(Theodore) Wilson Harris 1921–
Guyanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet.
Harris's "novels of expedition" are physical as well as spiritual journeys through the multicultural landscape of Guyana. Harris worked for more than fifteen years as a land surveyor and came to know the complexities of the Guyanese environment and culture. His novels are described as works of discovery and renewal because of Harris's attempts to rediscover the primitive foundation of his culture before it had become polarized by European colonizers.
From his first four novels, known collectively as the "Guiana Quartet" to Tumatumari and Ascent to Omai, Harris uses the landscape of his birthplace as a metaphor for the Guyanese psyche. In these complex and highly imaginative novels, Harris's characters often find a rich, unlimited potential in a life that contrasts sharply with what Harris perceives as a static Western culture. With Black Marsden, Harris began to shift the settings of his novels but he continued to include mystical experiences in order to expand views of existence and personality. In his recent work, Harris points to painting and the role of the artist as a further means of regenerating creative energy. Because of this desire to free the imagination from static values that nullify creativity and his deliberate inversion of literary conventions, Harris is often compared with William Blake.
To achieve a surrealistic and visionary quality in his writings, Harris employs exotic settings of the past and present, dream states, and death and resurrection symbolism. In addition, his writing fuses Christian allegory, Amerindian legend, and mythology from various civilizations. Harris's fiction has been praised for its depth but has also been criticized as difficult and over-ambitious.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Mr Harris makes me feel cloddish and insensitive. [In Palace of the Peacock he's] taken a Christian-Creation sequence of seven days and piled it round with enough complex archetypes to keep a myth-critic busy for life. On one level the setting is the savannahs and forests of British Guiana; on another the inscape of Donne, an educated atavist leading an expedition to the interior…. I never quite know what's going on in this novel…. Its claustrophobic density reminds me of The Emperor Jones; but Mr Harris has an abstract rhetoric all of his own, and he wraps it like glass wool round the often vigorous talk of the characters. He also works to death the words 'dreaming' and 'musing'; but no repeated motif could guide us through a texture so muddy and a structure so daedal.And yet, having confessed that this short fable maddens and baffles me, I must applaud stretches of pared, articulate narrative, the lilt of many rhetorically oblique conversations, and the authentic portrayal of a forest people who use surnames only—no frills in the lush mazes of vegetation. This is a religious, violent, often private piece of writing, in places ap-pallingly turgid but in others virile, disciplined and vivid. Mr Harris is a fertile writer; having got this farrago out of his system he should now aim at steadiness, and learn to apply the knife.
Paul West, "New Novels: 'Palace of the Peacock'," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 1537, August 27, 1960, p. 282.
Palace of the Peacock is a 150-page definition of mystical experience given in the guise of a novel. It is a difficult book to read, yet it is the very concreteness of Mr. Harris's imagery that makes its denseness so hard to penetrate….
[Although] Mr. Harris's book gives the illusion of moving forward like an ordinary novel, its real movement is downward: it is an exploration in depth. By its end nothing is changed—not even those members of the crew drowned a second time; it is simply that the inner eye is opened.
Told in "a mixed futuristic order of memory and event" (the phrase is the narrator's), this work is in many ways startlingly like Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre, even down to the symbol of the boat. And it can stand the comparison. Like that poem, it slides away before any attempt to catch it in a net of paraphrase. No description can get its essence: it is what it is. Mr. Harris has certain peculiarities of style that are mild irritants: words come in pairs as regularly as phrases do in the Psalms ("a haze and a dream"; "a climb and clamber"). But even this is not mere tricksiness—which anyway might be excusable in a first novel: between the two words with their hard-and-fast meaning falls the shadow of what the author wants to say. The near-repetition intensifies the air of incantation that permeates the whole book.
However déréglé he may be, Mr. Harris is never woolly…. And this concern with the concrete makes this the best of books for communicating the feel of British Guiana: better than a dozen laborious travel-books, or adventure-stories for ever getting caught up in their own machinery.
"Exploring in Depth," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3057, September 30, 1960, p. 625.
With Palace of the Peacock Wilson Harris staked out a corner of his own in the rich new field of Caribbean writing, and his third novel, The Whole Armour, shows him still digging in the same spot. What he brings up is a mixture of local legend … and Christian allegory…. Other key influences are Hopkins and Blake….
Mr. Harris does hint towards the end that roots must be understood and accepted before the past can be buried, and his characters certainly typify different degrees of this understanding—which does not automatically come, we gather, with education…. But it is hard work to extract a precise moral [from The Whole Armour] since the story is told in a highly personal way: reality, dream, and psychic experience are indistinguishably vivid, and the regional collective unconsciousness is never far below the surface.
What justifies this difficult approach is the imaginative power behind it; each scene has been genuinely visualized and retains a physical clarity to haunt the memory. Mr. Harris handles his complex imagery with the daring of a born poet.
"A Sense of Place," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3158, September 7, 1962, p. 669.∗
In the first novel [of the "Guiana Quartet"], Palace of the Peacock, a man called Donne is going up-river to collect labour for his estate, but the reader must soon relinquish his grasp on such a workaday circumstance and commit himself, as it were, to the poetry of motion through a dark interior where words like death and dream are almost synonymous, where Donne and his crew exist in a limbo compounded of myth and reality. The disastrous journey becomes a struggle not so much to survive, one feels, as actually to re-create a world, "a window on to the universe"—by which perhaps is meant a vantage point from which to watch the rest of the quartet unfold. Or, the reader may wonder, perhaps there has simply been laid the first of the four biblical cornerstones of Creation, Fall, Flood and Messiah? If so, to what particular Guianan purpose? Is one in the end to come to nothing more enlivening than a parable of political emergence?
The task that faces the reader who is unfamiliar with West Indian myth and symbol is enormous, but for a time the biblical connotation seems to hold out promise of guidance on the journey through savannah and jungle, through "the doom of the river and the waterfall". In the second novel, Far Journey of Oudin, part-titles like The Covenant, and The Second Birth, are made to the expected measure, and the title of the third novel, The Whole Armour (a quotation from Ephesians, vi, 13: "Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God"), suggests a point of total comprehension not far ahead. But in spite of these signposts, and others within the novels themselves, it is upon a growing sense of being borne up by forces no longer alien in a landscape increasingly imaginable that the reader eventually...
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The territory [in Heartland] is remote, but not quite remote enough for Mr. Harris's purposes, which are not naturalistic; the jungle becomes a barely adequate backdrop for Stevenson's more exotic awareness of guilt and terror and his inexpressible spiritual aspirations….
Although it is a very short novel it seems to contain a lot of words. Mr. Harris's gifts are clear; they are perhaps too abundant. He writes with an almost uncontrollable fluency. We wait for him to draw breath, to relax, to start again. But he rushes on in bursts of nervous energy, never quite catching up with what he has to say, which is perhaps not as complicated as he fears. The magic quality of words seduces him until...
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The novelist, unlike the poet, uses words which must remain for him merely a vehicle of expression, a means to a greater end. The problems of the modern novel spring from the dilemma of deciding what these ends are, or ought to be.
Mr. Harris, sadly, seems to have no clear conception of the fundamental differences between these two sets of problems. First it is clear that he is obsessed with the poetic dilemma. It is sufficient to read one paragraph of [The Eye of the Scarecrow], or indeed any of his previous works, to realize that he does not find it possible to relate words to each other in the conventional manner required by the grammar of the language. Indeed, the problem of the meaning...
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[A study of Wilson Harris's early poems in Eternity to Season] reveals that his preoccupation throughout his career as a writer has been to reveal man's dual role as a finite being inhabiting a defined "season" of time, and as an infinite extension of certain human attributes (modified by landscape, climate and historical experience) which exist in eternity. Now Mr. Harris has published an essay, "Tradition and the West Indian Novel" [in his Tradition, the Writer and Society: Critical Essays], which unveils the theory on which all his fiction has been based.
In essence, his argument is that the traditional Western novel has based its treatment of character upon the assumption that man...
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It is from Yeats's great phrase about "the unity from a mythology that marries us to rock and hill" that we may, justifably, begin an examination of Wilson Harris's singular exploration of his corner of the West Indian experience. To Harris, this sacramental union of man and landscape remains the lost, or never established, factor in our lives. We enjoy, we exploit, we are coarsely nourished by our respective Caribbean territories—but illegitimately. We have yet to put our signatures to that great contract of the imagination by which a people and a place enter into a domestic relationship rather than drift into the uncertainties of liaison. No other British Caribbean novelist has made quite such an explicit and...
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It is implicit in Tumatumari that man, if he is to survive the imminent danger of self-annihilation, will have to free and transform his imagination so that it will be able to work in harmony with the fundamental laws of change and re-creation, rather than, catastrophically, to resist them.
Imagination is embodied in Tumatumari in the 'heroine' Prudence, this novel's representative of Man. She is the 'soul of man' awakening in a transitional age that may have already begun, feeling at last the need to develop and transform itself if the family of Man is to continue. To understand herself and her needs and desires, she reaches into memory, the well of the past. The search for the...
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The West Indies is surely one of the places the English novel may look to for plasma: to Andrew Salkey, Garth St Omer, Peter Marshall, and the wildly poetic Wilson Harris, who writes in Ascent to Omai like an academic on an acid trip. Europe, Africa, the East, and the new world; a reference to Odin's ravens followed by one about Julius Reuter's pigeons—here is a writer from Guyana, a culture that is part old Europe, part the mysterious Zen East, and part slave-dark Africa, and somehow he is able to encompass it all, be aware of it all and use it. But he is difficult. The reader can't keep up, catch the wild use of language, the dreamy slides and slips of plot from present to past, the use of omens (what are...
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[Wilson Harris] has argued against the common belief that there is no such thing as a West Indian personality: he would rather claim that study of "the West Indian in depth" reveals a series of "subtle and nebulous links, the latent ground of old and new personalities". These links are the subject matter for his difficult, imagist and metaphysical novels, Ascent to Omai being the ninth. The reader is required to have a little Latin and less Greek, also to be familiar with Rimbaud and Donne, and with the regions, customs and patois of Guyana. Hubris and opus contra naturam are jammed up tight against Guyanese words and concepts….
No reader should attempt Mr. Harris's novels...
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The novels of Wilson Harris … form one ongoing whole. Each work is individual; yet the whole sequence can be seen as a continuous, ever-widening exploration of civilization and creative art. The Ascent to Omai …, for instance, took subjective consciousness to a point beyond which further communication seemed impossible. This was answered, after two excursions into the realm of folklore, with Black Marsden …, in which the creative imagination is Marsden, a trickster/illusionist whom the artist hero finally throws into the street. In Companions of the Day and Night the hero of Black Marsden is sent manuscripts by Marsden himself which he orders into an assertion of the creative...
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Companions of the Day and Night, his most recent novel, is another addition to the "infinite canvas" of Wilson Harris' work. There is a remarkable continuity of imagery, style and theme between his thirteen published books of fiction, which may be regarded not as separate works, but rather as several aspects of one continuing oeuvre. (p. 161)
In Companions of the Day and Night, a sequel to Black Marsden, Goodrich receives from Marsden a collection of manuscripts, sculptures and paintings—the "Idiot Nameless collection," the work of an unknown man, a tourist, whose dead body has been found at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico. As Goodrich...
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The present need for what Nicholas Mosley called an "intelligent language of crisis" capable, through paradox and allusion, of holding apparent opposites together, is a practical concern of Wilson Harris's writing. His novels, a continually deepening exploration of "the problem of opposite tendencies", use paradoxical, allusive language … to convey the interdependence of opposites: "strong", sovereign cultures, "weak" or vanished civilizations.
The hero of Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness is married and lives in a Kensington flat. He is a composite man. Born in Brazil of Spanish, Portuguese and African stock, orphaned early, he survives cyclone and flood and is adopted by the...
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In The Tree of the Sun, which is a sequel to Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness, the central character attempts once again "to paint antecedents and unborn worlds"…. While in the earlier novel [Da Silva] had set out to paint his own past, he is drawn in The Tree of the Sun into the unfulfilled lives of a childless couple, once tenants of the same flat in Holland Park Gardens and long since dead, and, through these people, into the shifting drama of a universal city, and into West Indian culture and history.
Da Silva finds Francis's unfinished book and Julia's large collection of letters hidden in a hole in the wall of the flat, and with the help of his wife, Jen, who is...
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Wilson Harris has done most of his work in the novel form, but his second volume of poetry, Eternity to Season, published three years after the first [Fetish], demonstrates that he is also a poet of some substance. Fetish is pretentious rather than substantial, due largely to metaphoric excesses that make for a turgid, unreadable style. Eternity to Season is much better written on the whole, but it too suffers from the old excesses in spots. It seems that Harris himself is aware of this fault since in a recent reprint of the collection he has excised some of the troublesome verbiage. But a recurrent drawback is not simply verbiage as such but also a matter of feeling. There is a flood of...
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Its constantly evolving character notwithstanding, a remarkable unity of thought informs [Wilson Harris's] considerable opus. Two major elements seem to have shaped Harris's approach to art and his philosophy of existence: the impressive contrasts of the Guyanese landscapes, with which his survey expeditions made him familiar, and the successive waves of conquest which gave Guyana its heterogeneous population polarised for centuries into oppressors and their victims. The two, landscape and history, merge in his work into single metaphors symbolising man's inner space saturated with the effects of historical—that is, temporal—experiences. The jungle, for example, is for Harris both outer and inner unreclaimed...
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In his companion collections of short stories. The Sleepers of Roraima and The Age of the Rainmakers, Wilson Harris reaches through time and presents to the contemporary reader legends of the Amerindian people. It is not his intention merely to record such legends as the superstitious mythopoetic rationalizing of a "primitive" people; rather, Harris uses these legends to explore and activate the original and timeless quality of the imagination, a quality which twentieth-century man has nullified by his obsession with totalities or fixed perspectives of time, history and race. Through his stories, Harris demonstrates the error of such limited perception, which may be overcome if the imagination is...
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Harris's work, because of its syncretic approach to language and to the symbolic meaning of experience, is notoriously "difficult." Concerned more with the symbolic and contradictory—rather than the literal—meaning of language, he has produced a highly innovative novel-form…. [His] approach to the novel-as-painting, where words are used to suggest—like the brush strokes of the artist—areas of color, light, and shade, and where the writer's purpose is "to break down things in order to sense a vision through things" boldly challenges the conventional narrative form of the novel. Like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, Harris, in attempting to explore the deeper resources of language and experience, is in fact...
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