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From enlightenment myopia to intellectual thaw: Negotiating rationality in V.S. Naipaul

Zahiri, Abdollah (1997) From enlightenment myopia to intellectual thaw: Negotiating rationality in V.S. Naipaul. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In this thesis I examine V.S.Naipaul’s rationality as it is reflected and foregrounded in his fiction and non-fiction. Naipaul’s texts reveal a consistent valuing of a coolly rational outlook and a fear of the irrational. I argue that before 1983 Naipaul’s attitude is governed by an instrumental rationality that serves the political interests of the empire and justifies the cultural violence that has been committed in the name of Enlightenment rationality. Enlightenment reason — read here as an instrumental application of reason —and to be distinguished from “ideal reason” was used in the imperial project as the justificatory imperative for the West’s civilising mission. This notion of rationality is in fact an instrumental rationality directly related to the dream of success and progress at the expense of the cultural traditions and historical integrity of the colonised. In the hands of nineteenth-century thinkers like John Stuart Mill, this instrumental rationality developed into the linchpin of the imperial project. What I attempt to prove in this thesis is that it is this flawed reading of Enlightenment rationality that Naipaul accepted for a large part of his literary career. During this period he becomes an apologist of instrumental rationality proper.

I have probed Naipaul’s works and have identified specific ways in which an apology of instrumental rationality operates in his travel writings and fiction. In examining the material I came across two distinct phases of his episteme which I call Enlightenment myopia and intellectual thaw. I have, therefore, thematically divided his works into two distinct categories: a first group in which his apology of instrumental rationality speaks for itself (here I deploy the counter-hegemonic cultural politics of Bhakti (India), Islam (Iran), Calypso (Caribbean), Jazz (American South) to rebut his homogenizing discourse); and a second group beginning with Finding the Centre (1984) in which an intellectual thaw sets in. The second phase marks Naipaul's self-reflexivity and a broader, lateral vision that transcends the boundaries set by instrumental rationality through a greater concern with what Habermas has called “communicative rationality”. At this stage Naipaul explicitly becomes conscious of the fact that he had been party to a narrative that was not his own. He becomes cognisant of how this unconscious reliance on a flawed notion of rationality had induced him to such a massive misreading of diverse cultures, their traditions, and histories. The focus of the thesis is on demonstrating that Naipaul employs instrumental reason in his early travel and this aspect of his approach gets in the way of a more open and critical engagement with peoples and cultures he examines. Furthermore, the distinctions made in this thesis allow us to distinguish (as postcolonial theory so far has failed to do so) between “ideal” and “instrumental reason”.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Mishra, Vijay
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