Did the Swedish Academy have a fit of conscience? A sudden access of common sense? A literary metanoia? Whatever happened, we were both pleased and astonished at the news that this year’s Nobel Prize in literature was to be awarded to the Trinidad-born British novelist V. S. Naipaul. We were pleased because there is no one now writing who is more deserving of the honor than Mr.—since 1989, Sir Vidia—Naipaul. His novels—we think particularly of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979)—are among the most penetrating, gracefully written, and psychologically subtle of our time. And his cultural reportage—especially Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), his two books about Islamic fundamentalism—provides a courageous and devastatingly accurate look into the furnace of religious fanaticism. Naipaul’s oeuvre makes important contributions both to contemporary literature and to our understanding of contemporary life. For many years, he has been an obvious candidate for this high honor.

Nevertheless, we were astonished to hear that Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize. His defense of civilized values—and his corresponding criticism of “Third Worldism” and Islamic fanaticism—has earned him the undying enmity of the politically correct literary establishment. It is said that he even had the distinction of attracting an informal coterie whose declared task it was to prevent him from winning the Nobel Prize. For many years his enemies prevailed. No group is more sensitive to the winds of political correctness these days than the eminences in Stockholm who dispense the Nobel laurels. Hence their eagerness to embrace third-rate novelists of victimhood (Toni Morrison), Fascists-turned-Communists-turned-anarchists (Dario Fo), out-and-out Stalinists (José Saramago), and reliable dispensers of left-wing, anti-American sentiment (Gunther Grass, Nadine Gordimer). How anomalous Naipaul seems in such company!

Whatever the reasons for the Nobel committee’s burst of clarity, we can be grateful that it happened now, when the values that Naipaul champions are so conspicuously under attack. We have in these pages occasionally cited Naipaul’s essay “Our Universal Civilization,” which was first delivered in 1990 as the Wriston Lecture sponsored by the Manhattan Institute in New York. Naipaul describes there his 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 writes, 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.
But not, we might add, without the brisk wind of moral self-assurance, a commodity that has until recently too often been lacking in Western democracies.

It was precisely for daring to extol Western civilization as something “universal,” which “fits all men,” that Naipaul has been so vehemently attacked by the left. Writing in 1998 about Beyond Belief, the radical-chic academic critic Edward Said assured readers that Naipaul’s criticism of Islamic fundamentalism represented “an intellectual catastrophe of the first order”: “so much is now lost on Naipaul,” Said wrote. “His writing has become repetitive and uninteresting. His gifts have been squandered. He can no longer make sense.”

In fact, in Beyond Belief, as elsewhere, Naipaul came bearing that most unwelcome instrument: a mirror in which were displayed the shattered illusions of fond hopes, the rancid pieties of baseless “ideals”—chief among which has been the multicultural ideal of the moral equality of all cultures. Naipaul ruthlessly exposed the mendacity of this dogma. “There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs,” Naipaul noted, because “Islam seeks as an article of faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honour Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to.” As the journalist Tunku Varadarajan observed recently in a perceptive piece on Naipaul in The Wall Street Journal, “for telling this truth, Mr. Naipaul has been attacked in the Islamic world, as well as in the West by liberals who see no harm in projecting all societies as equal and as equally ‘valid.’” Naipaul made sense, all right, but it was not the sort of sense that Edward Said and his intellectual confrères wanted to hear.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 3, on page 1
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