Master of antipathies

It would be imprudent for mere mortals to wade into a controversy between literary giants. Girish Karnard or V.S. Naipaul do not need anyone to second guess their arguments and sense of judgement about when to make them. Karnard's strictures on Naipual's prejudices have raised a question about the relationship between literary achievement and politics. Aesthetics cannot be above political judgement; but there is something disquieting in letting politics colonise the aesthetic. Karnad has himself reinforced the distinction between literature and politics by hinting that he did not mean to impugn Naipaul's literary craft; only to remind the world of his deep-seated prejudices. The troubling question is whether in Naipaul's case this separation can be made. Both defenders and critics misjudge Naipaul's achievement by trying to separate his prejudiced politics from his literary craft. Neither seems to contemplate the uncomfortable thought that it is the linkage that makes Naipaul unique.

Naipaul's brilliance has always been built on a series of antipathies. Most of us assume that empathy is a prerequisite for understanding, that without the ability to put yourself in another's shoes, you cannot understand them. Naipaul's starting point is almost always the opposite. Without a sense of hostile distance, you will not be able to get through to the deep passions that animate people. Empathy produces a superficial understanding. It rests on the presumption that some form of sympathy can make human beings intelligible. Antipathy, in this view, produces a deeper form of understanding, because it cuts through the self-justifications of agents to reveal the deep, often unconscious complexes that drive them. There is not a single book of Naipaul's that has not attracted the appellation "prejudiced". His early works, we now forget, were castigated for being anti-Hindu, with their portrayals of a people so subserviently used to rehearsing their own truisms that they had lost all sense of history, agency and dignity. His contempt for Africans, Muslims and even Tony Blair-type socialists is abundant. If there is a consistent thread in his work, it is a form of misanthropy. The standard response is that there must be a way of separating his politics from his aesthetics, a way of separating prejudice from insight. Naipaul is unsettling precisely because he raises an uncomfortable thought is prejudice the source of insight you would not get elsewhere? Naipaul sees what few other writers can because he has a bit of the evil eye.

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