Wilson Harris World Literature Analysis - Essay

Wilson Harris World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wilson Harris is considered a challenging, difficult writer by even his most enthusiastic fans. His style is a complex combination of layers of mythic symbolism, drawing upon the various African, East Asian, Native American, and European cultural traditions. His writing is an attempt to capture the unique Caribbean identity. Harris completely rejects the notion of the lack of history of the West Indies, which have been seen as a mere appendage to the European imperial powers, as some remote islands, landed upon by mistake, that serve at best as stepping stones on the way to the more important destinations. Instead, Harris insists that this part of the world, through its history of conquest, colonization, and slavery, has developed a wealthy heritage latent in the collective memory of all Caribbean peoples.

Harris’s writing is not so much a re-creation of this history as it is an attempt to resurrect and highlight it, to bring it to the surface again, after it has been discarded as unimportant by the colonial powers. This is a common concern of numerous Caribbean writers, who seek to assert the vitality of their heritage, and are frequently harsh in their depiction of how Europe exploited, dispossessed, and betrayed the New World. Harris, however, is unique in that he does not present the West Indies as a culture in conflict with the European powers that have conquered and dominated it. All cultures, according to Harris, are complementary, and while Europe has tended to exclude non-European people from its definition of “civilized” and to project a notion of universal human experience based upon its limited knowledge, no history of the world can be complete if it does not take into account the experience of all cultures. Harris’s aim is to expose “all partial orders masquerading as totalities or absolutes.”

Harris first gained international recognition with the 1954 private publication of Eternity to Season, a collection of boldly experimental poems drawing on various ancient myths and rich in multiple layers of imagery. These poems were originally published in Guiana under the pseudonym Kona Waruk, which Harris abandoned almost immediately. A previous book of poetry, Fetish, had received little praise because of its difficult and frequently paradoxical use of language. These are Harris’s only two books of poetry, although his prose style is poetic, and he occasionally includes some original poems in his works of fiction.

Harris’s first four novels, Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963), making up the Guyana Quartet, deal with the conquest of the Americas, early colonization, slavery, and plantation life. They reflect, in their detailed depiction of the people and places, Harris’s early years as a land surveyor. These novels also express, to a lesser degree, all the elements that Harris elaborates on in his later works: the search for an identity, the fluctuation between visions and consciousness, the leaps forward and back in time and space, and a conscious emphasis on language and creativity. Many of the characters encountered in these early works appear again in later novels. The quartet was followed in 1964 by Heartland.

In 1965, Harris published The Eye of the Scarecrow, the first book of a new cycle that additionally includes The Waiting Room (1967), Tumatumari (1968), and Ascent to Omai (1970). With the exception of The Eye of the Scarecrow, which takes place in the coastal city of Georgetown, where Harris lived as a child, the setting of these novels is the interior, and they take the form of diaries, reminiscence, logbooks, and dreamlike recollections. These novels have been compared to the work of Irish writers Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, whom Harris admires, and about whom he wrote critical articles, elaborating on their need, similar to the West Indians, to reconstitute a coherent unity after experiencing “something which bordered upon a state of tragic humiliation and eclipse.”

Most postcolonial writers try to highlight aspects of cultures that were either denied validity or degraded. In the seven novellas that make up The Sleepers of Roraima and in The Tree of the Sun (1978), Harris tries to revive, in the strictest sense of the word, the Caribbean culture that has been all but annihilated through colonialism. This is one of the more uncommon approaches to Caribbean literature, focusing not on the present but on the pre-Columbian aspects of that area’s history.

Paralleling his own travels, the settings of Harris’s novels move from the Americas to Europe and back. Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy (1972) takes place in Edinburgh, hometown of Harris’s wife Margaret, and the central character, Dr. Black Marsden, is a hypnotist who influences all who come in contact with him, except his host, Clive Goodrich. This novel was followed in 1975 by Companions of the Day and Night, in which Goodrich, free from Marsden’s magic, travels to Mexico with Idiot Nameless. In Companions of the Day and Night, the various influences that characterize Caribbean culture are prominent again; Goodrich’s trip is calculated not in terms of the European calendar but in pre-Columbian fashion: the nine-day cycle known as companions of the night and the thirteen-day cycle known as companions of the day. His other works of fiction include: Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990).

In addition to novels, Harris has authored numerous essays, including essays published after each novel that attempt to explain the vision articulated in his fiction. Most of these articles are reprinted in Explorations, a collection that gives the reader helpful insight into Harris’s thought. Another...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)