Selfishness for the greater good

In a brave but almost certainly doomed attempt to appeal to America’s evangelical Christian voters, Barack Obama has taken part in a televised debate at a “megachurch” in California. Although he sensibly scattered biblical references throughout his replies, the senator’s position on key topics was not likely to appeal to his congregation. He favoured the right to abortion. He supported gay civil unions. He supported the idea of erasing evil from the world, but only with humility.

Pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-humility: the Obama message was always going to be a tough sell in a megachurch full of evangelicals, but on one issue he must have felt on safe ground. He was against selfishness. Asked about his moral weaknesses, Obama confessed to a difficult time as a teenager: “There was a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me, and the reasons that I could be dissatisfied, that I couldn’t focus on other people.”

Everybody, of course, hates selfishness. No sane politician would speak in favour of putting oneself first, even at a time when his every moment is spent doing precisely that. What matters is not the self, but individualism, the right of each of us to achieve our personal goals.

But as, at this time of the year, students emerge from schools and universities to look nervously to their future, perhaps this awkward fact should be admitted: the dividing line between the laudable individualism and deplorable selfishness is often virtually invisible. It is unfair and unrealistic of older people to overemphasise the virtues of putting others before oneself. Not that being self-centred is an attribute of youth. Anyone looking for a compelling horror story to read on holiday should ignore the fiction shelves and make for Patrick French’s biography of V S Naipaul, as chilling an account of higher selfishness as one could hope to read.

Admirably consistent, Sir Vidia has behaved with boorish insensitivity across his personal and professional life, but it is his marital history which is truly breathtaking. His adoring first wife Pat, who devoted most of her life to reading, editing and encouraging her husband’s writing (“the Genius”, she called him in her diary) was treated with annihilating disdain and coldness. When he took up with a mistress, Margaret Gooding, spending months travelling with her openly, the relationship was based on physical and emotional cruelty.

While Pat was suffering from breast cancer, he cheerfully admitted in a press interview that, throughout his marriage, he had been a great prostitutes man, a fact of which she had previously been unaware. Months before she died, Sir Vidia proposed to the woman who would be her successor. The day after his first wife’s cremation, the future Lady Naipaul was invited into his house.

Yet, between the lines of French’s coolly narrated biography, a strange sort of heroism emerges. Everything for V S Naipaul – love, friendship, loyalty, kindness, money, ego, children, fame, even success – was secondary to his writing. “The man must never precede the work,” he told Paul Theroux. The ability to write perceptively, with a clear-eyed passion, was directly connected to his selfishness. Nothing mattered to him as much as what he wrote.

It would not be a good idea for politicians to embrace the personal morality of V S Naipaul but, like anyone who wishes to do something exceptional, they should quietly accept that they will be taking the tougher, less popular but more glorious path – the path of selfishness.