What I've been reading, featuring problematic art and Jonathan Franzen's "Purity"

  • Writers Nikil Saval and Pankaj Mishra correspond on how they reckon with the legacy of VS Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Man Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author whose influential writing conjured neocolonial, fascist, racist, and misogynistic sentiment. I’m not familiar with Naipaul, but the subject of reconciling influential work with its problematic creator is doubtlessly relevant. They artfully call this exercise “the painful sum of things”.

    Choice excerpts with some editing:

NS: Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful—in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it—as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.)

PM: For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world... In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example—that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort—was a great boost.

NS: The question is whether this recognition, this fundamental dissonance in his existence, had to find the sorts of toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of anti-blackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors... it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.

PM: There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin—why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing… Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew—or the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and indeed professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country.

NS: When Naipaul received the knighthood, the cycle of humiliation had made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that had granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens—Dickens who had proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”—receiving the sign of grace from the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any success as a sign of its ultimate justice; to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the sense of personal injury, of grievance, that I feel in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling—feelings that one day might be transmuted into something different; a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41… It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair witht he milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.”

  • I’ve just finished “Purity” by Jonathan Frenzen (h/t Eszter), the inaugural selection for our unofficial grad-student book club here at Nuffield College. I didn’t like it and not knowing Franzen outside of this work, I found myself distrusting him with the subject matter. I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet from the @GuyInYourMFA novelty account run by @danaschwartzzz:


I’m not prudish about what I read, but I didn’t feel nearly enough reward for indulging 560+ pages of exhausting characters. I can appreciate the choice to use a cast of unlikeable in a novel called Purity, but the unlikeability of the author seeps through too much to justify the length.

Spoiler alert, I also made this chart trying to chronologize the sequence of events in this novel, which jumps abruptly between chapters across space, time, and character perspective:

Purity Timeline.jpg

EK: …99.99 percent of all the humans who’ll ever live have yet to be born. If that’s true, then even very small reductions in the danger of those future lives not happening begins to outweigh large improvements in the value of life now.

BG: Well, the people in the future will have more knowledge and more resources than we have today. They’ll understand what those emerging problems look like.

If you said there was a philanthropist 500 years ago that said, “I’m not gonna feed the poor, I’m gonna worry about existential risk,” I doubt their prediction would have made any difference in terms of what came later. You got to have a certain modesty…

If somebody thinks there’s a magic thing they can do today that helps all those future lives, in a free economy, they have a chance to build whatever it is they think does that. We do have a few things like climate change where you want to invest today to involve problems tomorrow. I’m always a little surprised there’s not more engagement on that issue. Pandemic risk, weapons of mass destruction.

But… there’s not many that we really understand with clarity, and so somebody who says, “Okay, let’s just let a million people die of malaria because I’m building this temple that will help people a million years from now,” I wonder what the heck they’re building that temple out of.

EK: A lot of people have become very focused on the question of AI risk. I’m curious how you weight that as a risk to future human life?

BG: And so they think that’s more important than kids dying of malaria?

EK: …I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but as I understand it, the idea is there are a lot of good people working on malaria, and AI is so dangerous that it’s better for people on the margin to be working on AI risk now than to be—

BG: But most of those people aren’t working on AI risk. They’re actually accelerating progress in AI… They like working on AI. Working on AI is fun. If they think what they’re doing is reducing the risk of AI, I haven’t seen that proof of that.