Wilson Harris is an extremely eclectic and expansive writer. In The Womb of Space, he writes that “literature is still constrained by regional and other conventional suffocating categories.” Harris has spent his career attempting to transcend notions of genre, tradition, and discipline, constructing texts founded on philosophical speculation. Harris attempts, in his writing, to promote new models for civilization and for creative art.
Influenced by Carl Jung, Martin Buber, Elizabethan poetry, William Blake, Native American folklore, and nineteenth century expedition literature, Harris investigates the ambiguities of life and death, of history and innovation, of self and other, and of reality and illusion. Harris questions received concepts of origin, history, and reality. It is Harris’ hope that such inquisitions of the self may prove crucial in the development of a radical revision of history, origin, and identity.
Opening with a series of nightmare vignettes that awaken into each other, the narrator of Harris’ Palace of the Peacock declares: “I dreamt I awoke with one dead eye seeing and one living each closed.” The novel hovers between reality and illusion, death and life, insight and blindness. It chronicles an expeditionary party’s journey into the interior of Guyana. In this expedition into the territory of the self, each member of the party embodies a part of Guyanese identity. A European, an African, and a Native American set out together in a quest to retrieve renegade farmworkers but find along the way that they are, perhaps, the ghostly repetitions of a party that perished on the same river in the early days of European conquest. The allegorical and existential significances of the quest give Harris the opportunity to delve into the nature of narration, of time, of space, and of being. He asserts that humanity can alter fate through recognition of connections and by articulating and celebrating commonly held identities.
The themes Palace of the Peacock raises are also found in the novels that succeed it. In subsequent novels, Harris returns to elaborate and examine the psychological and existential structures by way of which identity ossifies and resists participation in change. By carefully constructing contradictory narrative puzzles, Harris leads his readers into ambiguous regions of understanding where opposites (life and death, reality and illusion, self and other) meet. It is his hope that such expeditions of the imagination will result in greater understanding of identity and community.