Victimary Rhetoric and the Politics of Decolonization in V. S. Naipaul’s Mimic Men (1967)

Naipaul 02 Mimic Men Cover

The Mimic Men — A Room with a View

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.

Continue reading

Writing about Literature Revisited (Coleridge)

Xanadu

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…”

I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful  elements of poems.  Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader.  Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident.  In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance.  A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it.  At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion.  Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816.

The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –

Continue reading

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.”

My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.”  The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature.  I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be.  Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.  I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet.  I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out.  I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem.  In what person is the poem couched?  Whom does the speaker address?  What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images?  I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone.  Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.

Continue reading

Linguistic Subscendence

Dunce - Let's Play Dunce

No Caption Necessary

It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate.  A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention.  There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence.  A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors.  Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins.  Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently.  While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous.  Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more.  Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence.  In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.  To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade.  It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.

Continue reading

The Razor Ockham *Should* Have Proposed

Ockham’s Razor is the heuristic sometimes known as the lex parsimoniae: the Law of Parsimony. As he actually proposed it:

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate: Do not posit pluralities beyond necessity.

Ockham’s Razor as it is usually rendered:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.

The entities of a theory are its terms. They are not actual entities, but formal only. So the Razor is often rendered:

Do not multiply terms beyond necessity.

This makes it easy to compare theories and see which one is more parsimonious – especially if they are mathematically formalized. F = ma, for example, clearly  invokes three terms, that terminate on three sorts of properties of things. The basic idea of course is that as between two theories that adequately explain some phenomenon, the simpler is more likely to be more accurate. But why?

Continue reading

Proposed Necessary Nomenclature: “Sexpervism”

There’s a widely-used, one-word name for female selfishness organized into doctrines and movements.  “Feminism.”

There’s a widely-used, one-word name for forcing the majority group to give up its place to minorities. “Multiculturalism.”

Reveling in uncertainty and ambiguity is called “Postmodernism.”  And so on.

Something else needs a catchy, one-word, widely-used name: The forced legitimization of sexual perversion and confusion. It’s not just the deviant sex acts and the sexual ambiguity and confusion. More importantly it’s trying to force us to say the deviance and confusion is not just acceptable, but good. Continue reading

How to Tell a Weenie

Reading a book of evangelical theology this afternoon, I realized that there are a few reliable ways we can be sure that an author is a liberal weenie, and that the text he has written is therefore ideologically driven, ergo tendentious (whether witly or not), and probably wrong in its arguments. It is very simple, at least in books of theology. We can be sure that an author is a weenie if:

  • He uses “impact” as a verb.
  • He uses “image” as a verb.
  • He avoids using masculine pronouns in referring to God.
  • He uses “gender” to indicate sex.
  • He uses “gender” as a verb.

If furthermore there is ever in a writer about ancient texts anything like environmentalism or feminism, egalitarianism or communism, relativism or nominalism, we can be sure that he has read them anachronistically, and therefore wrongly. We can, in short, be pretty sure that he is a hopeless idiot, and what is worse, not even therefore much useful to his sinister god.

What can we take from this? That we should never, ever, ever in a million years commit any such howlers.

Probably I have missed a few. I welcome correction of any such omissions.

First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

Lecture Hall

Ideal, Free-Range College Students

Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic?  The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest.  Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic.  The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix.  Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary.  The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens.  Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest.  We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.

Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories.  The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole.  More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres.  The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality.  The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness.  There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them.  No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards.  Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death.  We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.

Continue reading

The “Ula Lu La Lu” & Consciousness: Meditations on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

Botticelli Venus

Sandro Botticelli: Venus (1486)

Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime.  Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own.  Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’”  In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.”  Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness  and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars.  In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin.  Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.

Continue reading