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Creating Art out of Experience: By Thomas O. MeehanGo Back to the Table of Contents
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In the Enigma of Arrival, we journey with V.S. Naipaul full circle--from the young man who travels in search of his own identity to the mature artist who achieves peace through immersion in his environment. Although this book deals superficially with the reflections of one writer on an English heath, it is in reality an introspective quest for both spiritual and artistic wholeness. In the process, Naipaul addresses, and partially resolves, one of the most crucial dilemmas of the creative artist in our time.

The book proceeds along two tracks. On one, we travel with the young Naipaul as he leaves Trinidad and takes up the life of student and writer in London. The other track chronicles the mature Naipaul’s ten-year sojourn on a country estate overlooking the Salisbury Plain. The final chapter is a masterful synthesis of both tracks. He describes this final synthesis as “... writer and man separated at the beginning of the journey ... coming together ... in a second life just before the end.” This passage poignantly describes both Naipaul’s odyssey as a writer and the structure of his book.

Young Naipaul, who is of Indian extraction and raised in Trinidad, arrives in London of 1950 captivated by the mystique of a bigger, somehow more mythically important London: the center of empire depicted to him as a colonial youth. The London Naipaul discovers is instead dirty, run down, only falteringly recovering from the war. Expecting the London of Dickens’ Great Expectations, he finds, instead, the London of Orwell: a city rationing amidst spent hopes.

Naipaul’s early education, which he describes as “abstract” in the extreme, had ill prepared him to confront either the squalor of post-war London or the European models of culture and aesthetic ideals that he has carried in his imagination. He suffers from an abstraction of reality so complete that it no longer shares in the life of humanity. He can, for instance, discourse extensively on French cinema without having seen a single French film. He also suffers from a debilitating desire to write in the knowing and urbane manner of his literary heroes, Maugham and Huxley. Yet he cannot do so without imposing aesthetic aspirations onto a reality that cannot support them. Any true life which might authentically become the substance of his art is suffocated beneath the standards of his parochial education.

Naipaul suggests to us a richer spiritual possibility in rediscovering human experience through the prisms of nature, ritual, and tradition. Without such sources of personal renewal, social order is only the surface tension across a greater existential void.

We discover that, in fact, it was the memory of the death of Naipaul’s sister that has triggered his meditation on human mortality. The memory, which haunts him, reawakens memories of his Trinidadian childhood and of his Hindu family’s negotiations with grief through rituals that invested communal memory with sanctity. It is his grief and participation in a half-remembered ritual that have kindled the mature Naipaul’s desire to write about his own adopted English abode.

Thus we come to share with Naipaul the rueful recollections of his youth in England and the opportunities missed as he ignored the drama of post-war London. As his mind pursued schoolboy Platonic forms, he could not see the human flotsam of war that surrounded him: people with real stories to tell--of tragedy, humor and all that humans endure and discover in times of stress. Naipaul reflects on this period and laments:

I was in 1950, like the earliest Spanish travelers to the New World, Medieval men with high faith: Traveling to see wonders, parts of God’s world, but then very quickly taking the wonders for granted, saving inquiry (and true vision) only for what they knew they would find even before they left Spain: gold. In England I was at that earlier, medieval Spanish stage--my education and literary ambition and my academic struggles the equivalent of the Spanish adventurers faith and travelers endurance, and, like the Spaniard, having arrived after so much effort, I saw very little.


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