Our Universal Civilization
V. S. Naipaul and I were born within a few days of one another, in August of 1932. This past week he died. While I knew him, he didn’t know me. He was somebody, and I of course was, well, nobody. I’ve never seen the man or heard him speak up close, but have been reading him off and on, but steadily and constantly, for some 30 or 40 years, mostly since I left the Waring School in the nineties. I have always felt while reading him that we were close, that we saw things in much the same way. In the lecture below, and in particular what he says so eloquently and convincingly about “our universal civilization.” I find that while he’s speaking for himself, he is also speaking for me.
(YES, CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS!! There is such a civilization and why are you afraid to be a part of it?)
In a later blog I’ll try to give you a much shortened version of this lecture. At this moment, close to Naipaul’s passing, I didn’t want to remove even one little word of what he had to say to us. If you read it I think you’ll see why.
October 30, 1990, V S. Naipaul, considered by many to be the greatest living English language novelist, delivered the fourth annual Walter B. Wriston lecture in Public Policy, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. Mr. Naipaul takes as his subject the “universal civilization” to which the Western values of tolerance, individualism, equality, and personal liberty have given birth. He describes the personal and philosophical turmoil of those who find themselves torn between their native civilizations and the valued of universal civilization. We are pleased to present his remarks here in full.
I’ve given this talk the title “Our Universal Civilization.” It is a rather big title, and I am a little embarrassed by it. I feel I should explain how it came about. I have no unifying theory of things. To me, situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems; that is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard.
That was why I thought, when this invitation to talk came, that it would be better for me to find out what kind of issues that members of the Institute were interested in. Myron Magnet, a senior fellow of the Institute, was in England at the time. We talked on the telephone; then, some days later, he sent me a handwritten list of questions. They were very serious questions, very important. Are we—are communities—only as strong as our beliefs? Is it enough for beliefs or an ethical view to be passionately held? Does the passion give validity to the ethics? Are beliefs or ethical views arbitrary, or do they represent something essential in the cultures where they flourish?
It was easy to read through to some of the anxieties that lay behind the questions. There was a clear worry about certain fanaticisms “out there.” At the same time, there was a certain philosophical diffidence about how that anxiety could be expressed, since no one wants to use words or concepts that might boomerang on himself. You know how words can be used: I am civilized and steadfast; you are barbarian and fanatical; he is primitive and blind. Of course, I was on the side of the questioner and understood his drift. But I got to feel, over the next few days, and perhaps from my somewhat removed position, that I couldn’t share the pessimism implied by the questions. I felt that the very pessimism of the questions, and their philosophical diffidence, defined the strength of the civilization out of which it issued. And so the theme of my talk, “Our Universal Civilization,” was given me.
I am not going to attempt to define this civilization. I will only speak of it in a personal way. It is the civilization, first of all, that gave me the idea of the writing vocation. It is the civilization in which I have been able to practice my vocation as a writer. To be a writer, you need to start with a certain kind of sensibility. The sensibility itself is created, or given direction, by an intellectual atmosphere.
Sometimes an atmosphere can be too refined, a civilization too achieved, too ritualized. Eleven years ago, when I was traveling in Java, I met a young man who wanted above everything else to be a poet and to live the life of the mind. This ambition had been given him by his modern education; but it was hard for the young man to explain to his mother exactly what he was up to. This mother was a person of culture and elegance; that should be stressed. She was elegant in visage and dress and speech; her manners were like art; they were Javanese court manners.
So I asked the young man—bearing in mind that we were in Java, where ancient epics live on in the popular art of puppet plays, “But isn’t your mother secretly proud that you are a poet?” He said in English—I mention this to give a further measure of his education in his far-off Javanese town, “She wouldn’t have even a sense of what being a poet is.”
And the poet’s friend and mentor, a teacher at the local university, amplified this. The friend said, “The only way he would have of making the mother understand what he is trying to do would be to suggest that he is being a poet in the classical tradition. And she would find this absurd. She would reject it as an impossibility.” It would be rejected as an impossibility because for the poet’s mother the epics of her country—and to her, they would have been like sacred texts—already existed, had already been written. They had only to be learned or consulted.
For the mother, all poetry had already been written. That particular book, it might be said, was closed: it was part of the perfection of her culture. To be told by her son, who was 28, not all that young, that he was hoping to be a poet would be like a devout mother in another culture asking her writer son what he intended to write next, and getting the reply, “I am thinking of adding a book to the Bible.” Or, to attempt another comparison, the young man would be like the character in the story by Borges who had taken upon himself the task of rewriting Don Quixote. Not just retelling the story, or copying out the Cervantes original; but seeking, by an extraordinary process of mind-clearing and re-creation, to arrive—without copying or falsity, and purely through original thought—at a narrative coinciding word by word with the Cervantes book.
I understood the predicament of the young man in central Java. His background, after all, was not far removed from the Hindu aspect of my own Trinidad background. We were an agricultural immigrant community from India. The ambition to become a writer, the introduction to writing and ideas about writing, had been given me by my father. He was born in 1906, the grandson of someone who had come to Trinidad as a baby. And somehow, in spite of all the discouragements of the society of that small agricultural colony, the wish to be a writer had come to my father; and he had made himself into a journalist, even with the limited opportunities for journalism existing in that colony.
We were a people of ritual and sacred texts. We also had our epics—and they were the very epics of Java; we heard them constantly sung or chanted. But it couldn’t be said that we were a literary people. Our literature, our texts, didn’t commit us to an exploration of our world; rather, they were cultural markers, giving us a sense of the wholeness of our world and the alienness of what lay outside. I don’t believe that, in his family, anyone before my father would have thought of original literary composition. That idea came to my father in Trinidad with the English language; somehow, in spite of the colonial discouragements of the place, an idea of the high civilization connected with the language came to my father; and he was given some knowledge of literary forms. Sensibility is not enough if you are going to be a writer. You need to arrive at the forms that can contain or carry your sensibility; and literary forms—whether in poetry or drama, or prose fiction—are artificial, and ever changing.
This was a part of what was passed on to me at a very early age. At a very early age—in all the poverty and bareness of Trinidad, far away, with a population of half a million—I was given the ambition to write books, and specifically to write novels, which my father had presented to me as the highest form. But books are not created just in the mind. Books are physical objects. To write them, you need a certain kind of sensibility; you need a language, and a certain gift of language; and you need to possess a particular literary form. To get your name on the spine of the created physical object, you need a vast apparatus outside yourself. You need publishers, editors, designers, printers, binder; booksellers, critics, newspapers and magazines and television where the critics can say what they think of the book; and, of course, buyers and readers.
I want to stress this mundane side of things, because it is easy to take it for granted; it is easy to think of writing only in its personal, romantic aspect. Writing is a private act; but the published book, when it starts to live, speaks of the cooperation of a particular kind of society. The society has a certain degree of commercial organization. It also has certain cultural or imaginative needs. It doesn’t believe that all poetry has already been written. It needs new stimuli, new writing; and it has the means of judging the new things that are offered.
This kind of society didn’t exist in Trinidad. It was necessary, therefore, if I was going to be a writer, and live by my books, to travel out to that kind of society where the writing life was possible. This meant, for me at that time, going to England. I was traveling from the periphery, the margin, to what to me was the center; and it was my hope that, at the center, room would be made for me. I was asking a lot—asking, in fact, more of the center than of my own society. The center, after all, had its own interests, its own worldview, its own ideas of what it wanted in novels. And it still does. My subjects were far-off: but a little room was made for me in the England of the 1950s. I was able to become a writer, and to grow in the profession. It took time; I was forty—and had been publishing in England for fifteen years—before a book of mine was seriously published in the United States.
But I always recognized, in England in the 1950s, that as someone with a writing vocation, there was nowhere else for me to go. And if I have to describe the universal civilization, I would say that it is the civilization that both gave the prompting and the idea of the literary vocation; and also gave the means to fulfill that prompting; the civilization that enables me to make that journey from the periphery to the center; the civilization that links me not only to this audience but also that now not-so-young man in Java whose background was as ritualized as my own, and on whom—as on me—the outer world had worked, and given the ambition to write.
It is easier today for someone setting out to be a writer from places like Java or Trinidad; subjects once far-off are no longer so. But I have never been able to take my career for granted. I know that there are still large tracts of the world where the cultural or economic conditions I described a while ago do not obtain, and someone like myself would not have been able to become a writer. I couldn’t have become the kind of writer I am in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union or black Africa. I don’t think I could have taken my gifts even to India.
You will understand, then, how important it was to me to know when I was young that I could make this journey from the margin to the center, from Trinidad to London. The ambition to be a writer assumed that this was possible. So, in fact, I was taking it for granted, in spite of my ancestry and Trinidad background, that with another, equally important part of myself, I was part of a larger civilization. I suppose the same could be said of my father, though he was closer to the ritual ways of our Hindu and Indian past.
But I never formulated the idea of the universal civilization until quite recently—until eleven years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries to try to understand what had driven them to their rage. That Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent. “Fundamentalism”—in connection with the Mohammedan world—was not a word often used by the newspapers in 1979; they hadn’t yet worked through to that concept. What they spoke of more was “the revival of Islam.” And that, indeed, to anyone contemplating it from a distance, was a puzzle. Islam, which had apparently had so little to offer its adherents in the last century and in the first half of this—what did it have to offer to an infinitely more educated, infinitely faster, world in the later years of the century?
The adaptation of my own family and Trinidad Indian community to the colonial Trinidad and, through that, to the twentieth century hadn’t been easy. It had been painful for us, an Asian people, living instinctive, ritualized lives, to awaken to an idea of our history and to learn to live with the idea of our political helplessness. There had been very difficult social adjustments as well. For example: in our culture, marriages had always been arranged; it took some time, and many damaged lives, for us to arrive at the other way. All this went with the personal intellectual growth I have described.
And I thought, when I began to travel in the Muslim world, that I would be traveling among people who would be like the people of my own community. A large portion of Indians were Muslims; we had both had a similar nineteenth-century imperial or colonial history. I thought that religion was an accidental difference. I thought, as people said, that faith was faith; that people living at a certain time in history would have felt the same urges.
But it wasn’t like that. The Muslims said that their religion was fundamental to them. And it was: it made for an immense difference. I have to stress that I was traveling in the non-Arab Muslim world. Islam began as an Arab religion; it spread as an Arab empire. In Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia—the countries of my itinerary—I was traveling, therefore among people who had been converted to what was an alien faith. I was traveling among people who had had to make a double adjustment—an adjustment to the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and an earlier adjustment to the Arab faith. You might almost say that I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves.
Because I was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. Colonized or defeated peoples can begin to distrust themselves. In the Muslim countries I am talking about, this distrust had all the force of religion. It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before the faith was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past. So ideas of history here were quite different from ideas of history elsewhere; there was no wish here to go back as far as possible into the past, and to learn as much as possible about the past.
Persia had a great past; it had been the rival in classical times of Greece and Rome. But you wouldn’t have believed it in Iran in 1979; for the Iranians, the glory and the truth had begun with the coming of Islam. Pakistan was a very new Muslim state. But the land was very old. In Pakistan were the ruins of the very old cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Fabulous ruins, the discovery of which earlier this century had given a new idea of the history of the subcontinent. Not only pre-Islamic ruins; but possibly also pre-Hindu. There was an archaeological department, inherited from British days, which looked after the sites. But there was, especially with the growth of fundamentalism, a contrary current. This was expressed in a letter to a newspaper while I was there. The ruins of the cities, the writer said, should be hung with quotations from the Koran, saying that this was what befell unbelievers.
The faith abolished the past. And when the past was abolished like this, more than an idea of history suffered. Human behavior, and ideals of good behavior, could suffer. When I was in Pakistan, the newspapers were running articles to mark the anniversary of the Arab conquest of Sind. This was the first part of the Indian subcontinent to be conquered by the Arabs. It occurred at the beginning of the eighth century. The kingdom of Sind (an enormous area: the southern half of Afghanistan, the southern half of Pakistan) at that time was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. The Brahmins didn’t really understand the outside world; the Buddhists didn’t believe in taking life. It was a kingdom waiting to be conquered, you might say. But it took a long time for Sind to be conquered; it was very far away from the Arab heartland, across immense deserts. Six or seven Arab expeditions foundered.
At one time the third caliph himself, the third successor to the Prophet, called one of his lieutenants and said, “O Hakim, have you seen Hindustan and learned all about it?” Hakim said, “Yes, O commander of the faithful.” The caliph said, “Give us a description of it.” And all Hakim’s frustration and bitterness came out in his reply: “Its water is dark and dirty,” Hakim said. “Its fruit is bitter and poisonous. Its land is stony and its earth is salt. A small army will soon be annihilated, and a large one will soon die of hunger.”
This should have been enough for the caliph. But, looking still for some little encouragement, he asked Hakim, “What about the people? Are they faithful, or do they break their word?” Clearly, faithful people would have been easier to subdue, easier to lighten of their money. But Hakim almost spat out his reply: “The people are treacherous and deceitful,” Hakim said. And at that, the caliph did take fright—the people of Sind sounded like quite an enemy—and he ordered that the conquest of Sind was to be attempted no more.
But Sind was too tempting. The Arabs tried again and again. The organization and the drive and the attitudes of the Arabs, fortified by their new faith, in a world still tribal and disorganized, easy to conquer—the drive of the Arabs was remarkably like that of the Spaniards in the New World 800 years later. And this was not surprising, since the Spaniards themselves had been conquered and ruled by the Arabs for some centuries. Spain, in fact, fell to the Arabs at about the same time as Sind did.
The final conquest of Sind was set on foot from Iraq, and was superintended from the town of Kufa by Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq. The topicality is fortuitous, I assure you. The aim of the Arab conquest of Sind—and this conquest had been thought about almost as soon as the faith had been established—had always been the acquiring of slaves and plunder, rather than the spreading of the faith. And when finally Hajjaj received the head of the king of Sind, together with 60,000 slaves from Sind, and the royal one-fifth of the loot of Sind, that one-fifth decreed by the religious law, he “placed his forehead on the ground and offered prayers of thanksgiving, by two genuflections to God, and praised him, saying: ’Now have I got all the treasures, whether open or buried, as well as other wealth, and the kingdom of the world.’ “ There was a famous mosque in Kufa. Hajjaj called the people there, and from the pulpit he told them: “Good news and good luck to the people of Syria and Arabia, whom I congratulate on the conquest of Sind and on the possession of immense wealth…which the great and omnipotent God has kindly bestowed on them.”
I am quoting from a translation of a thirteenth-century Persian text, the Chachnama. It is the main source for the story of the conquest of Sind. It is a surprisingly modern piece of writing, a good fast narrative, with catching detail and dialogue. It tells a terrible story of plunder and killing—the Arab army was allowed to kill for days after the fall of every town in Sind; and then the plunder was assessed and distributed to the soldiers, after the fifth had been set aside for the caliph. But to the Persian writer, the story—written 500 years after the conquest, is only “a pleasant tale of conquest.” It is Arab or Muslim imperial genre writing. After 500 years—and though the Mongols are about to break through—the faith still holds; there is no new moral angle on the destruction of the kingdom of Sind.
This was the event that was being commemorated by articles in the newspapers when I was in Pakistan in 1979. There was an article by a military man about the successful Arab general. The article tried to be fair, in a military way, to the armies of both sides. It drew a rebuke from the chairman of the National Commission of Historical and Cultural Research.
This was what the chairman said: “Employment of appropriate phraseology is necessary when one is projecting the image of a hero. Expressions such as ’invader’ and ’defenders’ and ’the Indian army’ fighting bravely but not being quick enough to ’fall upon the withdrawing enemy’ loom large in the article. It is further marred by some imbalanced statements such as follows: ’Had Raja Dahar defended the Indus heroically, and stopped Qasim from crossing it, the history of this subcontinent would have been quite different.’ One fails to understand”—this is the chairman of the Commission of Historical and Cultural Research—”whether the writer is applauding the defeat of the hero or lamenting the defeat of his rival.” After 1,200 years, the holy war is still being fought. The hero is the Arab invader, bringer of the faith. The rival whose defeat is to be applauded—and I was reading this in Sind—is the man of Sind.
To possess the faith was to possess the only truth; and possession of this truth set many things on its head. To believe that the time before the coming of the faith was a time of error distorted more than an idea of history. What lay within the faith was to be judged in one way; what lay outside it was to be judged in another. The faith altered values, ideas of good behavior, human judgments.
So I not only began to understand what people in Pakistan meant when they told me that Islam was a complete way of life, affecting everything; I began to understand that—though it might be said that we had shared a common subcontinental origin—I had traveled a different way. I began to formulate the idea of the universal civilization—which, growing up in Trinidad, I had lived in or been part of without quite knowing that I did so.
Starting with that Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualized life and growing up in the unpromising conditions of colonial Trinidad, I had—through the process I have tried to describe earlier—gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had a better idea of Indian history and Indian art than my grandparents had. They possessed rituals, epics, myth; their identity lay within that light; beyond that light was darkness, which they wouldn’t have been able to penetrate. I didn’t possess the rituals and the myths; I saw them at a distance. But I had in exchange been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship. Identity for me was a more complicated matter. Many things had gone to make me. But there was no problem for me there. Whole accumulations of scholarship were mine, in the sense that I had access to them. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. I knew about my ancestry and of my ancestral culture; I knew about the history of India and its political status; I knew where I was born, and I knew the history of the place; I had a sense of the New World. I knew about the literary forms I was interested in; and I knew about the journey I would have to make to the center in order to exercise the vocation I had given myself.
Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.
In Malaysia, they were desperate to rid themselves of their past, desperate to cleanse their people of tribal or animist practices, all the subconscious life, freighted with the past, that links people to the earth on which they walk, all the rich folk life that awakened people elsewhere cultivate and dredge for its poetry. They wish, the more earnest of these Malay Muslims, to be nothing but their imported Arab faith; I got the impression that they would have liked, ideally, to make their minds and souls a blank, an emptiness, so that they could be nothing but their faith. Such effort; such self-imposed tyranny. No colonization could have been greater than this colonization by the faith.
While the faith held, while it appeared to be unchallenged, the world perhaps held together. But when there appeared this powerful, encompassing civilization from outside, men didn’t know what to do. They could do only what they were capable of doing; they could only become more assiduous in the faith, more self-wounding, more ready to turn away from what they didn’t feel they could master.
Muslim fundamentalism in places like Malaysia and Indonesia seems new. But Europe has been in the East for a long time, and there has been Muslim anxiety there for almost all of this time. This anxiety, this meeting of the two opposed worlds, the outgoing world of Europe and the closed world of the faith, was spotted a hundred years ago by the writer Joseph Conrad, who, with his remote Polish background, his wish as a traveler to render exactly what he saw, was able at a time of high imperialism to go far beyond the imperialistic, surface ways of writing about the East and native peoples.
To Conrad, the world he traveled in was new; he looked hard at it. There is a quotation I would like to read from Conrad’s second book, published in 1896, nearly 100 years ago, in which he catches something of the Muslim hysteria of that time—the hysteria that, a hundred years later, with greater education and wealth of the native peoples, and the withdrawing of empires, was to turn into the fundamentalism we hear about:
“A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have run through the virgin solitudes of the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs.”
Philosophical hysteria—those were the words I wanted to give to you, and I think they still apply. They bring me back to the list of questions and issues that the senior fellow of the Institute, Myron Magnet, sent to me when he was in England last summer. Why, he asked, are certain societies or groups content to enjoy the fruits of progress, while affecting to despise the conditions that promote that progress? What belief system do they oppose to it? And then, more specifically: why is Islam held up in opposition to Western values? The answer, I believe, is that philosophical hysteria. It is not an easy thing to define or understand, and the Muslim spokesmen do not really help. They speak clichés, but that might only be because they perhaps have no way of expressing what they feel. Some have overriding political causes; others are really religious missionaries rather than scholars.
But years ago, while the Shah still ruled, there appeared in the United States a small novel by a young Iranian woman that in its subdued, unpolitical way foreshadowed the hysteria that was to come. The novel was called Foreigner; the author was Nahid Rachlin. Perhaps it was just as well that the novel appeared while the Shah ruled, and thus had to avoid politics; it is just possible that the delicate feeling of this novel might have been made trivial or ordinary if it had run into political protest.
The central figure of the book is a young Iranian woman who does research work in Boston as a biologist. She is married to an American, and she might seem to be all right, well adapted. But when she goes back on a holiday to Tehran, she loses her balance. She has some trouble with the bureaucracy. She can’t get an exit visa; she begins to feel lost. She is disturbed by memories of her crowded, oppressive Iranian childhood, with its prurient sexual intimations; disturbed by what remains of her old family life; disturbed by the overgrown, thuggish city, full of “Western” buildings. And that is interesting, that use of “Western” rather than big: it is as though the strangeness of the outside world has come to Tehran itself.
Disturbed in this way, the young woman reflects on her time in the United States. It is not the time of clarity, as it might have once appeared. She sees it now to be a time of emptiness. She can’t say why she has lived the American life. Sexually and socially—in spite of her apparent success—she has never been in control; and she cannot say, either, why she has been doing the research work she has been doing. All this is very subtly and effectively done; we can see that the young woman was not prepared for the movement between civilizations, the movement out of the shut-in Iranian world, where the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul, to the other world, where it was necessary to be an individual and responsible; where people developed vocations, and were stirred by ambition and achievement, and believed in perfectibility. Once we understand or have an intimation of that, we see, with the central figure of the novel, what a torment and emptiness that automatic, imitative life in Boston has been for her.
Now, in her distress, she falls ill. She goes to a hospital. The doctor there understands her unhappiness. He, too, has spent some time in the United States; when he came back, he said, he soothed himself by visiting mosques and shrines for a month. He tells the young woman that her pain comes from an old ulcer. “What you have,” he says, in his melancholy, seductive way, “is a Western disease.” And the research biologist eventually arrives at a decision: she will give up that Boston-imposed life of the intellect and meaningless work; she will turn back on the American emptiness; she will stay in Iran and put on the veil. She will do as the doctor did; she will visit shrines and mosques. Having decided that, she becomes happier than she has ever been.
Immensely satisfying, that renunciation. But it is intellectually flawed: it assumes that there will continue to be people striving out there, in the stressed world, making drugs and medical equipment, to keep the Iranian doctor’s hospital going.
Again and again, on my Islamic journey in 1979, 1 found a similar unconscious contradiction in people’s attitudes. I remember especially a newspaper editor in Tehran. His paper had been at the heart of the revolution. In the middle of 1979 it was busy, in a state of glory. Seven months later, when I went back to Tehran, it had lost its heart; the once busy main room was empty; all but two of the staff had disappeared. The American embassy had been seized; a financial crisis had followed; many foreign firms had closed down; advertising had dried up; the newspaper editor could hardly see his way ahead; every issue of the paper lost money; waiting for the crisis to end, the editor, it might be said, had become as much a hostage as the diplomats. He also, as I now learned, had two sons of university age. One was studying in the United States; the other had applied for a visa, but then the hostage crisis had occurred. This was news to me, that the United States should have been so important to the sons of one of the spokesmen of the Islamic revolution. I told the editor that I was surprised. He said, speaking especially of the son waiting for the visa, “It’s his future.”
Emotional satisfaction on one hand; thought for the future on the other. The editor was as divided as nearly everyone else. One of Joseph Conrad’s earliest stories of the East Indies, from the 1890s, was about a local raja or chieftain, a murderous man, a Muslim (though it is never explicitly said), who, in a crisis, having lost his magical counselor, swims out one night to one of the English merchant ships in the harbor to ask the sailors, representatives of the immense power that had come from the other end of the world, for an amulet, a magical charm. The sailors are at a loss; but then someone among them gives the raja a British coin, a sixpence commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee; and the raja is well pleased. Conrad didn’t treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.
In the 100 years since that story, the wealth of the world has grown, power has grown, education has spread; the disturbance, the philosophical shriek, has been amplified. The division in the revolutionary editor’s spirit and the renunciation of the fictional biologist—both contain a tribute unacknowledged, but all the more profound to the universal civilization. Simple charms alone cannot be acquired from it; other, difficult things come with it as well: ambition, endeavor, individuality.
The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.
I come back now to the first questions that Myron Magnet put to me earlier this year. Are we only as strong as our beliefs? Is it sufficient merely to hold a worldview, an ethical view, intensely? You will understand the anxieties behind the questions. The questions, of course, for all their apparent pessimism, are loaded; they contain their own answers. But they are also genuinely double-edged. For that reason, they can also be seen as a reaching out to a far-off and sometimes hostile system of fixed belief; they can be seen as an aspect of the universality of our civilization at this period. Philosophical diffidence meets philosophical hysteria; and the diffident man is, at the end, the more in control.
Because my movement within this civilization has been from the periphery to the center, I may have seen or felt certain things more freshly than people to whom those things were everyday. One such thing was my discovery, as a child—a child worried about pain and cruelty—of the Christian precept “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” There was no such human consolation in the Hinduism I grew up with, and though I have never had any religious faith, the simple idea was, and is, dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behavior.
A later realization—I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk—has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.