Monday, March 31, 2008

On Hypocrisy

Lots of predictable and tedious reactions to the recently published biography of V. S. Naipaul. Of all the people expressing their moralistic outrage, this one published in the Business Standard has to be the best. It is actually quite touching in its simple-mindedness and naivete. The writer says: "this kind of wanton display of chronic apathy towards the women in his life, shows his writing to be a great big sham" and further:

Greatness isn’t something that should be restricted to a small area in one’s life. The great writer has to be supplemented with the great person, and should have at least a nodding acquaintance with civility in his closest relationships. Otherwise, a life like Naipaul’s is an area of darkness that leaves his most devoted reader feeling as cheated as the two women in his life did, and left asking the question: how could a man so cold and self-centred manage to write novels like A House for Mr Biswas with such sensitivity?

I am not going to ask her how she came to this conclusion* but reading this made me think of something I have been thinking about recently. I had mentioned it in my post on pornography too. Is it really hypocritical if your thoughts and action don't correspond? As I said there, to me it seems perfectly fine if a person imagines dastardly and immoral things as long as he is able to exercise his moral faculty so that those thoughts are not expressed in his behaviour and action. This is one of the fundamental tenets of liberal justice system too. Otherwise we will end in the Orwellian state of thought-control. This is also how you can morally defend works like Lolita (without even considering its aesthetic merits.) It is perfectly fine to imagine a character like Humbert Humbert and spend your time in his imaginary company. That's the realm of imagination i.e. the realm of art.

This problem of great writers who were also enthusiastic wife-beaters is just the converse of the same. Is it possible and if it is then is it hypocritical that one thinks sublime thoughts but fails (or consciously refuses) to act in accordance to those thoughts? Is it also hypocritical on the part of the readers if they concern themselves solely with the thought i.e. the works in question rather than the personality as it comes out in the public life? If you just make a list of great poets who were really callous in their real life you will end up with a really long list. It is actually one of the reason why men of thought are often the most egocentric of people.

With Naipaul things are actually much more complex because he is equally bitter, resentful, unforgiving and merciless in his writings (at least in his journalism) as he is in his personal life. I wonder if the biographer has done some pop-psychologizing too in his book. Like for example, is it the case of self-hatred as a psyhic response to post-colonial trauma? A twisted and misdirected reaction to the pain of not belonging anywhere, the injustice meted out by the history, the internalization of racist ideology of the empire? I haven't seen any reviews talking about these things even though I think that should be the primary focus of any biography of Naipaul because it would show how life and writing influence each other. (I also wonder why, a self-hating third-worlder hasn't become a category like for example a self-hating jew. Nirad Chaudhuri would probably be another specimen from the Indian context.)

* She has obviously never come across Proust's idea of a creative artist and his well-known quote about "two selves". Naipaul himself mentions Proust's essay on Saint-Beuve in his Nobel prize lecture.

1 comment:

km said...

Famous authors are like the rest of humanity! Who knew that!! "Simple-minded" is correct.

But I am quite annoyed by the reviewer's use of the word "greatness".