VS Naipaul: men who are nothing have no place in the world

After all the obits I’ve read for “VS Nightfall” (as Walcott called him), the following few words in the New Statesman made me gasp:

The opening sentence of VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River is memorable: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Contemplating the “hardness of the world” Barack Obama used to reflect on what he called Naipaul’s “realism” and on that opening sentence in particular – of which, he said, “there are times where it feels as if that may be true”.

We often see Naipaul’s the world is what it is quote, but we don’t often see what Naipaul wrote immediately afterwards – that there is no safety net, there is nothing protecting us, we are on our own in the jungle. And we never see it next to Barack Obama’s tired and rueful acknowledgment that, perhaps, just perhaps, Naipaul had a point.

So here’s the heart of the difference between the left and the right: to Obama on the left – and he wasn’t a completely perfect president, but he was a hell of a lot better than the completely imperfect one we have now – the world is what we make it, not what it is. The left hopes humanity can change its own nature, we can end suffering if we so choose. Yet Obama’s been knocked back too many times to be certain: even to him, the jury’s still out. We have to keep trying, to keep struggling, because that’s what we do, us humans; but maybe it’ll turn out we are just hard animals, and all was for nothing. The jury’s still out.

I refuse to believe that any man or woman of subtle intelligence would fail to see the virtue of trying to improve the world, even if those attempts turned out to be futile; and Naipaul was the subtlest, and most intelligent, of writers. Which leads me to a completely groundless speculation about him. We know he valued literature above everything, but he knew that stories are only possible in a world that “is what it is”, where “men who are nothing have no place”. The opening sentence of River isn’t an opening into the novel; it’s the necessary conditions that make story itself possible. And so the project of the left – to perfect the world – is simultaneously to destroy story. No wonder Naipaul resisted it; maybe we all should, as well.

I’m not a Naipaul expert, and I have absolutely no evidence or argument for this speculation. Nevertheless, there are times when it feels as if it may be true.

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