Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Place and Order: On the Impossible Ontology of the Postcolonial Condition

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Place and Order: On the Impossible Ontology of the Postcolonial Condition

Article excerpt

I decided years ago that this landscape was not mine (Naipaul 51)

In a society like ours, fragmented, inorganic, no link between man and the landscape, a society not held together by common interests, there was no true internal source of power. (...) A man, I suppose, fights only when he hopes, when he has a vision of order, when he feels strongly there is some connexion between the earth on which he walks and himself.... I looked out on the slave island and pretended it was mine. There was my sense of intrusion which deepened as I felt my power to be more and more a matter of words. So defiantly, in my mind, I asserted my character as intruder, the picturesque Asiatic born for other landscapes. (Naipaul 206-207)

for the West Indian, the drive to memory is perhaps the stronger because there is so little to remember. In the immediate present and the local context life appears to be second-hand, trivial, a meaningless cycle of repetition that does not amount to history as it is usually conceived. (Sharrad 97-98)

The Mimic Men is among V.S. Naipaul's many novels which reinforces his fame for ambiguity as a postcolonial writer. Isabella, the colonial island in the Caribbean, is empty of meaning, sense and history--the politics boils down to a mere pretence, all action is fraught with the lack of belief and sense of futility. The narrator, writing in exile in London among other anonymous exiles like himself, proceeds with an autobiography, although his true ambition is history, or, precisely, the political memoir becoming history: "A more than autobiographical work, the exposition of the malaise of our times pointed and illuminated by personal experience and that knowledge of the possible which can come only from closeness to power" (Naipaul, Mimic Men 146).

But history requires a degree of pathos and a sense of importance of the place, if it is to reach the level of a visionary synthesis (and only such grand history matters). Without this, which is Ralph Singh's predicament, only autobiography is possible--a nostalgic reflection on things and events that disintegrated before they could take on meaning. A look back shadowed with the ghostly sneer of the metropolis that was to be an epiphany and turned out to be a phantasm without the original, the Foucauldian false copy. (1) Ralph Singh experiences London as a phantasm--a promise of plenty, a display of light, which, however, turns the promise into a succession of semblances--reflected light, elusive essence, famous names turned empty of meaning by repetition:

 
   The great city, centre of the world, in which, fleeing disorder, I 
   had hoped to find the beginning of order. So much has been promised 
   by the physical aspect. That marvel of light ... sometimes the wet 
   streets threw their own glitter. Here was the city, the world.... 
   I would play with famous names as I walked empty streets and stood 
   on bridges. But the magic of names soon faded. Here was the river, 
   here the bridge, there that famous building. But the god remained 
   veiled. My incantations of names remained unanswered (Naipaul 
   18-19). 

London, the heart of the empire, is devoid of substance. The colonial subject arriving to discover its meaning--the world, the "physical city"--is left with a "conglomeration of private cells" (Naipaul 18). Such is, as Foucault tells us, the condition of the phantasm: it does not really hide the truth, it makes the truth a futile concept: "it is useless ... to seek a more substantial truth behind the phantasm" (346). Ralph Singh notes the ghostly aspect of the city--it reveals itself to him in a procession of appearances--what Foucault calls the incorporeal materiality of the phantasm. In this two-dimensionality of London, Ralph commences his life of the metonymic miming: "In London I had no guide. There was no one to link my present with my past . …

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