“The Lie,” Joseph Conrad, V.S. Naipaul, and Internalized Racism in Postcolonial Authorship

Naipaul and “The Lie”

In V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River he writes, from the perspective of an East Indian merchant in an unnamed African country, “If it was Europe that gave us on the coast some idea, it was Europe, I feel, that also introduced us to the lie. Those of us who have been in that part of African before the Europeans had never lied about ourselves. Not because we were moral. We didn’t lie because we never assessed ourselves and didn’t think there was anything for us to lie about; we were people who simply did what we did. But the Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different… they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues.” The sentiment of Naipaul’s character is loaded and difficult to parse out, however, a significant amount of effort is being employed on the part of Naipaul to express the content of this so-called “lie,” “ the lie ,” which he is describing in the passage. At its simplest, it can be described as a dimension of guile which didn’t exist prior to a European colonial presence in colonized nations.

The Ethical Dimension of “The Lie”

Evidence of “the lie” is an incongruent ethical structure which allows for a normative assessment of behaviors which concludes with an ethical judgment the behaviors in no way justify. Take, for instance, this example of 1 + 1 = 3 ethical judgment. A thief breaks into someone’s house and steals all their belongings. Almost every ethical system would assess those behaviors as being morally objectionable. However, if a function operating beneath the ethical system allows for an incongruous conclusion, the thief might say “ah, but I’m liberating this poor soul from their materialistic urges” despite the fact that this is ostensibly not what the thief is doing, and in fact the thief is merely serving their own materialistic urges. It’s important to note that this example is not a self-aware or cynical rationalization but one that operates in some fashion beneath the assumptions of a moral system to allow for that sort of incongruous justification to be used to reach a conclusion of the moral acceptability of behaviors that are clearly morally unacceptable. This is not a one to one analogy to colonialism, but the ethical dimension of “the lie” operates in a similar way. Colonialism is clearly morally objectionable. Subjugation and exploitation of a people are moral wrongs which are, at the time in history when European colonialism of Africa and India are at their height, clearly established. The moral objectionablility of colonialism becomes even clearer when examining the social forces of liberalism being mobilized at the time. The classically liberal notion of private property as sacred, at this time, is sinking its claws into European consciousness. With this in mind, it seems clear that some form of ethical magic is being employed here in order to deem the colonial project morally acceptable, or even laudable. This is the ethical function of “the lie.”

“The Lie” and Statues

An interesting contrast, which continues to account for aspects of the ethical dimension of “the lie,” is one between Greek Empire and British Empire. Naipaul’s passage presupposes the idea of empire and moral recognition in the form of “statues” as mutually exclusive. As stated, such mutual exclusivity is correct in the societal context of European Empire in Africa, India, and the Caribbean. However, such mutual exclusivity does raise the question of Greek Empire and the legacy of someone like Alexander the Great. Alexander was recognized and memorialized, in the form of statues, for his martial prowess. Because notions of private property and individual rights did not exist in the way they are understood today, conquering and subjugating people could be considered a moral good. With the advent of the Enlightenment, and subsequently classic liberalism, such notions were called into question. British Empire did not have the same social conditions from which to draw its moral authority, thus the production of “the lie.” “The lie” allows for the paternalism of Thomas Macaulay and other colonial agents attempting to justify the morality of their mission or obfuscate the crudeness with which colonized people were exploited.

Naipaul and Conrad

The Naipaul passage is sometimes read alongside a quotation from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. From the perspective of Marlow, Conrad writes “Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently carrying a rifle at its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off and seeing a white man on the path hoisted his weapon on his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured and with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.” Putting aside the obvious irony of Conrad’s final sentence, and the obvious hypocrisy of Conrad’s critique of Belgian Empire but approval of British Empire, one can see how this “wink” between the African soldier and white Marlow evokes the notion of “the lie” as an epistemic interface by which colonial forces can engage with their “subjects.” Furthermore, Conrad apparently engages with the idea of the complicity of the elite (or, perhaps in this case, lucky) in the subjugation of their countrymen and countrywomen. This power structure which the elite of colonial nations inherited in a postcolonial epoch functions as a result, in Naipaul’s view, of “the lie.” This leads to the less detailed dimension of “the lie” as an epistemic interface which propagates a lasting power structure, first used by colonial forces, then by the elite of various nations and nation states after literal decolonization.

Trepidation and Criticism

I’ve spent the length of this essay, which took about 27 minutes to complete, detailing the presence, function, and supporters of “the lie.” However, I remain unconvinced of “the lie” existing in the way that Naipaul and Conrad seem to argue. In my mind, there is a divestiture of agency taking place on the parts of Naipaul and Conrad to argue that this “lie” is uniquely European or that Europeans somehow had access to a form of self-awareness which could produce an epistemology and broken, but functional in its brokenness, ethical system. It may be bold to criticize the positioning of “the lie” after only enumerating a few of its philosophical dimensions, but despite Naipaul and Conrad offering fairly convincing accounts of mechanisms of colonialism, it seems absurd to think that colonized nations in a precolonial error did not have examples of ethical systems which offered unjustified conclusion through subconscious operations. Though, certainly, both parties in the colonial encounter brought different things to bear in terms of the creation of an epistemic interface, I am certain that the epistemic interface was not entirely imposed and possessed vestiges of the oppressed group’s epistemological constructs. Naipaul paints a very pastoral picture of the inhabitants of his fictionalized African country, but ultimately depicting the inhabitants which such simplicity has a pejorative edge. Additionally, the notion of “the lie” likely deserves some contextualization within the network of troubling beliefs articulated by both Naipaul and Conrad, serving as the chief and sole propagators of such a notion that I am aware of. It is not to say that the idea of “the lie” is entirely off the mark or worthless, but Naipaul’s account of the function may not be entirely accurate, and a more convincing account may be of a societal undercurrent which encompasses non-cynical rationalizations that exists in many (but, certainly not all) societies, and was activated cross-culturally by a European presence in a far more prolific way.


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