Novelists often make subtler political scientists than do the political scientists themselves, perhaps because a competent novelist nourishes himself on his observation of human actuality whereas the political scientist is typically the subscriber to some party-orthodoxy or the proponent of someone’s special-interest agenda. The names of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad come to mind, as men of keen political perception. Dostoevsky’s Devils (1872) and Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) retain their value as brilliant forecast-analyses of Twentieth Century political radicalism and its destructive application in revolutionary activity. Both men had an uncanny sense of what lay ahead. In a sense, their prophetic power exceeds, say, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s or George Orwell’s, as both of those men had the benefit of looking back on what had already happened. Competent novelists are necessarily also anthropologists, interested supremely in reporting human facts as they see them and in making their way to essential structures of human nature, communal existence, and the cultural tradition. The tenured political-science professors strive mightily to avoid those cases where facts contradict doctrine, while the genuine novelists relish both the paradox of human nature and the tragicomic accent of the historical chronicle. A novelist after all can only be true to himself by exercising a rigorous objectivity.
I. Such a percipient connoisseur of structural irony and the law of opposite results is the native Trinidadian, of Indian ancestry, and longtime naturalized Briton, V. S. Naipaul (born 1932; knighted 1990), whose Nobel Prize (2001) came at the last possible moment, after which, the Prize Committee’s politicization being complete, no dissenter from the reigning orthodoxy – about race, the market, the West, or modernity – would receive its honor. Naipaul had diagnosed the spiritual paralysis of the West in that morbidity’s emergent phase; he foresaw, in fact, in the chaos of decolonization in the 1960s, much of what afflicts western society at large forty years later. The title of The Mimic Men (1967), a key entry in Naipaul’s development of his novelistic oeuvre, suggests how important mimesis, or imitativeness, is to the author’s view of humanity. Few people, as Naipaul sees it, manage to escape the trap of letting others define their identity; rather, most people meekly assimilate to a few ready made stereotypes, the range of which diminishes in the age of mass communication and the “consumer lifestyle.” Modern people moreover tend swiftly to assume the indignation of the resentful; they tend just as swiftly to imitate the posturing of self-described victims. The Mimic Men’s narrator, Ranjit “Ralph” Kripalsingh, usually just “Singh,” who stems from the Hindu Diaspora in the British West Indies, uses the bland term “placidity” to describe how he has often yielded to base impulses contrary to his conscience.
Singh writes in England. He has come there after a scandal of race-politics forces him into exile from his ministerial position in the newly independent government of “Isabella.” Naipaul loosely bases this fictional ex-colonial polity on Jamaica, which, in the 1960s, experienced recurrent episodes of mob-driven racial violence. Singh attempts, in his memoir of political failure, to find the pattern in his life and to seek out that “moral balance in human events” that explains his entanglement with the zealous, fatally ineffectual politics of his insular home country. Morality for Singh, as for Naipaul, indicates causality, so that, “if only we look down deeply enough, we can spot the beginning of misfortunes that eventually overtake us in [some] small suppression of truth, in just such a tiny corruption.” A man is a moral agent; acts engender consequences. Even the tiniest of a man’s peccadilloes might produce a cascade of evil results.
Despite his dependency on the esteem of others, and despite his having imitated the free-floating stereotypes, Singh insists that, “I never thought of myself as a victim.” Singh’s rejection of the tantalizing and exploitable victim-status is the trait that redeems him, in part, from the general moral-political squalor that his memoir describes. That squalor characterizes both Isabella, with its humiliating legacy of caste and race, and postwar London – with its disintegrating social structures, bomb-damage, and new commercial tawdriness – where Singh comes to take up a college scholarship in his early twenties. Disdaining victimary subjectivity, Singh retains a degree of honesty and integrity, not only as the belated frank assessor of his own life, but also as an analyst of the prevailing social order or lack thereof both in the former colonies and in Europe. The confessional character of Singh’s self-account can generate a type of Augustinian gravity: “There are certain states into which, during periods of stress, we imperceptibly sink; it is only during the climb back up that we can see how far, for all the continuing consciousness of wholeness and sanity, we had become distorted.” “Shipwreck,” a recurrent metaphor of Singh’s story, enters into configuration with other recurrent motifs such as “distortion,” “disorder,” “drama,” and “chaos.” The words apply, beyond the individuality of the one who utters them, to societies and nations, which, like the individual may seek decency or indulge in wickedness.
Singh says that he originally conceived the idea of becoming an author, and more particularly a historian of Europe’s imperial enterprise, in order that he might “give expression to the [modern] restlessness” that sprang from “the deep disorder” wrought in equal parts by “the great explorations,” by “the overthrow in three continents of established social organizations,” and finally by “the unnatural bringing together of peoples who could achieve fulfillment only within the security of their own societies [in] the landscapes hymned by their ancestors.” Naipaul himself had written something like Singh’s study, in his non-fictional Middle Passage (1962), his earliest travel book, and he would return to the theme in that hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, A Way in the World (1995). As for Naipaul’s narrator in The Mimic Men, Singh’s manuscript corresponds to something else than the history of empires that he had contemplated. Singh adduces an explanation: “There is no such thing as history nowadays; there are only manifestos and antiquarian research; and on the subject of empire there is only the pamphleteering of churls.”
Singh lets on that he has inflicted some of that journalistic churlishness, those manifestos and pamphlets, on an undiscriminating audience. He wrote them cynically, without conviction. Others, however, contributed inflammatory words from inflamed righteousness, believing their own simplifications, merging with the stereotype of the political activist, the man with a cause, the cause invariably one either of class or race. Such people take life, Singh says, from “frenzy, the sense of mission, the necessary hurt.” In his meditative exile, Singh has come to believe that “the order to which the colonial politician succeeds is not his order,” so that he confronts it as “something that he must destroy.” In regard to the colonial politician, Singh observes in an epigram that, “Destruction comes with his emergence and is a condition of his power.” With wider application, dropping the specific reference to the independence of ex-colonies, Singh observes that politicians generally “have few gifts to offer,” being neither “engineers or artists or makers,” but rather mere “manipulators,” so that “they offer themselves as manipulators.” In one of those monologue-outbursts that – because they imply a hierarchy among societies, and an imperative of judgment – so infuriate Naipaul’s politically correct critics, Singh says: “To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”
One notes that Naipaul, through Singh, never conducts anything like an apology for empire, whether Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, or British; nor does he make ontological ascriptions about the Caribbean. He merely calls attention to a result of imperial projects, which he understands not to have been plotted out like predatory conspiracies, but improvised from decade to decade under countless influences and considerations until, in the middle of the Twentieth Century, they found their natural terminus and spontaneously dissolved. The empires produced effects justifiable and lamentable, but equally important, so did their dissolution. The racial-political spasms of decolonization never drove the retreat of empires (although the participants fervently thought so), Naipaul implicitly argues, but rather they followed in the wake of decolonization, as “symptoms of disease.” These spasms “generated disorder where previously everyone had deluded himself that there was order,” and “disorder was drama,” which dispirited people “discovered to be a necessary human nutriment.”
II. The phrase “victimary rhetoric,” prominent in my title, comes from the work of Eric L. Gans, where it communicates with the observation that modern political radicalism exhibits a distinctively sacrificial character. Gans has explored the phenomenon in a number of his “Chronicles of Love and Resentment.” (See 310 & 311). Gans characterizes victimary rhetoric as a peculiarly modern, post-Holocaust expression of the strain of resentment that informs culture from its beginnings in the primitive sacred. The relation of victimary rhetoric, in particular, to the sacred and to sacrifice, in his perception of which Gans draws on the work of René Girard, has implications for Naipaul’s Mimic Men. Naipaul sees the racial separatist movements in the era of decolonization as atavistic religious disturbances, saturated in resentment, that have tended to achieve their climax in resurgences of sacrificial violence. Gans remarks that resentment originates in the subject’s perception that centrality on the cultural scene belongs elsewhere than in himself – as it might be in a tribal elder or a Big Man. Many myths represent communal revenge against the tribal elder or Big Man, culminating in his immolation or expulsion – his sacrifice by the community. Think, for example, Abel or Oedipus.
But centrality is not so much any contingent person or fetish as it is an abstract position, belonging integrally to symbolic systems. One might immolate a person or fetish that one construes to monopolize the central position on some social scene, but the position itself will remain. The resentful subject’s irate act thus invariably fails to assuage his sense of exclusion from a desired primacy or privilege or plenitude. The subject then feels guilt in his failure. As Gans argues: “Resentment and guilt are inseparable, since [even] the imaginary expulsion of the central figure that fulfills the fantasy of resentment… leaves the place (by imagination) empty.” Resentment, driven by perceived exclusion, entails for the complainant a scandalous conviction of unalterable subordination and pariah-hood. The conviction of unalterable humiliation then generates a second – a compensatory and humblement-alleviating – fantasy: the one in which the subject imagines that the injustice of his situation stems from a lie about ontological priority by which wicked others manipulate the social scene for their own welfare. The abstractions are necessary, but concrete terms can serve understanding. Gans writes that, “Guilt for segregation or colonialism ends with the phenomenon itself” and “to end de jure privileges is to create a society of equals, a meritocracy.” That is all well and good. Nevertheless: “The meritocratic ideal is vulnerable to the resentment inevitably generated in those less successful than they would like to be, and our political system dictates that if these individuals are members of ascriptive groups that can with any credibility claim to be stigmatized, movements will arise to promote their interests by appealing to the white guilt of the rest of society.” The resentful subject endows himself with status, not by occupying the center, which no one can do, but by presenting himself as a victim of “oppression,” who is therefore entitled to special deference and privilege.
The Mimic Men shows Naipaul’s acute awareness of the social-existential scandal that Gans, in his own non-fictional account, so well describes; the novel also shows that Naipaul has discovered the conjoint phenomena of “victimary rhetoric” and “white guilt” on his own. Singh’s father, with whom the son has a testy, ambiguous relationship, demonstrates the uncanny power of proclaimed victim-status when, suddenly leaving his post with the island’s Education Department, he rebels against Anglicization, Christianization, and bureaucratic servitude, and reverts, with speeches, to fanciful Hindu primitivism, his “Aryan” heritage. “It was the Hindu mendicant’s robe that he wore in the hills; and for all the emblems and phrases of Christianity that he used, it was a type of Hinduism that he expounded, a mixture of acceptance and revolt, despair and action, a mixture of the mad and the logical.” The father takes the name “Gurudeva,” meaning something like “Teacher of God.” The guru’s followers, from every ethnic faction on Isabella, live on the charity of the poor in their hill-country camp; in “a statement of despair” and “without a philosophy or cause” they set fire to cane-fields while the colonial authorities placidly ignore their protest. This “Exodus” itself failing magically to transform Gurudeva’s resentment into a providential utopia, the folk hero contrives to kidnap a racehorse belonging to the locally prominent Deschampsneufs family. He slaughters the horse in a parody of the Brahman Asvamedha ceremony: “An ancient sacrifice,” Singh writes, “in my imagination a thing of beauty… now rendered obscene.” Despite the deed’s obscenity, “it became an acceptable rallying-point of righteous, underground emotion.”
The racehorse serves as an obvious symbol for Isabella’s social hierarchy, hence as a focus for pervasive resentment. To eviscerate and quarter the animal, as Gurudeva does, re-asserts, in a perverse and violent way, the Gospel-dictum that the last will be the first. The Asvamedha ceremony also seeks blatantly to revive the primitive sacred in protest against the more or less modern, more or less secular meritocratic system on Isabella that seems arbitrarily to exclude Asiatics (Hindus), blacks, and Chinese. The social protest thus veers towards a cultural atavism. Singh sees in the event “an attempt at awesome sacrifice, the challenge to Nemesis, performed by a shipwrecked man on a desert island.” It is not, in other words, practical, but thaumaturgic: it is a resort to voodoo-like gestures intended to make others guilty for what the perpetrator has done. The deed can, however, be interpreted pragmatically. The slaughter in its context, says Singh, “reveals society as an association of consent and teaches, dangerously for all, that consent can be withdrawn.”
But Singh’s father counts by no means as the solitary futile rebel on Isabella. Others too feel spurred to bootless protest by sieges of desperation that they cannot fully understand. Singh’s cousin Cecil, who inherits a profitable bottling company, lets the business go to seed while “dramatizing his decline [and] seeing himself as a victim of fate alone.” Monsieur Deschampsneufs, owner of the unfortunate racehorse, becomes obsessed with a single, throwaway phrase in Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black, which he takes as a slur on the Créoles, and which he believes to have stemmed from a conversation that the novelist once had with a female-ancestral Deschampsneufs; being an insulted party, who can proclaim injustice and demand from his audience that they empathize with his offense, is a prospect that attracts Deschampsneufs. This should not surprise anyone because nothing lends itself to imitation quite as much as resentment: Deschampsneufs’ determination to find cause for offense absurdly mimics the offense that Gurudeva directs against him. Exclusion has become vogue, even de rigueur. It signifies victim status. That meritocracy, while reviled, actually rewards discipline proves itself the case, however, when Singh and some of his classmates at the local preparatory school acquit themselves academically well enough to earn scholarships abroad for higher studies. Singh, of course, is an Asiatic, and Browne, what the novel calls a “Negro.”
III. As Gans writes: “Historically… white guilt,” with the rhetoric to evince it, “derives from the Holocaust.” And yet, “That a society appalled by Auschwitz would liberate its colonies and end racial segregation reflects a moral defect in [the] de jure classifications” that victimary rhetoric typically employs. The Mimic Men’s timeline acquires new interest against the background of Gans’ assertion. Jamaica, Naipaul’s model for Isabella, enjoyed quasi-independence already before World War Two, but also suffered from internal, largely race-driven social paroxysms. The cane-field worker and dockworker strike, aimed in protest at the colonial administration, happened in 1938. The deadly anti-Chinese riots, inseparable from the Black Consciousness movement on the island, came later, in 1966. Gurudeva’s Exodus corresponds to events of 1938; but the son’s story belongs to the postwar era, beginning with his student years in London, living in the West Indian immigrant community and among other elements of the foreign-born proletariat – the milieu that would erupt violently in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. It cannot be stressed enough that Naipaul’s fiction tends to the autobiographical. All the more impressive, then, it is that he did not descend into the politics of resentment, but rather became one of its sharpest observers.
Singh encounters his school chum Browne in London only once, brushing shoulders with him near Earl’s Court Station. Browne strikes Singh as buoyant and incongruously happy after having been spat on in the street by an English woman, whom he calls a “bitch.” Singh is unsure of Browne’s story, “whether he had made it up… whether he had mistaken me for someone else; or whether the story was true and when he saw me he was still in a state of shock.” But the insult possesses enormous manipulative potential. In endowing Browne with its quantum of useful offense, it serves the “blackmailing” element that Gans identifies in white guilt. Browne can now invoke this indignity, whether real or imagined, against the majority collectively, just as he can gather a following by convincing a constituency that, in him, they have received offense collectively. Back on Isabella, Browne appears again as “a scholarship boy… running to seed,” who “had given up his teaching job and had become a pamphleteer.” Browne, who once struck Singh as a clown, starts a newspaper, The Socialist. He trades in “distress,” seeking to unify Isabella’s fractious lower classes against the existing establishment. Browne nevertheless cannot help but imitate establishment attitudes, or his fantasy of them, the same ones that he exploits as a rhetorical target. “It was Browne again who, while campaigning for the employment of Negroes in the firm of Cable and Wireless, supported their exclusion from the banks.” Browne tells Singh: “If I thought black people were handling my few cents I wouldn’t sleep too well.” Singh becomes a real estate developer and lives high with his English wife Sandra, but he suffers an underlying boredom. Sandra later leaves Singh. Browne then draws Singh into The Socialist when he asks him to write about his father for an edition of the journal commemorating the dockworkers’ strike. “He invited me to share distress.”
In imagery that reflects Singh’s earlier Augustinian remarks on moral desuetude, he records how, “I was now committed to a whole new mythology, dark and alien” and to “a series of interiors I never wanted to enter.” The Gurudeva-article, “deeply dishonest,” nevertheless increases readership until Singh and Browne find themselves leading a movement that is “less a political awakening than a political anxiety,” its constituency requiring plain cues. What generates the “anxiety”? Singh knows that in truth Isabella is “a benevolently administered dependency” and that “as long as our dependency remained unquestioned our politics were a joke.” Pamphleteering and The Socialist having “made public a public joke,” the new politics, which treats the old politicians as “dead and unimportant” (an anticipatory equivalent of postmodernism’s proverbial “dead white males”), suddenly threatens the play-acting radicals with a prospect of responsibility. The logic of complaint and agitation portends only one outcome: “drama,” as Singh calls it, his euphemism for violence, as a magical gesture with a millennial goal.
Given the benevolence of the colonial administration, the radicals find themselves rhetorically hard pressed to lodge plausible indictments. Browne and Singh and their cohorts now confront a paradox of “victimary rhetoric” in the postwar world. As Gans writes, steady incremental moral concessions in response to minority agitation gradually forced Third-World intelligentsia, who had benefited from Westernization and who now constituted its exponents under a new guise, “to recognize the essential identity of what had previously appeared as two ontologically distinct and opposed entities: the class of oppressors and the class of their denouncers.” To overcome this blockage of their agenda, Gans writes, the radicals, being “no longer the voice of the proletariat who stand outside the power structure,” needed to recast themselves as “the conscience of the universal bourgeoisie.” Now, in fact, “the purveyors and the sufferers, the subjects and objects of white guilt are the same,” and “the only difference… is that the intellectuals would purge their guilt by undertaking to spread its awareness to those who continue to ignore it.” Gans’ term “purgation” reminds us of Naipaul’s insistence that imperial withdrawal created “chaos” and that chaos generates panic and that panic spurs a desperate search for opportunities of direct social intervention – for scapegoats.
What did we talk about? We were, of course, of the left. We were socialist. We stood for the dignity of the workingman. We stood for the dignity of distress. We stood for the dignity of our island, the dignity of our indignity… We spoke as honest men. But we used borrowed phrases, which were part of the escape from thought, from that reality we wanted people to see but could ourselves now scarcely face. We enthroned dignity and distress. We went no further.
The hotheaded element in Browne’s regime knows no reluctance, however: “They promised to abolish poverty in twelve months,” as Naipaul writes; they promise also “to discipline the police,” to facilitate intermarriage, “to kick the whites into the sea,” and finally to “send the Asiatics back to Asia.” Singh compares the “frenzy” that these hyperbolic promises conjure to the religious expectancy “generated [by] the street-corner preacher who thrills his hearers with a vision of the unattainable rich world going up in a ball of fire.” The immolation connoted by the “ball of fire” recalls the Asvamedha. Rapidly, then, the radical program ramps up from the rhetoric of social dignity to prophecies of a retributive millennium. An election brings the radicals to power, with Browne at the helm, and with Singh in an unspecified subaltern role. Now, suddenly, “Our grievances were our reality.” Naipaul’s fictional scenario anticipates the recent history of Venezuela under the Chavista regime, but it also draws on the wretched chronicle of once-prosperous Cuba under Communism.
IV. Gans writes, in Signs of Paradox (2001), concerning victimary rhetoric, that all oratory tends to the imperious and annoyed; oratory makes demands and typically makes them by accusing the addressee of maintaining a position illegitimately asymmetrical with respect to his accuser. Victimary rhetoric thus always participates in a certain utopianism because “it is… only at the horizon that symmetry is the measure of ethical progress.” Moreover, Gans writes, as “interaction in concrete situations requires the speakers to occupy stable positions,” the aggression implicit in victimary rhetoric “interferes with dialogue,” until, ratcheting up its conviction of indignity, “resentful denunciation of centrality engenders the deadly configuration of the sparagmos.” Or again: “The ultimate rhetorical achievement is the panic sown in the resentful crowd by the orator [who is] skillful in augmenting [the crowd’s] undifferentiation as against the designated adversary’s central specificity,” a culturally disintegrative process, characterized by “the indefinite proliferation of the mimetic,” that exhibits “the structure of scapegoating.” Naipaul, too, understands these intersections of oratory, politics, violence, and modern recursions to the sacred. In a causal sequence that has all too many models in the aftermath of the rather swift retraction of European overseas rule, Isabella descends through convulsive stages into a bloody episode of mob-rule and lynching.
The climax in The Mimic Men comes with the fatal aggravation of Isabella’s usual racial hostilities. Cynical rhetorical obfuscation abets the episode. The mob’s resentment-driven animosity has widened its focus. At first, it required an individual target – Singh himself. A single victim is not enough, however, as the insurrectionists have decided that only a massacre will sate their appetite. While Singh is away in London to renegotiate Isabella’s share in local mining revenues, Browne’s most radical followers provocatively urge “nationalization” of the sugar cane plantations. The cane field workers, largely “Asiatic,” resist this scheme. They stage a strike at harvest-time. “Nationalization had become a word,” with “no meaning” except “Asiatic threat” against the regime, with the main cash crop as hostage; and it soon degenerates to “less than a word… an emotive sound.” The field hands set fire to the standing cane; their sympathizers attack rural police stations and loot shops. “We were in the midst of a racial disturbance,” says Singh, “but we spoke of it as nationalization.” Browne’s government organizes – or at least cynically acquiesces in – extreme black-on-Asiatic counter-violence: “Women and children assaulted… hackings… families burnt alive in wooden houses.” Singh, back in Isabella from his failed London mission, finds that the “Asiatics” have now turned to him personally to rescue them from the lynch-mobs: “One poor man had brought a stone stained and sticky with blood and fine hair, the hair perhaps of a child.” Singh can do nothing. His diplomatic failure leaves him in a position of conspicuous weakness perfectly suited for political usage.
The rest of the government indeed now sharply repudiates Singh, stripping him of his portfolio and demanding his immediate departure for London with what luggage he can carry and fifty thousand dollars, “a fraction of my fortune.” It is one more gesture of “drama,” of politics as crude public theater. The killing presumably goes on but Singh has grown fatalistic: “They were simple, frightened men… they offered me only what they hoped they might be offered when their time came.” The pattern of events in The Mimic Men recurs in Guerrillas (1971), A Bend in the River (1979), and most recently in Half a Life (2001). In Guerrillas and A Bend, Naipaul adds a new element to his understanding of decolonization. He sees the inexpugnable racial resentment of post-colonial politics as seeping back into the domestic politics of the former imperial nations. In Guerrillas, and in a number of essays related to that novel, Naipaul reveals the often-direct relation of the Caribbean Black Power movements to the American Black Power movements. In A Bend in the River, leftwing European and American academics, imported to an African nation to staff a new university, provide theoretical justifications for factional oppression in the same nation, just as they seem to take vicarious excitement in the brutal violence that their Marxist views help the Big Man to foment. The factotum excuse for all policy failures in the society is “colonialism.”
In Signs of Paradox, Gans refers to this feedback from the Third World into the First World as “the minoritization of culture.” Gans notes, with allusion to Nietzschean terminology, that: “Today culture has become ever more clearly the property and occupation of the ‘weak.’ Group resentment has replaced individual resentment – the point of essential difference between the high and the popular – as the primary object of cultural deferral.” In minoritized culture, “the emphasis on the cohesion of the minority group in opposition to the noncommunal larger society leads members of the majority to identify with and participate in the minority community’s victimary status by the very fact of their exclusion from this minority… The white guilt that motivates this paradoxical identification is ultimately indistinguishable from the desire to participate in the cultural privilege conferred on blacks [or other minorities] by their victimary status.” No less than Eric L. Gans, V. S. Naipaul has identified the strange emotional and sophistical contortions that bind together culturally, in an ambiguously globalized world, the endlessly projecting, guilt-mongering antinomians of the West and their resentment-driven and minoritarian clientèle both at home and abroad.