V. S. Naipaul and the American Right

VS Naipaul’s career developed at a time when Western reactionary intellectuals could still be formidable, dynamic, and unpredictable.

V.S. Naipaul, seen here in 1968, once told NPR, "It's important to avoid the wallow. It repels the reader." John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images

I’ve often wondered why the American right has been so quiet about V. S. Naipaul. He’s easily the most talented reactionary writer in the English language — maybe the only living talent left in the right-wing zombiesphere. The American right devotes an insane amount of resources into manufacturing hagiographies on anyone whom they believe makes them look good — even the Soviets couldn’t compete with them when it comes to glorifying their pantheon of degenerate cretins like Ayn Rand, Phyllis Schlafly, and Friedrich von Hayek.

But I found a few passages that I think explain why they never liked Naipaul much. Basically, it comes down to this: The American right only needs “team players” — shameless, cynical hacks who can be counted on to churn out whatever rank propaganda ordered up by the Heritage Foundation. For that, you need a Rotary Club nihilist like Dinesh D’Souza, someone totally devoid of a literary ego, intellectual curiosity, or a gag reflex.

I was just reading Patrick French’s brilliant biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, and came across this interesting scene from Naipaul’s visit to America in 1969. Naipaul had already started developing a reputation at that point as one of the rare examples of a dark-skinned reactionary Tory from a Third World colony, making him one of the most despised literary figures among the trendy-left.

His first impressions of America weren’t good: “They [Americans] are really now a group of immigrants who have picked up English but whose mental disciplines are diluted-European,” he wrote in one letter home.

In another letter, he confessed:

I now dread meeting Americans, especially their alleged intellectuals. Because here the intellect, too, is only a form of display; of all the chatter about problems (very, very remote if you live in an “apartment” in Manhattan: something that appears to be got up by the press) you feel that there is really no concern, that there is only a competition in concern . . . The level of thought is so low that only extreme positions can be identified: Mary McCarthy, Mailer, Eldridge Cleaver and so on. Ideas have to be simple . . . The quandary is this. This country is the most powerful in the world; what happens here will affect the restructuring of the world. It is therefore of interest and should be studied. But how can one overcome one’s distaste? Why shouldn’t one just go away and ignore it?”

A good question — I ask myself that just about every morning. The “relevancy” argument he raises is losing its persuasive appeal fast. (The best answer I can come up with is, “To make some of their lives as miserable as they’ve made mine.”)

Anyway, it’s interesting that Naipaul mentions the name of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver here in 1969, because Cleaver’s name comes up again in an essay Naipaul published in 1984 on the Republican Party Convention in Dallas. This was at the height of the Reagan counterrevolution, when a reactionary like Naipaul should have come to pick up his check, make a few speeches, write a glowing account of America’s turn to conservatism, and find his books turned into bestsellers via the right-wing mail-order pipeline.

But Naipaul was always too intellectually honest — and too vain. In the essay on the 1984 Republican convention, titled “Among the Republicans,” Naipaul describes the degradation of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther whom he once lumped in with all the “simple” American intellectuals he had contempt for. It’s the first morning of the Convention, and Naipaul sees this announcement in his Dallas Sheraton hotel:

11:00 AM. Press conference, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips, Populist Conservative Tax Coalition. Subject: “Are Liberals Soft on Communism?” Guest speaker: Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther.

Eldridge Cleaver! One of the famous names of the late 1960s: the self-confessed rapist of white women, the man who had spent years in jail, the Black Muslim, the author of Soul on Ice (1968), not really a book, more an assemblage of jottings, but a work of extraordinary violence, answering the mood of that time. In 1969, when for a few weeks I had been in the United States, I had heard it said of Cleaver that he was going to die one day in a shoot-out with the FBI. That hadn’t happened. Cleaver had found asylum in Algeria and then in France; he had become homesick there and had returned, a born-again Christian, to the United States.

In Paris earlier this year I had met a man who had made an important film about Cleaver during the revolutionary days of the late 1960s. The film man now regarded that time, which had its glory, as a time of delusion. And now Cleaver himself was part of a side-show — or so I thought of it — at the Republican convention.

It seemed a big comedown. And it was even sadder, when I got to the conference room, to find that there was no crowd; that Cleaver was not the most important person there, that he was sitting on the far right of the second row, that some people didn’t seem to know who he was; that the few journalists asking questions were more interested in the other people of the Populist Conservative Tax Coalition.

So ordinary now, so safe, this black man for whom a revolutionary’s desperate death had been prophesied. I had known him only from his younger photographs. He was now forty-nine and almost bald; what hair he had was gray. There was something Chinese, placid, about his eyes and cheekbones; he looked very patient. His eyebrows were thin, like penciled arcs, and his hooded eyes were quiet.

Seeing Cleaver paraded around like a defeated, conquered aborigine struck Naipaul hard, opening up deep raw wounds: that of a colonized, backwater, dark-skinned twerp whose only way out of Trinidad was through Tory England, his conquerors.

Although a reactionary, Naipaul was never a lackey like today’s right-wing “intellectuals”; he never shied away from describing the brutality of colonialism (unlike bootlicking scum like Dinesh D’Souza, who never missed an opportunity to glorify his white right-wing masters for colonizing India, despite the tens of millions of Indians who died of famine in the Raj).

Naipaul continues:

And at last Cleaver stood up. He was tall beside the CIA man. He was paunchy now, even a little soft-bellied. His blue shirt had a white collar and his dark red tie hung down long. The touch of style was reassuring.

Somebody asked about his political ambitions. He said he wanted to get on the Berkeley city council. And then, inevitably, someone asked about his attitude to welfare. His reply was tired; he gave the impression of having spoken the words many times before. “I’m passionately opposed to the welfare system because it’s made people a parasitic dependency on the federal system. . . . I want to see black people plugged into the economic system. . . . Welfare is a stepping-stone to socialism because it teaches people the government is going to solve our problems.”

That was more or less it. It seemed to be all that was required of “Eldridge,” that statement about socialism and welfare. And soon the session was declared closed. A repeat began to be prepared. As in a fair, shows were done over and over again, and in between business was drummed up.

Naipaul is so affected by the sight of this conquered, lobotomized-Republican Eldridge Cleaver that he goes back again to Cleaver’s Black Panther days and finds himself not just empathizing but actually appreciating Cleaver’s literary and intellectual talents, something Naipaul couldn’t see back in the sixties:

. . . Away from the dark corner, Cleaver, placid, gray-haired, leaned against a wall. Two or three journalists went to him. But the very simplicity of the man on display made the journalists ask only the obvious questions, questions that had already been asked.

There was a many-layered personality there. But that personality couldn’t be unraveled now, with simple questions in a formal public gathering. To find that man, it was necessary to go to his book, the book of 1968, Soul on Ice. And there — in a book more moving and richer than I had remembered — that many-layered man was: with his abiding feeling for religion and his concern with salvation (as a Roman Catholic, then as a Black Muslim, then as a revolutionary); his need for community constantly leading him to simple solutions; his awareness of his changing self; his political shrewdness:

And here Naipaul quotes an amazing passage from Cleaver’s Soul On Ice:

I was very familiar with the Eldridge who came to prison, but that Eldridge no longer exists. And the one I am now is in some ways a stranger to me. You may find this difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then he ends up not knowing who he is. . . .

In this land of dichotomies and disunited opposites, those truly concerned with the resurrection of black Americans have had eternally to deal with black intellectuals who have become their own opposites. . . .

In a sense, both the new left and the new right are the spawn of the Negro revolution. A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle, and it had the sophistication and morality to repudiate the right wing. This consensus, which stands between a violent nation and chaos, is America’s most precious possession. But there are those who despise it.

The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.

That was Eldridge Cleaver in the late 1960s, describing exactly what would happen over the next two decades.

Now that Naipaul could compare the two Eldridge Cleavers — the Black Panther vs. the Republican lackey — the message was clear. If Naipaul wanted to pick up that check from the American right-wing, it wasn’t enough to have fought on the front lines of the ideological battle of the 1970s against the literary Marxists. He’d have to become a lobotomized, conquered version of himself, an Eldridge Cleaver. He’d have to give up everything interesting about himself.

Instead, Naipaul essentially banished himself to the whispered margins of the American right by doing what he was always best at: describing exactly what he saw at the 1984 Convention, without artifice, without pandering. Here is Naipaul describing the effect of the climactic speech by Ronald Reagan:

So that at the climax of the great occasion, as at the center of so many of the speeches, there was nothing. It was as if, in summation, the sentimentality, about religion and Americanism, had betrayed only an intellectual vacancy; as if the computer language of the convention had revealed the imaginative poverty of these political lives. It was “as if” — in spite of the invocations and benedictions (the last benediction to be spoken by Dr. Criswell) — “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed any more.”

The words are by Emerson; they were written about England. English Traits, published in 1856, was about Emerson’s two visits to England, in 1833 and 1847, when he felt that English power, awesome and supreme as it still was, was on the turn, and that English intellectual life was being choked by the great consciousness of power and money and rightness. “They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground.” Emerson wrote, “and may be said to live and act in a submind.” Something like this I felt in the glitter of Dallas. Power was the theme of the convention, and this power seemed too easy — national power, personal power, the power of the New Right. Like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas “to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.”

All of the young reactionary intellectuals I knew when I was younger eventually came around to a similar epiphany. At some point, it just couldn’t be ignored: these people were scum; mean, sleazy, boring scum. It became impossible to be near them. They — we — dropped out of the Right, and wanted nothing more to do with it all. But by ruining everything in this country — economically, culturally, intellectually, militarily — the Right essentially chased us wherever we went, poisoning everything they could get their hands on. Until finally there was nowhere to go but leftward. A hardened, mean left.

Either get the Republican lobotomy (just look at poor P. J. O’Rourke), or go left: those are the only choices in this country today.

Naipaul’s career developed at a time when Western reactionary intellectuals could still be formidable, dynamic and unpredictable; there was space carved out on the Right for reactionary talent like Naipaul. They had to struggle for publishing success at a time when the printed word was dominated by Marxist philistines. Those left-wing intellectuals no longer exist today, except as phantom boogeymen in the heroic fantasies of the Right. What’s worse, the American right has no need of unpredictable talent like V. S. Naipaul, so they’ve driven his species into extinction as well, poisoning the intellectual ecosystem forever, making it impossible for a new Naipaul to threaten them again. They’ve replaced the Naipauls with libertarians, the fake, predictable, genetically-modified version of reactionary intellectualism — so insanely corrupt and so profoundly retarded that, like a skunk spraying foul stupidity whenever threatened, libertarianism has successfully scared away anyone with brains and dignity from bothering them while they feed.

Naipaul always despised facile thinking. It was because Naipaul was so committed to merciless observation that he allied himself with reactionary intellectuals of the pre-Reagan, pre-Thatcher era — it was the Left that wore the rose-tinted glasses back then. What Naipaul didn’t realize was how much worse, how much more intellectually stifling America’s right-wing intelligentsia would turn out to be once in power. And sentimental to the point of disgusting — that’s the other thing that comes through Naipaul’s essay on the 1984 Republican Convention: the cheap, contemptible sentimentality of the American right, the very opposite of rigor.

What’s left today, three decades after Reagan’s victory, is a ruling class of Rotary Club nihilists. Right-wing degenerates. And they’re not even interesting degenerates anymore, the way some right-wingers used to be. They just scream a lot. Scream and bang a stick on the ground — and at the end of the stick-banging, they go to pick up their checks from their billionaire sponsors.

All of which brings me back to Naipaul’s original question: How can one overcome one’s distaste? Why shouldn’t one just go away and ignore it?