Pankaj Mishra's new book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, will be out later this month. Stay tuned for my review of it on August 13th. Meanwhile, this Guardian article by Mishra introduces some key ideas and themes from it. What I found most interesting in it was Mishra's take on Naipaul's famous 1990 essay, Our Universal Civilization. Below is an excerpt from Naipaul's essay:
Because my movement within this civilization has been from Trinidad to England, from the periphery to the center, I may have felt certain of its guiding principles more freshly than people to whom these things were everyday. One such realization ... I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk — has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. 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.
Post-colonial leftist bulls have long seen lots of red in Naipaul's non-fiction. Here is Mishra's take on Naipaul and his essay above.
It was also during [the 1970s and 80s] that VS Naipaul's withering accounts of "half-made" postcolonial societies came to be hugely influential. Tracing Conrad's journey through the Congo, Naipaul claimed to see little difference between the imperialist and post-colonial eras. As he described it, the nihilism of Kurtz had been supplanted by "African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted". Naipaul ignored cold-war machinations in the Congo just as he would later scant the brutal rule of Iran's shah in exchange for broad musings on the innate defects of Islam. Though quickly credited with ethnographic as well as literary authority, Naipaul offered mostly culturalist and pseudo-psychological generalisations – "Islam", for instance, was to blame for the incorrigible backwardness of Muslim countries, India was a "Wounded Civilisation" and of course "African nihilism" had done Africa in. These reductive accounts actually helped entrench, among even liberals, an ahistorical outlook on the non-west while confirming the western supremacist disdain for it. Speaking in 1990 to a rightwing think tank in New York, Naipaul evoked a widespread post-cold-war triumphalism by hailing the "universal civilisation" created by the west, which he claimed would blow away all rival ideologies and values.