September 10, 2007

Moral vs. Ethical Writing: Naipaul and Walcott

VS NaipaulIn a recent essay about Derek Walcott entitled, "Caribbean Odyssey," VS Naipaul, while acknowledging Walcott's genius, depicts Walcott as a writer whose reputation had been built on a "racial twist" and as "a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting" had he not been "rescued" by the "American universities." As would be expected from an author of his prodigious talents, Naipaul, as a deracinated West Indian and a writer who began his career with comedies of manners, constructs a clever argument by limiting the time span of his essay to the years between 1948, when Walcott published his first collection, 25 Poems, and 1965, when he had a face-to-face chat with Walcott. By using this truncated chronology, Naipaul then carefully selects details from Walcott's life and Caribbean history to continue his canard against the region's failure to live up to its promise and the Caribbean as a place from which one needs to be "rescued." His essay is also dismissive of the "idea of island beauty" as something "imported from outside." Commenting on Walcott's early poems, Naipaul contends, "It is actually possible to feel that without the black idea…the unpeopled landscape would be insupportable." He also suggests that Walcott by embracing the "idea of black children" and "the black idea," became a champion of the Caribbean "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." Naipaul continues with the observation:

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."


Naipaul on Walcott



clarabella said...

Quote: "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..." Surely you don't mean that Caribbean people are in the habit of denying the wealth and abundance of "local" beauty? Must be tongue in cheek, though it doesn't seem so. Glad of clarification. pam

Geoffrey Philp said...

Clarabella, 1/8th tongue in cheek--dig at Naipual--the other 7/8ths serious.

As the work of Nurse and others demonstrate, the Caribbean's consumption of foreign artistic and cultural products over local artistic and cultural products is like 5 to 1. That seems like a denial of our own beauty to me.


clarabella said...

Aren't you maybe a little rough on us, Geoff? I can't mount a plea for the entire Caribbean, and I don't know the expert(s) that you cite, but wouldn't you say that Jamaicans consume our own music products? And our own art products, those who can afford them? And our own theatre products – our panto comes to mind? And must we "consume product" to love beauty? pam

clarabella said...

Aren't you being a little rough on us, Geoff? I accept your figures, though I don't know the source(s) that you cite. Be those as they may, and also accepting that I can't mount a plea for any place other than Jamaica, wouldn't you say that we consume, at least to some extent, our own music product? The products of our painters and sculptors and potters? Our theatre and movie products – panto comes to mind? And must we "consume product" to love beauty? Benedictions. pam

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Clarabella,

It's not me being hard. It's the research of people like Keith Nurse that presents the empirical evidence from which I can't hide.

That's why really and truly I love the work that Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes and Calabash are doing with setting up institutions--the next level of our cultural development in literature seing as Carifests has fallen away.


Marlon James said...

I agree with Geoffrey that this denial of the Caribbean's beauty is a fundamentally Caribbean trait. It's true that we consume Caribbean music but not more than American and though most of our goods are imported and nobody seems to mind. I think back at wretched poems like "Lovely Dainty Spanish Needle" and do wonder sometimes if the idea of Caribbean Beauty is not an imported one as well. We're certainly in the habit of accepting American and European definitions of ourselves as gospel: sun, sand, sea, sex and murder. While I'm convinced that Naipaul has lost it I'm still a little disenchanted that many of his criticisms of the Caribbean are still right. I left my country as well, and I would be lying if I denied that one of the reasons was the fear that had I stayed any longer I would have been infected by it's artistic mediocrity too. Statements like that don't win many friends, but Friends weren't helping me to become a better writer.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Marlon,

This truth telling business doesn't win anyone many friends.

God's speed!

Anonymous said...

Geoff -- I think I'm going to meditate on your comments for a bit and maybe write a post on my own blog.

There is a lot there to think about, especially since I agree with some of Naipaul's claims, but not with the implications that he draws from them.

I wasn't sure what you meant by the terms "moral" and "ethical" writing; That there is an ethics and an underlying morality to the ways in which we choose to write and represent -- yes, I get that. So then all writing, especially about the region, can fall under one of those categories, no? Whether or not we take the time or see it of value to uncover these dimensions and make them explicit, as you have in this post, is a different question, I think. I'm curious...

On the question of beauty: I am not that old, but I know that I learned to think of "beauty" as something external to us in Jamaica, and that which had to be taught to us, either by elites, formal education, or through by travelling abroad and "being exposed." I also know that I have had to reteach myself that beauty does transcend the local/global divide, and that what I find beautiful about Jamaica does not leave out or skip over the violence of our history.

Most of what is marked as "local" beauty today is indeed created by or in response to the tastes of foreigners. That's why it matters to call it "local", "tropical", "island" rather than beauty, period. We don't like it until they say they like it, or tell us that we ought to like it too if we want them to like us. Even the consumption of and regard for reggae and dancehall is shaped by our high regard for tastemakers abroad. And while the "local beauty" may offer some pleasure to some, I don't think that what we recognize as beauty should be measured by that yardstick.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Longbench, I look forward to reading your post.

In the meantime,poets such as Tony McNeill, Dennis Scott, Kamau Barthwaite, and Walcott defined local beauty by using metaphors drawn from the local landscape so that we could see our beauty.

See you soon!

Geoffrey Philp said...

had to run off, my daughter needed me to look at something.

here's the difference between ethical and moral

Mr Golding is being ethical. he is upholding tribal values. this is the way that we do things.. gays do not have human rights in our country.

moral values say, if this is a human value that we hold as worthy for one, them they are worthy for all--human rights are human rights.

as you can see, the moralists often get in trouble with the ethicists.


Geoffrey Philp said...

one last thought on beauty before i fall asleep

remember what annie paul said after walcott read "the mongoose"? I'll never see a mongoose the same way again...this is what I mean by local beauty and artists... we create beauty.. we see beauty where others only hear noise, we hear the sensuous urging of a bass guitar...where other only see... you get the idea