Writer Meets World

In 1950, at the age of 18, V. S. Naipaul made his first journey from his native Trinidad to England, from backwater to metropolis. A decade later he began to move from the center back toward the periphery, to societies that for different reasons were struggling with their modern circumstances. A new anthology, "The Writer and the World," published last week on the Nobel laureate's 70th birthday, traces this passage, Naipaul's reckoning with what he has long seen as an area of darkness, populated by men trapped by history.

Upon gaining their freedom, he argues, former colonies found themselves dazed and disoriented, often unequal to the task of self-government yet unwilling to return to Europe's ambiguous embrace. Naipaul illustrates the dilemma in his 1967 essay "Jacques Soustelle and the Decline of the West," with the story of one of the last governors of French Algeria. Soustelle was a brilliant scholar of the ancient Aztecs who devoted himself to ensuring the continuity of the French Empire, which he saw as the only way to incorporate Algeria into modernity, as well as the only way to preserve France's place in the wider world. His views, like Naipaul's own, are easy to caricature; like Naipaul's, they contained something to offend everyone. Soustelle believed that "true decolonization would have come from incorporation, with equal rights and an equal advance for all."

Naipaul's own early fear of remaining trapped in Trinidad colors much of this book. On Mauritius, an overpopulated island where many of the young yearn to be nurses so they can work abroad, Naipaul describes those left behind: "Many of them get headaches, those awful Mauritian headaches that can drive an unemployed laborer mad, interrupt the career of a civil servant and turn educated young men into invalids." But Naipaul's pity is not reserved exclusively for the colonized. It comes through even in a hilarious profile of Sir John Paul, one of the last governors of British Honduras, now known as Belize, who filled his days by painting watercolors. "One doesn't really have a full-time job," he tells Naipaul. "One tends to be a little isolated and divorced. Quite rightly: the country runs itself. One doesn't want to impinge." The twilight empires resist ideological characterization; neither thumpingly glorious nor lavishly cruel, they became in their decadence and isolation mere traps of human potential.

The book offers few remedies: the essays are full of warnings to intellectuals who would get involved in politics. After being defeated in his 1969 run for mayor of New York City, Norman Mailer was frank about his shortcomings: he acknowledged that he "couldn't answer when people asked whether he would clear their streets of garbage."

Naipaul sees but one way forward: a rigorous application of the mind. "He didn't seem to think that these African things had to be either judged or defended," Naipaul writes of an Ivoirian scholar dedicated to the study of traditional drum playing--the kind of statement his detractors have often seized as proof of Naipaul's "racism." This relentlessly inquisitive collection emphasizes Naipaul's central philosophical tenet: all things must be judged. A culture without critical discourse can never advance, can never become a civilization. Things soberly examined and found faulty must be discarded; those true and useful may be retained and expanded.

Naipaul's passion on the subject stems from his conviction that the tragedy of politically failed nations is not to be found in their poignant symbols--their overgrown palaces, their dusty flags--but in the price such failure exacts on individual lives. "Politics have to do with the nature of human association, the contract of men with men," Naipaul writes in "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron." "The politics of a country can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships." For Naipaul, "civilization" is the examined life, a slow, personal process, and only by extension an examined culture, one that can look at itself without comforting delusions. The Argentines, he says, saw civilization as "something purchasable"; but though factories may be imported, the ability, and the will, to create them cannot. That can come only from individuals.

The tools of examination are universal; they alone respect individual endeavor and shape individual conscience. The mind they create cannot be totalitarian; it is full of doubts about self and society, writer and world. It abhors comforting dogma and eschews reductive myth; it understands history as a process rather than an end. It understands that individuals--not vague ideas of Man or God or Society--make up the world; that happiness must be pursued, not imposed .

"So much is contained in it," Naipaul writes of the idea of the pursuit of happiness: "the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away."