A Comparison of Two Nobel Lectures

2000 Lecture by Gao Xingjian and 2001 Lecture by V.S. Naipaul 

The world at present seems obsessed with the idea of migration. Migration, diasporas, feeling-less-ness, root-less-ness and a new kind of sensibility born out of these factors – these things are unique to our age. Since the beginning of human race, migration has been a major phenomenon. But that migration used to be in huge groups. The Aryans leaving Central Asia and spreading across Asia and Europe was no solitary act. The whole race migrated! What is new, typical and unique of our age is loneliness and sense of vacuum that comes with individual migration or migration of comparatively smaller groups. The twin processes of modernization and globalization have created a substantial threat to individual identity. Dislocation and migration bring with it feelings of loss and helplessness. With the end of small scale craftsmanship, work identities in smaller groups (villages, towns) are also eroding. There is hierarchy everywhere. Individual and her/his efforts have become so small. This homogenizing world has caused serious injuries to the individual's sense of self-respect. Since time immemorial, the human race has been obsessed with ideas of belonging, heritage, clan, inheritance, and native soil. Now we are surprised at our own condition. We want to sing our own songs - songs of estrangement, humiliation, dissociation and withdrawal. Suddenly everyone has become an emigrant - a village student in a nearby town, a semi-urbanite at Delhi or Mumbai, a Punjabi in Bengal, a Tamilian in Orissa, an Asian in America and so on.' Everyone is away from the roots – where have all the roots gone? 

A true, poignant and sensitive account of the emigrant's state of mind is, in my opinion, the element of greatness in these two writers that I've selected for discussion here - Gao Xingjian and V.S. Naipaul. Many meaningful authors of our times are emigrants - Gunter Grass, and Salman Rushdie to name the two. The novelty of the situation fascinates the human race. Never before in the history of human kind there has been such mass scale loneliness, absurdity, and alienation.

Gao Xingjian was born in 1940 in Ganzhou in southeastern China. After several years of forced labor during Cultural Revolution, Gao was permitted to publish his works only in 1979. The most striking thing about Gao is that while writing he had no hope of getting recognized, read or credited. He wrote in darkness. He wrote for himself. However, after publication of his works, things changed. He was immediately spotted as a literary genius. He wrote experimental plays like  an absurd drama ‘Bus Stop’ (1983), essays and novels. The element of revolt, of defying the authority in Gao's works was not to be accepted by Chinese authorities. He was pressurized to write prostate, tailored pieces. He refused to succumb. He took a ten-month walking journey along the river Chang,-an experience that resulted in the famous novel, ‘Soul Mountain’ (1989). Gao could not continue to live in China. He migrated from China in 1989 and settled in France. His works have been banned in China after the publication of his play ‘Fugitives’ (1989), which is set against the Tiananmen Square Massacre. His second novel ‘One Man's Bible’ came in 1999.

The speech that Gao gave at receiving the world's highest prize is extremely appealing because it at once strikes as very sincere. His words come from the intellectual depths of a talented author who has literally gone through the fire. The experiences of his life have ripened the author in him. His oppression by Chinese authorities has given Gao genuineness and sublimity. Gao's speech begins with a paradox where he expresses his reverence for God as he in unknowable and at the same time claims that he is an atheist. Gao undoes the aura around the author. A writer is no God. Creator, she or he maybe but her/his creation in no way resembles creation of God. 'A writer is an ordinary person,' he declares. Literature is the voice of one individual. It is pointless to seek the voice of a nation, a race, a class or a group in the voice of one writer. Writers cannot be taken as symbols of nations or ideologies. When a writer starts representing any group, he ceases to be a writer. Literature as a tool of propaganda has no authenticity. The validity comes only when a writer, a weak being, stands for herself/ himself and speaks for herself/ himself. Gao explains that the writer in recent times has been subjected to unprecedented suppression simply because her/his works have been taken for or against a certain section – against communists or against Muslims and so on. If literature is to live, it must be written as well as interpreted as an individual voice. 

Literature in the 20th century almost suffocated because politics (collective voice) dictated literature (single voice). The attack on Chinese traditional culture in the name of revolution resulted in the public prohibition and burning of books. Countless writers were shot, imprisoned, exiled or punished with hard labor. ‘If the writer sought to exercise intellectual freedom, the choice was either to fall silent or to flee. During the years Mao Zedong implemented total dictatorship even fleeing was not an option. The monasteries on far away mountains that provided refuge for scholars during feudal times were totally ravaged and to write even in secret was to risk one's life. To maintain one's intellectual autonomy one could only talk to oneself and it had to be in utmost secrecy. I should mention that it was only in this period when it was utterly impossible for literature that I came to comprehend why it was so essential: literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness'. 

The most relevant and worth noting point that Gao makes is about the purpose of creation of literature. Why one writes? The answer is, for one's own self. Can human race do without literature? The answer is, no, it can't. If literature dies, human consciousness also dies. In order to be classified as literature, a piece of writing should have just one quality - it should be written for self-fulfillment of the writer. Literature is born of inner compulsions of a writer. A writer writes for herself / himself. If the writer has any target group of readers in mind or any other consideration of any sort, what she / he is producing cannot be called literature. Many writers like Dante and Kafka were not even published during their lifetime, leave alone getting recognition. Yet they wrote. They wrote without any hope. They wrote for themselves. Language, Gao asserts, is for self-affirmation and not for changing the world-order. Pen is not mightier than sword. The writer, in fact, is a helpless creature. 

Gao is individualistic. The crux of his thinking is that the self contains the universe. The only purpose that writing serves is to create and maintain the link of an individual to herself/ himself - that's all. Gao goes on to say that writing based on true experiences and emotions of the writer is aesthetic. When Gao talks about human emotions, one is reminded of Wordsworth's theory of emotions recollected in tranquility. What Gao says is quite similar: ‘there are numerous levels of emotional expression and to reach higher levels requires cold detachment. Poetry is concealed in the distant gaze.' (Gao) The author should be as neutral as possible, as cold to her/his own emotions as possible so as to be able to view her/his own self, movement and behavior from a distance as one watches others. Gao watching Gao will be the final test of his advancement as a writer.

Gao may assert the individuality of the writer but one can say that the country of his origin finally speaks through him. Suffered as he has in the hands of communist dictators, Gao has no words of praise for capitalism either. On the other hand, he comes hard on capitalism, consumerism and popular Western culture and approach. He coins the phrase 'cold literature' meaning thereby literature that is true, genuine and objective. Politicians support or oppose literature just to divert people's mind from real issues. People, on their part, do not hesitate to murder literature by following the simple rule, 'whatever is new is good.' Consumer culture based on outer glitter is harming literature. Gao says, 'Everywhere there are huge undiscriminating markets. Literature is not a best-selling book or a book on a ranked list and authors promoted on television are engaged in advertising rather than in writing.'(Gao)

In this scenario, literature must be freed from the burden of being responsible to the masses. To battle consumerism's fatal attack, the writer must be ready to walk alone; 'Ekla Chalo' as Tagore said. A true writer relishes the very act of writing without any 'utility' purpose in mind. The new century may be even more cruel to genuine literature; the means of oppression may be more sophisticated and scientifically advanced because advancement of time does not mean advancement of civilized spirit. 20th century for example, has seen many barbaric acts of silencing the author. Fatwas have decided the order of the day. Writers have gone in hiding. They have fled. They have been killed. Gao correctly says, ‘History and civilization do not advance in tandem; scientific and technological progress certainly does not imply that humankind as a result becomes more civilized.' (Gao) 

We should not hurry to write the history of 20th century and place it in different isms. The coming generations may view 20th century differently. We, who are part of the times, may sing about our computer and communication revolutions but the cold distant gaze may discern many savage acts. At best, we may just try to be honest, sincere and true in our description of individual experiences. It does not mean that literature is mere documentation. Gao says that even imagination can be sincere. Imagination should be based on true feelings. Literature, at times, becomes the art of lying with sincerity, 'In the hands of a writer with a serious attitude to writing even literary fabrications are premised on the portrayal of the truth of human life, and this has been the vital life force of works that have endured from ancient times to the present. It is precisely for this reason that Greek tragedy and Shakespeare will never become out dates.' (Gao) 

After repeated attacks on consumerism, Gao's speech ends in a candid note of self-acclamation, 'Honorable members of the Academy, I thank you for awarding this Nobel Prize to literature that is unwavering in its independence, that avoids neither human suffering nor political oppression and that furthermore does not serve politics. I thank you for awarding this most prestigious prize to works that are far removed from the writings of the market, works that have aroused little attention but are actually worth reading.' (Gao)

If Gao's speech ends in self-acclamation, V.S. Naipaul's begins with it. If the subject matter of Gao's speech is tenets of literature, Naipaul talks only about himself. His approach is self-centered. He wants to throw light on the formation of his books. He tries to answer the question, 'How his books can best be understood?’ Here is a writer giving tools to his readers to appreciate his works. 

Reading Naipaul's speech for the first time, I was reminded of the Hindu practice of worshipping where the worshipper is required to say her/his family name, 'gotra', 'kula', and ancestors' names. Our identity is not complete without the description of our ancestry, heritage and past. I find this consciousness flowing through Naipaul's speech. A whole race, a people and a mindset are speaking through him. The perpetual 'I' in his speech says something about the thinking of Indians, especially Indian men. Gao at no point mentioned his father or family in his speech but Naipaul is indebted to his father. He is a writer because his father was one, 'If it were not for the short stories my farther wrote I would have known almost nothing, about the general life of our Indian community. Those stories gave me more than knowledge. They gave me a kind of solidity. They gave me something to stand on in the world. I cannot imagine what my mental picture would have been without those stories.' (Gao) 

It is exactly this stress on his own self that brings Naipaul closer to Gao at least in one sense - both are individualistic. While Gao says that a writer is answerable only to herself/himself, Naipaul too does not miss it. ‘In fact, it is the secretions of one's innermost self written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public.'(Naipaul) Naipaul says, 'I am the sum of my books.' 

Naipaul's beginning is catchy. He says that he has no speech to give. Everything about him is in his books. Nevertheless he goes on to explore the innermost self that is responsible for creation of literature. The self that writes is different from the self that behaves in ordinary situations. No amount of ‘biographying’ or ‘autobiographying’ can ever unravel the mystery of literary creation because of the difference between the two selves of the writer. 


Reading the speech, one may, for a moment, feel that this fellow is too full of himself. Naipaul factually traces his origin to the plains of Ganga in India; Banaras to be particular. He says, ‘It (Trinidad) was developed as a new world plantation colony and when I was born in 1932 it had a population of about 400,000. Of, this, about 150,000 were Indians, Hindus and Muslims, nearly all of peasant origin and nearly all from the Gangetic plains.'(Naipaul)  As he goes on to dig his past stage by stage, he tells that he found about his ancestors in a 1872 gazette of the British named 'Hindu Castes and Tribes as Represented in Banaras.' He says, 'The pages listed among a multitude of names - those groups of Nepalese in the holy city of Banaras who carried the name Naipal.'(Naipaul) So that is what it is. Groups of Naipal caste from the holy city of Banaras were deported to Trinidad to work in tea gardens of the colonial masters. Humble beginnings indeed! The point to be noted is that it is so important for this man as to from where his family came that he gives its full details in the Nobel Lecture where he is addressing the world. 

For us, it is relevant to know the personal history of Naipaul because it underlines the vagabond-like, rootless, alienated existence of the modern human self. As has been pointed out at the very beginning that emigrants’ psychology is what is the most fascinating and baffling subject for the human race at present. Novels set on national and international scenes, novels where relatives from abroad visit the natives or vice-versa – such novels are appealing to the literati. The Shadow Lines, God of Small Things, The Impressionist, An Equal Music, Midnight’s Children, Half a Life - all this work is about two worlds. Gone are the days of novels that presented life flatly. Even on international scenario, trans-border literature is doing the rounds. The 1999 winner of Nobel Prize in literature Gunter Grass is also an emigrant.

Thus, understanding Naipaul's background is essential to catch this spirit where the individual is a total destitute. Naipaul minces no words when talks about the condition of emigrants, 'These people were absolutely destitute. They slept on the streets of Port of Spain, the capital this was part of the cruelty of the plantation colony.’' (Naipaul ) 

Naipaul was born in a town called Chaguanas. But as Chaguanas was a strange name, people preferred to call it by the Indian caste name Chauhan. The most relevant part of Naipaui's speech is regarding Chaguanas. He describes the mental condition of the people living at Chaguanas. Living away from home was a kind of blind mechanical existence. We lived for the most part ritualized lives and were not yet capable of self-assessment, which is where learning begins. Half of us on this land of Chaguanas were pretending, perhaps not pretending, perhaps never feeling, never formulating it as an idea - that we had brought a kind of India with us, which we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land. The seed of India germinated strongly among all Indians forcibly deported for plantation colonies. India was sacred; India was pure; India was home. 

'My grand mother's house in Chaguanas was in two parts (one Indian, sacred part, the other for others)... So as a child I had this sense of two worlds, the world outside that tall corrugated iron gate and the world at home; it was a remnant of our caste sense, the thing that excluded and shut out. It enabled us, for the time being, to live in our own fading India. It made for an extraordinary self-centeredness. We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing.' (Naipaul) The outside world was unreal; home was real. 

Naipaul shares a world-view that has been fractured in its initial formative stages. Uncertainty, unreality, shadow existence, communication-less-ness and total alienation - these are the central features of the worldview that Naipaul shares. And this is also the current trend of viewing the world. Naipaul goes on to describe areas of darkness that always existed around him because there was nothing beyond the self - no support system, no philosophy, just nothing. This nothingness fills his pages. He says, 'When I became a writer those areas of darkness around me became my subjects. I had to clear up my world, elucidate it, for myself.' (Naipaul) 

This subject matter unites Naipaul's books. Superficially these books may seem to be going in different directions but in reality it is not so. Naipaul writes about present-day sensibilities. He had no role model. His world was confused and mixed. Finally Naipaul categorizes himself as a post-colonial writer or anti-colonial, we might say, 'I traveled in the Caribbean region and understood much more about the colonial set-up of which I had been a part. I went to India, my ancestral land, for a year; it was a journey that broke my life into two. The books that I wrote about these two journeys took me to new realms of emotion, gave me a world-view I had never had, extended my technically.

This new fiction was about colonial shame and fantasy... about how the powerless lie about themselves and lie to themselves, since it is their only resource.' (Naipaul) So, all the pompous talk of decolonization is just pretending and lying. It is done to hide mental slavery. Naipaul gives it the name of 'colonial schizophrenia.' Naipaul sticks to his theme of the self till the end. His self extends up to his group. He says that his father, R.K. Narayan and he himself have no political ideology because 'we have been far from authority for many centuries. It gives a special point of view. I feel we are more inclined to see the humor and pity of things.' (Naipaul) In the whole of the speech, Naipaul finds only two comrades- his father and R. K. Narayan!

Gao's speech is more structured. He follows a logical pattern, making one point after another. He wonderfully balances his criticism of consumerism on one hand and dictatorship on the other. Naipaul is more elusive. Only a careful reader at least after two readings may find that Naipaul's speech is actually structured like a journey intended to take us to a logical end. That logical end is the state of the unprivileged destitute, the vulnerable emigrants. Those of us who are used to obvious, neat patterns in writing, may ask as to why is Naipaul talking about all this – his people, his family, his land. To use the platform of Swedish Academy for self-centered address may look inappropriate. Many may tend to write off the speech as egocentric. But it is not so. It is not easy to grasp an uprooted mind. Using my creative vein, I may give an analogy. The moment of returning to our hometown after a journey is special. As soon as we see the lanes, the shops, the pits, the buildings of our native place, we feel so happy, gratified. What seizes us is the joy off familiarity. If one were to spend the whole life tossing from place to place, what would her/his thinking be? Parents and grandparents singing of India, living in England, returning to India and not finding a bit of what parents sang – how would it be. Never to possess the joy of familiarity! Never to return home! Naipaul's speech magically leads the 'sahridaya' reader to that point where one realizes what it means to be an emigrant. Most of us hurriedly label Naipaul a thorough Indian or after reading his books that describe the shortcomings of India, we immediately truck him with Nirad C. Chowdhury and call him anti-India. It is not true both ways.

Both Gao and Naipaul stand as world citizens. Global village is a true term here. ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbtakam.’Though their collective consciousness may be speaking through them unconsciously, it would be unwise to brand them as Indian or Chinese. As Gao says, ‘As the creator of linguistic art there is no need to stick on one self a stock national label that can be easily recognized.'(Gao) Writers, for want of better terms, have often been categorized as Indian, Asian, and American and so on. But this must not be done at the cost of forgetting or ignoring the universal spirit of literature. We must remember that literature is an individual voice speaking to it self. Literature is born, as both these masters have said, when a human being writes for herself / himself. 

However one point of variation between Gao and Naipaul is that Gao goes on to condemn market forces that try to crush the lone voice of the individual, Naipaul does not say a single word against consumerism as such. While Gao propounds the theory of individualism in literature, Naipaul practices it or exhibits it by dwelling deep into his own past. Naipaul's journey is from self to others. 

Gao talks about cold gaze or neutrality of a writer, Naipaul also depends on truth. The day, Naipaul dramatically declares, he graduated, as a writer was the day when sitting at the window he described the street, all men and women as they appeared, vendors, shops, carts, just as they looked. The day he did this detached description, he had in his own mind become a writer. Detaching oneself from the scene of description is what creates a writer. 

Translation is one area both the authors touch. Naipaul says that Hindu rituals became unreal and vague as no one translated and explained them. So barriers were built, as translation was not done. Gao also gives a similar message when he says that boundaries and barriers dissolve when translation is done. When languages are translated, we are surprised to find that human nature is universal and quite similar. 

Somehow I find the approach of these two Nobel lectures radically different but the spirit equally radically similar. These two men have seen difficult times and gone through troubled experiences. What they write or say appeals to us because we know that they are speaking from their experiences. Honesty and sincerity is all that makes these writers great. 



More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 3534      Comments: 2

Comment Dear Prof. Shubha Tiwari

I am highly impressed with the paper and acumen on Naipaul. I would like to invite you to send on V S Naipaul as I am editing an anthology on the same.

You can contribute your paper at


Ajay K Chaubey
Assistant Professor of English,
Dept. of Applied Sciences and Humanities,
Associate Dean (Students Welfare),
NIT, Uttarakhand,
Srinagar, Garhwal (Uttrakhand)--246174
Contact Information: 08057961930

Ajay K Chaubey
25-Jul-2013 13:16 PM

Comment >Detaching oneself from the scene of description is what creates a writer.<

I describe this as empathising. However, one realises that although empathy appears to be less than sympathy, it is impossible to achieve utter detachment, simply because one can have no idea of this state, since the only experience of the world is one's own.

06-Apr-2012 20:42 PM

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