The other day I briefly published a piece on the late V S Naipaul. It was a synopsis of a lecture he gave in 1990, which he called “Our Universal Civilization”(1). After 24 hours, with vague misgivings, I took it down again.(2) It was fun to revive an old skill, the one they used to call “précis” in our English lessons: convey the gist in fewer words. But to publish it here was presumptuous and did no service to Naipaul’s memory. His writings show a timeless concern for civilization, and ways to escape the the selva oscura(3). His lecture drew on visits he’d made in 1979 to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. This was before his return to the same places in 1995. In each case he wrote a book: Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey(4), and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples(5).
Now that I’m working through Beyond Belief, and getting the full nuanced tale, I can’t do better than quote this sentence, though I’m not sure how true it still is:
Islam sits more lightly on the shoulders of the Arab than of the non-Arab peoples.(6)
I claim no special insight into these matters, but in various ways they have impinged on my life. V S Naipaul was merely a name to me until I went to Jamaica in 2004, to join Karleen there. She had worked for many years at the University of the West Indies in Mona, near Kingston. It was there she met Earl McKenzie: first as a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and later in the Faculty of Arts. She typed many and varied manuscripts for him: poems, short stories, essays on literary and philosophic topics.
During my six months in Jamaica, I learned to make sense of his handwriting and took over her typing load. It extended my education, offered an unexpected viewpoint: that Western civilization (British, European, American) had its own bias and blind spots. One day I typed Earl’s manuscript of a piece on Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. I don’t have the text any more, but I think it was part of a series he was working on, to reveal the contributions of various authors (of whom he is one) towards a home-grown West Indian school of philosophy.(7) This in turn would have drawn on roots in Africa, India, Britain & China, for these countries provided its people. When Jamaica gained independence from Colonial rule it adopted the motto “Out of Many, One People”(8). Its coat of arms shows two of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, the Arawaks (also known as Tainos). They were wiped out, one way and another, by Christopher Columbus:
The Spaniards, when they came, tortured and killed the Arawaks to get their land. They were so overworked and ill-treated that within a short time they had all died. The process was aided by the introduction of European diseases to which the Arawaks had little or no resistance. (10)
Culturally therefore, Jamaica was shaped from immigrant populations, a mere 500 years ago. Naipaul was from Trinidad, with a somewhat different history and ethnic mix from that of Jamaica. But his writing, based on West Indian childhood and arrival in England as a young adult, gave him plenty to brood on: colonialism as a double-edged sword. Later travels enabled him to see at first hand how Islam had spread beyond Arabia long ago through conquest and its own form of colonialism, often alongside the colonialism of the British and Dutch. Already in 1979 he saw a resurgence of Islamism as the threat to what he sees as “our universal civilization”. I can relate personally to some of what he says, having spent time in Malaysia, West and East, on consultancy assignments in the early Eighties. But most of all I see Islam in my own street. In the thirteen years I’ve lived in this part of town, I’ve been witness to a gradual change. It sits more heavily on my neighbours’ shoulders these days. What to think?
A blogging friend has written a new piece about Hope, renewing a topic he touched on a year ago:
Those who have reached a certain age are able to look back over decades of events and sense that, in terms of creating a decent world for the mass of humanity, no progress has been made. None at all. Instead, they look at May, Johnson, Corbyn, Trump, the EU, Merkel, Syria, climate change, fake news, environmental catastrophe, the current inability to trust or believe anybody of influence – and just give up all hope.(11)
Yes, there are all these factors coming into play, and I won’t even begin to say anything about them, except to observe that hope is a mood, not a solid thing. Some of what we see is frightening or ugly. How much attention I give it, how much I let it get under my skin, depends on my own underlying mood; just as some thoughts are troubling when I lie sleepless at night, but evaporate with the morning dew as I deal with my own reality. I was tempted to say “we” and “our” in the last sentence, but that would obscure the important distinction. Your underlying mood may not be the same as mine. I am trying to find words for something in the heart, which doesn’t come easily, cannot be taken for granted: a kind of anchoring in something solid. I’m suddenly reminded of
a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded on a rock.
I’ve never been a Christian and don’t read those words as necessarily those of Jesus, nor do I think of the rock as representing Christianity or any belief at all, unless the words were massaged centuries later to give justification to some Church.
One thing I do know, is that in the course of my life, full of lostness, mistakes and harsh asperities, I have stumbled upon a rock and built my house upon it. It has been a singular journey, and I’ve not been able to extrapolate any general rules that might serve as a map for anyone else.
But I haven’t given up on that. I recently took down from its shelf a book of philosophy I bought many years ago, I can’t remember the date or circumstances: Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead. It’s vast in its scope and couched in difficult-to-grasp language. Whitehead was a mathematician, an academic administrator, an historian of science, someone whose views on the reform of education were respected at the highest levels. But when he moved from London to the University of Chicago, he delved into the things that scientific materialism had rendered unfashionable: metaphysics. I’m eager to share my thoughts on this, but not ready yet.
(1) Click here for the full text https://www.city-journal.org/html/our-universal-civilization-12753.html
(2) Click here for a copy of the withdrawn post https://drive.google.com/open?id=1NY_Kzxw5zY-BGsdWScuh_q-9K4vL6_tU
(3)First lines of Dante’s Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita . . .
Midway along our road of life I woke
to find myself in a dark and secret wood
for I had lost the narrow path. To evoke . . .
(4) Among the Believers (not to be confused with a documentary film of the same name) see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Among_the_Believers
(5) Beyond Belief see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Belief:_Islamic_Excursions_among_the_Converted_Peoples
(6) From a review of Among the Believers by Malise Ruthven, London Review of books 1981 https://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n18/malise-ruthven/onward-muslim-soldiers
(7) see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-West-Indian-Novel-Mckenzie/dp/9766402159 and https://philpapers.org/rec/MCKPIT
For an example of Earl McKenzie’s philosophical musings, in the stream of thought which so impressed me as I typed his manuscripts, see “Can Philosophy Be an Art Form?” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/628741 Earl himself is an accomplished poet and painter.
(9) Out of Many, One People: I co-wrote a book of this title. It’s available on Amazon.
(11) “We’re Doomed”, by Ian T https://palegreenvortex.blogspot.com/2018/08/were-doomed.html