V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture

I read a lot of Naipaul in my youth and see value in his work. But Ian Buruma’s obituary profile reminds me of the main way in which I disagreed with him.

Naipaul believed there were “whole cultures”: comprehensive, harmonious, indigenous, and hermetic. Examples included classical India, England, and pre-colonial West Africa. A whole culture was “wounded” when it was mixed up with foreign elements, usually as a result of conquest or deferential imitation.

Naipaul was politically incorrect in three respects. He admired the “whole cultures” of Europe, such as England, and emphasized their indigenous roots. He saw many interventions as imperialistic–not just European conquests but, for example, the Islamic influence in India or the Arab influence on non-Arab Muslims. And he mocked people in the global South who made unsophisticated efforts to imitate the imperial centers: West Indians pretending to be British, or Malays pretending to be Arabs.

On the other hand, Naipaul was in sync with certain strains of post-colonial thought: he liked indigeneity and opposed cultural appropriation.

It’s true that “cosmopolitan” was a positive word in Naipaul’s lexicon, and he claimed to be cosmopolitan himself. But he insisted that a cosmopolitan was at home in more than one culture, truly understanding and living it. Lightly borrowing some elements of other cultures didn’t count:

[Satyajit] Ray was a Bengali intellectual and artist who was as much at home in European as in Indian culture. He loved Indian art and music as much as European classical music or literature, and had a deep knowledge of all these things. The fact that most of us eat American junk food, or watch Hollywood movies, doesn’t make us necessarily more cosmopolitan. To be cosmopolitan you need to feel at home in various different cultures, as Ray did, and few people do even now. As far as the shrinking world is concerned, this is easy to exaggerate.

For what it’s worth, I believe:

  1. There is no indigeneity. We have all migrated. Not only people but also ideas move constantly. Every group has been deeply influenced by other groups for as far back as we can see.
  2. There are no whole cultures. A culture is an assemblage of ideas about the world (defining both “ideas” and “world” broadly). Since everyone holds at least slightly different ideas, labeling people as members of a culture just means that most of them share some important ideas. It’s a statistical generalization about the beliefs of a population. Furthermore, the ideas that we happen to hold are always badly insufficient, and we are always looking for more. Because of our profound human limitations–cognitive and imaginative–every culture is drastically incomplete.
  3. Mixing is good. India, for example, is not a “wounded civilization” because the original Hindu whole has been rent by Muslims and Europeans. It is a fabulous quilt of diversity, and has been for three millennia. Even the Hindu aspect is massively diverse.
  4. Imitation is good, although you have to do it with creativity, respect, and taste. Some of Naipaul’s most effective criticism was aimed at poor efforts at imitation.
  5. Imperialism is bad. But that’s not because it disrupts indigeneity and cultural harmony or because it introduces ideas that should stay somewhere else. It’s bad because it involves forcibly seizing land and goods while usually also killing, exploiting, and (literally) raping people. The bad part is the violence and exploitation, not the mixing.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; and everyone unique, all connected.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.