Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

This authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul has provoked controversy for its prickly subject, who read the entire manuscript and altered nothing; it's also garnered praise for its author, who drew on the entire archive of what he notes may be the last major writer who's left an entirely paper trail, instead of disc drives. I've only read a bit of Naipaul: "Among the Believers" about his travels in the non-Arab Islamic realm, and "The Return of Eva Perón," essays on Michael X, Perón's Argentina, and Conrad. After finishing French's bold, compassionate, and fair-minded study of this formidable master of masks, I will seek out more. That's a recommendation for both the irascible author and his patient chronicler. This is not a flawless analysis, therefore not five-stars, but French's careful discussion often approaches perfection. I admired (and reviewed) French's "Tibet, Tibet," a brave book that took on an iconic figure and asked similarly tough questions honestly.

Often, reviews have commented on VSN's fearsome reputation more than French's nuanced interpretation. What's needed now: a flavor of French's prose. I will excerpt how he filters VSN. French introduces his aims as a biographer: "not to sit in judgement, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader." (xv) The myth, as VSN himself mentions, rests in those who follow; the writer keeps only the control over his books.

His tiny birthplace, forty miles by forty, occupies an uneasy place for self- promoting, self- entitled VSN. Self- described as "a Trinidadian of Hindu descent," he's a British subject unable to find a homeland. Marginalized, he returns to the center of the disbanded empire to seek his rightful place. The colonial society that raised him, divided by castes and religions, ethnicities and politics, could not sustain his energy. To escape, he had to assume the master's mask. Yet, Oxford "was a traditional, English, clubbable, unreal way for a young man from the Caribbean to be living, and it left him feeling lonely and unfulfilled." (91-92)

French evokes well the snobbery of the Isis student magazine for which VSN worked; the insularity of the university clashed with his hopes of a literary career that he desperately pursued while nearly starving in post- WWII, discriminatory, and hardbitten society in London. He and his student- teacher wife, virgins when they met, lived on very little. They moved from friend to flat and back. They were not suited for each other, totally, but at his young age, VSN stayed with the first shy woman who befriended him. He told her, at their age of twenty, how he resisted reforming, rebelling, or resisting. Instead, he insisted to her on being accepted.

He enters Britain at its capital core, pioneering the post- colonial counter- diasporic critique. "Legally prevented" after graduation "from migrating inside the new Commonwealth," VSN in the early 1950s sought a career in a nation with few East or West Indians. This "double exile" as "a deracinated colonial" as the Empire contracted left VSN anxious, yet determined not to retreat. With little steady work, landlords hostile at best to his presence, and widespread prejudice, he complained to his wife, Pat: "That is what the whole policy of the Free World amounts to. Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold." (135, 137) The self- pity mingles with a level- headed appraisal of the situation for this internal exile.

"I am the spectator, the flaneur par excellence. I am free of the emancipatory fire." (qtd. 101) French deftly measures Trinidad's racial divide between Indians and blacks, He traces how Eric Williams rose to unsettling populist power there. Later, West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James early on challenged VSN for exposing the depredations of their Caribbean homelands without relativism, without the imperial context of the white man's impact. VSN rebelled against any "betraying his essence" by averting one's eye.

VSN refused to back down; as one character puts it: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressor." The emancipated dark subaltern, VSN warned (in my phrase), could be as dangerous as the retreating British sergeant. He later mused how totalitarianism often disguised itself under an "illusion of serving virtue"; writers seeking truth cannot collude with this pretended core of virtue. (qtd. 469) This confident stance did not endear him to his Black Power peers, nor did it assuage the troubled consciences of many American, European, or Indian liberals.

It's sobering to find, well into his success, that VSN labored nearly destitute. He travelled to India, Africa, Trinidad, Europe frequently, but often relied on expense accounts, wealthier friends, or an absent friend of a friend's flat for accommodation. This led, however, to estrangement sexually and psychologically from loyal but bewildered Pat as his fame spread. The self- pity that he expressed to Pat early on deepened. Depression drove him to prostitutes. Shame grew; so did his capacity to transcribe follies of his fellows. He cultivated his imperious aura.

All along, as to his one-time protegee Paul Theroux, VSN rehearsed a familiar refrain. "Think of it like this: imagine the despair to which the barefoot colonial is reduced when, wanting to write, and reading the pattern books of Tolstoy, Balzac et al, he looks at his own world and discovers that it almost doesn't exist." (qtd. 269) True, but as French delicately counters, this "shrewd piece of self- presentation" repackages scholarship winning, Oxford- educated, critically lauded VSN as irredeemably "unprecedented, underprivileged, alienated." His pride and his determination segregated him from his Third World brethren, whether writers or workers. This pride kept VSN a difficult person to please despite plaudits brought by his fiction and commissions enabling his TV, radio, and print journalism.

"Ambitious, protean, made of smart material, deracinated by the accelerated politics of the end of empire, Vidia made a conscious choice to refashion himself." (209) India attracted him; the West Indies perplexed him. Out of this inability to fit in, overqualified and often overwhelmed by his intelligence and his Oxford education, where he lamented the absence of aristocrats vs. the state- scholarship students like himself and Pat, VSN's drive to succeed at the master's game made him a frank, yet brusque, critic of nearly everyone around him, no matter where he found himself writing, probing, and goading. This quality, as French tells us right away, comes from a Trinidadian "picong" attitude: "where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling." (xi) Many fell for Sir Vidua's conversational bait over six decades. "As an accidental, occidental Indian from 'the most amusing island that ever dotted a sea,' Vidia felt included and excluded," and not only in India. (223)

He did his own including and excluding. "Vidia had a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain, just as he would sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be 'the writer.'" (359) French judges that VSN could not countenance Pat as his equal. She, congenitally doomed it seems to play the "great man's wife," was cast aside by VSN as he pursued, on and off interspersed with Pat for many years, the Anglo-Argentinian Margaret Gooding. One of VSN's friends reported that his apparently captivating mistress appeared to have but fifty words in her spoken vocabulary; she does not come across, at least in English, as striking anyone of French's informants as scintillating or smart.

Documenting Naipaul's infidelity and his power over wife and lover, French through extraordinary tact paraphrases VSN's correspondence with both women. Reviewers have been aroused by the hints that French only alludes to (Margaret's literal "phallic worship" seems about it, that and his physical brutality towards her as emotionally against Pat) of sexually charged tension exploited by VSN. He's a ladies' man, despite his boorishness.

Pat reverenced her husband. I found his biographer's considerable discretion equally intriguing. As with the intelligent, isolated Pat's lonely diary and notes to her husband, these indirectly phrased letters to Margaret (who left her husband and her three children behind to be the on- off trophy VSN paraded globally) support VSN's own egotism. He moved between the two paramours; other times he lived alone. As he reduces it, he ruined Pat: "I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable." (qtd. 313)

His income under a new publisher (and endless lectures, conference invitations, and commissions for articles?) increased sevenfold after "A Bend in the River." By the '80s, he represented the frustrations of "corrected leftists," those who turned to VSN to argue why the Third World remained mired in post- colonial corruption. His judgments in "Among the Believers" appear prescient after 9/11, but when they appeared, he was derided as an Orientalist or apologist. Derek Wolcott, Edward Said, and activists who opposed his disillusion found themselves his targets. They fought back. VSN accepted Hanif Kureishi; he did not support Rushdie against the fatwa, "an extreme form of literary criticism." (qtd. 434) The title of this biography comes from the first sentence of "Bend." "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." (qtd. 386) VSN determined to be "the" writer of the harsh, globalizing, mediated, diasporic decade.

By the end of it, he earned a knighthood. He took the tube to the ceremony. VSN did not mellow, but he did express an admiration of what modernity allowed people such as himself: the pursuit of happiness that traditional mores and creeds did not allow many adherents. His own pursuits, typically, dominated his mature years. Pat died of cancer; French describes movingly their final weeks together. The day after her cremation, Nadira (a younger Pakistani Muslim journalist he had met while working on "Beyond Belief," a sequel to his earlier visits among the non-Arab Islamic world) moved in to VSN's house. Margaret learned of her ex-lover's marriage, two months later, in the newspaper; Pat had found out about-- in similarly roundabout fashion-- her husband's dalliances with prostitutes decades earlier only in a 1994 interview with The New Yorker.

After Pat's death, VSN found few with whom to mourn, perhaps understandably. His lifelong expectation of fealty, his shunning of friends, and his use or abuse of human sources may have helped him with his considerable gifts of extracting the essentials for his own journalism and travel narratives, but they did not win him many confidantes. French enlivens the discussion near the end, with a deeper look into how VSN composed his second Indian study, "A Million Mutinies," and a later Caribbean collection, "A Way of the World." These begin to prove why VSN attained his renown for careful explication; apparently he could usually put down verbatim, without notes on the scene, what he had heard each day from his discussions and observations.

A minor shortcoming of an otherwise impressive account: French tends to skimp on delving into the works themselves, especially earlier ones. He often cites critical blurbs, and summarizes a book's contents, but he tends to quote sparingly. This does quicken the pace. However, if lacking knowledge of the novels and essays first- hand, a reader may wonder why there's briefer coverage of most primary texts. On the other hand, this is not a "critical biography," so this emphasis, given French's need to interpret massive amounts of material (he acknowledges half a million words from interviews transcribed), may be understandable.

French concludes with VSN's marriage to Nadira. He bows out gracefully with a final word, "Enough." But then, typically, he adds his last footnote: "For the moment." It's perhaps a telling sign that French adapts, often, a detachment towards Pat, Margaret, and VSN that reflects his subject's own distance from the contradictions his selfishness creates. This may heighten the verisimilitude for some readers; it may irritate others. So persists his admirable, if also unsettling, diligence in an engrossing perspective on a life that surprised me in its awkwardness, secrecy, bluster, and, despite or because of it all, a wry-- if ultimately too bitter-- honesty. The cover photo by "jumped-up" (VSN's put-down) Lord Snowden shows a playful figure, pulling himself up by the untied shoelace. His shoe, for this frugal man, reveals on its sole a worn-away hole.

(Posted yesterday to Amazon US. Cross-posted to my daily-ish blog, "Blogtrotter.")

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Slavoj Zizek's "Violence": Book Review.

This "Big Ideas/Small Books" offering may repeat much of this Slovene philosopher's earlier critiques. As it's the first work I've read by him, I depend on others to verify this. It certainly tackles big ideas in this brief paperback, but its portability and relative concision may recommend it to those who, like me, had heard of this provocateur but hesitated to enter his dense, diffuse, albeit often entertaining debates.

Zizek's relevant: "The same philanthropists who give millions for AIDS or education in tolerance have ruined the lives of thousands through financial speculation and thus created the conditions for the rise of the very intolerance that is being fought." (37) He compares their guise as "liberal communists" (think Bill Gates or George Soros) to a dirty postcard that shows, if moved slightly, "the obscene figure" who's "at work beneath" the news of debt cancellation or the eradication of an epidemic. Global capitalists need to generate enormous wealth before they can distribute it to others. King Leopold and Andrew Carnegie-- and I might add the Bonos and Brangelinas, perhaps (oddly, Zizek does not name such celebrity counterparts, whom free trade's promoter Thomas Friedman labelled "super-empowered individuals" outside the nation-state or the "electronic herd" of corporate dominance)-- have more in common with today's Davos jetsetters and Hollywood trendsetters than we might have suspected.

On the surface, the "liberal communist" ten-point plan on pg. 18 sounds great; the "RED" campaign for Africa or wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer research or the Google slogan "do no evil" match these goals. So, what's Zizek's gripe with doing good while making a profit? Capitalism must thrive. This creates injustice.

The balance of wealth redistribution by dot.commers and rock stars may be cloaked in humanitarian liberties, but "it allows the capitalism system to postpone its crisis." No Marxist, but schooled as a former Yugoslav subject and ex-Party member/dissident, Zizek notes that while such liberal largess avoids "the destructive logic of resentment and enforced statist distribution of wealth which can only end in generalised misery," it also sidesteps the evils of concentrated affluence and power that keep the rich doling out handouts to the dependent poor.

As a Lacanian, what irritates Zizek? The gap between reality and the Real, the "inexorable 'abstract,' spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality." (13) An economist may report how an impoverished Third World nation keeps "financially sound" even as the poverty's apparent to any observer.

How do such criticisms of "liberal communism" fit into the book's larger subject of violence? It's a loose tailoring. Thematic stitches may not always be visible. He begins with defining three types of violence. First, there's subjective violence: the kind we can identify "performed by a clearly identifiable agent." (1) Behind this lurks a "symbolic" violence within language. It repeats the role that social domination plays in our habitual speech. For instance, "gold" when named as such means "we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing it with our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing to do with the immediate reality of gold." (61)

Third comes "systemic" violence, the "often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems." (2) The book in "six sideways glances" sidles around its impacts, allowing us to more dispassionately dissect the forms of violence, under critical control even as we peer towards its fearful emanations. The first section investigates the "trap" of "liberal communism" that I have already opened. The second looks into alienation as a solution rather than a problem to the Western need to assert "the right not to be harassed," to keep one's distance from others who may threaten us by their demands to be recognized and respected. (41) This chapter's more difficult, but the gist of it-- which I verified when I studied this very passage today on a crowded subway with my iPod plugged in-- asserts the advantage of European civilization: "the alienation of social life." (59) Rather than a failure, this opening up of a private zone in public allows us to obey rules mechanically, while insuring a proxemic space around us that preserves our inner world. This encourages peaceful coexistence in a multicultural realm.

Part Three confronts the eruption of violence, with the protests over the Danish caricatures of Muhammed and 2005's French banlieu riots. The urge to tear down not the enemy's camp, but to burn one's own Parisian neighborhood (even a mosque), Zizek explains as a need for those demeaned to be noticed as citizens. This outburst also shows the impotence of such violence. True fundamentalists, such as Tibetan Buddhists or the Amish, he reminds us, foster indifference rather than insecurity towards the mores of non-believers. Those insecure, such as the Muslim mobs in Pakistan, only betray their desperate fragility, their own projected inferiority. Those complaining about Euro-American dominance, Zizek insists, nevertheless define their opposition as aligned against its hegemony. (Porto Alegre fails to oust Davos: the neo-liberals have no genuine alternative vision in a late-capitalist empire, either.) Religious fundamentalists who have gained the spotlight, he adds, situate themselves in the true source of challenge today: religion supplants science as "one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society." (82) Science now solves our problems; religion stirs them up?

This chapter could have discussed further the limits of politically-correct "rules" when refusing to treat the uncomfortable truths it will not report for fear of inciting intolerance. Also, the vexed problems of massive immigration into the First World deserve more than an apercu or two. Still, Zizek provokes thought. He prefers to wander into (however astute or quirky) analogies to chocolate laxatives or Wagner.

In the fourth section, liberalism and fundamentalism both get castigated. Zizek reminds us that the European tradition always has mocked the divine; he finds such treatment "unimaginable in an Islamic culture." (106) I suppose so from the well-known, recent evidence, but still I wondered if this was too broad a statement for the past fourteen centuries? He points out an often overlooked abuse of rhetoric: discussing the hyperbolic equivalence of Israeli policies towards Palestinians with the Nazis "strangely contradicts Holocaust denial" preached by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (110)

He also reminds us of the fate of those who dare to speak out against liberal pieties; Oriana Fallaci's fall from leftist grace comes from her daring "to take the multiculturalist subservient 'respect' for the Muslim Other seriously." She incites contempt for exposing the "assymetry" of allowing Eurabia to colonize the continent, while Europe constantly retreats, apologizes, and urges only more "respect" for a regressive, intolerant barbarism. She failed to perceive how "fake" Western tolerance can be; it's "a sign of hidden and patronising racism." (114-15) Again, Zizek tends to raise many topics deserving more than a paragraph or two, but that's the tendency of his methods: to stir up our reactions.

This section's also digressive, but the whole book's so. It's like hearing a fascinating but erratic professor. Zizek has elsewhere belittled teaching; he's a professor who does not have to enter the classroom except when he wants, if at all. Yet, you get the sense of his restless range. I highlight what intrigued me; you may find an entirely different set of references that may rouse your enthusiasm. The book's full of detours, sideways glances, and momentary asides.

Israel & Palestine kindle more sparks. Zizek's at his best when urging a non-statist, truly sacred space for Jerusalem. He wonders at the U.S., the most religious of advanced nations, allying so strangely with the most atheist land (70% in some Israeli polls) which exists on the nature of its religious foundations! If Israel had been created two centuries ago, it'd have shared the roots of most "founder states;" its sin appears to be for the left that it was created after such imperial campaigns were delegitimized.

Skirting back to tolerance, Zizek as an atheist encourages us to remember how Europe's contribution to progress rests in its freedom not to believe. Blasphemy only works in a religious space. If we give in to all those who protest, we risk strengthening the pact between fundamentalists and the PC-left: "a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is and in which individuals are engaged in regular rituals of 'witnessing' their victimisation." (130) Botox injectors get equated with those forced to endure clitoridectomies by a too-capacious liberal tolerance granting a dimwitted approval to even oppressive cultures.

Instead, Zizek rallies for the courage to condemn religion if it indeed is truly entangled with hatred. We must fight religion if at its core we find violence. Apologists keep assuring us that we can rescue the truth of genuine faith from savage hijackers. Zizek inverts the game. Hack down the roots of violence. He dismisses cloaking its motives as if in a misused "authentic core" of a noble religion. The truest pacifists, he asserts, are those who lack belief. He wishes to advance atheism as a truly disinterested method to attain peace-- free of the Big Other of Marxism, monotheism, or consumerism, for that soul-dispiriting matter.

Section five's for me less engrossing. Yet, it has its moments. It covers "tolerance as an ideological category." Zizek observes how the price of living in the free West means that we may suffer violence, torn from our cultural roots so as to survive in our multicultural West. Within this milieu, the greatest art endures after it has been wrenched-- as with Homer or Shakespeare-- from its original context.

Society pretends to allow us free choice, but we have no option, usually, but to profess love for our parents or our flag. We're caught in a paradox of acting as if what's prescribed is preferred, as if we had some say in the choice. Juxtapositions float by: a TV show "Nip/Tuck" and the ground-floor vs. first-floor labelling of buildings in the U.S. vs. abroad; "The Birds" and the shot of the plane hitting the Twin Tower; Bukharin & Stalin compared to the hapless heroines of Lars von Trier's film trilogy. This portion left me somewhat at sea, but I kept paddling along.

In the last section, "Divine Violence," G.K. Chesterton provides unexpected evidence for what Zizek proposes as a truly mature acceptance that there's no larger supernatural rationale for our fate. Catastrophes occur, but God's gone. He wonders if the Incarnation and Crucifixion represent a God who's abandoned the transcendental to be truly and ultimately human. There's no Ascension, no Easter in Zizek's theology, therefore. God's demolition of the protector, and His assumption of the mortal, stands for our own existential plight. There remains, nonetheless, Judgment Day. But, it's delayed by the leftists. They promise that the "banks of rage" pent-up by so much injustice will bailout the oppressed. But, like the French or Soviet revolutions, the day of reckoning, and of utopian payback, gets postponed endlessly.

The epilogue reviews the main points. Three lessons earn summation: 1) When we shout down violence outright as "bad," we participate in mystifying its less visible social forms. Our capitalist system furthers the violence that erupts, by the inherent unfairness of the economic rules we all must agree to play by. 2) Real violence can evade those who try to act out their outrage. Twice Brecht's motto echoes: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" 3) Subjective and systemic violence intertwine. Acts can be violent or not depending on context. I doubt if his immediate comparison to the Higgs field of quantum physics would be one that anyone else would supply for clarification! Still, Zizek stays on track: "the first gesture to provoke a change in the system is to withdraw activity, to do nothing." (214)

What is there to be done? For one distrustful of Marx, of the state, of Kapital, not to mention God? Zizek concludes: "The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active', to 'participate', to mask the nothingness of what goes on." The true challenge? To step back. Abstaining from the political game, refusing to shop to stimulate the economy that has tottered because of our overspending-- I wonder what effect our concerted effort not to fuel capitalism, vote for oligarchies, or buy into credulity might achieve? Zizek's discussion may not provide any answers, but his typically barbed appeals may cause us to reorient ourselves away from the structures imposed on us that appear like natural facts.

(Cross-posted, as a longer review, here, Blogtrotter, and Amazon US today.)