The Painful Sum of Things

Pankaj Mishra and Nikil Saval discuss V.S. Naipaul in n+1:

Dear Nikil,

You are right: Naipaul did not seek this role of the uniquely positioned reporter on the third world. He found himself in it, and much of his own complicated and tormented relationship with his subjects was bleached out, especially in his writings on Muslim countries. This has at least partly to do with the Anglo-American (and very non-Continental) cult of the no-bullshit, empiricist intellectual—the man who exposes himself to unpleasant or dangerous reality and tells the truth about it, using the clearest of prose. Orwell was the first great figure in this pantheon of cold-war liberalism, and what Raymond Williams said about him in Culture and Society could also be applied to Naipaul.

It is worth quoting Williams on Orwell at length:

He is genuinely baffling until one finds the key to the paradox, which I will call the paradox of the exile. For Orwell was one of a significant number of men who, deprived of a settled way of living, or of a faith, or having rejected those which were inherited, find virtue in a kind of improvised living, and in an assertion of independence. The tradition, in England, is distinguished. It attracts to itself many of the liberal virtues: empiricism, a certain integrity, frankness. It has also, as the normally contingent virtue of exile, certain qualities of perception: in particular, the ability to distinguish inadequacies in the groups which have been rejected. It gives, also, an appearance of strength, although this is largely illusory. The qualities, though salutary, are largely negative; there is an appearance of hardness (the austere criticism of hypocrisy, complacency, self-deceit), but this is usually brittle, and at times hysterical: the substance of community is lacking, and the tension, in men of high quality, is very great.

Williams then goes on to define Orwell as a vagrant, and tries to understand the nature of his appeal, and this applies to Naipaul as well:

Orwell, in different parts of his career, is both exile and vagrant. The vagrant, in literary terms, is the “reporter,” and, where the reporter is good, his work has the merits of novelty and a certain specialized kind of immediacy. The reporter is an observer, an intermediary: it is unlikely that he will understand, in any depth, the life about which he is writing (the vagrant from his own society, or his own class, looking at another, and still inevitably from the outside). But a restless society very easily accepts this kind of achievement.

More here.