A

nthony Daniels is a retired British prison psychiatrist and a fellow at the politically conservative Manhattan Institute, where under the pen name “Theodore Dalrymple,” he writes a column for its publication City Journal. He’s known as an incisive critic from the right of the blinkered utopianism and insufferable political correctness that typify the liberal intelligentsia.

In his latest City Journal column, he remembers a famous author who died last week at age 86, V. S. Naipaul, a Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated Brit who was a Nobel Prize laureate in literature and was knighted in 1990. Daniels calls him “undoubtedly one of the greatest writers in English of the past 60 years. He wrote nothing that is not worth rereading or will not be read… in another 60 years’ time.”

As Daniels’s encomium proceeds, it becomes clear that it has not only a literary element but a pronounced moral dimension as well. Beyond his literary gifts, Daniels writes, there was the man’s “utter probity as a writer,” that he “held it a duty, both to himself and the world, to produce only the best of which his prodigious gift as a writer… was capable.” He was a person of “great courage… always intellectually his own man [who] never accepted the simple ideological nostrums that took over the minds of so many intellectuals….” The left-wing nostrums to which Daniels refers are those of the hopelessly utopian intellectuals whom he so often skewers in his own writing.

Daniels waxes effusive over Naipaul as a writer who

exposed the reality of the new world without fear or favor, without genuflection to any piety, without attachment to any ideology… his virtue lying in seeing and describing what was there to be seen, once all the distorting lenses of ideological wishful thinking had been removed. His bedrock was human nature, and he was often derided — or even hated — for his clear-sightedness and his courageous determination to describe what he saw, from which no force on earth could have diverted or deterred him.

Sounds like quite a man, doesn’t he? Courage, honesty, resolve — so many wonderful virtues. I even considered using the above paragraph to buttress a point I wanted to make about a writer’s need to be able to sometimes buck popular opinion and go it alone. Naipaul had put the matter so well in an interview just before receiving his Nobel in 2001: “People are full of prejudice, they don’t want to see what is there, and a good writer must always be disturbing.”

 

BUT THEN I READ ON. “There is no doubt that his reputation as a man suffered grievously from the revelations about his disgraceful, or worse than disgraceful, treatment of women….” What Daniels daintily calls “worse than disgraceful” behavior was actually the decades-long emotional and physical violence perpetrated by a vicious man upon those closest to him. A 2008 New York Times review of Naipaul’s authorized biography calls it “a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers… made himself into the greatest English novelist of the past half century. It is also a portrait of the artist as a monster.”

Terrible about that chap, isn’t it? Yes, but Daniels won’t be long detained by this unpleasantness, from which he quickly moves on: “Many other people, of course, remember his kindness towards them.”

And then this:

Still, without in the least maintaining that a genius has less duty to behave properly than ordinary folk, it is by his writing that a writer, if he is remembered at all, will be remembered. And he… was preeminent among writers of English for practically all his adult life. He was a cure for simple minds.

Perceptive readers know when a writer is struggling to get his conscience to pipe down so he can be allowed to write in peace. And that’s precisely what’s happening in Daniels’s tortured prose, with his protestation of what he’s “not maintaining in the least” and his inside-out concession that a genius has no less of a duty to behave properly than ordinary folk (as if “proper behavior” rather than minimal humanity were Naipaul’s problem).

For Daniels, it is solely “by his writing that a writer, if he is remembered at all, will be remembered.” But I believe the victims of this far-less-than-noble Nobel winner’s beastly behavior remember him rather differently.

In a 2015 City Journal column, Daniels wrote a very different remembrance after the passing of another renowned author, Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, whose very liberal political views ran counter to Daniels’s own conservative orientation (and whose views on the Middle East in particular are indeed execrable). Noting that as a young man, Mankell had spent much of the ’70s on the fringe of a Maoist group, Daniels reminds his readers that those were the years of the Great Cultural Revolution, when untold millions of Chinese citizens were killed, tortured, persecuted and exiled, “all to the cheering sound of… the hosannas of such as Mankell and his friends.”

Daniels ascribes to the Swedish author an “immature utopianism about human possibilities,” which is why, he writes, it “is not altogether surprising to learn that Mankell had difficulty with personal relationships….” Yet, V. S. Naipaul also had such “difficulties” (to speak in extreme understatement), despite possessing the clear-eyed realism about human nature for which Daniels so lauds him.

The truth is, of course, that as Daniels himself observes in noting the high quality of Mankell’s literary work, a “novelist may have bad opinions but write good books.” If only Daniels, the psychiatrist, could have summoned the self-awareness needed to shake free of his political biases long enough to acknowledge the same about the just-deceased Naipaul, whose dark side extended way beyond “bad opinions” to horrific deeds.

At least Daniels makes a feeble attempt to grapple with the private ugliness that lay behind his subject’s charmed public exterior. Another conservative British commentator, David Pryce-Jones, writing in National Review, does no such thing, even though he knew Naipaul well.

His eulogy, brimming with esteem and affection, speaks approvingly of “the extraordinary damage” Naipaul’s books did to liberals’ “aspiration that the world be what they would wish it to be.” But of the unspeakable damage inflicted on his own victims, there’s not a word. Isn’t concern for the betterment of society coupled with fiendish personal behavior a typically liberal tendency? Apparently, there’s no progressive monopoly on that grotesque combination.

Naipaul’s morally putrid life, and Daniels’s and Pryce-Jones’s dishonest paeans to it, are a reminder that even the most exquisite intellectual awareness of human frailty will not humane character produce. And it’s at moments like these that one can’t fail to be moved to pronounce a heartfelt Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol over the yawning chasm that separates the heroes of our so divergent societies.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 724. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com