Friday, October 05, 2007

V.S. Naipaul Appreciates an Exquisite but Often-Unrecognized Skill

Appreciation of different kinds of intelligence -- or, more accurately, different ways of expressing it -- is not common. As a writer myself, I used to judge people's smarts based on their verbal ability. It took me many years to dimly grasp how wrong and foolish this was, as I think Naipaul demonstrates below. (I'm not sure he's entirely serious, actually, but I'd prefer to think he means it.)

[Aziz] seemed to be so many persons. It was especially interesting to watch him at work on our friends, to see applied to others that process of assessment through service to which, in the early days, we ourselves had been subjected. They had servants of their own: nothing bound Aziz to them. Yet he was already taking possession of them; and already he was binding them to himself. He had nothing to gain; he was only obeying an instinct. He could not read or write. People were his material, his profession and no doubt his diversion; his world was made up of these encounters and managed relationships. His responses were acute ... He had picked up his English by ear; he therefore avoided Indian eye-pronunciations and spoke the words he knew with a better accent than many college-educated Indians. Even his errors ... showed a grasp of a language only occasionally heard; and it was astonishing to hear a word or phrase I had used coming back, days later, with my very intonations. Would he have gone far if he had learned to read or write? Wasn't it his illiteracy which sharpened his perception? He was a handler of people ... To us illiteracy is like a missing sense. But to the intelligent illiterate in a simpler world mightn't literacy be an irrelevance, a dissipation of sensibility, the mercenary skill of the scribe?
--From p. 162 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

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