Posts Tagged ‘V.S. Naipaul’

René Girard and the verboten four-letter word

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

What is the forbidden, unspeakable four-letter word in the English language?  René Girard has the answer:

“We often brag that no one can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.  We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation.  If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

The words are from his 1991 book A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare – the only book he has written in English (fittingly, about William Shakespeare, who has been a lifelong passion for this devotee of French literature).  My copy of the book arrived a few days ago, and just in time.

He has a lot to answer for.

Coincidentally, I checked out Arcade a few days later and found that João Cezar de Castro Rocha of Rio de Janeiro is extending René’s argument about “mimetic envy” to include  colonialism and the notion of “Shakespearean countries”:

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize [writer]. Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes”. A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions – very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character [a Brahmin] who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role”. The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me”. In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Naturally, the Brazilian scholar focuses more on Latin American literary and cultural history.  He’s made several posts already: “Mimetic Theory and Latin America” is here, “Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism” is here, and “Shakespearean Countries?” (cited above) is here.

Incidentally, W. Somerset Maugham inspired some mimesis of his own.  Leonard Nimoy has said that when he was creating a voice for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he listened to hours of recordings of the English writer reading his works.


Postscript on 5/13:  I thought the name João Cezar de Castro Rocha sounded familiar – he’s one of René Girard’s interlocutors for the book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.

By the way, René’s theories are getting some new traction not only from a mini-revival of Shirley Jackson, whose landmark short story, “The Lottery,” describes the “scapegoat mechanism,” but also from The Hunger Games, another exploration of societal scapegoating.

A priest’s explanation of The Hunger Games in light of René’s theories (below) has been making the rounds … but there’s a curious omission. He describes the need for scapegoating when tensions arise within societies, but he skips a huge chunk of René’s thinking when he overlooks the cause of that tension – that nasty four-letter word taboo again.

V.S. Naipaul opens mouth, changes feet: A round-up of literary kerfuffles, and a soupçon of misogyny

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

Friends again. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

First, the happy news:  Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux.  The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife.  From the Telegraph:

A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.

Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion.  The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.

The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:

We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdie and John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.

Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)

In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”

Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.

But in the Telegraph here you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.

And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert here, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”

Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press.  From the Guardian:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Queen of literary mathematics

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons.  Why?  Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject?  He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.

Oh yeah?

As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say:  Simone Weil.

Jennifer Egan took the bait, however, and made these comments on the kerfuffle to the Wall Street Journal:

“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”

“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test:  Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.

Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being.  So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?

If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Show below – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.  

se più avvien che fortuna t’accoglia
dove sien genti in simigliante piato:

ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia.