, he broke off a piece of a tooth.
He took the piece out of his mouth and placed it on his palm. It
was yellow and quite dead, quite unimportant; he could hardly
recognize it as part of a tooth: if it were dropped on the ground
it would never be found: a part of himself that would never grow
again. He thought he would keep it. Then he walked to the window
and threw it out. (271)


Mr. Biswas's sense of security as it seems was in the owning of a house. In his first but unsuccessful try, he had a small shack built in Green Vale, which was eventually burned down by the labourers. The narrator depicts a desperate situation in Mr. Biswas's life during his panic and nervous breakdown. The house is depicted in quite a decadent manner: "But Mr. Biswas only muttered on the bed, and the rain and wind swept through the room with unnecessary strength and forced open the door to the drawingroom, wall-less, floorless, of the house Mr. Biswas had built" (292). There is a great sense of futility and desperation in this scene. Later when Mr. Biswas' mother, Bipti, dies he goes to the wake and there are existential thoughts that go through his mind:
In The Middle Passage, Naipaul delves more fully into the existential plane of pessimism and dissolution. The Middle Passage contains, for many critics, negative observations about the Caribbean in general, and yet, as I have mentioned before, it is not a sense of disgust towards the people and situations in the Caribbean that Naipaul wants to document. It is more of a philosophical assumption on the underlying premises of life in general. All the places that he visits are described and tinged with a malaise, a general perspective about life that invites one to reminisce about existential decay and ruins, about the nothingness and futility of life. Every place that he visits invokes one or more of these feelings. One of Naipaul's most timely statements has been misunderstood often because it is interpreted as a scathing and personal comment of disgust about his native region. But Naipaul's discourse should be analyzed, not in terms of binaries, but by taking into account sociological and historical realities. Let us look at the quote: "For nothing was created in the British West Indies, no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else" (27).

If analyzed from the philosophical perspective, one would understand better Naipaul's existentialist discourse: the use of the word "nothing" is essential here and will lead us to a wider perspective of this passage and its meaning. Naipaul is not invoking a personal criticism, but a philosophical one. It is well known that the region was constructed for exploitation, plunder, rape and slavery; it was a giant sweatshop where people, materials and processes were placed in a giant cauldron from which a Caribbean degraded stew came forth. Thus, Naipaul's philosophical comment is timely and well taken. The Middle Passage is one of Naipaul's finest texts because, among other things, the reader is introduced to the complexities of Naipaul's philosophical schemes.

One critic, Sybille Bedford, has interestingly characterized this philosophical sense in The Middle Passage: "In form, the book is the account of what must have been on the whole a rather depressing Caribbean journey" [my emphasis] (1). No doubt, this "depressing" sense is one of the effects of this existential angst. At the end of his excursion to Surinam when he visits Coronie, Naipaul writes about his experience and utilizes concepts such as dereliction, desolation, and abandonment, which are terms that clearly describe and define his existential thinking:

A derelict man in a derelict land ... lost in a landscape which had
never ceased to be unreal because the scene of an enforced and
always temporary residence: the slaves kidnapped from one continent
and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from
which there could never more be escape. I was glad to leave
Coronie, for, more than lazy Negroes, it held the full desolation
that came to those who made the middle passage. (Middle Passage
190)

The Middle Passage thus represents Naipaul's introduction to the philosophical existentialist discourse, a way of writing that will follow him in his writing career: the search for self--tinged with the sense of doom, demise and dereliction. The Middle Passage is the beginning incursion into existential pessimism and nothingness, a preoccupation with existence and individuality, and the search for order and sanity in this world. Naipaul's Mr. Stone and the Knight's Companion is a small exquisite text that clearly projects a philosophical view, a perspective that reminds one of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock with its emphasis on decadence, demise, and dissolution.

In An Area of Darkness, Naipaul's second travel narrative, there are continued descriptions and discussions of ruins; but this time, on the ruins of India. In this narrative India is viewed as a country littered with ruins and decadence in which destruction, annihilation, despair, and above all, dereliction, are everywhere to be felt. According to his thoughts, India is a land caught up in futility and destined to nothingness. Naipaul's philosophical attitude tinges everything that he sees; what he sees is an India that depresses his spirit.

He was oppressed by a sense of loss: not of present loss, but of
something missed in the past. He would have liked to be alone, to
commune with this feeling. But time was short, and always there was
the sight of Shama and the children, alien growths, alien
affections, which fed on him and called him away from that part of
him which yet remained purely himself, that part which had for long
been submerged and was now to disappear. (480)

There is an impending sense of doom and dissolution in this passage. Mr. Biswas's descent into maelstrom was made during the critical days at Green Vale where he was exposed to fear and panic of the most excruciating kind: "Fear seized him and hurt like a pain" (268). It was similar to the decay, dissolution, and impending destruction contained in both of Edgar Alan Poe's stories, "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

All creation in India hints at the imminence of interruption and
destruction. Building is like an elemental urge, like the act of
sex among the starved. It is building for the sake of building,
creation for the sake of creation; and each creation is separate, a
beginning and an end in itself.... but at Mahabalipuram near
Madras, on the waste sand of the sea shore, stands the abandoned
Shore Temple, its carvings worn smooth after twelve centuries of
rain and salt and wind.... In India these endless mosques and
rhetorical mausolea, these great palaces speak only of a personal
plunder and a country with an infinite capacity for being
plundered. (216-17)

In the passage above one can but notice the pessimistic sense that envelops his observations. It is a gloomy and dark fatalistic vision of things: "India was part of the night: a dead world, a long journey" (279). In the first pages of this narrative Naipaul gives us a clue of what lay ahead. It was a slow long journey into this Naipaulian area of darkness:

It had been a slow journey, its impressions varied and superficial.
But it had been a preparation for the East. After the bazaar of
Cairo the bazaar of Karachi was no surprise; and bakshish was the
same in both languages.... From Athens to Bombay another idea of
man had defined itself by degrees, a new type of authority and
subservience. The physique of Europe had melted away first into
that of Africa and then, through Semitic Arabia, into Aryan Asia.
Men had been diminished and deformed; they begged and whined.
Hysteria had been my reaction, and a brutality dictated by a new
awareness of myself as a whole human being and a determination,
touched with fear, to remain what I was. (15-16)

In his last Indian travel narrative, India: A Million Mutinies Now, written twenty-six years later, Naipaul continues with this philosophical melancholy. In the first passage of "Breaking Out" there is this sense of futility and desperation. Naipaul refers to this experience in Goa as "the fracture in reality" (140). Naipaul also reminisces through his lens of pessimism of how he entered Calcutta in 1962:

y own days in Calcutta had been hard. When I had first come to
Calcutta in 1962, I had, after the early days of strain, settled
into the big-city life of the place; had had the feeling of being
in a true metropolis, with the social and cultural stimulation of
such a place. Something of that life was still there. But I was
overpowered this time by my own wretchedness, the taste of the
water, corrupting both coffee and tea as it corrupted food, by the
brown smoke of cars and buses, by the dug-up roads and broken
footpaths, by the dirt, by the crowds. (346-47)

Twenty-six years had elapsed and still, according to Naipaul, India was in a wretched and terrible condition.

The Mimic Men, though politically inclined, is nevertheless an extraordinary philosophical novel about man's existence and fate. But its fundamental framework is pessimistic and existentialist. As Nazareth has noted: "[It] is thus unremittingly pessimistic. Hardly anybody reveals any ideals, any values beyond grabbing what one can for oneself" ("The Mimic Men as a Study" 143). It is not just localized pessimism that is negotiated in this text, but rather, a deeper, more generalized, philosophic pessimism. The text continues to explore, as in The Middle Passage, these areas of philosophic darkness. John Hearne, another Caribbean writer, has written a well-crafted essay on Naipaul's The Mimic Men in which he underscores the most significant aspect of the narrative, i.e., its existential pessimism: "[It] is a good book with a despair so isolate, with a privacy so armoured against any intrusion of society, that we can do no more than concede the unremitting integrity of its pessimism" (31). The narrator and protagonist, Ralph Singh, reiterates: "nothing was secure" (121).

There is an existential sadness behind the text, The Loss of El Dorado, but from a historical perspective. In The Loss of El Dorado Naipaul gives us the impression that Trinidad has had a history of desolation and corruption. It is an island where things were never achieved, a place where things never settled down for the better. There was always instability and a sense of decay. Anarchy and nihilism seemed to be the common words to express everything that happened. The Loss of El Dorado is a history, but it is a pessimistic history of decadence and degradation. This seems to be the basic underlying assumption of the text. As in many of his other texts, The Loss of El Dorado contains irony threaded together with this philosophical strand of pessimism. It might seem that irony is just one other way, besides caricature, that Naipaul can utilize to deal with the existential stress of nothingness, a way by which this destitution and doom, this existential decay can be dealt with rhetorically.

Corroborating my assumptions, Doerksen has noted the following about In a Free State: "it becomes clearly evident that it belongs in the genre of twentieth-century existentialist writings" (105). Kazin characterizes its theme as "the tenuousness of man's hold on the earth" (3). In a Free State consists of three short narratives, each independent from the other but thematically linked, and two outer flaps, a prologue and an epilogue that seems to bind them together. But all five pieces are intimately connected to the existential angst of the paradox of freedom and being. The constant references to nausea and nothingness have already been discussed in relation to this text. But now we are introduced to the freedom of an existential being and all the contradictions that this involves in Santosh, in Dayo's brother, in Bobby and Linda, and even in the narrator himself and the tramp. All these characters are experimenting with freedom and its paradoxes. According to Boxhill, "Naipaul ends by suggesting that in this world no time has ever been pure and consequently, absolute freedom can never exist. Purity and freedom are fabrications, illusions, causes for yearning, things for the tomb" (91).

The mad narrator in "Tell Me Who to Kill" groans with great existential pain: "Let the rat come out. The lie is over. I am like a man who is giving up. I come with nothing. I have nothing, I will leave with nothing" [my emphasis] (96). Santosh in "One Out of Many" tells us: "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). For Dayo's brother and Santosh there is no purpose in life but the final dissolution and demise. In the story, "In a Free State," Bobby and Linda are caught up in a sense of dread, alienation, and horror: a sense of insecurity permeates this longer narrative; the same panic and fear that are present in A Bend in the River. The Conradian nature of A Bend in the River suggests as Walder has noted, "an inevitable cycle of corruption, arising out of the darkness within humanity" (108). Even though this text, like his other texts, deals mostly with the post-colonial condition of man, Naipaul's intent is to display more fully the universal dilemma of man and his existential condition. And he underscores this with a sense of dread in which the conclusion tends to be less of a happy ending and more of an ultimate decay and dissolution of man.

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  1. 1 komentar: Responses to “ Pessimism and existentialism in V.S. Naipaul #2 ”

  2. By Anonymous on September 26, 2010 at 9:41 PM

    Toussaint L’Ouverture is an integral part of Haiti’s history, not to be forgotten. If you want to inform yourself, “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” – a short film – chronicled his last moments in fighting against the French oppressors. Clip here http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/

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