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Transversal Ecology and V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival is a nervous text. Its unnamed narrator (almost always read as Naipaul himself, as I will refer to him here) repeatedly confesses to suffering from a “rawness of nerves” as he migrates from Trinidad to England, where he settles in a small cottage on the grounds of a derelict Wiltshire manor (123). He attributes his nervous temperament to his self-consciousness as a postcolonial subject who lives on a hereditary estate established and long sustained by colonial plantations such as the one his grandparents worked as indentured laborers. But the estate also offers Naipaul the time and space to develop a critical intimacy with the Wiltshire countryside, an intimacy that revolutionizes his understanding of imperial England and its cultural legacy. He spends large portions of the novel walking the droveways of this ancient landscape, carefully observing the spatial and temporal dimensions of what is, at first glance, an idyllic environment. But as he comes to know the land more intimately, he develops an increasingly critical perspective, experiencing what he calls a “second childhood of seeing and learning” (93). Observing how the passage of time inscribes itself on the manor’s built and natural environments, as well as on its human community, Naipaul arrives at an understanding of England that diverges in significant ways from the one passed down to him in the literary and artistic representations that formed such an integral part of his colonial education. This “second childhood” is thus a process of disillusionment with the cultural ideal of England. It is also a reorientation of how Naipaul understands the relationship between natural ecology, social history, and his own subjectivity, an “awakening to the natural world” that ultimately empowers him to reassess his place within a post-imperial England, which is characterized in the novel by the grandson of indentured laborers roving the iconic landscape of the Salisbury Plain (105).

What Naipaul sees and learns as he explores the derelict Wiltshire estate is the subject of much critical commentary. Virtually all of this commentary focuses on issues of postcolonial identity, and much of it is critical of what Pascale Casanova refers to as the novel’s “colonial nostalgia for British power” (212). Casanova joins Rob Nixon, Ann Lora Stoler, Ian Baucom, and Derek Walcott, to name just a few of Naipaul’s many detractors, in reading The Enigma of Arrival as the apotheosis of Naipaul’s “unmistakably English view of the world, his almost provocative determination to prove himself more English than the English, more nostalgic than his neighbors for the Empire and England’s lost power” (Casanova 211). Others are more sympathetic. For example, Shirley Chew, Lucienne Loh, Sanjay Krishnan, and Anna Jörngården offer more nuanced readings of the novel that see in Naipaul’s fixation on England’s imperial decline a challenge to what Chew calls (quoting Naipaul) “the colonial fantasy of ‘security,’ that is, the notion of a ‘fixed world’ comprising, on the one hand, the timeless perfection of England, and, on the other, the disorder of ‘half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made’” (137). I too am interesting in how The Enigma of Arrival represents postcolonial identity, but I want to approach this question by exploring how the landscape itself—the natural ecology that contributes so mightily to the novel’s setting—functions as a means of framing and reorienting Naipaul’s struggle to understand his place within post-imperial England. In what follows, I will offer an ecocritical reading that draws on theories developed in Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies to argue that Naipaul’s “second childhood of seeing and learning” is, in ways germane to the question of postcolonial subjectivity, an awakening to the multiplicity of ecological registers.

Before considering how discrete passages from the text engage in an ecocritical approach to postcolonial identity, it may be fruitful to consider why The Enigma of Arrival is not read more often as a work of nature writing. Perhaps the reason why more critics do not address Naipaul’s interest in the natural world as such is because that intersects with a larger postcolonial critique. Naipaul himself admits as much when, in his preface to the novel’s reissue, he writes: “I knew there was a long tradition of nature writing and I knew that I was not equipped to add to it. My concern as someone from the colonies was the use of the land, nature pushed to its limits by a repeated crop” (v-vi). Naipaul’s emphasis on “nature pushed to its limits” works against the norms of mainstream nature writing, which have their roots in the pastoral. Although major literary figures such as Salman Rushdie have identified The Enigma of Arrival with “pastoral England, an England of manor and stream,” the novel does not, in fact, belong to a tradition that emphasizes the natural environment as a benevolent, contemplative, spiritually rejuvenating space. If anything, the evidence of material ruin and decay that Naipaul discovers embedded in the landscape as he walks and re-walks the Wiltshire countryside exposes the conventional pastoral as an illusion, if not an outright deception. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin attest to this when they call The Enigma of Arrival an “anti-pastoral,” arguing that “Naipaul’s work is no haven for the literary nature-lover. His despoiled landscapes tell of centuries of human cruelty, greed and plunder” (128). The fact that Naipaul’s landscapes seem to insist that “land is not land alone, something that simply is itself,” but rather that it “partakes of what we breathe into it,” shifts attention away from his work as nature writing and toward his work as pure social or cultural critique (Huggan and Tiffin 366). Yet the novel does not support this division. Indeed, The Enigma of Arrival represents environmental, social, and subjective experiences as mutually embedded phenomena.

In his essay The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari refuses the distinction between nature and culture in ways I find productive for thinking through Naipaul’s claim that “land is not land alone.” Guattari writes, “Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’” (28). To think transversally is to develop the critical capacity to address three overlapping ecological registers at once: environmental ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology (Guattari 18). Recognizing the interdependence of these ecological registers complicates Naipaul’s concern with “nature pushed to its limits” because transversality demands that we incorporate social and subjective dynamics into those limits (v). Naipaul models this in The Enigma of Arrival’s representation of Trinidad as the site of such extensive environmental exploitation that the near-total transformation of the land has left its occupants estranged from their own history. In fact, it is only in researching the history of Trinidad for a book he had been commissioned to write that Naipaul recognizes the artificiality of what he had always assumed to be his native island’s natural condition. He explains, “As a schoolboy I had assumed [Trinidad’s] torpor to be a constant, something connected with the geographical location of the island, the climate, the quality of the light. It had never occurred to me that the drabness I knew had been man-made, that it had causes, that there had been other visions and indeed other landscapes there” (170). This is the torpor of a colonial plantation society at the waning of the British Empire, which is altogether different from post-imperial Trinidad, where the landscape is again transformed, this time by the discovery of oil and natural gas. Naipaul bemoans the fact that the fossil fuel industry “ravaged and remade the landscape where we had had our beginnings in the New World,” and he does so in explicit transversal terms, noting that the shift from sugar cane to oil and natural gas “altered our landscape, our population, our mood” (384 and 385). There is a keen recognition in his bringing together landscape, population, and mood—terms that mirror Guattari’s emphasis on the three ecological registers of the environmental, the social, and the mental—that a change in one ecological register has the potential to transform all the ecological registers.   

A transversal consciousness is also active in Naipaul’s representation of the Salisbury Plain. What at first appears to be a timeless landscape emanating from the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Night or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude gradually reveals itself to be shaped by spatiotemporal historical processes. For example, Naipaul recognizes in the seeming emptiness of the plain subtle traces of social activity: “Daily I walked in the wide grassy way—perhaps in the old days a processional way. Daily I climbed from the bottom of the valley to the crest of the way and the view … A vast sacred burial ground, bounded by the sky—of what activity those barrows and tumuli spoke, what numbers, what organization, what busyness in these now virtually empty downs!” (19). His ability to discern traces of ancient social activity in the shape of the land gradually opens his eyes to how contemporary social activities are also reshaping what may seem, at first glance, to be wholly natural. Musing on the absurdity of the fact that the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill’s luminous targets stand out more dramatically on the Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge, both of which are visible in the same vista, Naipaul notes that “because of the purely military uses to which the land had been put for so long, and contrary to what one might expect after the explosions and mock warfare, there survived on the plain some kinds of butterflies that had vanished in more populated parts” (14). As with the previous example, the different ecological registers are intertwined: beneath the surface of what appears to be untouched nature are the traces of frenzied social activity; within the center of explosive social activity is the most unexpected and unlikely trace of untouched nature. It is precisely in recognizing this transversal quality that Naipaul can see through the so-called “timeless perfection of England” to something that is altogether more temporal (Chew 137).

I will conclude with one final example of transversal ecology in The Enigma of Arrival, an example that shows how the reach of what Guattari calls “the mechanosphere” into the heart of rural England degrades both corporeal nature and communal bonds. Although the territory over which Naipaul ranges throughout the novel bears subtle traces of pre-industrial social activity, that ancient landscape is also in the process of being transformed by large-scale industrial agriculture. Naipaul writes of “Change! New ideas, new efficiency,” an ironic exclamation that soon takes on a dystopian tone. Where once was “a wooden platform where the milk churns were placed” now stands a modern, prefabricated milking barn. He notes that “this milking building or milking ‘parlour’ (quaint word) was a mechanical-looking affair”—what he calls “a little factory at the top of the hill”—that was full of “pipes and meters and gauges; and the men who worked the parlour, who corralled the dung-stained cattle into the pens or channels, had something of the grimness of industrial workers” (58). This description of industrial-scale animal agriculture stands in marked contrast to the ideal of “pastoral England” with which Rushdie associates the novel, in part because it acknowledges the ecological registers that Guattari identifies in The Three Ecologies. This is made explicit in the passage’s concluding description, in which Naipaul writes: “The brightly-coloured cars, the hum and hiss of the milking machine (the cows, even with their dung, reduced to machine-managed objects), the tense young men, their moustaches and cars—they were all aspects of the new, exaggerated thing that had come upon us” (58). As had befallen Trinidad with the discovery of oil and natural gas, the introduction of industrial agricultural practices into the rural Wiltshire economy has a powerfully estranging effect, distancing the landscape and its occupants from the ideal that Naipaul had internalized as a postcolonial subject whose sole experience of England came through art and literature.

The disillusionment that Naipaul experiences as he observes the technological transformation of the dairy industry allows him to see through the supposed authenticity and historical continuity of agrarian England. For example, he fondly recalls the illustrated cows that graced the labels of the condensed milk he consumed as a child in Trinidad, an image that he describes as “the very heart of romance, a child’s fantasy of the beautiful other place” (90). But what he finds in reality refuses any such romantic ideal. Walking the droveways, he encounters a “ruined, abandoned, dungy, mossy farmyard” in which are penned a group of deformed milk cows:

The breeding of these cattle had become so mechanical that the malformation appeared mechanical too, the mistakes of an industrial process. Curious additional lumps of flesh had grown at various places on the animals, as though these animals had been cast in a mould, a mould divided into two sections, and as though, at the joining of the moulds, the cattle-material, the mixture out of which the cattle were being cast, had leaked; and had hardened, matured into flesh, and had then developed hair with the black-and-white Frisian pattern of the rest of the cattle. (9)

The radical incongruity of this reality with the fantasy Naipaul brought with him when he migrated to England extends to the larger social register as well. For example, he initially assumes that the people he encounters on his walks have ancestral connections to the land, that they are—as he says of one of his neighbors—“emanations” of “literature and antiquity and the landscape” (21). But as with the distressed, hideously deformed cattle, they too are soon exposed as something other than Naipaul first assumed: “So much that had looked traditional, natural, emanations of the landscape … now turned out not to have been traditional or instinctive at all” (49). Indeed, with the exception of the reclusive owner of the manor, none of the residents have an authentic connection with the land. They are temporary residents of the estate, and those social bonds that do exist between the neighbors lack depth and stability. When one of the longest surviving residents dies, nobody notices. The children are discourteous to their elderly neighbors. And an itinerant laborer, come to work the mechanized milking machines, murders his wife in a jealous rage.

This social fragmentation is coterminous with the deformed cows, and together they powerfully reorient Naipaul’s perspective on his own place within post-imperial England. But his disillusionment is also an awakening to a new way of seeing England that challenges and ultimately transcends the ideological representations he encountered as a schoolboy. As Anna Jörngården argues in a recent article, “Rather than a cause for nostalgia and regret, this shift from seeing the valley as replete with living history to seeing it as a field of ruins opens up alternative histories that destabilize fantasies of the valley as the authentic home to rooted, authentic people” (217). It is precisely in this destabilization that the subjective register of Guattari’s transversal ecology intersects with the environmental and social registers. If The Enigma of Arrival is, at its core, a novel of postcolonial identity—as the critical consensus suggests—then one way to achieve a deeper understanding of such an identity is through a transversal ecocritical approach. Read transversally, the novel’s mutually embedded ecological registers redefine who can legitimately claim the Wiltshire estate as their own. If socioeconomic and environmental transformations have emptied the Salisbury Plain of its meaning as “the authentic home to rooted, authentic people,” then it can now be the authentic home of the rootless, the postcolonial, the transnational. The Enigma of Arrival thus emerges as a critique of how social and environmental transformations shape the mental ecologies of all who exist within changing spatial and temporal contexts, including both the localized English countryside and the globalized, postcolonial setting within which Naipaul’s work is so often understood.

Note: I presented a version of this paper at the “Conceptions and Perceptions of Time and Space” conference at the London Center for Interdisciplinary Research in London, England on February 17, 2019.

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