News that V. S. Naipaul had died came just as we were going to press in August. We still remember the surprise, bordering on astonishment, that greeted the announcement that Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was in October 2001, a scant month after Muslim fanatics commandeered commercial jetliners and steered them, with their hundreds of passengers, into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and let’s not forget the aborted attack that ended the flight of United 93 over a field in Pennsylvania). The body count of those despicable and cowardly acts of terrorism was nearly three thousand, roughly the tally of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the enormity of 9/11 had insinuated a moral hiatus into the Nobel Prize Committee’s usual penchant for “progressive” cheerleaders and multicultural totems.
Whatever the reason for the Swedish Academy’s deviation from its standard, politically correct operating procedure, there can be no doubt that in bestowing the Nobel Prize upon Vidia Naipaul the Academy was honoring a man who stood fast and fierce against the multicultural pieties of the day. We will publish a memorial essay about Naipaul by his friend David Pryce-Jones in an upcoming issue. For now, we wish simply to minute our sorrow at the great writer’s passing and recall the moral energy that stood at the center of his world view.
With the passing of V. S. Naipaul, the world has lost a singular, insightful, and courageous voice of moral clarity.
Naipaul was a complex man of all-too-human foibles and failings. Some obituaries have dilated on those foibles and failings. But in the long perspective afforded by history, what is most memorable about Naipaul was his staunch defense of the animating values that lifted Western civilization out of the barbaric trough of tribal insularity that has marked so much of the Third World. Naipaul was unafraid to argue that case, and did so repeatedly in his journalism and novels. In 1990, for example, he delivered a now-famous lecture for the Manhattan Institute in New York. “Our Universal Civilization” describes Naipaul’s literary development as a journey from the periphery to the center: from his native Trinidad—the periphery of universal civilization—to London, its center. The autobiographical movement he traces is at the same time the long, sometimes difficult movement of Western civilization as a whole. It embodies, Naipaul wrote, a capacious idea of human fulfillment.
It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
Naipaul’s explicit celebration of Western civilization won him much hostility from the Left, especially from the rancid swamp of the entitled academic Left. But it also won him the gratitude of all who understood what was at stake in the battle for universal values at a time when the centrifugal forces of identity politics were shredding the integrity and spiritual self-confidence of our leading cultural institutions. With the passing of V. S. Naipaul, the world has lost a singular, insightful, and courageous voice of moral clarity. We are poorer for the loss. Requiescat in pace.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 3
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