“Spirit in the Dark”— Christian Campbell on V.S. Naipaul


Trinidadian-Bahamian writer Christian Campbell shares with us his reflections on V.S. Naipaul and his legacy in the context of his death, on August 11, 2018, and Aretha Franklin’s, on August 18, 2018.

V.S. Naipaul showed us how to transform the rage and grief of the dispossessed into a creative and destructive force. He wrote with acid accuracy, dissolving down to the irreducible thought. That was the severity of his sentence. He told what he told sans humanité—shame, damage, treachery—even if the cost was a door of no return. But he also did this at the expense of so much beauty, which does exist. Once, overlooking the magnificent Pitons, Derek Walcott told me there is no view in Naipaul.

And wasn’t he ruthless in vision, in ambition, in bile? Who else reminds us that the tag of the happy-go-lucky Trinidadian is a kind of farce? T&T is the province of picong, an art that Naipaul mastered. In Trinidadian language and laughter, there is often something barbed sub-rosa. He could come from nowhere else.

How does one endure as a traitor? The dance of disavowal carried on—him of us, us of him, disavowal always revealing what’s at stake. At his worst, he was unforgivable. But his best work turned back on him like an ouroboros.  If he despised us, his ear loved us dearly.

I think now of Aretha Franklin, whose “Spirit in the Dark” is suddenly in the air, keeping him under manners as they both cross the bar. He is unworthy of this compass, but such is her generosity, her genius sonority, always keeping vigil for us even when we need to do so for her right now. They shared the dark force of the displaced but they did such different work with their darkness; they had such different ways to deal with the strictures placed on their bodies. The Queen’s call was to gather up her people and the spirits to move. Which chord changes will loosen the cords?

He, too, a spirit in the dark, different than the Queen meant it.  Spirit in the dark, kala pani again, which we never escape, only transform. Lay down the mask and move, man!  With the kanjiras going and the handclaps taking flight, the Queen squalls and the old man understands.

You were brutal and you are ours.

Christian Campbell

Christian Campbell is the author of Running the Dusk (2010), which won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was a finalist for the Forward Prize for the Best First Collection and the Cave Canem Poetry Prize among other awards. Running the Dusk was translated into Spanish and published in Cuba as Correr el crepúsculo (2015). He was the youngest person to deliver the annual Derek Walcott Lecture for Nobel Laureate Week in St. Lucia.

[Photo above: “VS Naipaul” by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.]

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