The #Metoo movement has felled many stars, and the literary cosmos has not been exempt from this purge. Recently, Pulitzer Prize winning (and widely popular) author, Junot Díaz, felt the wrath of womankind. In the months afterward, I watched the literary world struggle with a question which has long been on the minds of my fellow Trinidadians.
How can we love the art of a despicable man? Put another way, should the immoralities in an artist’s personal life disqualify him from our adulation? Put yet another way, should I only buy and consume the artistic works of nice people?
We Trinis have had to grapple, for decades, with the personality and genius of Sir VS Naipaul. He died yesterday, at the age of 85. His voluminous personal failings have been detailed in books by his one-time friend and protégé, Paul Theroux, and, most recently, by his own sister Savi Naipaul Akal who wrote,
Pa would have been ecstatic, and would have wept with joy. For days and weeks Pa would have smiled with pride and pleasure to remember that the little boy to whom he had read from books as a child had gone on to publish many books himself and earn the plaudits of the world. All the same, Pa would not have liked everything about the man Vidia. Pa would have been appalled and angry over his treatment of [his young brother] Shiva. Pa would have been distressed that Vidia had developed an hauteur and callousness that upset and wounded so many good people. He would have been horrified by Vidia’s treatment of Ma. He would have been more than displeased that Vidia had not invited her or, indeed, a single other member of his family, to attend his knighting by Queen Elizabeth or his grand Nobel award from the King of Sweden. And, finally, Pa would have been mortified that Vidia had married a divorced Muslim woman within days of the death from cancer of his long-suffering and loyal wife Pat.
Naipaul made no attempt to hide his contempt for the country of his birth, Trinidad and Tobago. Yet, some say, he has been rewarded for it. In 1990, he received the Trinity Cross, the nation’s highest honour. His books have been on the school curriculum for almost as long as he has been writing. I myself have distributed them far and wide, across the globe, as gifts. Why? I think, on some level, we Trinis realise Naipaul is engaged in the art of truth-telling, and a truth-teller does not have to be nice person.
Modern discussions suggest that there is some collective morality against which we must judge artists, before we engage with their work. I am suspicious of collective moralities. When I look around, what I actually see is collective immorality – all have sinned and fallen short. If I am to decide what I read based on the high moral standing of the writer, then, pretty soon, my bookshelves will be empty. It is the human condition that beauty and squalor, good and evil, exist as neighbours within us. I would much rather try to see the world through the perspective of the immoral man, than shun him. Shunning him, I learn nothing.
I reserve the right to buy and read the work of any writer and, if the case may be, to enjoy that work and to find value in it, regardless of who he/she is and how he/she has treated others. I may, conversely, hate the work, or level criticism at it – I may never buy that person’s work again. But the choice is mine. If defending that choice make me seem immoral, then so be it.
Thank you, Sir Vidia.
May your books continue to prompt and provoke our self-scrutiny.
Rest in Peace.