James Baldwin and V.S. Naipaul

An excerpt from Vivian Gornick's The Men In My Life, in the Boston Review:

It was in India that Naipaul realized that he didn’t fit in anywhere: never had, never would. It had been an illusion to think he could make himself into an émigré English novelist. His mind, he realized, was his only home. He must occupy it. To go on looking hard at the kind of place he had come from—to see things as they are, in the here and now, without blinders or sentiment—was the rock on which he would build his church.

Refusing to put a good face on things became Naipaul’s article of faith. The countries where everything and everyone within living memory had been subjected to empire, where no one had ever belonged, especially not the natives, these were countries, he came to believe, that were overwhelmed by the task of making modern society, and thus hopelessly disposed to lassitude, terror, and an overriding self-deception. Everywhere he went, he experienced—and didn’t hesitate to say he experienced—intellectual deficiency and moral blindness masquerading as an assertion of “authenticity.” He despised the Africanization of Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as Black Power in the Caribbean, the super spirituality of India, and the ever-present social illness of political Islam. He thought it all the mark of a fatal self-division within cultures that had vast need of a compensating single-mindedness if they were to go forward. He was, he felt, watching “people who are really ill-equipped for the twentieth century, light years away from making the tools they’ve grown to like.” And for this he had no pity.

In a 1981 interview, Naipaul, speaking of the breakdown he had suffered thirty years before, revealed that, at the time, he had seen a doctor who recommended treatment. Everything the doctor had said Naipaul had recognized as true, and he had hated him for saying it and stopped seeing him. He had cured himself, he told the interviewer. It had taken two years, but he’d done it. “Intellect and will,” he said, “intellect and will.” This is exactly what he expects of the Third World: that it will “cure” itself, not through some long, harrowing search for self-understanding, but by an act of will that simply pushes back the hysteria of magic and myth, employing the kind of disciplined mental work it takes to create a society ruled by reason and historical analysis.

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