Wilson Harris

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(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.)

Paul West

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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.

The Times Literary Supplement

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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...

(This entire section contains 312 words.)

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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.

The Times Literary Supplement

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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.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 depends….

If a first reading of the quartet does not uncover anything like the whole of the relationship the two middle novels need to bear to the first and last to rank as structurally indispensable, it does show them as indispensable in the business of conditioning the mind to immediate recognition of the fact that in the end of the quartet is its beginning.

The story in The Secret Ladder which we might have taken at its face value—of Fenwick, the young West Indian land-surveyor, charting the upper reaches of the Canje river and falling foul of a settlement ruled by an old African—we take instead in a mood, corresponding to Fenwick's, of "inner rhapsody and grotesque meditation". We have an understanding, if not exactly the measure, of what is really at stake: not the destruction of the settlement by flooding as a result of a new irrigation scheme but the destruction of a "perception of depth more lasting than time", and of the moral privilege and right of a place that has acquired "the stamp of a multiple tradition and heritage".

But what does this mean? Fenwick, in whom there is African, English, French, and Amerindian blood, says of his confrontation with the old African (Poseidon): "I wish I could truly grasp the importance of this meeting. If I do not—if my generation do not—leviathan will swallow us." Is this a plea for the preservation of something that is being lost in Guiana, something purely African? If so, is it a political or a cultural loss? Or is Poseidon, this descendant of a runaway slave whose lips do not seem to Fenwick to move in unison with his speech, to be seen as the repository of an "emotional dynamic of liberation" that no longer guides a nation's conscience or consciousness?

In a final paragraph epitomizing the quarter Mr. Harris leaves Fenwick in a doubt we no longer really feel ourselves because the concept of that lost dynamic reaches beyond poetic Guianan imagery into our own human and national awareness….

Quarter or no, the four novels culminating in The Secret Ladder are clearly the work of a man who should not be described as a West Indian writer in the narrow, restrictive sense of the words. He is a novelist of already distinguished talent writing in English out of a common perception, a particular experience, and a unique vision.

"Journey's End," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3181, February 15, 1963, p. 105.

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 he is within a short step of meaninglessness. He is always struggling back to the shores of lucidity and reason. Usually he does get back, and creates something haunting—haunting perhaps because it is unfinished.

"We, the Dismemberers," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3264, September 17, 1964, p. 864.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 which words symbolize seems, if not irrelevant, at least postponed, in his preoccupation with solving what is for him the primary problem of getting inside the structure of the language, of feeling and weighing it as a thing in itself.

The trouble with this kind of exercise is that success depends either on the possession of some measure of genius whereby the problem is grasped and resolved in a purely intuitive manner, or on the combination of talent and a great deal of luck. Mr. Harris, on the basis of this novel, lacks both genius and luck….

Secondly, in so far as [The Eye of the Scarecrow] seeks to be a novel, all that can be said is that an attempt has been made to recapture certain traumatic experiences from childhood and early adulthood….

What seems important is not so much the impact of these incidents on the central character at the time they happened but the effects their recollection produce on him in the present as he writes his diary. These effects are then supposed to lead to a transformation of the imagination which is fed back into the past and in the process of re-conceptualizing the past elevates it to a universal plane of rejuvenated innocence and beauty.

It is at this point that Mr. Harris unsuccessfully grapples with one of the central themes of the modern novel; a theme which is best illustrated in Joyce's Ulysses and Mann's Joseph and His Brothers: the transformation of individual, concrete characters into archetypal figures; the metamorphosis of unique reality into the universe of myth. The problem, in short, of relieving man of his material and temporal restrictions and placing him within some transcendental cosmic environment.

The main source of Mr. Harris's failure is that he is too ambitious. Certainly, it is inconceivable that any serious resolution of the issues posed could have been possible in as slim a volume as this. It is even doubtful whether Mr. Harris is fully aware of all the dimensions of the issues he concerns himself with. That he possesses considerable literary talent there can be no doubt, but until he realizes that more than half the effort needed to overcome the problems he is concerned with lies in asking the right questions, and in being fully aware of their assumptions and implications, and until he is able to discipline his rather flamboyant style and passion for words, his talents as a novelist will remain latent.

"Confusion in Words," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission). No. 3328, December 9, 1965, p. 1121.

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 plays only the first of these two roles. It has largely ignored the second. This has led to the elaboration of a technique which Mr. Harris calls "the consolidation of character"; the building up of finite individual character through the enumeration of attributes….

Mr. Harris's experience of the West Indies, which have been subjected to waves of wildly differing conquest, to a succession of polyglot invaders, enslavers, colonizers, and liberators, has convinced him that character needs to be defined by other methods. Character needs to be set free in time and in space…. This method he calls the fulfilment of character, as opposed to its consolidation…. Looking again at the treatment of character in Mr. Harris's novels we can see how his people are mysteriously and incestuously linked with one another; linked not only with their many-hued ancestors but also with their collaterals and their unborn descendants. We can see why the linked characters in Palace of the Peacock … or The Whole Armour … continually reflect, inhabit and even become one another according to the dictates of their state of being. For such interfusions of character take place within the plane of time but along the plane of eternity. Caribbean man must be conceived of in both planes if the nature of his existence in a particular place and time is to be understood.

Yet the theory does not illuminate Mr. Harris's novels alone. Other modern novelists since Joyce (whose use of the Odyssey enabled him to establish the deepest possible temporal and mythic perspective) have often been concerned with freeing their characters in space and time in very much the way envisaged by Harris, though few have been as radical as he in the means they employ. Few, for instance, have exhibited a free interflow not only between character and character but between man and landscape, as Vigilance and the Arawak Woman in Palace of the Peacock become one with the rockface and the boiling stream.

West Indian literature itself, however, offers the example of George Lamming, whose Of Age and Innocence seems to be moving towards a theory of character akin to Mr. Harris's….

Mr. Harris's essay, then, has the dual importance of illuminating his own practice and casting a searching light upon the evolution of the contemporary novel in general. It is improbable that anyone will be content much longer with sequential order and finite character or event, which the film alone has done so much to question…. In another essay Wilson Harris compares the evocation of primordial character to the consciousness of a vodun dancer, who starts out with a complete body imprisoned in temporality but dances until "one leg is drawn up into the womb of space". In this state conventional memory is erased, but it is replaced by a kind of primordial memory, born of overlapping spheres of reflection, "like a one-legged bird which joins itself to its sleeping reflection in a pool". As Yeats was concerned with the moment when dancer and dance become one, so Wilson Harris sees the trance as a state experienced subjectively by the dancer, but also exteriorized as "an intense drama of images in space". This perfect equipoise of the inner and the outer life is that which the novelist should now seek to evoke.

"Along the Plane of Eternity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3462, July 4, 1968, p. 706.

John Hearne

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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 conscious effort as Harris to reduce the material reckonings of everyday life to the significance of myth. It is useful to consider first the geographical matrix in which his imagination was fashioned. (p. 177)

[The Guyanese landscape is] one of the great primary landscapes of the world, and it can crush the mind like sleep. Like sleep, it inspires the dreams by which we record the progress of our waking life.

It is important to remember this element of the dream, and of the dream's sister, death, if we are to come to any understanding of these four Wilson Harris novels—[Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder]…. For the quartet opens with one dream of death, and closes with another dream of creation. Between these two dreams lies an evocation of being not accessible to any reviewer's summary. If we are to share the writer's experience, we must accept possession of the living by the dead; we must accept the resurrected man and the fact that "the end precedes the beginning" and that "the end and beginning were always there." Harris's world is not only one of prosaic action, but one of rite and mythical formation. "The first condition for understanding the Greek myth," said Gide, "is to believe in it." And it is not improper that Harris makes belief the condition for entry into his Guyanese world.

In Palace of the Peacock, the first of the quartet and Harris's first novel, we are immediately presented with this pattern of interwoven dream and waking. It opens with a horseman shot from his saddle as he gallops, the discovery of the corpse by the elusive figure who is to become the narrator, and the narrator's dreaming conviction after the discovery that, somehow, he the living has lost his sight and can see only with a dead man's "open and obstinate" eye. This symbol of the eye recurs frequently in the four stories of the quartet. It is, I think, the clearest hint that Harris gives us of the structure and methods we must expect to find throughout his work. The human eye, living and dead, serves something of the same purpose as the mirror on the wall in a Dutch interior painting. Both reflector and captor, it enhances the material vividness of the foreground figures, yet its troubling duplication reminds us of the other life it holds captive in an infinite and shrinking series. Nor are the diminished figures in the glass—or in the eye—any less real for being reduced. What disturbs us is their jewel brightness, their sense of independent life, their possession of a separate but complementary world. (pp. 178-79)

If I have given priority to this analysis of Harris's reflecting and imprisoning "eye," it is because his use of it does serve to introduce us to the fictive world his persons inhabit. The passages in which he assembles, in our nerves, the power and meaning of the eye are intricate and compelling; we are sensuously convinced before we cerebrally grasp. And if, as I have suggested, he sees his mandate as one of creating a mythical framework, then his use of the "eye" is legitimate. For the imperceptible shuttle system from dream to waking and death to life, the dogmatic possibility of causal relationships between these states, give the essences of much of myth. Harris does not, like the naturalistic novelist, offer us the demonstrable proofs of observation; he simply throws himself on our willing agreement. And this, for Harris, is the only way for the artist in the modern world where he is deprived of his traditional assurances. "The creative human consolation," he wrote in Tradition and the West Indian Novel …, "—if one dwells upon it meaningfully today—lies in the search for a kind of inward dialogue and space when one is deprived of a ready conversational tongue and hackneyed comfortable approach." [My italics.]

This is one of the most fruitful obsessions any novelist can carry into his study of the human heart today; it is also an extremely dangerous one. For in so doing, he offers his artistic throat to the knives of ridicule, inattention and misunderstanding. Obversely, his mendicant's role imposes a certain limitation on his own freedom of aesthetic venture. He must work, in short, within an extremely limited frame and convince us by his intensity rather than by his generous scope. C.L.R. James and other critics have made much of Wilson Harris's relation to the existentialists, but his technique seems to me to lie in the symbolist tradition. (pp. 179-80)

On the surface, the plot of Palace of the Peacock seems simple enough. It describes the struggles of a boat's crew as they forge a passage up a nameless Guyanese river, through rapids, between walls of forests and under towering battlements of cliff face, to the great falls at the head of the stream…. They hope to make contact with a fugitive and sensibly suspicious "folk," who, while accompanying their passage along the banks of the river, never appear, but send them only the shy and enigmatic missives of the forest; a wounded tapir or a parrot with a silver ring around its leg. At the end all are dead. The last is transfixed, or translated, at the moment of his death by a knowledge of a loving communion between the living and the dead that completely obliterates the hope of the treasure he had come to seize for the purchase of vulgar consolations he can now barely remember.

On this level it is a mere morality and, to borrow Harris's adjective, a rather "hackneyed" one at that. But we are early relieved of this possible banality by the realization that the crew's names match, man for man, those of another legendary crew who had all perished many years before in the rapids near the beginning of a similar venture into the interior. At this point, it becomes the reader's pleasure, as it must have become the writer's excitement, to determine the extent to which each crew possesses the other; to decide at what moment the anguish of one group is simply that of commonplace muscle and endurance pitted against the immediate pressures of a river's current, or is the accumulated reflections of the greed and love, cruelty and faithfulness which another body of men had once imposed on those among whom they had lived, on the land they had once tried to dominate. (p. 180)

Harris is not an "easy" writer…. The contending experiences he is attempting to resolve in a finished, persuasive work of art do not really yield to the methods and syntax of, say, Naipaul. But it is worth joining battle with him, even when he fails to carry off his attack. His effects are cumulative. Images, metaphors, incidents and assertions which, at the beginning of any of his stories, may at first seem examples only of a wilful and unrelated vividness will suddenly, by a process of duplication in a new setting, become clear and powerful factors in an orderly poetic statement. He is very seldom self-indulgent.

So, the nameless boat, with its twice-named crew, continues to beat up the nameless river towards the Palace of the Peacock. With a quite astonishing coolness of nerve, almost, one might say, with arrogance, Harris continues to shift his characters from phase to phase of reality and of Time. His transitions are often so abrupt, so arbitrary, that we are, momentarily, confused, until we learn to accept the use to which our sensations are being put. This is a world of hallucination, or rather, a world in which hallucinatory apprehensions of Time's circular and organic wholeness is a commonplace of existence. Quarrels between the crew occur, and they die by accident, exhaustion or murder. Sometimes the dead ones are replaced, for a second or for a day, by counterparts from the other crew who were swallowed by the river at the beginning of their venture. But even those who die in the present follow the progress of the boat along the enormous heights of cliff face above the river, for they too are forever reflected in the undying eye; they too survive on what Harris terms "the elastic frontier" which stretches to and fro to enclose whole provinces of the territory of death and the territory of life. The "folk," the indigenes, remain unapproachable. They live, unconsciously, in harmonious relationship with the organic body of a land through which Time moves like blood, carrying action, dream and death on an unending circulatory voyage of nourishment, salvage and renewal. (pp. 181-82)

The expedition which had begun as a pedestrian, rather sordid, gold rush has ended as an argosy, because of the suffering, and because of the surrender of the primal solitude of the landscape and to the implacable occupation of their dreams. They are dead men, to be sure, but by their deaths they have won admittance to the antique, beautiful and imperishable palace that, in each year of our obsessive enslavement of the earth, is moved beyond yet another horizon. The Golden Palace that they can bring back to us in our dreams is the knowledge that all the territories "overwhelmed and abandoned [have] always been ours to rule and take."

Inevitably, such a brief critical reduction of so dense, intricate and active a work as Palace of the Peacock must do the book a disservice. Harris's vision is too subtle, and his technique too sculptural, for us to do other than to enter his work and try to join the highly idiosyncratic celebration he is conducting. Once we accept the ritual stages, without necessarily committing ourselves, we begin to understand what he is trying to communicate. This is straightforward enough. It is the conviction that, in his time, in his corner of the world, a people must learn not only the gross and monotonous facts of their immediate history but must assemble, from the exchanges of their daily lives, the assurances and inspiring reverberations of myth. It is a uniquely difficult commission to execute. For they must do this in a self-conscious age of technology in which there are fewer and fewer effective symbols—a multiple furrow tractor, for instance, can never become the key to that door of perception which we can make out of a horse, a plough, and a man behind the plough. They must do it at a time when they are living at the beginning of a history. Palace of the Peacock is one of the few pieces of evidence we have that success in this task is possible.

If I have given to Palace of the Peacock a great deal of the space allowed me in this essay, it is because this first book in the quartet seems to state most of the themes which are later developed in the others. Like many other novelists who rely heavily on the use of symbol to give resonance to their work, Harris tends to find a symphonic design best suited to his purpose. The images employed in the several stories depend for their final "proof" on the manner in which they are later reworked and given new moulded structures by the author.

It is therefore a pity that limitation of space prevents a detailed study of The Far Journey of Oudin. In this story, we are returned to the crafty, suspicious and greedy peasant world of the coastal savannahs. The basic theme is one of Harris's constant preoccupations, that of dominion, of tyrannical and thus sterile authority which is hardly distinguishable from rape. (pp. 182-83)

This book, the most complex of the quartet, is also the least satisfactory. The main fault lies in failure of nerve on the author's part. Faced with the drab and mercenary domestic exchanges of a khulak community, the author panics, becomes rhetorical, pretentious and sometimes nearly bombastic. He robes his innocent and uncaring people in philosophical vestments which they wear about as comfortably as would a navvy dressed in a duke's full coronation regalia. Unlike any other stories in the quartet, this one also seems to preach a message, and the message is in the end platitudinous: "all that glitters is not gold," "you can't take it with you," and so on.

With The Whole Armour, we see Harris restored to the heights of his impressive powers. It is perhaps the most accomplished work of the series. Plot, image, character, architecture and language all fuse into a whole that is as compact, shapely and penetrative as a bullet. In it, he returns to that ideal frontier which is as much a spiritual as a geographical boundary—the line between the challenging wilderness and the cultivated sensibility—and which is the setting in which he always moves most confidently. Once more the plot is austere; an undecorated stage on which the principals are the foci of our total attention. In this story, too, Harris undertakes the portrayal of a relationship which seems to be beyond the powers or outside the interest of most West Indian novelists; the complexities of love between a man and a woman who is a person in whom the subtleties of erotic response can be kindled or who is approached, as a new-found land, with awe, delight and a careful sounding of the shoals. Sharon, the young girl in The Whole Armour, is such a one, and the relationship between her and Cristo, the fugitive accused of murder, gives a lyric immediacy and profane disturbance that is very rare indeed in West Indian fiction. (p. 184)

[Here], for the first time in British West Indian fiction, we are faced with a serenely confident charter of liberation from the immediate past. Cristo not only thinks what he says but lives it. He is freed from the squalid commercial transaction between white and black, aborigines and conquistadors, which is most of West Indian history…. His proximate responsibility for the death of his putative father Abram, his assumption of the skin of "Christ, the tiger," his return to the coastlands, his fathering of a child, his legacy to that child of a more audacious understanding and use of the land, are all part of a carefully fashioned, artistic criticism of a system that for too long nourished itself on the cycle of parturition, forced labour and the flesh's surrender, but which never acknowledged the reality of holy dying.

The Secret Ladder confirms the sense one had in reading The Whole Armour that Harris was developing a new assurance in handling the techniques of fiction. The story is perhaps the most interesting of any in the quartet. (pp. 185-86)

Simply on the level of a drama played out between the invading, often impatient forces of material progress and the dispossession of a timid, uncomprehending folk, this would be a fine story. The characters of the crew are distinct; the tension of wills (between Fenwick and his men) in the heavy atmosphere of a jungle just before the rains, the lack of communication between the tough, Faustian surveyors and the frightened, dream-burdened people of the river are both sustained with great skill. So is Fenwick's mingled guilt and exasperation over his failure to convince Poseidon of their good intentions; his recognition that the magnificent and inconsolable old man has a part of the truth that the planners must recognize if their future of material plenty is to give them nourishment.

But there is another exploration of meaning carried in the current of the social conflict for, in The Secret Ladder, Harris returns to many of the themes and symbols of the first book. The action takes place over seven days. Fenwick's boat is named Palace of the Peacock. To him, the rivers of Guyana are "the curious rungs in a ladder on which one sets one's musing foot again and again, to climb into both the past and the future of the continent of mystery." The crew, although more substantial and prosaic than the first crew, are yet seen, through Fenwick's eyes, as actors in an inward drama of his dreams. And these dreams are inspired by—or, if you prefer, are the other side of—what Harris once called "the material structural witnesses" of history. For Fenwick, as for Wilson Harris, the experiences of the day must be revised in the language of dreams, of free association, so that in the end, by the potent magic of image, all the fragments of our strange, broken heritage may begin to act one upon the other, become whole within our instinctive grasp. It is only when this has been achieved that we will enter into an active, conscious possession and use of the West Indian inheritance. (pp. 186-87)

John Hearne, "The Fugitive in the Forest: Four Novels by Wilson Harris," in The Islands in Between: Essays on West Indian Literature, edited by Louis James (© Oxford University Press 1968; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, London, 1968 (and reprinted in Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by M. G. Cooke, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 177-87).

Joyce Adler

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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 significance of the history of her own family, a middle-class 'mixed' family in Guyana, leads to an exploration of twentieth-century civilization generally, as symbolized by the life of this single 'civilized' family, and expands further into an exploration of the relationship between the twentieth century in Guyana (the land of Harris's birth and development) and other times and other places. Only in this broader search can Prudence find her own real identity, her identity with the whole human family, its evolutionary past, its complex present, and its two possible futures, not yet determined in this 'moment' of history. The implications of Prudence's search reach out without limit backward in time, outward without limit into space, and inward from one horizon of imagination to the next.

The implication is that in Tumatumari Harris, too, set out to put the history of his own family and country together, and that out of the immersion of his imagination in this material, Tumatumari, with its constantly widening implications, developed. For to Harris, the story of Guyana and its different peoples is charged with the deepest meanings and the largest questions. Out of his continuously widening exploration as he created Tumatumari came the questions: Of what contradictory elements is the civilization of our age composed? Out of what womb did it come? Is it capable or incapable of giving birth in its turn? Is civilization now a totally barren thing truly lusting for self-destruction? If not, is it capable of a new kind of conception, a conception of something new, capable of surviving after its birth …? Will the breakdown of life in this century and the consequent sense of the imminence of danger give mankind the necessary humility to surrender long-cherished but long-outworn and now barren concepts and idolatries? Can so-called 'modern Man' bear to face himself as still no more than primitive, living by primitive concepts, still offering living sacrifices to his gods, still sacrificing himself and others in the name of separate 'incestuous' family or nation, tribe or race?… Can concern for the individual family and concern for the whole human family be fused by imagination, giving birth to an entirely new conception—that of an integrated, unalienated, creative and truly human Man? And, to return to Guyana in a broader, non-national sense, does the Central and South American 'new world', the melting pot of ancient and new, and of many races and cultures, have, perhaps, the best potential for being the crucible of change in the world today?

The interaction of this rich mass of questions and material with Harris's highly-cultivated and informed twentieth-century mind and fluid imagination results in what is undoubtedly one of the most complex novels ever written. Reading and re-reading Tumatumari is a gruelling as well as a rewarding experience; it is a rigorous challenge to the reading ability and imagination of the reader.

One sign of the complexity of Tumatumari is that, in comparison with it, Harris's previous novel, The Waiting Room, can be described as relatively straightforward! A few comparisons with the earlier novel may help to put Tumatumari in perspective (in so far as its 'method' is concerned)…. (p. 22)

In the earlier novel it was possible for the reader, once he saw the main thread, to follow it through the labyrinth of the book. But Tumatumari has innumerable intertwining threads, moving up and down as well as across; it is densely-matted, very much like the mat of half-submerged vegetation which Prudence lifts out of the river at the beginning of the book. In its density and complexity it is a counterpart of the material under consideration, the complex fabric of twentieth-century civilization in which are caught up innumerable strands of the past, even the ancient past before man was man.

In The Waiting Room there are only two characters and their role is soon seen as symbolic and complementary; they represent all dynamic and fulfilling 'opposites'. But Tumatumari has a dozen characters, no two exactly complementary, or contrasting, or simply 'individual' but all in some respect 'equivalent' to each other, so that all their significances are interwoven, until finally all the other characters merge into Prudence as she takes on the significance of humanity as a whole, on the hairline of transition to a new age—whatever that age will prove to be. Incorporating them all, she may, like the phoenix, be capable of being reborn, because she becomes capable of entering into the others (of past and present) and of letting them enter into and become part of her.

Tumatumari is different from The Waiting Room also in its imagery. Whereas The Waiting Room was made up of a set of related images, Tumatumari contains a myriad of images which do not resemble each other—images deriving from physics and microphysics, mathematics, chemistry, anthropology, economics, genetics and the study of evolution, and much more: images which are only slowly seen as related or 'equivalent' to others in some respect, and then only in a philosophical sense; these relationships are not 'visualizable', as were the waves and echoes of The Waiting Room, but are extremely abstract, involving such concepts as 'reciprocity' or 'interpenetration' of elements. Only near the end of the novel (in the section on the Canje River area) are the abstract relationships envisioned in a stunning artistic synthesis of almost all the novel's themes and concepts to that point.

With The Waiting Room it is possible to speak of the basic shape of the novel, as epitomized by the spiral seashell near the end. Tumatumari, however, has rather a shaping than a shape, a continuous growth and retaking of shape much like the gestation and evolutionary processes taking place in the various wombs in the novel: the physical wombs, the womb of history, and the wall-less wombs of space and imagination. All the developments come to be seen as part of 'chains' of development, one thing growing within and then out of another which then disintegrates and yet lives on in the new, part of a continuity of overlapping rings or clasps. (pp. 22-3)

Gestation and evolutionary processes take place also in history as it is viewed in Tumatumari, and the images of wombs, gateways, doors, passages of entry and passages of exodus have many variations in the work. Guyana (in its larger geographical, not national, sense) is seen as being like the Mediterranean of the past, a gateway between the past and the future. The history of the country of Guyana (that was British Guiana), which has been one of de facto racial separation and discrimination, is also conceived of in these images. (p. 23)

This kind of conception of the world, with its emphasis on dynamic change and evolutionary processes, expresses Wilson Harris's pervading scientific view of all aspects of human life, biological, psychological and social. The result, in Tumatumari, is a rare synthesis of scientific outlook, philosophy and art. Harris seems to share the belief of the physicist de Broglie, that modern scientific approaches have enormous philosophical implications, illuminating realities of all kinds. (pp. 23-4)

There is in Tumatumari a thorough 'interpenetration' and interaction of the philosophical, scientific and artistic conceptions. This is one of the book's strengths, but it is at the same time one of the things that makes the reading so difficult. For example, because the content and form are so completely one, the development of Tumatumari is not novelistic or even literary in any usual sense, unless we are to conceive of the work as a long poem, which in a way it is. Its development is more musical than anything else: a prelude states the theme, but in disguise; then comes the appearance in a kind of hide-and-seek, of the various elements of the story that Prudence raises up from the well of memory; this is followed by the coming together of the significances of these memories and he emergence of the underlying themes and rhythms, which brings the work to a climax; then in the last section there is a restatement on a new level of the question implied in the prelude, and the work closes with a series of chords that are left suspended, suggesting a further development in the silence that follows. Eventually the reader who has come so far returns to the prelude which is now seen not only as an introduction to the work but as a kind of allegorical summary of it. Until this process of the development of the novel is perceived, the difficulties of following the 'story' are great. (p. 24)

In the main body of the work, in the search for her own significance and real desires, Prudence searches the paths which have led to her. The principal figure in her past is her father, Henry Tenby, head of a Guyanese middle-class family until his death in 1957. He is the novel's symbol of the dominant outlook and way of life of the first half of the twentieth century. (p. 25)

Prudence comes to understand him as representative of Man in the age of individualism and free enterprise, who is in truth as unfree as possible. Placarded by history as being the soul of freedom, he wears chains of gold upon his heart and wrist. Prudence's feeling for him years later is a feeling of compassion. She sees him as unable to advance far beyond the limits of the past out of which he came. She sees both him and her husband Roi as manifestations of Man in the two major periods of this century, the periods following each of the world wars…. (p. 27)

[Roi] is shown to be like the ancient 'divine king' whose life, it was believed, had to be sacrificed when there came a breakdown in the life of the people. But Harris implies that no such outworn primitive rituals and idolatries can save twentieth-century Man, who must himself accept the responsibility for his fate, not shift it to any god or gods. No sacrifices will help except the sacrifice of outworn conceptions, such as the idea that the world is inevitably made up of hunter and hunted. The only hope of survival lies in more deeply scientific knowledge of nature and its processes and in the renewal of man's own creative power. Man himself must be the creator of the new Man. His future depends on himself. (p. 28)

In Tumatumari, then, the central figure or symbol is Man himself, in his manifestations in various periods in his whole history, during which he has lived in many different societies and within the wider environment of nature—within the womb of space and time. The title of Tumatumari derives from the idea of nature and its processes in time ('Tumatumari' is said to mean 'sleeping rocks'). The scene of Tumatumari suggests that in time even rocks crack, and imaginations awaken, and sudden leaps in development take place.

In contrast, the titles of the five sub-divisions of the book derive from social forms and concepts, those that have lasted beyond their time, that once were meaningful, perhaps, but which now are death-dealing. They represent old ideas that can have meaning now not as binding, rock-like traditions and idolatries, but only as 'transformed and transforming' tradition, meaningful for this age…. It is the originality and independence of spirit that is still valid and not the long outworn interpretations of life and nature. (p. 29)

In spite of the almost indescribable difficulty of Tumatumari as a whole, large sections of it read along smoothly enough, and many passages can be enjoyed for their sheer sensuous beauty (while others read like the output of a computer). The novel can be read simply as 'experience'; in fact this novel, like all of Harris's novels, should be read for the first time in just this way and not primarily for the intellectual pleasure of it. What will happen with this kind of relaxed approach to it is that some of the underlying philosophical significance will gradually come through to provide illumination for subsequent readings in which intellectual perceptions and sense perceptions will be united.

Many aspects of the novel that seemed to stand out as flaws in early readings of Tumatumari took on an essential logic and authority of their own in subsequent readings, although this reader continues to find unsatisfying Harris's way of handling, in a kind of lecture exposition, the 'moment of articulation' by the character who has plumbed his own depths and arrived as a new conception of himself and the world (Christo in The Whole Armour, the lover in The Waiting Room, and to a lesser extent Prudence in Tumatumari). In his essays Harris speaks of the need for writers to discover new, fresh potentialities of language. Harris, himself, in all his works, shows that he is capable of making such discoveries. (p. 30)

Joyce Adler, "'Tumatumari' and the Imagination of Wilson Harris" (copyright Joyce Adler; by permission of Hans Zell Publishers, an imprint of K. G. Saur Verlag), in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, No. 7, July, 1969, pp. 20-31.

Stanley Reynolds

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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 omens to us but a cliché word of political reporters?), omens used as practical devices of plot. But the language is hypnotic. I read some parts out loud and doing that caught the marvellous repetitions, the poetry of it, without understanding the meaning. At its worst—and this could be a recommendation to many—the style is like one of those obscure pop songs…. Wilson Harris, towards the end of the novel explains his style:

My intention, in part, is to repudiate the vicarious novel—vicarious sex-mask, death-mask—where the writer, following a certain canon of clarity, claims to enter the most obscure and difficult terrain of experience without incurring a necessary burden of authenticity, obscurity or difficulty at the same time.

This is one of the simplest, most straightforward sentences in the book, but Mr Harris is quite right and the lazy reader is wrong; the novel is dying because the trick of the vicarious thrill has been tumbled and Mr Harris's poetic voodoo is one way back to health.

Stanley Reynolds, "Quipped the Raven," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 79, No. 2033, February 27, 1970, p. 300.

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 unless he is willing to work at them….

[Ascent to Omai] contains an illustrative diagram consisting of eight concentric circles, each one labelled "Epitaph One", "Epitaph Two", and so on, to "Epitaph Nine". Opposite this column of labels is another, consisting of nine words—"Rose", "Madonna", "Petticoat", &c.—all of them recurring images in the novel. The diagram is like the ripples caused by a stone thrown into a pool, and the novel begins with Victor being hit by a stone as he ascends a mountain: the novel perhaps consists of ripples caused by that stone, kicked down accidentally by … a ruined porknocker walking ahead of Victor, a man with a black tabula rasa for a face. But the diagram also looks like the cross-section of a tree trunk, thought of as growing thicker rather than taller as it grows older. The past remains contemporary, each ring of the tree's trunk acting as an "epitaph" to an era that is not wholly dead….

Readers must judge for themselves whether they wish to enter this hermetic world. There is a story to Ascent to Omai—about a clever Guyanese boy thinking about his ill-educated and militant father—but it needs a line-by-line commentary rather than a review.

"Reading the Ripples," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3560, May 21, 1970, p. 555.

Louis James

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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 interpenetration of history and imagination….

Wilson Harris [recently] explained his present preoccupation with moments in which a suppressed cultural pattern erupts through a decaying later one. In Black Marsden, it was Scottish history in Edinburgh. In [Companions of the Day and Night], it is Mexico City, where Christian and Western patterns overlie traditional cultures going back to pre-Conquest Toltec times. Recurrent archetypes are the focus for conflicting cultural strata; and the naked, creative, suffering human spirit is embodied in the Fool, Nameless, or Christ, with his answering image of spiritual love, Mary or Beatrice. In the ancient Mexican religion he was a human sacrifice; in the Catholic conquest, the figure of Christ; in the modern world, a political martyr.

The Fool is in Mexico City. It is a modern Easter, with the mingling of Christian and pagan rituals. He encounters a fireeater performing in the waning light against a ruined building, and falls into a trance. As his consciousness expands, he becomes the Christ figure, seeking the virgin associated with the Easter rituals. He moves backwards and forwards through time, and outward towards the new world of North America. To reach understanding is to be crucified by a blind world. At the Easter weekend the Fool is found crushed below a sacrificial pyramid of the sun.

This summary bears little relation to the experience of reading the book, a surrealist and hallucinatory prose-poem. Time and place, even the logic of language, are violated to attempt a new alchemy of awareness….

Companions of the Day and Night is not Wilson Harris's finest novel. It does not have the architectonic strength of Tumatumari or the better known Palace of the Peacock. The surrealist fantasy weakens the texture of the sacrificial drama. But never has the wily magician Black Marsden created more startling effects, or Mr Harris's extraordinary use of language been more assured.

Louis James, "Easter Offering." in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3839, October 10, 1975. p. 1217.

Michael Gilkes

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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 explains in the "Editor's Introduction," the collection reveals "doorways through which Idiot Nameless moved" … and as he edits and translates the writings into a novel, he is aware of "the mystery of companionship in those pages and of a frightening wisdom they embodied …"…. This is, of course, the continuous, creative process of psychic reconstruction implicit in all of Harris' work. (p. 163)

The novel's title comes from the motifs of the ancient Aztec calendar stone where they appear as components of a thirteen-day cycle ("companions of the day") and of a nine-day cycle ("companions of the night"). Days eight and nine are called "dateless days" which absorbs into the nine-day cycle the "missing" four days. Harris' novel also attempts to represent and embody a reality which includes and allows for the numinous or "magical" element of human experience; the missing component of historical, dead time.

By arguing for the reality of the creative imagination as a means of questioning monolithic attitudes, of creating a genuine dialogue between cultures, Harris in all his work seeks to address the problem of Twentieth-Century Man's lack of "authenticity," of wholeness. The anxiety of Modern Man … is hinted at and counterpointed in Companions of the Day and Night by reference, for example, to the Aztec's fear of loss of the sun and the consequent degeneration of their religion to the horror of automatic, mass human sacrifice to "feed" a dying sun. Their fear of "losing" the sun is related to our own equally "primitive" fear of loss of self; the deisidaemonia of modern psychology. In this "cross-referencing" between cultures we are being assisted towards an understanding of the ground of our present angst. And just as the gods and motifs of the Aztec calendrical cosmos—the "companions of the day and night"—reflect and are part of a complex spiritual progress, a cyclical movement towards self-integration (as in the Mayan Chilam Balam) in which one was assisted at various stages by the gods and spirits; so this tabula rasa novel hints at a reconstruction of the modern, divided psyche, a bridging of the gap between historical, factual time and the visionary or dream-time through which (as in the Black Holes of gravity in the universe) whole unsuspected new worlds may lie. (pp. 164-65)

Idiot Nameless' visit to Mexico is an imaginative re-creation of landscape in depth as it affects and is reflected by his own developing, heterogeneous sensibility. There is an interpenetration of self and situation, object and viewer, past and present, and the result is a brilliantly creative bridging of apparently opposed and static cultural, historical and emotional climates. An example of this is the Idiot's first experience; a sudden meeting at night with a fire-eater, (a pavement artist, entertainer and vendor) near the Avenida Reforma…. The fire-eater is an evocation of both the fire-god Huehueteotl ("a companion of the night" one of the chief deities in the Aztec pantheon: the fire-eater is a central symbol in the book) and the Aztec obsession with a "dying" sun, swallowed daily by the lake and requiring sacrifices in order to rise again. The Idiot feels as if he is falling downwards through space and time, back into history…. Yet the whole, dreamlike incident is perfectly credible, since Nameless suffers from epilepsy ("falling sickness")…. From [the] first remarkable chapter, subtitled A Door into the Forge of Creation, the Idiot moves, aided in his spiritual progress by the companions of day and night, through the stages of the nine-day cycle into which he has "fallen." The book ends on the "Dateless Days" during which Nameless visits Mrs. Black Marsden in New York and his fall from the pyramid is prefigured, or reenacted, since the time sequence, like character, is not fixed or solid, but fluid and shifting. (pp. 165-67)

Michael Gilkes, "An Infinite Canvas," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1976 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 15, No. 1, April, 1976, pp. 161-73.

Michael Gilkes

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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 British ambassador. He grows up in England with access to his rich benefactor's library and thrives on a varied cultural diet; an interest in painting develops and he gradually becomes convinced that his "parentless" condition obliges him to create, to "paint" himself and his world anew. Seeing everything in terms of his art, he discovers new "illuminations" and "unpredictable densities" within the most apparently solid and uniform people and places. As his "paintings" multiply, the range of his awareness widens, relationships deepen….

Genesis of the Clowns emerges from the brooding recollections of Frank Wellington, who also lives in a London flat: Wellington, a government land surveyor in British Guiana in the 1940s, had settled in Britain in 1954. One morning in the 1970s he receives an anonymous letter telling him of the death of Hope, the black foreman of a survey team he had led thirty years ago in the interior. At the same time a letter from a solicitor in Hope Street, Dunfermline, brings news of a small inheritance through the death of a relative in Scotland. It is the first of a number of related coincidences. His now receptive mind drifts back into the past where he is, once again, leader and paymaster of a racially mixed crew. As the ghosts of the men again come forward to the paytable, Wellington finds that his relationship with each has been subtly altered.

These two novels [Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns] are complementary explorations of modern existence. The fallen blossoms swirling "in circles and counter-circles" along Holland Villas Road conjure up the contrary undercurrents of Wellington's river surveys as well as those of "revolutionary" Guyanese politics and society (and of societies in general). The tent-like Commonwealth Institute of Da Silva etc reappears as Wellington's fragile tent, the collapse of which, during a thunderstorm, forces him to question his role as father-figure and colonial "master" of all he surveys through the inverting eye of his theodolite. Both painter and surveyor, the complementary worlds of art and science, recognize the need for a revolution of sensibility, a new "circulation of the light"

Michael Gilkes, "Hidden Densities," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3915, March 25, 1977, p. 334.

Shirley Chew

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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 two month; pregnant, he begins to edit the pages, and to sketch and paint these lovers. In this way he becomes involved in their resurrection.

One cannot deny that Wilson Harris's powers of invention are vigorous and fertile…. Nor can one deny that, bristling in the intricate criss-cross of "parallel and estranged expeditions" which form the structure of the novel, are important ideas and themes: the precarious progress of self-discovery, the elusive bond of community, the artist's relation to his subject, the limits of his access to the truth, the extent to which art is capable of enlarging our sympathy with other lives and our understanding of life.

If then, for all its cleverness and its serious intentions, The Tree of the Sun neither captivates nor moves, it must be because Wilson Harris has failed to rise to some of the more common expectations one brings to the reading of a novel. His story and situations are manifestly so many pegs upon which to hang his symbolic weights. His characters are first and foremost mythical presences and, as such, are less inclined to speak to one another than to expound their impenetrable views, rather in the manner of one addressing a symposium on the Sociology of Art, or the Anthropology of Myth.

Critics have frequently compared Wilson Harris with Conrad or Patrick White, because of their shared interest in the expedition both as a physical journey and as a metaphor of self-discovery. What is not usually stressed is their different approaches as novelists—and it is a difference which marks the distance between their achievements. Conrad aimed to bring "to light the truth, manifold and one" but was passionately concerned also with the need "to make you hear, to make you feel … above all, to make you see". Patrick White's characters have been said to cause "the world of substance to quake" but his world is solidly and unmistakably there. In comparison, despite the claims which are made for heterogeneous backgrounds and cultures, "all colours, all pigmentations, all illuminations, all creatures", Wilson Harris's latest novel seems at the same time deliquescent and opaque.

Shirley Chew, "Crisses and Crosses," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3972, May 19, 1978, p. 564.

Lloyd W. Brown

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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 carefully devised images which sometimes fail to communicate the kind of intellectual and emotional pressure that would justify such an abundance. In works like "The Beggar Is King" this lack of justification results in a pompous incongruity between subject (the impoverished Guyanese laborer) and the obvious, rather obtrusive convolutions of Harris' imagery. Curiously enough, Harris at his metaphoric worst is not distracting (in the tradition of most poets who suffer from the same affliction) but simply monotonous. In "Rice," for example, the relentless succession of metaphoric elaborations and convoluted statements creates its own peculiar sameness. (pp. 93-4)

The dramatic poem "Canje," set in a rural Guyanese village, is awkwardly executed throughout with a great deal of excessive writing. But Harris' general drift is always arresting. Ancitipating Derek Walcott's Another Life by nearly twenty years, Harris' poem examines the lives of his folk through the archetypes of Greek myth—Ulysses, Tiresias, Achilles, and so forth. The objective conforms with the bicultural dimensions within which Harris and others perceive the West Indian experience. The Greco-Guyanese myth-heroes embody the duality of the Guyanese experience; and more specifically, the poet-seer Tiresias now represents the Guyanese poet as the essence and analyst of that duality: the bisexual image of Tiresias symbolizes the bicultural identity of the poet, his imagination, and his folk. (p. 94)

Harris is using [the] archetypal roots of Greco-Roman and Western culture as a means of exploring the cultural roots of the West Indies: the very concept and use of archetypes are based on a preoccupation with a sense of roots. Moreover, the archetypal mode is used to explore time-as-experience. The archetype is the creation of the past, a symbol and function of the links between past and present, and accordingly, the poet's perspective on the cultural history of his own world. Hence in "Teiresias" the poet-as-seer represents the ability to perceive the future in the present, just as the "Teiresias" archetype himself embodies a continuity between the (Greco-Roman) past and the (Afro-West Indian) present…. (pp. 94-5)

"Teiresias" is one of those rare poems in which Harris sustains an ease and a directness of statement without lapsing into strangling verbiage. And this achievement may be of special significance since Tiresias as poet and seer represents the clarity of a fully aware perception of history and the role of the artist. (p. 95)

On the whole "Achilles" is another well written poem displaying the kind of discipline which allows Harris to blend his archetypal symbolism (mobility, power, creativity) into his central theme with economy and precision. This is also true of "Creation" in which the abstraction of Harris' theme (creation itself as freedom and infinite power) is developed without undue flourish in a succession of clearly defined and concrete images. First, that familiar Guyanese sense of an infinite landscape lends itself easily to the grasp of creation as an infinite, universal force…. Second, it is an "immensity of greatest power" that is symbolized by that ocean which links Harris' continent with the West Indian islander's perennial consciousness of the sea. Thirdly, it is represented by the "strips of coast" that are Guyana itself with its Afro-West Indian capacity to survive and transcend the Middle Passage past through a "celebration of spirit." And fourthly, to complete the pattern of increasingly specialized, or microcosmic examples, creation is the individual spirit itself…. The pattern of the poem progresses inward from the perception of a universal macrocosm to the individual as microcosm. As such it represents a kind of focusing. It is therefore an aesthetic confirmation of Harris' emphasis on perception as movement and on creation as an endless, infinite movement. In poems like these Harris' craftsmanship is superb, and the clarity of vision is unsurpassed. After this volume of poetry he turns to prose fiction, producing a series of some of the most distinguished novels in West Indian literature. But even on its own and despite its undeniable shortcomings Eternity to Season represents a major contribution to the West Indian poet's exploration of time and history in the Caribbean experience. (pp. 95-6)

Lloyd W. Brown, "The Emergence of Modern West Indian Poetry: 1940–1960," in his West Indian Poetry (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, pp. 63-99.∗

Hena Maes-Jelinek

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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 territory, the actual 'landscape of history' for those who only survived by disappearing into it and a metaphor for that inner psychological recess to which his characters relegate both their forgotten ancestors and the living whom they dominate. It contrasts with the savannahs and is itself full of contrasts. Though teeming with life, much of it is invisible to the ordinary 'material' eye, just as those who, willingly or not, lead an underground existence remain unseen save to the 'spiritual' (imaginative) eye. The jungle's extra-human dimensions suggest timelessness and offer a glimpse of eternity, while the constant renewal of the vegetation confirms its existence within a cyclical time pattern. In Harris's words the jungle 'travels eternity to season'; and the Amerindians, who move to and fro between that secret primeval world and the modern areas where they can find work, subsist, as he writes in Tumatumari …, 'on a dislocated scale of time'. They are an essential link between the modern Guyanese and the lost world of their undigested past, and must be retrieved from their buried existence in both real and symbolical terra incognita if Guyana (and the individual soul) is to absorb all its components into a harmonious community.

Already in his poetry Harris had dealt jointly with the contrasts and polarisations in nature and history, and presented spiritual freedom as a capacity to move between opposites…. The very form of his verse reflects the reconciliation of opposites by freely mixing concrete with symbolical or outer with inner planes of existence…. [His] substantial volume of poetry, Eternity to Season …—significantly subtitled 'Poems of separation and reunion'—is an epic in which the characters, called after Greek mythological heroes, turn out to be humble Guyanese labourers. Their mythological stature indicates perhaps where the Guyanese should look for their archetypes. Harris gives his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Homeric adventures just as he was later to fill Christian and Amerindian myths with new content. His free borrowing from various cultures is one of many ways in which he attempts to break down barriers between men and between civilisations. He does not deny the specific character and experience of each people, and his poems are meant to awaken the sensibility and imagination of the Guyanese to the real nature of their environment. But he rejects all static ways of being. Man cannot help being imprisoned within time and history; he can, however, achieve partial liberation and distance from even necessary orders by tending towards an 'other', provided this 'other' is not allowed to become another absolute. This dualistic and dynamic view of existence accounts for Harris's many-layered and paradoxical language, particularly his juxtaposition of contradictory terms which challenge our modes of perception and thought (as in 'blossoming coals of immortal imperfection'). Many of the basic metaphors Harris was to use in his fiction are already found with a potentially double meaning in his poetry. But while the vision is as boldly original in the one as in the other, it has achieved a greater impact by being embodied in the more concrete setting and highly individualised characters of his fiction. Harris is primarily a novelist even though his fictional language has the concentrated richness of poetry and, as has often been pointed out, demands the same minute reading and explication. True, the poet has always had greater licence than the novelist to deal with the transcendental, but Harris's way of dealing with it has introduced a new dimension into the novel.

Harris's fiction began to appear at a crucial time for both the nascent West Indian fiction and the novel in English since, in the fifties and early sixties, the trends in English and American fiction indicated that many inheritors of established traditions had ceased to believe in them. The dissolution of values and forms due to the combined action of history and science had left artists in a void similar in kind to that experienced with more tragic intensity by West Indians throughout their history. With a few notable exceptions, English and American novelists reacted to this loss of certainty by either seeking refuge and renewing their faith in realism, or turning experimental fiction into an art of the absurd, technically brilliant and innovatory but often undermining the very purpose of art. Wilson Harris is among the few West Indian writers who pointed out the irrelevance of both trends to a 'native' art of fiction. While insisting that the disorientation of the 'diminished man' in formerly strong societies had been experienced for centuries by the conquered populations in the Caribbean and the Americas, he warned particularly against the influence on West Indian writers of the post-war European art of despair. His own 'art of compassion' does not involve, as has sometimes been suggested, a withdrawal from history in order to transcend it. It is, on the contrary, intensely concerned with the impact of history on the ordinary 'obscure human person' and expresses a passionate denial of what has been termed the 'historylessness' of the Caribbean: it shows that people exist by virtue of their silent suffering as much as by celebrated deeds or a materially recognisable civilisation, of which incidentally obscure men are the unacknowledged executors. My main purpose is to show how Harris's view of Caribbean history has shaped his art of the novel.

The major historical facts endured by the Caribbean peoples were dismemberment, exile, eclipse and, for many, slavery, with the result that for several centuries they lived destitute and inarticulate in a political, social and cultural void. In much of Harris's fiction these catastrophic experiences are recreated both as facts and as inner states to be digested by the individual consciousness. Most of his novels present an outer-world and an inner confrontation between a conqueror or oppressor and his victim, as well as the traumas that result from the violation of a people or of an individual soul. They all explore possibilities of rebirth and of genuine community between polarised people(s) and between antithetical ways of being. This basic and recurrent theme determines Harris's conception of character, the structure of his novels and their narrative texture as well as his style. Harris equates dominant and fixed forms in art with dominant and static social structures, local, national or international. Hence his attempt to find a fluid mode of expression to render the duality of life, the necessary movement between its opposite poles, and above all the mobility of consciousness.

Harris's fictional work to date can be divided into three major phases. In the first of these the Guiana Quartet creates a composite picture of the many facets of Guyanese life: the paradoxes and unpredictable manifestations of a nature that is not easily mastered, the historical vestiges, visible and invisible, that give each area a specific 'spirit of the place', and the activities of a multiracial population often self-divided and alienated from its 'lost' or unintegrated groups such as the Amerindians or the descendants of runaway slaves. There is a sense in which the first novel, Palace of the Peacock, contains in embryo all further developments. It recreates the main fact of Caribbean history, the endlessly renewed exploitation of land and people, from time immemorial through the Renaissance to the present day, by waves of invaders intent on winning the country's riches for themselves. 'Rule the land … and you rule the world,' says the skipper Donne, who pursues an invisible Amerindian tribe on a nameless river through the jungle, and shows the mixture of idealism and brutality that has characterised many an ambitious enterprise in modern times. (pp. 179-83)

The opening of the novel on the frontier between life and death establishes at the outset Harris's dual view of existence and his conception of death as eclipse rather than annihilation. The dead in his fiction are an essential part of a community of being and must be retrieved from oblivion by imagination. In Palace the narrator's reconstruction of the past is both an 'act of memory' and a 'dream', Harris's word to describe an intuitive, imaginative apprehension of reality, one that frees man from the limitations of exclusively rational and/or sensory perceptions and makes possible the reconciliation of apparently incompatible opposites. The double perspective due to the juxtaposition of material perception and spiritual vision in Donne and the Narrator is paralleled by a similar duality in the phenomenal world itself, which offers an insight into its immaterial counterpart. There is the 'skeleton footfall' on the river bank disclosing an invisible presence, or the tree that suddenly sheds all its leaves, revealing the simple inner structure that underlies its external profusion.

Donne and the crew must recognise their exploitation of both land and people (united by a similar 'namelessness'). As they travel upriver and re-enact their possessive or murderous deeds, the dangers they meet gradually decimate their ranks and turn them into pursued men longing for redemption through the muse they have all abused in one way or another…. The main effect of the trials they have gone through has been to shake them out of their fixed sense of identity, and although they are not aware of it until they come together in the manifold symbol of the peacock's tail at the very end, their dying to themselves (their 'Second Death') is a momentary surrender to 'otherness', the lifeblood of community. The final conversion, however, occurs in Donne and offers the first example in Harris's fiction of the necessary interdependence between the imaginative artist (for Donne is also that) and the ordinary folk.

A further illustration of duality is to be found in the shift from the concrete to the purely symbolical as the narrative draws to an end, suggesting that spiritual rebirth is a feat of the imagination, which is itself regenerated…. Donne's fall into the void is a symbolical re-enactment of the fate of the victims of conquest. Whether in Palace, Tumatumari (in which the severing of Roi's head in a collision with a rock in the waterfall symbolises the dismemberment of the Amerindians and the loss of their leadership) or in Companions of the Day and Night …, the fall down a natural escarpment in Guyana or from a Mexican pyramid stands for the collapse of a people and recreates the terrifying sense of void they experienced.

The fall in Palace of the Peacock is followed by a rebirth from what Harris sees as both the 'grave' and the 'womb' of history. It is Donne's spiritual self that is resurrected to apprehend the evanescent moment in which the members of his heterogeneous crew or community come together as stars and eyes in the peacock's tail, fragments of the splintered sun, which in the first part of the novel was a symbol of Donne's implacable tyranny. The metamorphosis of images corresponds to a similar transformation and displacement of formerly fixed attitudes within the characters. That is why the vision of the crew's reunion at the end is so brief. It actualises the Narrator's moments of intuitive perception of wholeness which have alternated with the crew's actions and physical progress throughout the narrative. Owing to this alternation the structure of the novel is informed by the ebb and flow movement that Harris sees in all forms of outer life and deems essential within man's consciousness.

The other novels of the Quartet also illustrate the frightening but necessary disorientation this regained fluidity of being entails in men confronted by violence and murder, the residues of slavery and the desire of former victims to become exploiters in their turn, 'as though the oppressed convention nurses identical expectations of achieving power', and the continuing exploitation of minority or eclipsed groups. The Far Journey of Oudin focuses on the master-servant relationship on the East Indian rice plantations between the savannahs and the coast. The Whole Armour takes place on the Pomeroon river and the precarious strip of land between bush and sea. Cristo, a young man wrongly accused of murder, agrees to sacrifice himself to redeem the community. In The Secret Ladder the land surveyor Fenwick and his crew stationed in the jungle gauge the river Canje prior to the building of a dam that would flood the territory from which the descendants of slaves refuse to move. None of these novels has the linear simplicity of Palace of the Peacock; the more commonplace experiences of the earthbound characters and the more complex plots give them a density and an immediacy further enhanced by a more extensive use of dialect. But the issues raised do not find a worldly resolution. The emphasis is on spiritual freedom, responsibility and a genuine authority which, like the sense of unity in Palace, are envisaged through the recognition of the alien and weak element in the community as its true roots and therefore springhead of change. The crux of each novel lies in the possibility of unlocking a fixed order of things and eroding the certainties and imperatives that imprison the protagonists within a one-sided and rigid sense of self. Hence the crumbling rather than 'consolidation' of personality, the disturbing resemblances between dead and living characters, or sometimes even the reappearance of the dead among the living, and the frequency of 'doubles' or twins to 'break through from patterns of implacable identities'. In keeping with Harris's concentration on process rather than achievement, the end of the Quartet is inconclusive. A central motif running through its four movements is the need for the Guyanese (as for Donne) 'to understand and transform [their] beginnings'. That is why each novel raises the question of who the characters' rue parents are. What Harris calls 'the mystery of origins' can only be penetrated, though never completely, by 'dismantling a prison of appearance'. This course of action, initiated by Fenwick in The Secret Ladder, is the major theme and shaping factor of his next cycle of novels.

Harris's fifth novel, Heartland …, is an essential link between the Guiana Quartet and his next works…. At the end of the novel [the protagonist] Stevenson … disappears into the heartland, leaving in his half-burnt resthouse fragments of letters and poems. The uncertainty of his fate in the intermediate life-and-death world of the jungle suggests that, like characters in the following novels, he has lost himself in the third nameless dimension Harris has now started to explore. This is the void once inherent in the Caribbean psyche, seen as a possible vessel of rebirth for all men and as a state to be experienced by the artist who shuns the tyranny of one dominant world-view and allows contradictory voices to speak through him. The novel tends towards the interiorisation of action that is wholly characteristic of Harris's second phase. At the same time the pattern of pursuit and flight specific to the Quartet gives way momentarily, through Stevenson's relationship with the Amerindian woman, Petra, to reciprocity between the exploring consciousness and the eclipsed 'other'…. 'Crumbling', 'retiring' and 'advancing' outline the course henceforth taken by Harris's characters, first an erosion of biased assumptions followed by a double movement of advance and retreat (for the self as for the other) which precludes total identification with another and therefore total loss or gain for one or the other. The 'vicarious hollow and original substance' towards which Stevenson moves, but is not known to have reached, sums up the simultaneous condition of nothingness and starting point of creation that Harris sees as the essence of Caribbean experience and art.

Without unduly schematising, one can discern in Harris's next four novels some common features which throw light on his purpose as a novelist. They all recreate the past of an individual Guyanese family, whose trials and present circumstances reflect the 'burden of history' that still weighs on the society they live in. The condition explored in each novel is one of void or loss. (pp. 184-88)

There is a double preoccupation in these novels, with the state of loss incurred in the past and the kind of fiction that the artist, his narrator or protagonist attempts to conceive. The two are closely linked together and it will be seen that these works are as much about the art of fiction as about the revival or 'art' of community. The Narrator in The Eye who re-lives his past again and again, Susan and her lover re-living their affair through the author's editorship, Prudence re-creating twentieth-century Guyanese history from her own memories and her father's papers, and Victor writing a novel about his father's trial, all are creators or characters in search of a 'primordial species of fiction'. The phrase implies that the stuff of fiction is to be found in what is both fundamental and primeval (in themselves and in the outer world) which the protagonists have long neglected, ignored or misrepresented to themselves. The primordial is shown to be a dynamic relationship between all forms of life but first and foremost between human beings…. As each explorer of the past discovers, however, the nothingness, deadness, stagnation or even inflexibility of those whom the Narrator in The Eye seeks beyond 'a dead masked frontier' is only an illusion. Their essential livingness and even capacity to reverse given situations and become tyrannical in turn is one of the protagonists' main discoveries. The basic rapport the protagonist achieves with the object of his exploration is one in which each moves towards the other without ever finally succumbing or identifying with that other. This is the bare outline of a process that must be traced through the complex structure and the rich metaphorical texture of the narrative; these vary greatly from one novel to another as Harris extends the limits of the reality he explores and approaches his material from different angles.

Nature and society (even when the latter is refined and abstracted, as in The Waiting Room) are the starting point of the characters' exploration, for in Harris's fiction it is always a keen sensitivity to the material world which leads to the perception of an immaterial perspective (or of those that are judged immaterial: 'the nameless sleeping living and the nameless forgotten dead'). The emphasis is no longer as in the early novels on the breakdown of the protagonists' personality: this is now their condition when the novels open. Their breakdown, however, turns out to be an asset: in their initial state of weakness or emptiness they no longer try to imprison within a given or final view the experience they re-live or the people they knew. Each becomes a medium ('vicarious hollow') in which the past re-enacts itself. In both The Eye and The Waiting Room the narrator's declared purpose is to allow a free and living 'construction of events' to emerge from the evocation of the past. What happens is that the 'broken' memory or the unsettled state of the characters yields a fragmented version of events; these gradually reveal possibilities of interpretation different from their original one. In other words, the past, which is now the main substance of the novel, is subject to the same process of crumbling and reshaping as the character who re-lives it. Time and space (inner and outer) are not seen as rigid and divisive frames of existence; these barriers come apart too, disclosing, for example, the disregarded or unsuspected feelings of individuals and peoples whose behaviour had been represented in one light only. There is thus a dislocation of surface reality in all its forms—and therefore a fragmentation of the narrative structure—which makes the protagonists aware of 'the stranger animation one sees within the cycle of time'—in nature, that is; in the seemingly frozen past; in the retrenched and silent existence of the uninitiate and in the protagonists' own unconscious. This fragmentation alone opens the way into what is apparently dead within and beyond the perceptible world but is in fact alien, mysterious, 'opposite' life, sometimes fierce destructive force, sometimes frail, indistinct spirit. The protagonist himself is healed, his own memory and imagination regenerated, to the extent that he can feel that life by incurring its 'burden of authenticity, obscurity or difficulty'. It is what Harris means by 'revising contrasting spaces' in order to allow a 'new dimension of feeling' to emerge. It is brilliantly illustrated in Tumatumari in the symbolic vision of harmony between Prudence and her husband's despised Amerindian mistress, Rakka, revolving together and changing places in a whirlpool of death and rebirth.

The characters' transformation ('gestation of the soul') is rendered symbolically through serial metamorphoses of metaphors, which is wholly consistent with Harris's belief that the individual consciousness is saturated with 'given' images of the past, and with the fact that metaphors alone can convey the unity underlying the apparently disparate shapes of life. A good example of this is the scarecrow in the first novel of this cycle, a metaphor for the diminished state of man, for the disruptions that can be observed in nature, for disintegrating tenements in Georgetown and for the dying British Empire. This accumulation of various scarecrow images (like the many versions of the severed head perceived by Prudence in Tumatumari) renders the underlying unity or 'unfathomable wholeness' that belies the void or tabula rasa. Wholeness is also expressed in single metaphors as, for example, in the symbolic union of Prudence and Rakka mentioned above or (in The Waiting Room) in an image inspired by the myth of Ulysses; his dependence on an insensitive mast and deaf crew is used to convey the union between the lovers, each being for the other the deaf mast or crew which allows his or her companion to hear the otherworldly muse. Some single key metaphors, like the sun and the whirlpool, develop fresh contrasting meanings from one novel to another. Single words also frequently express one thing and its opposite. So the word 'silence' in the same novel is both Susan's injunction to her lover, which denies him, and the expression of her longing for the silence and potential fulfilment allied to the nameless dimension.

Although I have already suggested as much, it is necessary to insist that while wholeness is tentatively reconstructed or approached in the narrative through an accumulation of images, and perceived by the protagonist in visionary moments, it is never actually attained. The narratives trace the characters' oscillations between the finite world and their vision of the 'infinite' as they grope towards a metaphysical reality which both fascinates and terrifies them. They make some progress towards it as they move towards the nameless in probing into human history, into the mystery of eclipsed lives and of injustice. When they have shed their own identity, have become in imagination and temporarily 'Idiot Nameless' (the trickster without identity of Caribbean history), the metamorphosis of their vision, and therefore of themselves, takes place. Self-negation achieved, their consciousness becomes a vehicle for the transmutation of static images and is itself transformed metaphorically: the scarecrow, an image of unconsciousness when the novel opens, is released, like the Narrator, from the blindness of self-sufficiency and becomes the medium of an interplay of opposites, the foundation of true vision; the waiting room, at first a place where Susan broods over the past and suffers, becomes a 'womb' of rebirth (reconciliation and vision); the severed head in Tumatumari turns into a smiling and flowering Gorgon's head; in Ascent to Omai the stone in the pool, which sends out concentric rings or horizons of memory delimiting frustrating periods of Victor's life, initiates a dance (a series of harmonious movements) between these formerly blocked slices of life.

Namelessness, moreover, is not wholeness (the coincidence of opposites) but only the contrary and negative pole of a clearly defined identity. In Black Marsden …, which initiates the third cycle of his fiction, Harris warns against the danger of erecting former victims into the powerful instrument of a new tyranny in the name of a misconceived revolution. During his trip to Namless [sic]—at once his country of origin and an imaginary wasteland, modern man's ruined consciousness—Goodrich, the main character, realises that formerly exploited workers have been trapped into a spiral of self-destructive strikes by their employers and by obscure forces. The tabula rasa state of Victor's father in Ascent to Omai has developed into the tabula rasa theatre directed by Black Marsden, who stimulates Goodrich's generosity and spiritual liberation but threatens to engulf and 'deplete' him like all Marsden's other agents when they yield to him. Through Goodrich's association with Marsden it becomes clear that the material generosity of individuals (or nations) will not redeem them from their sense of guilt towards the poor. Goodrich possesses 'the eye of the scarecrow' which eventually helps him resist the hypnotic spell Marsden had cast over him. At the end of the novel he stands 'utterly alone', free from imposed thought yet still moved by 'the strange inner fire' that had first sent him on an expedition into 'infinity'.

This state of aloneness and the passion for infinity that Goodrich cannot wholly assuage if he wants to stay alive are further explored in Companions of the Day and Night, a sequel to Black Marsden, in which he becomes more deeply involved in the smouldering existence of the dead by editing Idiot Nameless's paintings and sculptures, the 'equation' of his exploration of Mexico. Through Nameless's 'descent' into Mexican historical vestiges, Harris brings together the theme of the enforced eclipse of civilisations and his belief in a possible 'treaty of sensibility between alien cultures'. Essentially, the novel is about the fall of man and his terror of extinction; it gives the experience of the void a universal and even a cosmic scale. Goodrich compares the pre-Columbians' dread that their world might come to an end unless they offered the sun human sacrifices with modern man's fear that his world might fall into a 'black hole of gravity'. The pre-Columbians fell under Cortez and the conquering, not humble and life-giving, Christ that followed in his wake; the Christian Church, however, was itself driven underground by a revolution early in the twentieth century that led to further repression. Nameless too suffers from a 'falling sickness' (a psychological equivalent to the possibility of cosmic fall) which nevertheless enables him to confront and unravel the self-destructive models of pre-Columbian and Christian institutions, to retrieve also the original 'spark' or element of conscience, inherent in each civilisation, which was buried with these institutions when each in turn was sacrificed. Nameless lives at once through the days of the Mexican calendar and the pre-Easter period as the predicaments of the interchangeable conquerors and victims merge in his consciousness. It is indeed the contradictory aspects of his own condition as both victor and victim that Nameless explores and reconciles in himself. At the same time his transformation into a spark after his fall from the pyramid of the sun together with the impression he gives at the end that he is a frail Christ who is once more denied physical life suggest the possible emergence of a new centre of illumination from within the very deadlock of history.

A fundamental aspect of Companions is the way in which old forms (such as institutions or myths) prove susceptible of new content through the mediation of the individual consciousness. Together with Nameless's 'painting' this leads to yet another development in Harris's presentation of characters. The aspect of namelessness explored in Black Marsden is still there, symbolised by the coat of uniformity worn by post-revolutionary workers and by the destitute madonna in the next novel, Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness…. But more importance is given to Nameless's own freedom from codified ways of thinking and the capacity it gives him to play many roles in life and suffer the predicament of different people. Already in Ascent to Omai the judge, not knowing what became of Victor, shuffles blank cards while recreating the trial, thus envisaging for him alternative existences, for this blankness is like 'a consciousness without content which nevertheless permitted all alien contents to exist' While in The Eye Harris presented language as an equation of the arousal of vision from that blankness, in his latest novels he has added a term to the equation: painting as an art of grasping the 'inimitable'. The main character is now a painter whose works are so many partial versions of, yet also 'doorways' into, an inner reality or light that can be neither wholly unearthed nor trapped. The narrative itself is like a large canvas which corresponds to the painter's field of vision. The existences on this canvas reveal unpredictable resources that modify the relation between the two faces of tradition, the conqueror's and the victim's or, in a different form, the 'dying' tradition of perceptible achievements and its immortal counterpart growing out of unacknowledged sacrifice. The need for an imaginative, necessarily precarious balance between the two underlies the painter's ceaseless effort to create a 'middle ground' between the contrasting figures he 'paints' into existence, people whom he sees as resurrected selves moving in and out of his consciousness.

Since Black Marsden these 'painted' resurrected lives (resurrection leading to community is the major theme of the third cycle of novels) are evoked with increased sensuousness. Because the main concern in Harris's novels lies in the impact of the outside world (the apparently trivial as much as the more dramatic incidents of everyday life) on the individual's inner self, the recreated 'drama of consciousness' involves flesh-and-blood people. In the novels of Harris's second phase the possibility of reconciliation between the protagonist and those he revives is largely expressed metaphorically. Although the metaphors are borrowed from living nature, the reconstructed experience has a more abstract or structural character than in the earlier or later fiction. In the third phase, however, the revived figures are always solidly there; in the Da Silva novels they are significantly conceived, brought to life, through the tender physical relations between the creative artist and his earthly muse or madonna. (pp. 188-95)

Hena Maes-Jelinek, "Wilson Harris," in West Indian Literature, edited by Bruce King (© Bruce King 1979; reprinted by permission of Archon Books, an imprint of The Shoe String Press, Inc.), Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1979, pp. 179-95.

Gary Crew

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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 reactivated as the original and vital human force. It is the imagination which destroys the limiting concepts of past, present and future, unifying all that has been, is and will be, in the moment now, the eternal present. (p. 218)

An examination of "Arawak Horizon," the final story of The Age of the Rainmakers, will serve as an introduction to the method employed by Harris in adapting Arawak legend to expand the limitations of contemporary man's imagination. Using the numerals 0 through 9 as a basis, he reveals that to the twentieth-century consciousness such numerals are no more than static symbols, capable only of mechanistic or economic interpretation. However, when he, or his narrator counterpart, allows himself to be taken back in time across the Arawak horizon, he views the numerals from a primal viewpoint: in this story, that of an Arawak child. This child sees in the numerals not mathematical codes, but abstract symbols "illuminated by consciousness." In this way the numeral 0 becomes the "first prisoner to creep through the walls of fire" …, and when freed from preconceived interpretation, appears to the Arawak child as as symbol of unlimited potential,…

The numerals serve the function of a concrete twentieth-century corelative to the working of the "primitive" mind, and because of their contemporary connotation as easily comprehended mathematical symbols, they provide a simpler starting point for an analysis of the companion stories than the ancient abstract rock paintings which evoke a similar imaginative metamorphosis in the first volume, The Sleepers of Roraima. (p. 219)

The stories of this first volume, The Sleepers of Roraima, "Couvade," "I, Quiyumucon" and "Yurokon," each describe an attempt to preserve the pure bloodline of the Caribs as the tribe progresses through migration and invasion to its final assimilation into the multi-racial population of twentieth-century Guyana. In their obsession with preserving purity of race, the Caribs find themselves threatened; initially, in "Couvade," by their own local tribesmen, in "I, Quiyumucon" by assimilation into the tribes of the Arawaks, and finally in "Yurokon," by the infiltration of the Spanish and the Christian influence of Europe. (pp. 219-20)

[In] contrast to the dominant threat of human incursion found in The Sleepers of Roraima, in the second collection of legends natural phenomena, rain and drought, are the principal forces against which the Amerindian must struggle if he is to survive. Harris employs these physical elements to symbolize the barren psychic outlook of the contemporary Amerindian. The imaginative stasis of the people is revealed in their continued rebellion against invasion, real or imagined, which may be interpreted as a period of drought. In order to overcome this psychic and physical calamity, the Amerindian must reach back to the legendary age of the rainmakers, and rediscover, through legend, the fertile imagination.

The first story of The Age of the Rainmakers, "The Age of Kaie," focusses on Paterson, a half-caste twentieth-century revolutionary who is also the reincarnation of Kaie, an ancestral figure of legend. Yet, as is typical of Harris, this ambivalent figure may separate to create a pair of contemporary/ancient freedom fighters. In this guise Paterson and Kaie lie wounded on a modern battlefield and "loss of blood gave them this sensation—as if they shared the same interior, the same echoing body of fragmentary particulars, and the elements were hallucinated within them and without."… There is, however, a fundamental difference in the two figures. Kaie, the older and wiser, is aware that Paterson fights because the Amerindians have always felt threatened by invasion and loss of identity; Paterson's fighting spirit is the "naiveté of revolutionary fatherhood."… an adherence to the principle of the "creation of the enemy" as demonstrated in "Couvade," where such an enemy may in fact be his "own fierce nostalgic creation."… This concept is fundamentally static and therefore self-negating. In death, his voice rising and falling with flippancy, Paterson becomes aware of his error: "And Paterson had the curious ironic sensation that in the hollow pit of his body—ancestral Indian enemy—Kaie's breath had been caged for centuries instinctive to the residue of legend—betrothal of opposites."… The "hollow pit of his body" is symbolic of the drought which should be broken by the rainmakers. It has been an age of historical and imaginative stasis for Paterson's people, a period of empty rebellion signifying nothing, a time of reliance on the residue of legend left by the great age of Kaie. Thus Paterson, alias Kaie, relives the age of the rainmakers and finds a "new maiden architecture of place" and the "distances of history melt or multiply with each convertible echo."… (pp. 222-23)

The idea of cyclical regeneration takes a dramatic conceptual change in "The Laughter of the Wapishanas." Here, a legendary girl, Wapishana, sets out to find a means of diverting her tribe's attention from the rigours of drought. She searches for the source of laughter, which she is determined to restore to the lips of her people. Harris uses this search to develop the significance of the decoy in diverting mankind from reality. Wapishana finds that each landmark she gains is "less a question of marching time than of alterations of horizon—legs or scissors into decoy of space or reality of the game."… Each tribe or age has its own method of disguise to avoid extinction. Thus, on reaching the "pool of laughter" Wapishana finds the fish symbolizing the "ironic lifeline of Christ,"… the decoy of Christianity. By this method Harris exposes the more abstract "decoy of space," the trickery of time which can alter historical derivations to a non-compassionate, static conception. Again the story stresses the significance of the eternal present; contemporary man may adopt physical or spiritual disguises (sunglasses or Christianity) to avoid "the true game of reality … down the arch of the road through and beyond the purchase of extinction."… (p. 225)

It is now possible to view in context the universal conception of the eternal present in the final story, "Arawak Horizon," with a more compassionate sensibility. As the ancient Arawak child plays with and interprets static twentieth-century numerals, they become living things. With his original imagination, "milestone of Arawak survival across the seas of soul,"… he can make what was doomed to mathematical or economic formulation span the decoy of space and recreate the age of the rainmakers…. There is, therefore, no Arawak horizon, only a decoy of space, which is as limitless as the creative imagination of all mankind. (p. 226)

Gary Crew, "The Eternal Present in Wilson Harris's 'The Sleepers of Roraima' and 'The Age of the Rainmakers'," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1980 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 19, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 218-27.

Michael Gilkes

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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 extending the boundaries of what we call fiction. One frequently gets the impression of an apparent "breakdown" of language in Harris's fiction…. [His writing] creates an impression similar to that of certain "surrealistic" paintings, and, to some extent, Harris intends to shock the reader. But the "controlled chaos" of the writing is really part of a desire (like that of the early French surrealist painters Andre Breton, Magritte, Chagall, and others) to dislocate the fixed, conventional habit of perception: it is a desire related to what Mircea Eliade calls "the destruction of the language of art" which, as he sees it, is a systematic and radical transformation. (pp. 147-48)

[Harris's] novels, from Palace of the Peacock onward, illustrate the development of a continually expanding sensibility which questions, fragments, and reassembles "reality" in its search for a genuinely new, all-embracing Art…. (p. 148)

Michael Gilkes, "New Directions: From W. Hudson's 'Green Mansions' to W. Harris's Cultivated Wilderness," in his The West Indian Novel (copyright © 1981 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1981, pp. 132-58.∗


Wilson Harris World Literature Analysis


Harris, Wilson