[Reader-list] Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Shohini shohini at giasdl01.vsnl.net.in
Fri Oct 12 20:26:10 IST 2001

Just a reminder that  Naipaul had supported the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the rise of the Hindu Right - apart from making homophobic statements about E.M. Forster recently. Of course, this does not take away from the fact that A House for Mr Biswas is one of the most moving novels I have ever read. 
Shohini Ghosh 

*EM Forster Derided As "Nasty Homosexual"

*Naipaul Accused Of Demonising Homosexuality

*Edward Said: An intellectual catastrophe

An intellectual catastrophe
Edward W. Said

The strange fascination with Islam in the West continues.

Most recently, the originally Trinidadian but now British author V S.
Naipaul has brought out a massive volume about his travels in four Islamic
countries -- all of them non-Arab -- as a sequel to a book he wrote on the
same four places about 18 years ago. The first book was called Among the
Believers: An Islamic Journey; the new one is Beyond Belief: Islamic
Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. In the meantime Naipaul has become
Sir V S Naipaul, an extremely famous and, it must be said, very talented
writer whose novels and non-fiction (mostly travel books) have established
his reputation as one of the truly celebrated, justly well-known figures
in world literature today.

In Paris, for example, Sonia Rykiel's fancy showrooms on windows on the
Boulevard St Germain are filled with copies of the French translation of
Beyond Belief, intermixed with the scarves, belts and handbags. This of
course is one kind of tribute, although Naipaul may not be very pleased
about it. On the other hand, the book has been reviewed everywhere in the
prestige English and American press, paid tribute to as the work of a
great master of shrewd observation and telling detail, the kind of
demystifying, thorough exposé of Islam for which Western readers seem to
have a bottomless appetite. No one today would write a similar kind of
book about Christianity or Judaism. Islam on the other hand is fair game,
even though the expert may not know the languages or much about the

Naipaul's, however, is a special case.  He is neither a professional
Orientalist nor a thrill seeker. He is a man of the Third World who sends
back dispatches from the Third World to an implied audience of
disenchanted Western liberals who can never hear bad enough things about
all the Third World myths -- national liberation movements, revolutionary
goals, the evils of colonialism -- which in Naipaul's opinion do nothing
to explain the sorry state of African and Asian countries who are sinking
under poverty, native impotence, badly learned, unabsorbed Western ideas
like industrialisation and modernisation. These are people, Naipaul says
in one of his books, who know how to use a telephone but can neither fix
nor invent one. Naipaul can now be cited as an exemplary figure from the
Third World. Born in Trinidad he is originally of Hindu Indian stock; he
emigrated to Britain in the l950s, has become a senior member of the
British establishment and is always spoken of as a candidate for the Nobel
Prize -- someone who can be relied on always to tell the truth about the
Third World. Naipaul is "free of any romantic moonshine about the moral
claims of primitives,"  said one reviewer in l979, and he does this
without "a trace in him of Western condescension or nostalgia for

Still, even for Naipaul, Islam is worse than most other problems of the
Third World. Feeling his Hindu origins, he recently has said that the
worst calamity in India's history was the advent and later presence of
Islam which disfigured the country's history. Unlike most writers he makes
not one but two journeys to "Islam" in order to confirm his deep antipathy
to the religion, its people, and its ideas. Ironically, Beyond Belief is
dedicated to his Muslim wife Nadira whose ideas or feelings are not
referred to. In the first book he does not learn anything -- they, the
Muslims, prove what he already knows. Prove what? That the retreat to
Islam is "stupefaction".  In Malaysia, Naipaul is asked "what is the
purpose of your writing? Is it to tell people what it's all about?" He
replies, "Yes, I would say comprehension." "Is it not for money?" "Yes.
But the nature of the work is important." Thus he travels among Muslims
and writes about it, is well paid by his publisher and by the magazines
that run extracts of his books, because it is important, not because he
likes doing it. Muslims provide him with stories, which he records as
instances of "Islam."

There is very little pleasure and only a very little affection recorded
in these two books. In the earlier book, its funny moments are at the
expense of Muslims, who are "wogs" after all as seen by Naipaul's British
and American readers, potential fanatics and terrorists, who cannot spell,
be coherent, sound right to a worldly-wise, somewhat jaded judge from the
West. Every time they show their Islamic weaknesses, Naipaul the Third
World witness appears promptly. A Muslim lapse occurs, some resentment
against the West is expressed by an Iranian, and then Naipaul explains
that "this is the confusion of a people of high medieval culture awakening
to oil and money, a sense of power and violation and a knowledge of a
great new encircling civilization [the West]. It was to be rejected; at
the same time it was to be depended on."

Remember that last sentence and a half, for it is Naipaul's thesis as
well as the platform from which he addresses the world: The West is the
world of knowledge, criticism, technical know-how and functioning
institutions, Islam is its fearfully enraged and retarded dependent,
awakening to a new, barely controllable power. The West provides Islam
with good things from the outside, because "the life that had come to
Islam had not come from within." Thus the existence of one billion Muslims
is summed up in a phrase and dismissed. Islam's flaw was at "its origins
-- the flaw that ran through Islamic history: to the political issues it
raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the
faith. It offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything -- but who
had ceased to exist. This political Islam was rage, anarchy." All the
examples Naipaul gives, all the people he speaks to tend to align
themselves under the Islam vs. The West opposition he is determined to
find everywhere. It's all very tiresome and repetitious.

Why then does he return to write an equally long and boring book two
decades later? The only answer I can give is that he now thinks he has an
important new insight about Islam. And that insight is if you are not an
Arab -- Islam being a religion of the Arabs -- then you are a convert. As
converts to Islam, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and Indonesians
necessarily suffer the fate of the inauthentic. For them Islam is an
acquired religion which cuts them off from their traditions, leaving them
neither here nor there. What Naipaul attempts to document in his new book
is the fate of the converted, people who have lost their own past but have
gained little from their new religion except more confusion, more
unhappiness, more (for the Western reader) comic incompetence, all of it
the result of conversion to Islam. This ridiculous argument would suggest
by extension that only a native of Rome can be a good Roman Catholic;
other Catholic Italians, Spaniards, Latin Americans, Philipinos who are
converts are inauthentic and cut off from their traditions. According to
Naipaul, then, Anglicans who are not British are only converts and they
too, like the Malysian or Iranian Muslim, are doomed to a life of
imitation and incompetence since they are converts.

In effect, the 400-page Beyond Belief is based on nothing more than this
rather idiotic and insulting theory. The question isn't whether it is true
or not but how could a man of such intelligence and gifts as V S Naipaul
write so stupid and so boring a book, full of story after story
illustrating the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive
thesis, that most Muslims are converts and must suffer the same fate
wherever they are. Never mind history, politics, philosophy, geography:
Muslims who are not Arabs are inauthentic converts, doomed to this
wretched false destiny.  Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion,
himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam
caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental
suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I
would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.

The pity of it is that so much is now lost on Naipaul. His writing has
become repetitive and uninteresting. His gifts have been squandered. He
can no longer make sense. He lives on his great reputation which has
gulled his reviewers into thinking that they are still dealing with a
great writer, whereas he has become a ghost. The greater pity is that
Naipaul's latest book on Islam will be considered a major interpretation
of a great religion, and more Muslims will suffer and be insulted. And the
gap between them and the West will increase and deepen. No one will
benefit except the publishers who will probably sell a lot of books, and
Naipaul, who will make a lot of money.

..Meanwhile, Mr. V.S. Naipaul has reacted to Mr. Rushdie's new novel saying: 
``It might one day come to me. I will not pursue it.''

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