Is V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa•1 a book that lapses into Afro-Pessimism? And if that is the case, — “Nobel oblige,” moreover! — should it be free to hold forth on anything and everything?
That said, what reproaches can be made against this work? We do not propose to discuss here how to determine whether the work in question is one worthy of being ranked in the classification of the great categories of literature.
Is V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa•1 a book that lapses into Afro-Pessimism? And if that is the case, — “Nobel oblige,” moreover! — should it be free to hold forth on anything and everything?
That said, what reproaches can be made against this work? We do not propose to discuss here how to determine whether the work in question is one worthy of being ranked in the classification of the great categories of literature. It is many a long year since writings of this nature — be they simple travel accounts or the journey taken by an essayist into a more artificial topology than the distance between a book and its author — have found favour with the critics and the public and been regarded as an integral part of literature. Nevertheless, we are obliged to acknowledge that it is the work of a great writer and that, over and above the essay itself, it is this status, above all, that will serve as the standard-bearer for ideas which, however legitimate and ultimately debatable they may be, are nevertheless dangerous, as we shall see...
First of all, what is the purpose of the book? Generally speaking, in a travel account, the most important thing for the author is not so much the narration of the events experienced as the wonder that they can create through his reader’s sensation of exotic new surroundings. In short, the constant concern of the author is naturally the exoticism in which he carries his reader away, the scenery and the peoples encountered and their customs being only the necessary background to this deliberate sensation of being transported out of familiar surroundings. From Chateaubriand to Gide, the genre had its glories and its misfortunes, before sinking into a voyeurism accompanied by the almost zoomorphic stench of the colonial writers. Such writers have now vanished with the appearance of television and new modes of human communication, with new distances and boundaries between oceans and continents, which if they have not simply been wiped out, at the very least have been infinitely shortened.
However, we are obliged to conclude that, despite the ideological advances brought by new scientific conquests and the knowledge that they have brought humanity, especially in the last century, Naipaul has nevertheless preferred to resume the positions of the aforementioned colonial writers. In fact, as far as the eminent writer was concerned, it was not so much a question of creating a new Description of Africa•2 with details of the flora and fauna, but more of writing a robust essay on the deplorable state of Africa (specifically because of the psychic particularity of its peoples), as his conception of the world has enabled him to glimpse it in the course of experience. So in his case, travel is nothing more than an excuse to illustrate preconceived or fabricated notions. And although he affects to report “objectively” the remarks of those he speaks to, only very rarely pushing himself to the forefront, the reader is unlikely to be taken in by his little ploy.
If the author is to be believed, on a somewhat naive reading, it seems that Naipaul’s primary plan was to verify some fleeting impressions glimpsed during an initial voyage to Uganda. Pressured by the desire to finish his book during this writing residency, he did not have the time to savour the splendours of an Africa that he knew through legends, enriched by inevitably academic knowledge. So he had been in Uganda in 1966 and all he had noticed of it was the setting of the colonial garden and the bush that the road went through on his way from his small residence to the library. So he was no tourist of the ilk of Epinal. Far from it! He was more of a conscientious writer, who had been physically removed from his surroundings, but who had quickly returned to his favourite homeland, the world of books. Consequently, of Kampala or Entebbe, he had seen little or nothing. Of the Baganda, although he had rubbed shoulders with them and even visited them, he subsequently knew nothing but what was to be found in the books of historians and ethnologists on the libraries of London. After the event!
We now understand that several decades later, independence consummated and consolidated, colonialism and neo-colonialism disposed of, apartheid abolished, the ennobled and Nobelled writer sought to understand why this strange Africa, the cradle of our fine and lovely humanity, has never managed to emerge from its torpor and lethargy that not only render it the continent that is poorest, most destitute, most exposed to every kind of natural turpitude but also, alas, the continent that suffers the most harshly from the turpitude of human nature. A continent doomed to poverty and hunger when nothing — except perhaps, indeed, some evil destiny, a stubborn curse, some incredible black magic — predisposed it to a situation as unlikely as it is unreasonable. No doubt he regarded Africa as a badly written story, with somewhat unpleasant ingredients, of which the framework was at best nothing more than a real puzzle, a permanent challenge to logical reasoning.
To understand this outrage to reason, he must undoubtedly have dug out his first impressions of Uganda, and compared them with the very sensible observations of the historian (Speke) and the explorer (Stanley), without, however, being able to satisfy a curiosity whose understanding of matters historical was inherently insufficient to slake the thirst for knowledge. No doubt that was when the sublime intuition was born that he then wanted to raise to the rank of a truth of revealed wisdom. But that very approach is in itself rather an odd one: was it a question of political anthropology or a supplement to the history of religions? Nothing could be less clear! And the author could easily retort not only that these sundry bodies of knowledge had not understood anything about Africa, but, perhaps also, in a parody of Mallarmé, that Africans cannot read. That is certainly what he cryptically declared to the journalist•3 from the Nouvel Observateur•4 who, for his part, seemed to comprehend the indignation of the Africans. But perhaps we should assume that the journalist could not read either!
And then suddenly, in a moment of hair-splitting, Naipaul catches himself getting into a muddle in his own argument, questioning himself on the validity, the real objectivisation of this curious ethno- historical enterprise, his very own, regarding a presumptive African homo religiosus so unique in the whole history of religions that he can be held responsible for all their evils. But perhaps also questioning, at the same time, the only factor the African people would have had to work hard to rigorously preserve, to succeed where everyone else has succeeded, except them, which is to negotiate the post-impact corner, beyond the impact; the only useful turn which might have been able to spare them these tragic, hateful, regrettable effects on their daily existence, which have taken on the gigantic aspect of a disaster in our times. One thing, then, and its opposite! But surely that is the stuff of unrequited love? And might this not be, when all is said and done, a somewhat similar phenomenon?
The commentary on his own investigation is also, paradoxically, the feeling that the reader might have when he reads Naipaul’s book. We understand only too well what the author is getting at, what are his deepest objectifications. It is scarcely possible to encapsulate the whole enterprise merely by consolidating the idea that Africa has failed to develop — and it will probably find it very difficult to take off from its current situation, and even, probably, will never take off! — because it has not been able to negotiate its future on the basis of its burdensome colonial past. Then Naipaul sets about checking off the flaws, almost to the point of caricature, to the very limits of distortion and disinformation. And then, as he ticks off each failing, he issues a corrective judgment which could have changed the state of affairs if Africans had had the same brain as him — or as most people — in fact, the same analytical spirit.
Africans never had writing? They should have adopted some form of it and incorporated it into a traditional system! The so-called “revealed religions” have not been able to extinguish the impulses of traditional beliefs? So naturally syncretism has been a real obstacle to development! In consequence of which, furthermore, in the worst case scenario, the Africans should have looked after their religions, and they probably would not be in that state! Why such vast tracts of arable land and no real viable agriculture, when they are short of food? And if the forest was so sacred, why now is it being ransacked and destroyed, everywhere and at such speed?
Though the facts are clear, the diagnoses real or close to reality, it is nevertheless the underlying ideology, the ideological presuppositions at the edge of what we might call a “racialising” discourse, that are in question in Naipaul’s work. In fact, the title of the book should be read as a play on words related to masks/masques. The reverse of a religion which enlightens and produces indisputable elements of civilisation (Christianity, Islam — and to a lesser extent, Buddhism — despite some period of obscurantism, have been vehicles of this kind of progress in humanity), African religion (Naipaul was quick to incorporate plurality into a kind of uniqueness, despite the diversity of expressions) has undoubtedly been the mask, the screen that prevented the African peoples from seeing the reality and it is this spirit clinging to the trivialities of religion that has prevented them, as Baudelaire would say, from walking.•5
Consequently, the mask of Africa is this religion with which it is so obsessed that it is prevented it from walking, following the rest of the world as it moves along, blinded as it is by the mask …
However, when Naipaul said that, when the writer expressed such an opinion, on the religion of the Africans as the chief cause of their stagnation, how could this view be deemed prejudicial to morality, or even to the idea that anything can be said, stopping short of giving offence to morality, through insult, defamation or lies?
And in this regard, specifically, to what extent does Naipaul’s book contain passages subject to charges of the unnameable offence — unnamed precisely because what is it at issue is not an offence but a crime! We shall refrain, however, from any “legalist” approach. We make no claim to do anything but stick to the text and the analysis of the writings or remarks made in the context of this book. And later, we shall quote such extracts directly from the book. It must, however, be acknowledged that they are few and far between, the places where we can catch Naipaul in a vein not far removed from the discourse of the early twentieth century, notably the theories of Lévy-Bruhl on so-called primitive thought. These places are rare, it is true, but nevertheless they do exist, as in this commentary of the author in the explanation given by Richmond of his own remarks according to which, in conclusion, “The thought process is limited by the environment,” with, in particular, the following extract: “In a few words, he had defined the impasse of the instinctual life. After all, he did have a gift for analytical thinking; and, though this is probably unfair, it is possible that he might have got this from his Danish ancestor. Engineer, soldier or administrator, who knows? This man, ruled by logic, full of inner resources, had been able forge an existence in a difficult environment, far from home.”•6
It would be difficult to be more eloquent as to the negative judgment made about the intellectual capacities of a whole people. This seems to us, for the present at least, to be the only clear statement on the thought or psychological processes of the Blacks! If Richmond escapes the curse of Ham, it is clearly because he has, partly at least, a Danish ancestry. If “the thought process is limited by the environment,” there is every reason to believe that the author’s thought process when he made such an observation was more than favourable to “racialisation,” in other words, to the “limit” of racism! It is no longer a matter here — as is often to be found with Naipaul and his subtle rhetoric of the faithful “rapporteur” between direct and free reported speech — of an allocentric discourse, but of the remark itself being taken up by the author, carried away by a kind of exegetic élan that would be almost pleasing were it not obscene!
Finally, this dialogue extract:
“— The other day, you told me that your brother regarded being born in Africa as a curse.•7
— That is a strong statement. To be born in Africa is like being born in ignorance (…) That is why I say that the white man, however bad, brought education. We have a proverb: he who has never been anywhere believes that his mother’s soup is the best.”•8
The final judgment is that Blacks in general, and the Gaas (a Ghanaian coastal tribe) in particular, are content with so little that it would be stupid to try to offer them anything more! Though they live close to the cesspools, “they are comfortable” and will not ask you for anything that will change the situation.
One of the constants of Naipaul’s insidious discourse is to refer Africa to ancient Rome or, more specifically, to the period of the empire when it had to confront the rise of Christianity (cf. Augustus, Nero, etc.), as if, unlike the peoples of the pax romana or others who were converting to Christianity, the peoples of Africa would have stayed in Antiquity or would not have been capable of seizing the “opportunity” for evolution by changing their civilisation as a result of contact with another. Unless it was that Christianity, or at least that spread by colonisation in Africa, did not much favour the emergence of a great joint civilisation on its departure. We get the strange impression that for Naipaul, it is not even a matter of stating, like René Dumont in his day, that black Africa got off to a bad start, but more of concluding that it has missed the development boat, because it has made bad choices, or because its culture is resistant to change or to the very idea of development.
In fact, there are three periods in the history of the successive failures of Africa as perceived by Naipaul:
— the pre-colonial period which is not very different from that of ancient Rome and is a kind of African Golden Age (a period in conformity with the religion and spirituality of Africa and during which, despite the inevitable conflicts between nations, it seems to have lived in harmony with itself);
— the colonial period where everything lost its structure, leading to great trauma. This was undoubtedly the most decisive period, the turning point and which, depending on various different metaphors, Africa could not negotiate, or was the “corner” that it took so badly that it smashed into a tree, or it fell flat on its face, or it ended up in a wall …
— the post-colonial period, when Africa should have taken control of its fate and where it is stagnating as a result of its incredible incompetence in analysing the real causes of this stagnation, trusting one day in imported religions and another in the more “primitive” traditional religions, or what remains of them.
As a result, Africans are alone in not grasping the structural, perhaps congenital, origin of the causes of the continent’s stagnation.
From there to the suspicion of racism, we have not far to go, just a step in fact…
And if we have not taken this step, it is precisely because it is possible to utter racist remarks with really being so, without having the feeling of causing offence, of casting opprobrium on a people or a nation; in short, without knowing it, without realising it, in good faith. And that is perhaps precisely wherein lies the blind spot of the Naipaulian approach. Actually, he is the one wearing the “mask,” tangled up in a neo-bourgeois, pseudo-progressive logic; trapped inside egalitarian and universalist principles, his logical mind has come up against what he could only perceive as an African exception. So it is this mask or its eyeholes that are in question and his responsibility is all the greater in that, given that he is a Nobel laureate for literature, we would have preferred to deal with his pen!
For, of Africa, Naipaul has seen, at most, only the setting and perhaps even the mask of a continent that he carried within him, like an original sin and of which he needed to rid himself at any cost, by means of another mask, in this case that of literature. For although the man was certainly born in Africa, what would this good English knight draped in his “scribbler” nobility have in common with these savages that still slaughter cats and dogs in the most horrible way? Nothing, undoubtedly, which would allow them to be regarded as human. And South Africa is only interesting in that context in as much as it represents an exception that proves the rule: the only country in black Africa where there are skyscrapers to be seen, built of course by the white minority, consisting of European descendants who led the country to mould it in the “white” style. One could find oneself attempting to defend the indefensible, otherwise known as apartheid, that one would not otherwise be drawn into! The argument goes even further, because through the personal tragedy of Fatima, there is an attempt to imply that internal racism between the Blacks of South Africa can be experienced in an even more appalling way than apartheid!
And in his surge of Afro-pessimism, Naipaul brandishes the radical discourse of Winnie to contrast her in absentia, with the admittedly universally hailed action of Nelson in favour of peace and reconciliation. Not a word on Mandela! Naipaul achieves the incredible feat of putting Winnie in the forefront, of giving her the noble role, that of the real hero in step with the people. However, in doing so, he manages at the same time to reinforce his pessimistic theory on the resentment of the Blacks and the infinitesimal chances of a sustainable peace and genuine reconciliation in South Africa. Nevertheless, how is it possible not to recognise, whatever might be the possible consequences of Mandela’s activity to promote peace and reconciliation and despite the potential reproaches that might be made against him as Winnie does here, that it is indisputable that because he has done so, however merely symbolic it might be, Mandela must be regarded as a man whose faith in humanity has transfigured into a kind of saint or living god•9!
Now, how is it possible to speak of Mandela without undermining the force of the evocation of another saint, another god, all the more dear to him because this is his compatriot, the spiritual father of all Indians because his action restored dignity and independence to India. Mahatma Gandhi, even if not entirely eclipsed by the figure of Mandela, would nevertheless have been a somewhat pale figure beside Madiba. So it is understandable that the evocation of Gandhi through his years of “training” in South Africa would be the highlight of the book. South Africa produced these two exceptional men fifty years apart, but where the Indian succeeded in transfiguring the country of his birth, the other has apparently merely succeeded in impressing his contemporaries a little. However, time will show how wrong he is. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, has conquered everyone who has come from all over the world to prostrate themselves at his feet as if he were a living god, he has reconciled Blacks and Whites, but this work is artificial and doomed to failure. One has only to listen to his former wife and companion in the struggle to be convinced of that …
A monument to commemorate the Great Trek, safeguarded to guarantee reconciliation? All right, we can see that might work today, but how long will it last? So as to spice up even more the rhetorical vein of absence, he goes so far as to flaunt the face of an authentic liberator, that of the young Gandhi and his twenty years of “training” in South Africa. Mahatma versus Madiba, the liberator of the Indian people against the “pacifist” demagogy of the black South African. The subtle attempts to racialise are at their peak when Naipaul allows Richmond, Susan or Fatima to speak, as we have seen. In fact, whether it is a question of “colorist” considerations (present in most chapters) or of identifying inferiority through confessions made by members of the African community themselves, the fact remains clear: Blacks are certainly the first to recognise their own psychological inadequacies, their defects and the need to allow themselves to be subservient to the Whites and their values. From there to endorsing it, what could be more legitimate!
And that too is the blind spot of Naipaul’s approach which finds the best excuses for his interlocutors in the tiniest drop of white blood, the most insignificant claim to white ancestry. The former President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, is in his view the only political exception of the continent, not only because he likes cats, but because this fondness for pets is a genetic trait inherited from his white ancestor! And that leads on to a chapter which is nothing short of a panegyric in which he extols the virtues of this person of mixed race who would have completely succeeded in his mission if only he had had the right support. But how could he, surrounded by Blacks!
When it is not the drop of white blood that makes the difference in treatment, it is the very proper exchange between a government that issues an invitation with due pomp and ceremony and a scribe who prides himself on complicity bordering on the sycophantic. For example, Gabon seems to be spared his blind hatred and the legendary cannibalism attributed to the Fangs is completely glossed over. But looking a little more closely, the chapter is not as eulogistic as some paragraphs might delude us into thinking: the forests destroyed by the Asian companies represent once more an aberration related to the stupidity genes that are part of the (genetic) inheritance of the Blacks alone!
It seems indisputable that there are one or two whiffs of Afro- pessimism, as we have seen, even if only from the reception point of view and therefore, with respect to the impact that such a book could have, when published, with both the wider public and among Africans, whether or not they are intellectuals.•10 The argument according to which a writer who has achieved fame as the winner of the Nobel Prize must force himself to maintain a discipline related to this particular status and which at the same time imposes on him a responsibility all the greater because that status inspires universal respect ought, if not to prevail, at least be accepted as likely to be taken into account when weighing up the pros and cons. That is undoubtedly why it was impossible to remain indifferent to the huge controversy on the contents of such a book.•11 Let us start from the premise that the slightest suspicion of a negative impact might rightly have been regarded as an indicator of potential prejudice by the peoples concerned. And it is perhaps on the basis of such indicators that a book of this kind, because it is not fiction in any way, must be scrupulously analysed, either to absolve the author of all suspicion of a lack of awareness, or to establish some level of responsibility or guilt with respect to any potential outrage, experienced as such by possible presumptive victims. Because the Nobel Prize is one of the human institutions least worthy of criticism and among the most worthy of respect; because its prestige, second to none, always spills over favourably onto the recipients, it is for that reason that the prize-winners for peace or literature must conduct themselves in an exemplary manner to which one can only be sensitive. However, this book of the Nobel Laureate for Literature 2001 is distressing because it has the extraordinary bad taste to take us back almost a century when its author could have been enlightened by a Frobenius,•12 a Paulhan,•13 or the last Cheikh Anta Diop•14!
In fact, nothing could be more unseemly than to shield his pen under the cloak of ignorance, and to misrepresent the truth under the mask of the testimony of the interested parties themselves. Nothing is more unseemly, undoubtedly, but nor is there anything more base. If literature and fine feelings do not always make a good couple, as Gide suggested, nevertheless through such a scathing attack, we are dealing with an ideology which has nothing to do with literature. In reality, it is all in the rhetorical effectiveness which enables one to move forward masked. In other words, masking this base ideology by means of a certain dexterity in handling the pen!
•1 Paris, Grasset, 2011, 326 pp. (translated from English by P. Philippe Delamare). The orginal was published in 2010, entitled The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.
•2 Title of the book by the 17th century Dutch explorer and geographer, Olof Dapper.
•3 Christophe Boltanski.
•4 Le Nouvel Observateur of 3 November 2011.
•5 Last line of the poem “L’Albatros”: “Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.”
•6 P. 181.
•7 The author is speaking. The reply that follows must logically be that of his interlocutor (Richmond).
•8 Pp. 182-183.
•9 The irony of the situation is that Mandela was, as Naipaul does not seem to know, a fervent admirer of Gandhi (cf notably Conversations with myself, Nelson Mandela (Preface by Barack Obama), 344pp. MacMillan, 2010). The result is that one might suspect a muted arrogance on the part of the Nobel Laureate for Literature in relation to his South African counterpart, because, perhaps, his action is not authentic. The first indicator that might set us on such a path is the intrinsic situation. For how is it possible that someone who is investigating the impact of religious beliefs in African political life and who, furthermore, is seeking to understand particularly what is at stake in South Africa, should not have tried to meet Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa! How can one reasonably understand the South African situation and studiously avoid meeting one of the crucial players in the changes that have taken place and the very person who provided the broad outlines of a new destiny for this multiracial country and who chose to opt for an anti-racist policy which can only win universal support despite the obvious difficulties of its implementation. The sole allusions to Mandela are made only on the basis of the author’s systematic doubts regarding the possible chances of success of the policy adopted in favour of peace and reconciliation. The second indicator is the confrontation in absentia between the two former spouses and comrades in the struggle (Nelson and Winnie Mandela), the opinion of Winnie being the only one recorded by the author. He is trying to make readable, through the counterpoint represented by the South African female militant, the fundamental differences between the black leaders and, moreover, to emphasise the divorce between the official line represented by Nelson Mandela and the people whose majority opinion seems to be more represented by Winnie Mandela. The third indicator lies in the manner of comparing in absentia once again! Gandhi and Mandela, the political monument who embodies the concept of nonviolence as a political strategy and the instigator of the armed wing of the ANC. And if Naipaul would have preferred not to tackle the political aspects of racism in South Africa, he confesses that it is a foolish gamble and that for better or worse one is always obliged to take a position of some sort. And at that point, it is useless to wonder where his sympathies lie! For example, he shows his fondness for an Afrikaner short story writer or returns to the Great Trek and the civilising force of a people (the Dutch Boers) who moulded the only African country that to some extent resembles the countries of Europe. Difficult consequently not to see in this book an almost fanatical bias towards the idea that black Africa will never achieve anything or that the Africans have revealed the limits of their supposed humanity!
But whatever Naipaul’s feeling or his more or less masked judgements on Africa and the Africans, we could put up against him a Leo Frobenius or even the generous idea of Paulhan on the so-called primitive or backward peoples (see notes below). The important thing is to know if, in truth, Naipaul is indeed a writer of our time. It would be more than legitimate to allow oneself to doubt it!
•10 The original version of the book had created a stir among Anglophone Africans, but also and especially with Véronique Tadjo who lives in South Africa …
•11 The interview granted by the literary critic Boniface Mongo-Mboussa to Le Monde (28 October 2011) is perhaps in this regard representative of the malaise the Naipaul’s book has instilled in Africans. Furthermore this interview falls more into the category of psychoanalysis than literary criticism pure and unadorned, and in his approach, one cannot but praise the author’s indulgence towards another author who might have lost his way).
•12 “When they arrived in the Bay of Guinea and reached land at Vaida, the captains were astonished to find the streets well developed, bordered for several leagues by rows of trees; for many days they travelled through countryside with magnificent fields, inhabited by people dressed in dazzling costumes of which they had woven the cloth themselves! Further south, in the Kingdom of the Congo, a milling crowd, dressed in “silk” and “velvet,” well-ordered great States, in the most minute detail, powerful sovereigns and wealthy industries. Civilised to the very marrow of their bones!” (Quoted in Tropiques, no. 5, April 1942)
•13 “The wise and modest Vauvenargues himself makes the claim on behalf of nature. Voltaire instead challenges religion, Jean-Jacques society and Diderot morality (…) what more can be done to the man who has grasped this truth and yet cannot at once shake off so much oppression?
It remains for him at least to rid himself of it, inside himself. With respect to morality, Grimm, Diderot, Rousseau, Mlle de Lespinasse or Mme d’Epinay restrict themselves to a single article which they sometimes admit to and other times conceal: it is that one must always discern and then follow the first and most spontaneous movement of the heart; through patience and disengagement restore within oneself the primitive being. They add: natural goodness.” (Our emphasis). And in conclusion, on the reliability of the works of the linguist Meillet: “Thus not a single people exists that one can completely and honestly call primitive.” Jean Paulhan, Œuvres complètes, vol.
4 (Polygraphie I, “Sade et autres primitifs”), Paris, Tchou, Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1969, pp. 27-28.
•14 See in particular, Civilisation ou barbarie, Paris, Présence Africaine, 1981. Further recommended reading is the collective “refutation” of the African intellectuals in response to what is known as the Dakar Speech: L’Afrique répond à Nicolas Sarkozy : contre le discours de Dakar, Paris, Éditions P. Rey, 2008.
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