Pessimism and Existentialism in V.S. Naipaul

By Roldan-Santiago, Serafin | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Pessimism and Existentialism in V.S. Naipaul

Roldan-Santiago, Serafin, Journal of Caribbean Literatures

The philosophic and thematic strands, along with the autobiographical strand in V.S. Naipaul, represent structures that deal directly with theme and ideas. They enrich the narratives with subtle meanings, thoughts and semantic direction. The autobiographical strand functions as a marker of personal identity since Naipaul has been in quest of "self" since the beginning. In the same manner, the philosophic strand has been essential in the development of a Naipaulian discourse. The philosophic strand is associated closely with the existential ideas of nothingness and dissolution, which in turn are closely connected to a state of pessimism and nihilism. This aura or existential sense is thus the idea or driving force that envelops many of his narratives. This is also true of Naipaulian irony. The philosophic notion of nothingness and dissolution has permeated most of Naipaul's writings beginning with his Trinidadian novels, especially The Middle Passage. This view has also developed further in some of Naipaul's middle works such as Mr. Stone and the Knight's Companion, The Mimic Men, and In a Free State, and in his later works such as A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. I prefer to call this a philosophic strand because the underlying currents and ideas can be classified as a variation of existentialist thought, perhaps post-1950s, that is, the ongoing existentialist thought to the present, especially as it pertains to post-coloniality.

Naipaul's use of this strand entails a deep pathos about life that many times ends in panic. Again, the great Naipaulian panic is brought forth. There is the mood and idea of decay and all that it can gather: dissolution, futility, corruption, and demise. It is a vision of the futility of life, especially in the post-colonial world. Lost colonials roaming across the post-colonial landscape, searching for a sense of identity, lost in a world that marginalizes them; their final destiny being desolation and dereliction. This Naipaulian philosophic strand projects the world as something that is constantly eroding and melting away. It constructs a deep pessimism about the world and its inhabitants who are viewed as totally absorbed in futility. Man is striving to understand his existence, trying to grasp it and find its rationale, but is failing at it. It is as Doerksen has written when describing the search for meaning in life as, "the futility of the search for the meaning of existence in both the past and the future" (108). It is important to point out that not only is this sense of futility and dissolution present in Naipaul's fiction, but also embeds his travel literature and historical texts. Specifically, The Loss of El Dorado is certainly an existentialist history of the Caribbean where characters, plots and events are headed towards colonial dissolution and decay. It is not Naipaul's bad intentions and meanness; it is the existential pessimism and nothingness, this driving, psychic force that permeates his writings.

In Naipaul's writings there are images and terms utilized by early existentialist writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway. Naipaul uses these terms, concepts, and images, the most important being the images or concepts of, "nausea," "nothing(ness)," and "panic." All three form fundamental philosophical constructs in existential thought. Naipaul has articulated these in his own particular way. In Sartre's Nausea, the protagonist Roquentin ponders the following about his existence:

   I glance around the room and a violent disgust floods me ... With 
   difficulty I chew a piece of bread which I can't make up my mind to 
   swallow. People. You must love people. Men are admirable. I want to 
   vomit--and suddenly, there it is: the Nausea. So this is Nausea: 
   this blinding evidence? I have scratched my head over it! I've 
   written about it. Now I know: I exist--the world exists--and I know 
   that the world exists. … 

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