About halfway through Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a “New Earth Exposition” in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as “shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals” and “earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy” (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the “World Hunger Project,” one of whom remarks “I can see you’re a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You’re hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit” (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there’s no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a “pretty negative type.”
Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I’ve written before). Naipaul’s book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this “revolutionary suicide” of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.
What makes Naipaul’s approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. “No one,” he argues, “accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened” (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People’s Temple but notes that not a single one “has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy” (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What’s more, even the so-called “Concerned Relatives” are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: “by their words and action, they helped create the conditions” for the mass suicide; “their hysteria goaded [the People’s Temple] toward extinction” (156).
But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which “had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay” (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown’s destruction are already found in San Francisco’s “New Age Exposition,” Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley’s student radicalism, and Oakland’s Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale “intellectual and spiritual collapse” (208), a place where “the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions” (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: “ideas had indeed become viruses” (211); “they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect” (196).
California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a “laboratory” (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: “America’s wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate” (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a “hegira”) from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything “was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption” (249).
It gets worse. There’s a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book “A New World Tragedy”: he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones’s multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of “revolutionary suicide”? Had not “the basic groundwork [for Jones’s fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors” (288)? What the People’s Temple suffered from, in the end, was “an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption” (249).
Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a “Cooperative Socialist Republic”), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People’s Temple, is a place of “degeneracy,” of “moral decay” (105), of “a kind of universal mental retardation” (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host’s enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear “Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it’s my turn to drink the poison” (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a “concerned relative” aghast at what he repeatedly terms the “cultural and intellectual regression” born of “the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion” (26).
The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: “In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn” (39).
Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the “riffraff” (27) like “animals” (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a “jungly nightmare” (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized “logic and all that bullshit” in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?