Moral vs. Ethical Writing: Naipaul and Walcott
Walcott in 1949 more than met their need. He sang the praises of the emptiness; he gave it a kind of intellectual substance. He gave their unhappiness a racial twist that made it more manageable.
Naipaul's insistence in "Caribbean Odyssey" that Walcott's reputation was built on a "black idea" is at best disingenuous and at worst morally bankrupt because of its failure to recognize beauty as a human value, and, perhaps, reveals his true sensibilities as a satirist.
Satires and comedy of manners assume an ideal against which human actions are judged. In this respect they are ethical and not moral. The writer, John Gardner, in On Writers and Writing, describes the difference:
Judgment support society; ethical law is the law of reason; imagination, on the other hand supports higher values, those central to poetry and religion: moral law is the law of the imagination. Ethical law, always prohibitive, guarantee equal rights to all members of the group, but moral law, always affirmative, points to the absolute, without respect to the needs of the group.
Naipaul began his writing career by examining Trinidadian society and saw conditions that violated his sensibilities. When these actions were balanced against the ideals of colonial society, the result was comical. To heighten the comic effect, Naipaul's characters demonstrated enough self-knowledge to realize that their circumstances were hopeless, yet they heroically continued their journeys. Naipaul produced several novels such as The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira by using this formula. However, by the time he wrote Mimic Men, he reversed the usual characteristics of a "Naipaul novel" by describing the utter misery of the actual and then destroying the ideal. Naipaul, an iconoclast at heart, used the same procedure for his non-fiction where he used his unmatched skills as a novelist to dissect corruption and incompetence in Third World locales, and then, decimated any prelapsarian identity the locale was imagined to have possessed.
As successful as this method is in producing robust book sales, what emerges from this kind of ethical writing is a description of failure bound by space and time, and which does not take into account the vast sweep of human existence. In addition, because Naipaul is writing from a West Indian postcolonial perspective, the assumption is that the failures he describes are a result of racial inferiority and not human folly. Naipaul's ethical writing supports colonial/tribal values that are founded on denial of values outside colonial mores; moral writing such as Walcott's affirms human values such as joy and beauty. And even if one were to argue that Walcott's writing had a "racial twist" this is merely another human characteristic that the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, in Transformation of Myth Through Time calls "land naming" which "consists in sanctifying the land by recognizing in the features of the local landscape, mythological images" (29).
By wielding his pen against embryonic cultures or cultures that were subjected to the evils of colonialism, which destroyed the sense of self-hood, individually and nationally, Naipaul has aligned himself either wittingly or unwittingly with racist detractors who use the argument that since Naipaul is one of "them" (Caribbean or East Indian) or know "them" (Africans) better than "they" do, then what he is saying must be true or why would he betray "his own people"? So, the charlatans, crooks, and demagogies that Naipaul exposes in Third World or emerging countries are not indicted on human foibles of greed, lust, incompetence, and corruption, but on the basis of belonging to the lesser tribes of brown and black people.
Yet it in his dismissal of the physical beauty of the Caribbean as a foreign idea that Naipaul shows his contempt, which is seemingly couched in an historical perspective:
The competing empires of Europe had beaten fiercely on these islands, repeopled after the aborigines had gone, turned into sugar islands, places of the lash, where fortunes could be made, sugar the new gold. And at the end, after slavery and sugar, Europe had left behind nothing that could be called a civilisation, no great architecture, no idea of local beauty, no memory of style and splendour (the splendour created by the sugar wealth would have occurred elsewhere, in Europe), only the smallest small change of civility. Everything that remained was touched with the pain of slavery: the brutalities of the popular language, and the prejudices of race: nothing a man would wish to call his own.
Naipaul, again, displays his willing ignorance in the phrase, "nothing a man would wish to call his own." For it is out of a similar narratives of the "the pain of slavery: the brutalities of the popular language, and the prejudices of race'" that literatures such as the Bible and many cultures have been built--the triumph of a small oppressed people over a larger and seemingly intractable enemy.
Following his argument to its logical conclusion, Naipaul, despite the remarkable perceptivity about the loneliness of the speakers in Walcott's early poems, argues that Walcott's feelings of emptiness arise because the idea of "the unpeopled landscape would be insupportable," and dismisses the physical beauty of the Caribbean as an "imported" idea. The emptiness, loneliness, and beauty described by Walcott are not "black" ideas. Had Naipaul extended his essay to encompass Walcott's later poems, he would have had to include an experience of what could only be called an "epiphany" about which Walcott wrote in Chapter Seven of Another Life: "About the August of my fourteenth year/ I lost my self somewhere above a valley…/ and I dissolved in trance/ I was seized by a pity more profound/ than my young body could bear." This experience that has been described elsewhere as an "oceanic feeling" by Erik Erikson or in literatures from the Upanishads, Buddhist sutras "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form" to Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness are varying responses to an existential crisis from which the moral imagination creates its forms. And it is out of this emptiness that Walcott could create beautiful poems such as "Love after Love" or "Light of the World" that affirm the continuity of life and beauty.
"Caribbean Odyssey" contains rare signs of empathy that Naipaul has never disclosed. Naipaul's idiosyncrasies, especially towards poetry and book buying, reveals cultural habits that need to be explored further, and they show a grasp of Caribbean life that many other writers have yet to comprehend. In this respect, Naipaul's foibles in denying the wealth and abundance of "local" beauty, a trait that is endemic throughout the Caribbean, shows that he is indeed one of us, and the description by Joseph Campbell of this kind of behavior makes perfect sense: "Standing on whale and fishing for minnows."