September 5, 2007

VS Naipaul on Derek Walcott

VS NaipaulI first read the following article by VS Naipaul about Derek Walcott over at Antilles, and I’ve been working on a post for Monday that deals with some of Naipaul’s comments. However, when Frances-Anne Solomon sent me the link and said, “I would be very interested to hear what you think about this article published in the Guardian in the UK.” I felt I should at least post the article to begin a discussion about Naipaul’s relationship with Walcott:,,2155514,00.html#article_continue

When he first read Derek Walcott's poems, VS Naipaul was overwhelmed by the talent of his fellow West Indian, who, at the age of 18, was already a master. The young poet had created a new language to describe both the beauty and the limitations of island life.

Needless to say, I was surprised at Naipaul’s magnanimity (Walcott has dubbed him "VS Nightfall" in "The Spoiler's Return") and these two passages:

Reading these poems in London in 1955, I thought I could understand how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn't been done before. I put the Walcott as high as that.

The poet I cherished was the user of language, the maker of startling images, intricate and profound, a man only two years older than I was, but already at 18 or 19 a kind of master, casting a retrospective glow on things I had known six or seven or eight years before.

Also, from a man who claims not to have a feel for poetry, Naipaul offers some useful insights about Walcott’s early poems:

It is an unpeopled landscape, though, in that first book. There are no villages, no huts, no local faces brought up close. The poet stands alone…The poet, churned up by his sensibility, walks alone….It is actually possible to feel that without the black idea, the pool of distress, always available, in which the poet could refresh himself, the unpeopled landscape would be insupportable.

And when, in the 1940s, middle-class people with no home but the islands began to understand the emptiness they were inheriting (before black people claimed it all) they longed for a local culture, something of their very own, to give them a place in the world.

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.

Frances-Anne, I hope you’ll kick-off the discussion and I hope others will join in.

Synchronicity? (9:45pm): Kwame Dawes on the article over at Harriet

I’ll be coming back to the article on Monday, but in case you also want more, more, more Naipaul, here are a few others about Naipaul via Antilles:

Nicholas Shakespeare reviews A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling by VS Naipaul.,,2160111,00.html

Amit Chaudhuri is fascinated by the Lawrentian echoes in VS Naipaul's A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling

A magus grown mellow,,2160511,00.html

Even as VS Naipaul's A Writer's People damns certain authors, his praise of others, when it eventually comes, is both wholehearted and perceptive, says Chandrahas Choudhury.

Few writers get up noses like VS Naipaul, but his views on Islam, Gandhi and English Lit courses have a ring of truth.

More time…


Moral vs Ethical Writing: Naipaul and Walcott



Frances-Anne said...

It's not what Naipaul says here about Derek thats the problem -its what he says about the caribbean, that is well just wrong.

"We were a small, mainly agricultural colony and we
said all the
time, without unhappiness, that we were a dot on
the map of the

Did we? I didn't. I remember thinking we were the center of the universe, the whole universe in fact.

"On the island, small though we were, the living half-
cultures or quarter-cultures of colonial Europe
and immigrant Asia
knew almost nothing of one another; a transported
Africa was the
presence all around us, like the sea."

Excuse me, I am not half or quarter anything, but whole caribbean. 200 percent inheritor of it all.

"Only segments of our varied
population were educated, and in the restricted local way, which we
in the sixth form understood very well: we could see the professional or career cul-de-sacs to which our
education was leading us".

Our education - in the elite schools that Naipaul and I have attended -was not any more "restricted" than in Britain? 5n fact the colonial ducation we received was much better than in the mother country... as I was to learn.

"As always in these colonial places, there were little reading and writing groups here and there, now and then: harmless pools of
vanity that came and went and didn't add up to anything like an organised or solid literary or cultural life."

Harumph. I resent the "harmless pools of vanity" CLR James and Lloyd Best et al were neither harmless nor vain.

"If Trinidad was a dot on the map of the world, it could be
said that St Lucia was a dot on that dot."

I am not happy being called dot-y.

"It was something we with literary ambitions from these islands all had to face: small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies."

EXCUSE ME!!!!!!!!???????!!!!!!!!?????????????????!!!!

"And these islands were very small, infinitely smaller than Ibsen's Norway."

Says who!!!???? I don't agree!

"Their literary possibilities, like their economic possibilities, were as narrow as their human possibilities."

OMG????!!!!! This has so been proven wrong by all the great literature that has emerged from the Caribbean

"Ibsen's Norway, provincial as it was, had bankers, editors, scholars, high-reaching people. There was nothing of this human wealth in the islands."

??!!!!! As if bankers and scholars etc are all that comprises human wealth...

"They didn't give a fiction writer or a poet much to write about; they cramped and quickly exhausted a talent that in a larger and more varied space might have spread its wings and done unsuspected things.
wrong again."

Wrong again!

"He (Walcott) took the plots of old Spanish plays (I believe), gave them a local setting, and redid the characters as local Negroes.

It is not fair to reduce Walcotts Joker to this????

"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.
???!!!!!!! First, 'aborigines' ? - the caribs and arawaks were not aborigines. ????!!!!!! Then, are we less "civil" for our history than the British or the Americans?????

"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."

Wrong again. Caribbean people take great pride of ownership in that rich identity.

"And when, in the 1940s, middle-class people with no home but the islands began to understand the emptiness they were inheriting (before black people claimed it all) they longed for a local culture, something of their very own, to give them a place in the world."

"middle class people with no home but the islands" - the islands are a magnificent home.
"the emptiness that they were inheriting": See this is the crux: Naipaul sees the Caribbean as empty, wasteland culturally, where many of it see it is abundant and rich culturally.

Big difference.

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.
Then he went stale on them. He exhausted the first flush of his talent; nothing more seemed to be coming; and he became ordinary, a man in need of a job.
forget what he says about all walcotts work after the 25 poems but do you agree that sl we are is EMPTINESS?????

Geoffrey Philp said...

Frances-Anne, thanks for kicking this off.

There is so much here that I think I will only take it in small manageable pieces.

As far as the "emptiness" in Walcott's poems are concerned, I agree with Naipaul. There is a theme of existential despair that runs through Walcott's early poems. In Another Life, Walcott makes fun of it with the comment of his friend, Gregorias. In that collection, you can really sense Walcott coming up against the lack of opportunities and how the situation was destroying his friends' lives--the eventual suicide being the ultimate insult.

I'll come back some more.


Frances-Anne said...

Geoffrey: there is a difference between "emptiness" and "existential despair". Yes, Walcott expresses that, richly, in Another Life among many extraordinary works that he produced AFTER the 25 poems.
I believe that art arises from - among other things - the translation and expression of pain, our heritage is rich in that.
I disagree profoundly with Naipaul's perspective, and the way that he dismisses our reality by examining it from a very European frame of reference. One that sees culture in terms of British middle class achievement and defines civilisation as a European construct.
We are and have been in the process of creating new cultural forms, and the raw material is very rich. It is not helpful to simply write us off in that way - as small people with small minds, an empty imitative culture. He himself is proof of the rich possibilities of our cultural heritage and he is by no means alone. Artists and thinkers from Braithwaite to Miss Lou, from Walcott to Lloyd Best and CLR James, Boscoe Holder and on and on have drawn on the dynamic commingling of cultures that is the Caribbean to create bold new work...We could not do it if there were not rich possibilities to draw from. We would not be able to do it if we thought this raw material of our forced cohabitation through slavery, indentureship, colonisation itself, was nothing, just emptiness. You are also one of these creators... It is a very old- fashioned analysis that dismisses our indigenous cultures in this way.
I am not an academic, and I struggle for words to express my meaning here, but I have fought all my adult life against this backward way of seeing us, as savages, small, empty, less than...always in relation to the supposed heights of european achievement...

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Francs-Anne,

For me, emptiness=nothingness=void=existential despair.

Now that Walcott and many others could have created out of that spiritual void of which we are inheritors is a sign of his greatness.

We owe a great deal to that generation of writers, Naipaul included, because to my mind they created Caribbean literature. By that I mean, their work contained so many creative opportunities that many other younger writers, like me, could draw on and use.

I'm going to come back to this, but one of the interesting aspects of Naipaul's essay (and Kwame's blog notes this) is that Naipaul ends the essay at the point where Walcott goes on to create some of his best work such as The Star-Apple Kingdom.


Frances-Anne said...

"Naipaul ends the essay at the point where Walcott goes on to create some of his best work such as The Star-Apple Kingdom."

...Yes, and he dismisses all of it!

"For me, emptiness=nothingness=void=existential despair."

For me, existentialism is a very positive philosophy in relation to the Caribbean."The term despair, when used by existentialists, refers to the fact that all the choices we make are based on uncertain information and an incomplete understanding of the world." "Existentialism is a philosophical movement which claims that individual human beings create the meanings of their own lives."

This seems to me to describe the perfect approach to take when you live in or come from the Caribbean, because the culture is in a constant and heightened state of evolution and self creation. And each one of us has the real ability to be part of that, contribute to that in a positive way.

This is the very opposite of "emptiness" or "nothingness" because all things are posible in & from this place, and much is achievable.

Of course such a region would create great artists. And it has, and continues to do so. No mystery in that. No cause to genuflect.

Over and Out.

Geoffrey Philp said...

"The bony, idle fingers on the valves
Of his knee-cradled horn could tear
Through "Georgia on My Mind" or "Jesus Saves"
With the same fury of indifference
If what propelled such frenzy was despair"

"The Glory Trumpeter" from The Castaway and Other Poems.

Throughout Walcott's career he uses the word "frenzy" to describe people who face the "nothingness" of life but do not manifest any kind of creativity in their lives. This "nothingness" is heightened in the Caribbean because of our rootlessness. Unlike Europeans, Caribbean people don't have a "History." That is what leads to existential despair with some.

But Walcott relishes this idea of being without History--we are New World Adams creating History. Out of this "nothingness"--meaning a myriad of unformed choices--the artist creates out of that nothingness--the artist makes meaning.

Where others despair at the void/nothingness and fall into existential despair, many Caribbean people and artists revel in the creative possibilities.


Frances-Anne said...

I don't really want to continue this. except to say we do not have a history. of course we do. to say otherwise is simply wrong.
Things happened - people lived in the place, civilisations evolved, they were killed off for the most part when european invaders arrived seeking wealth. the invaders brought africans and indians to be slaves and servants to make money,(those people all brought their rich long histories with them) lots of other people came later on. et. That is history.
It may not be the cosy constructed history of kings and queens you read about in some book. Rich people in castles in a mythical place called "europe" - where everything was "ordered" "rational" and "civilised" (no such place exists or ever has), but our history (or histories) are real long and fertile truth. I do not accept the concept of no history, nothingness or emptiness, it is class laced and eurocentric and unuseful.

Mary Witzl said...

Some years back I met a man from Trinidad at a party in Tokyo. When I told him how much I admired V. S. Naipaul, he looked pained. I got the feeling that he was both immensely proud of Naipaul and -- in equal measures -- irritated by him.

Having read these interesting comments, I now have an idea why.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Mary,
Greetings and welcome!

Yeah, nearly everyone I know has a similar reaction to Naipaul--the skill, the talent, the keen eye for detail, but then... ah well.