This essay illustrates a “negative cosmopolitanism” in V. S. Naipaul’s work. Both defenders and critics of cosmopolitanism readily identify the concept with the European philosophical tradition. Arguing that European thinkers do not have a patent on cosmopolitanism, I contend that the anomalies, dissonances, and ruptures that define colonial modernity can open up a “negative cosmopolitanism,” which locates the potential for ethical engagement in what seems like the waste products of history. For Naipaul, cosmopolitanism designates not a volitional, character-strengthening endeavor but, rather, a painful process of self-negation. Traversing a world profoundly shaped by colonialism, the writer and his characters are at a loss to make sense of their historical lineage and their place in a rapidly changing landscape. Through a reading of The Loss of El Dorado (1969) and A Bend in the River (1979), I demonstrate that it is finally the failure of connection or solidarity that motivates Naipaul’s attentiveness to the other.
Negative Cosmopolitanism: The Case of V. S. Naipaul
Philip Tsang is assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, specializing in twentieth-century British and Anglophone literature. His current book manuscript, titled “The Obsolete Empire: Untimely Belonging in Twentieth-Century British Literature,” traces an aesthetics of frustrated attachment in the work of Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, and V. S. Naipaul.
Philip Tsang; Negative Cosmopolitanism: The Case of V. S. Naipaul. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 June 2020; 66 (2): 163–184. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-8536143
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